Teaching prefixes and suffixes to improve word analysis

Teaching students the meaning of Greek and Latin affixes can help them “decode” unfamiliar words. If they can separate a prefix and/or suffix as they attempt to work across a new word, they may be able to independently construct the meaning. For instance, the student sees reattachment and they know re means again and ment means an action, then they are left with attach…so reattachment means the act of attaching again. While reattachment might look intimidating, being able to separate the prefix and suffix leaves a decodable and understandable word – attach. Baumann, Font, Tereshinski, Kame’enui, and Olejnik (2002) found teaching morphemic analysis not only helped students learn about the words studied, but they were able to apply that knowledge to new words. So, which affixes should we spend time on with our students? White, Sowell, and Yanagihara (1999) suggest beginning with the top 20 prefixes and top 20 suffixes (and their variant spellings such as in/im/ir/il-).

The top 20 prefixes: un-, re-, in/im/ir/il-, dis-, en/em-, non-, in/in-, over-, mis-, sub-, pre-, inter-, fore-, de-, trans-, super-, semi-, anti-, mid-, under-

The top 20 suffixes: -s/es, – ed, -ing, -ly, -er/or, – ion/tion/ation/ition, -ible/-able, -al/ial, -y, -ness, -ity/ty, -ment, -ic, -ous/eous/ious, -en, – er, -ive/ative/itive, -ful, -less, -est

A useful starting activity is to show students a word such as unable. Ask students what part of the word is the prefix (un-) and what it means (not).  Therefore, unable means (not able). Cut the prefix from the word. Show how it was added to the base word (able).  Ask students what other words they know that have this prefix. Make a list on chart paper. Distribute note cards or slips of paper to students. Ask them to write a word from the list on the note card.  Tell them to cut the prefix off, glue the two parts to a sheet of paper, and write the meaning of each part. Have students share their words. Repeat the activity with the word careless (-less meaning lack of). Begin a chart on the wall where students write words they come across in their reading that have a prefix and/or suffix. Ask them to also provide the word’s meaning. This chart can be a handy reference when they are reading and writing independently.

You can differentiate this activity by the words you choose. Fresch and Wheaton (2004) utilized research based word lists to organize words by spelling feature and grade level. For instance, for re (meaning back or again) they suggest words such as react, redo and refill for grades 2/3; rebound, restore, and rediscover for grades 3/4; and reinvest,  rearrange, and reproduce for grades 4/5/6. Glossaries in the content books you are using can be a useful resource for finding words. Students needing more support are given words they can more easily decode, students who are up for the challenge can be given words that have both a prefix and suffix (such as semitropical). As well, students can be challenged to find words with affixes in their independent reading materials. While they are searching in books they can comfortably read, they are focusing in on a specific type of word. This is a quick formative assessment as well as you observe which students are tuned into affixes as they interact with various kinds of print.

These activities are undeniably informative and fun!


Baumann, J., Font, G., Tereshinski, C.A., Kame’enui, E.J., and Olejnik, S. (2002) Teaching morphemic and contextual analysis to fifth-grade students. The Reading Teaching, 52 (3), 222-242.

Fresch, M.J. and Wheaton, A. F. (2004). The Spelling List and Word Study Resource Book. https://amzn.to/3dPkjKK

White, T.G., Sowell, J., and Yanagihara, A. (1999). Teaching elementary students to use word-part clues. The Reading Teaching, 42 (2), 302-308.