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Writing about Vocabulary...Root Attack!

A Writing About Vocabulary Lesson from WritingFix
a group writing activity that shows knowledge of words and word families

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Root Attack!
a vocabulary-inspired poster-building activity

This "writing about vocabulary" activity was created by Northern Nevada Writing Project Consultant Corbett Harrison, who believes it would work with students in grades 5-12.

Lesson Overview:

Lesson Objective: Students create word family posters to decorate the classroom with, showing their knowledge of how roots are shared among words in similar word families.

Materials List:

Teacher Instructions:

Note about this lesson: When Corbett uses this activity with his students, he likes to "publish the hallway" outside his classroom, which means he hangs his students' final posters outside the classroom doorway. He warns his students that he will be doing this, and that it is part of their grade to make sure they create a flawless poster that is void of spelling errors. Corbett believes that anything that hangs on the wall in a classroom or school needs to be completely free of spelling errors.

Lately, Corbett has been using this activity with teachers in his professional development workshops on classroom assessment, and they "attack" the roots in the words formative and summative before they talk about the purpose of classroom assessment. Below are two "root attack" posters that were created by teachers at a recent assessment workshop:

(Click on the image to see/print it in larger form)

Step one…introducing a Latin or Greek root to a group of students:   Assign a different vocabulary word to each student group. Choose root-based words that the students have most likely heard but have probably never thought of a technical definition for. The book cited above--Greek & Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary--has many examples to choose from. Here are six examples that I have assigned when introducing this activity to groups of four or five students:

  • teacher example: territory (terr- or terra-, which mean "earth" or "land")
  • traction (tract-, which means "pull")
  • novice (nov- or nova-, which mean "new")
  • perimeter (peri-, which means "around")
  • mortify (mort-, which means "dead")
  • monopoly (mono-, which means "one")
  • claustrophobia (-phobia, which means "fear")
  • Many other root-inspired choices can be found on-line here.

Ask student groups to come up with a definition for their assigned word without looking in the dictionary. Ask them to know for sure if their word is a noun or a verb.

Next provide each group with a meaning for the Greek or Latin root that is in their word. Ask them to modify their definitions so that the root word appears in the definition.

Next, have the group brainstorm as many other words they know that share the same root that was found in their original word. Clue them in on the idea that the words they brainstorm might have something to do with the root word's meaning. Let groups brainstorm for five or ten minutes.

Finally have students create "definitions in their own words," which means they are not to look in the dictionary; they are to explain the idea of the word in their own way. The only requirement is that the group figure out a way to define as many words on their brainstormed lists using the root word's meaning in their definition.

If your students have the word territory (Latin root that means "earth" or "land"), for example, and they've brainstormed related words, their "definitions in their own words" might look like this:

  • terrace -- a flat piece of land on a mountain side
  • terra cotta -- clay that looks like the earth
  • extra-terrestrial -- an alien not from earth
  • terrain -- a type of land with different features than other lands

The definitions they come up with might cause a struggle...that is the point of this activity...and that is why they are working in a group; many minds will help them shape the definitions, which should sound like personal explanations of the words, not like dictionary definitions (see example).

If students cannot force a root word-based definition into one of their brainstormed words' definitions, then they should be encouraged to move past that word and attack a different word from their brainstorm. With a good list of brainstormed words, a group of students should be able to come up with four (or more) personal definitions with the root's meaning embedded.

Step two…introducing models of writing:  Show students an example poster of what they'll be creating. Notice that on the example the following things: 1) the root's meaning is highlighted in one color throughout the poster; 2) the root itself is highlighted in different color in all the words; 3) wherever possible, the definitions are illustrated; 4) spelling and parts of speech are correct.

Step three…creating the poster:  Before creating the final poster, students create a rough draft that is checked carefully for a) spelling of all words and b) accuracy of the parts of speech of all words being defined on the poster. Corbett allows students to check the dictionary for part of speech, but only after they have created their personal definitions.


Step four...publishing the hallway and walls:   Posters should be shared among classmates. Corbett has his students try to come up with two or three related words that might also appear on a group's final poster, with an explanation of how the poster's root meaning would fit into the definitions of the words they could add to the poster.

When a poster is flawless in both spelling and information, it should be published on the wall as a reminder that many words are related to each other. Corbett used to publish the hallway outside his classroom so that students not in his class might learn something about root families as they traveled the hallways of school.

Every four or five weeks, Corbett does this lesson again with students working in different groups and with different words. By the end of the school year, students have studied roots and created posters for a large number of roots.


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