January 25, 2017
by Sarah Sumnicht

Lesson plan

Root Word Detectives

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Students will be able to determine the meaning of new words using root words and related words.

(5 minutes)
  • Write a challenging word on the board that uses Greek or Latin roots (e.g. "chiropodist," which is “a doctor who specializes in feet,” "sesquipedalian," which is Latin for “one and half feet long,” or "hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia," which means “the fear of long words”).
  • Ask students to try to figure out what the word means with a partner. Students will likely not know the correct meaning, but give them some time to puzzle through the process of decoding (e.g. “This is a really challenging word! Can you and your partner try to figure out what it means?”).
  • Ask students what they do when they come across a word like this that they don’t know. As a class, discuss the strategies they used.
  • Explain that a detective looks for clues to solve a problem. Then tell students that they will be word detectives and will use clues to determine the meaning of new or unfamiliar words.
(10 minutes)
  • Explain that words are made up of parts. Each part of a word has meaning, and when combined, a new word is made. Tell students that they can use these word parts to figure out the meaning of a word.
  • As an example, identify a common word part or root in the word you wrote on the board (e.g. ped means foot, as in the word “sesquipedalian”) and share its meaning with the class.
  • Tell students that they will use the vocabulary they know to discover the meanings of new words, using root words as their clues.
  • Review the meaning of root words (a basic word or linguistic unit with no suffix or prefix added; most root words in English come from Latin or Greek).
  • Write "scribble" on the board and ask: "What is a scribble?" (A mark ot something you write or draw)
  • Write "prescribe" and ask, "What happens when a doctor prescribes you medicine?" (They write a note for the pharmacy to give you medicine)
  • Ask: "What root word do these two words have in common?" ("scrib-") Underline the root in each word.
  • Explain that if you think about what these two words mean, you can make a good guess about what the root word "scrib-" means.
  • Give students a minute to turn and talk to a partner about what they think "scrib-" means ("scrib-" means "write"). Then ask for volunteers to share their ideas and reasoning.
  • Remind students that you can use words you know to help you figure out the meaning of new or unfamiliar words that have the same root. (e.g. “Now, when we see other words with this same root, we have a clue as to what they mean.”)
  • Model the technique, showing students how you might make a guess about the meaning of a word. (e.g. “'Describe' has the same root, 'scrib-', that means 'write.' I think the word 'describe' means to write about someone or something.”)
  • Write a few additional words with the root scrib on the board (e.g. "transcribe," "inscribe," "subscribe")
  • Explain that even if you are not familiar with these words, you can assume that they have something to do with writing because they contain the same root, "scrib-", as other familiar words like "scribble" and "prescribe."
  • Summarize the concept by telling students that when they see an unfamiliar word, they can think of other words that contain the same root, and then make a guess about the unfamiliar word’s meaning. Remind them that the root is the clue!
(15 minutes)
  • Have your students get into pairs or small groups and hand out a pre-prepared index card to each group. Each card should have one word written on it. For example: "decimal," "paragraph," "biography," "automobile," "pedicure," "aquarium," "microscope," "benefit").
  • Have students work with their group to brainstorm and write a list of as many words as they can that have the same root as the word on their card. (Optional: Allow students to use dictionaries to build their list.)
  • Ask students to discuss with their group what they think the meaning of the root might be, based on what they know about the words they brainstormed.
  • Invite groups to share their word and the related words they brainstormed.
(15 minutes)
  • Remind students that they are practicing using root words as clues to find the meaning of related words.
  • Hand out the Root Word Sort Worksheet and explain the directions.
  • Circulate the room as students work and provide support as needed.
  • When students are finished, go over the word sort as a class.
  • Ask students if they can think of any additional words with the same roots and write the words they suggest on the chart (e.g. "century"/"percent," "translate"/"transatlantic").


  • For students who need more scaffolding, allow them to work with a partner to complete their word sort.
  • Provide students with additional tools, like dictionaries or computer access, to complete their independent work.


  • For an extra challenge, have students come up with other root words and lists of related words.
  • Have students search in novels, articles, or other reading material for words with specific roots. Encourage them to keep a running log of the words they find on a sticky note or index card.
(8 minutes)
  • Hand out a half sheet of scratch paper to each student. Instruct students to make a T-chart labeled example/non-example. Have them write two (or more) words that can be deciphered using Greek or Latin roots and two words that cannot (i.e. hypothermia vs. cold).

  • Use observations from guided and independent practice to identify students who will need additional support.

  • Collect and check finished word sort worksheet to check for understanding.
(7 minutes)
  • Give students a word (or have a student volunteer a word) and then, popcorn style, invite students to shout out as many words as they can think of with the same root word (e.g. dictionary, dictation, dictator, predict, contradict).

  • Repeat several rounds with new words as time permits.

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