Understanding meaningful word patterns, prefixes and suffixes


A significant number of words, particularly academic words, in English are derived from Latin and Greek. Most of the more challenging multisyllabic words in English are derived from Latin and Greek. School texts used in years 3–9 contain approximately 88,500 distinct word families with the majority of the new words encountered in these texts of Greek and Latin origin. Using root words to foster word consciousness as a generative element of word learning supports etymological spelling and also helps students learn to look inside words for familiar meanings in addition to familiar sounds.

Table: Easier prefixes.

a-, ab-, abs-away, fromin-, im-, il-not (negative)
ad- to, toward, add topre-before
co-, com-, con-, col-with, togetherpro-forward, ahead
de-own, off ofre-back, again
di-, dif-, dis-apart, in different directions, nottra-, tran-, trans-across, change
ex-outsub-under, below
in-, im-, il-in, on. into (directional)un-not (negative)

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: word hunt

The students brainstorm a list of words they can find in classroom texts either print of digital texts. The list is read together after it is compiled. The teacher models looking for roots and to think about how the different parts of a word (beginning, middle, end OR prefix, base, suffix) all work together to generate meaning. Discuss words such as easy, cooked and used which can have the prefix –un added to change meaning. Recreate sentences with substituted words. Discuss how meaning changes.

Activity 2

The students develop a list of words they can change with the prefix –un ~

The students verbalise how they recognised a new meaning by saying statements such as:

  • “If un- means not, what does unhappy mean?” “If un- means not, what does unchanged mean?”

Further prefixes to explore using Latin and Greek meanings

Definition Latin prefixesGreek prefixes
under, belowsub-hypo-
oversuper-, sur-hyper-
againstcontra-, contro-, counter-anti-
aroundcircu-, circum-peri-

Activity 3

Repeat with suffixes – Easy suffixes can be introduced next, in a similar manner.

  • ~er, [more],
  • ~est [most/very];
  • ~ful, [full of];
  • ~less [without])

The students develop a list of words they can change with the suffix – ~less

The students verbalise how they recognised a new meaning by saying statements such as:

  • “If ~less- means without, then what does armless mean?” “If ~ful means full of, then what does armful mean?”

Activity 5: word spokes and word charts

Begin the lesson by reviewing the roots or affixes that are the topic for the week, focusing on their essential meaning. Remind students, for example, that re– used as a prefix means “again” or “back”. Then, working alone, in small groups, or as a whole class, have students brainstorm words that contain the re– prefix and list them at the end of the spokes on the word spoke chart or paper. In addition to words used in the Divide and Conquer lesson, encourage students to think (or search) for other words, such as revisit, reenergize, or relocate.

Once the Word Spokes Chart is developed guide students in a discussion of the meanings of the words.

Word spokes and word charts (PDF 235.46KB)

Activity 6: word sorts

Three types of word sorts are useful to learn spelling: sound sorts (e.g. sorting by rhyme, number of syllables), pattern sorts (e.g. sorting by word families, rimes, vowel and consonant sounds), and meaning sorts (e.g., sorting by homophone, roots, stems, and affixes) are interesting, and fun because they involve hands–on and manipulative activities. Teacher or student made manipulatives (cards or IWB activities) can be developed using individual or class spelling lists. The following site allows you to search for word families etc. www.onelook.com

Activity 7: digital resources: English smart notebooks

XX Two notebook documents previously here. Replace with compatible documents XX

Other Smart Notebook resources avliable from "Connected learning in my Primary Classroom"

  1. spelling
  2. suffixes: able/ible
  3. suffixes: ous
  4. suffixes: ful/fully
  5. etymological knowledge


All downloads are on NSW Department of Education and Training's intranet only.


Australian curriculum reference

ACELA1513: Understand how to use banks of known words, as well as word origins, prefixes and suffixes, to learn and spell new words

NSW syllabus reference

EN3-4A:  draws on appropriate strategies to accurately spell familiar and unfamiliar words when composing texts.

NSW literacy continuum reference

VOCC11M3: Vocabulary knowledge, Cluster 11, Marker 3: Applies knowledge of prefixes and suffixes to understand the meanings of new words and to create new words.

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