What Is a Root Word? (Plus Ideas for Teaching Them)

Build vocabulary from the ground up.

What Is a Root Word?

Unfamiliar vocabulary often overwhelms students, especially in content areas such as science and social studies. The majority of scholarly terms and challenging multisyllabic words are derived from Greek and Latin roots, so understanding these roots will empower and enable students to decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words. So what exactly are root words? Everything you need to know is explained below, along with some fun teaching ideas to help students learn root words.

What are root words?

Examples of Root Words via yourdictionary.com

Just like roots are the foundation of a plant or tree, root words are foundational to the meanings of words. They are the basis upon which more complex words are built. The majority of roots are of Greek and Latin origin and are created by the addition of affixes like prefixes and suffixes. For example, the Latin word root ject means throw. From this root word, we have other words like eject, project, and reject. Root words are part of morphology—the study of the formation of words—and are a key player in vocabulary acquisition.

Common Greek and Latin Word Roots 

Boost Your English Vocabulary via thoughtco.com

Root words are all around us! Check out this master list of common root words and their meanings, origins, and examples of words using each particular root.   


Affixes are added to root words to create new words or to modify their meanings. The two main types of affixes in the English language are prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes, such as un-, re-, and dis-, come at the beginning of a word. Suffixes, such as -ed, -er, -est, -ly, and -able, come at the end of a word. For example, the Greek root bio means life. When the suffix -logy (the study of) is attached to bio, we get the word biology—the study of life. By modifying root words with affixes, numerous words with related meanings can be created. 

Root Words vs. Base Words 

Although people often use the terms “root word” and “base word” interchangeable, they are not synonyms. The main difference between the two is whether the root or base can stand alone as a word with meaning without an affix attached.   


Root words typically are not meaningful on their own. For example, the Greek root word tele means distant or far. You can see this in words like television and telephone. But tele is not a word on its own. Likewise, the root word biblio pertains to book. Words like bibliography and bibiophile are formed from this root. Script, form, counter, act, and ego are some root word exceptions: They can be written and understood without affixes. But the vast majority of the time, root words cannot stand alone as words with meaning. 

Base words are meaningful on their own and do not rely on affixes. For example, quick is a base word. It is a word on its own, meaning speedy or fast. Add the suffixes -ly, -er, or -est to quick to make new words. But without those suffixes, quick is still a word. As another example, the base word play is the foundation for words like playing, played, playful, and player. And yet play has meaning as a word on its own. 

5 Favorite Ways To Teach Root Words 

Knowing common root words is a powerful tool that can help students determine the meaning of unfamiliar words. As with any vocabulary instruction, repetition and exposure are key. 

1. Root Word Wall

Root word wall with colorful root word examples
Simple Ways To Teach Greek and Latin Root Words via stellarteacher.com

Just like you may have sight word walls or sound walls, make some space for a root word wall. Students will see root words front and center and can refer back to them throughout the year.  

2. Root Word of the Week

Clipping rings to flashcards and writing root words on them- what is a root word
Root of the Week via brownbagteacher.com

Delve into in-depth study of one root at a time. Choose random roots. Or choose a theme or context that interests students the most, and then explore words with related root words throughout the week. Students (and you!) will learn a great deal and expand their vocabularies. Hang the root words in a space seen frequently throughout the day.   

3. Root Word Trees

Anchor charts with drawings of trees
Root Word Trees Anchor Charts via bookunitsteacher.com

Create root word trees to study roots in depth. Students can make their own trees to hang in the classroom or to keep for personal reference.   

4. Root Word Anchor Charts

Root words achor chart poster- what is a root word
Root Words Anchor Chart via bookunitsteacher.com

Create anchor charts with color, visuals, and examples to aid students in understanding and remembering root words.  

5. Create Root Word Spokes

Root word spokes with words sub=under- what is a root word
Root Word Wheel via smekenseducation.com

Similar to word webs, root word spokes are circular graphic organizers, like spokes on a bicycle. Complete spokes in whole-group and display in the classroom. Students can also create their own word spokes individually or in small groups to keep for reference.  

Do you have root word teaching ideas? Talk it over with other educators in the We Are Teachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, What Is Critical Thinking and Why Do We Need To Teach It?

Many scholarly terms come from Greek and Latin roots. Understanding what a root word is helps decipher unfamiliar vocabulary.