Word origins

Building word recognition and spelling skills through improving etymological knowledge. Engaging students with how words and letter combinations are derived from other languages.


Students will spell words with the same base word by understanding why the word is spelt as it is due to the original meaning of the base word. For example tele meaning far, is used in television, telephone, telegraph.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: word web

Write a word like tele in the centre of a graphic organiser to construct a word web. Explain that it was the Greek word for far. Ask students to think of words that come from tele.

Add to the word web as additional examples are experienced in reading and writing. Add to the environmental print around the room.

This strategy is best used if the words chosen need to be used in a specific Key Learning Area, for example in Mathematics; Teach the Latin word centum meaning “one hundred”. Relate to cents in the dollar, centimetre, centilitre, centigrade, centipede, centenary; Science – hydro the Greek word meaning water is used in hydrate, dehydrate, hydrogen, hydraulic; aero, the Greek word for air; aeroplane, aerobics, aerodrome, aerosol, aerospace, aeronaut, aerofoil, aerodynamics.

Word root Origin Meaning Examples
uni Latin one univalve
mono Greek one monologue
bi Latin two bicycle
tri Latin three tripod
quadr Latin four quadrangle
quin Latin five quintet
pent Greek five pentagon
sex Latin six sextet
sept Latin seven septet
oct Latin eight octopus
novem Latin nine November (ninth month of Roman calendar)
deca Greek ten decade
centi Latin one hundred centigrade
kilo Greek one thousand kilogram
milli Latin one thousand millennium
Prefixes and suffixes
Word root Origin Meaning Examples
ante Latin before antenatal, ante meridian (a.m.)
anti Greek opposite antifreeze
aqua Latin water aquarium, aqueduct
avi Latin bird aviary, aviation
bibli Greek a book; paper bibliography, bible
bio Greek life biography, biology
chlor Greek green chlorophyll, chlorine
circum Latin around circle, circumference
civic Latin citizen city, civilian
clausum Latin shut close, include
dict Latin say; pronounce dictate, dormitory
ectomy Greek cut out appendectomy, tonsillectomy
exo Greek outside, without  

(Please see Programming and Strategies Handbook (Secondary) NSW Department of Education and Communities 1999 pp 52-54 for a more comprehensive list).

Activity 2

Exploring Etymologies, the Stories of our Words – Inquiry based Learning
By Alycia Zimmerman on October 30, 2012

Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8


The lesson sequence, to this inquiry based approach, is organised into eight scenes. The teacher guides the learning through the asking of strategic higher order questions to engage students in a quest for knowledge and hence learning. The teacher functions as co-learner leading the change in student knowledge from point A to the desired point B through using authentic learning experiences.


Australian curriculum

ACELA1539: Expressing and developing ideas: Understand how to use spelling rules and word origins, for example Greek and Latin roots, base words, suffixes, prefixes, spelling patterns and generalisations to learn new words and how to spell them.

NSW syllabus

EN4-3B: Outcome 3: uses and describes language forms, features and structures of texts appropriate to a range of purposes, audiences and contexts (EN4-3B) - Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features: understand how to use spelling rules and word origins, for example Greek and Latin roots, base words, suffixes, prefixes, spelling patterns and generalisations to learn new words and how to spell them.

Online resources

  • Online etymology dictionary
  • To explore the origins of some English words; To learn the meaning of the word 'etymology'; To understand the etymological function of a dictionary:
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