Teaching Matters: Prefix/Suffix Study

“First of all, there was a volcano of words, an eruption of words that Shakespeare had never used before that had never been used in the English language before. It’s astonishing. It pours out of him.”

Stephen Jay Greenblatt, (1943 – ) American literary historian

Prefixes and suffixes remain essential structural components in the English language. Teaching prefixes can help English students rapidly – and systematically – expand their academic vocabulary. Focusing on suffixes can emphasize the importance of word form, and the difference between nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Both prefixes and suffixes also invite us to share interesting stories of word origins and the evolution of the English language.

Being a word detective can reveal surprises. For example, words such as “uncommon” and “inaudible’ were first used in William Shakespeare’s plays. He notably combined the prefixes “un” and “in” with these and other words to simply mean “not,” and they’ve been used in this context ever since. Examples showcase how language has been constantly changing for centuries, sparked by technological, scientific, and historical changes.

How many words can you think of that didn’t even exist a generation ago? From email and ewaste to the internet and microchip, we often use classical prefixes to create new words. This particular topic could also serve as a segue into conversations about the use of technology or words that are universally used across different languages.

Ensuring ESL students recognize a variety of prefixes and suffixes often makes the task of learning new words a little less daunting, and provides crucial context. Take into consideration the prefix “over-.” It’s one of the most commonly used prefixes and one that adds considerably to a word’s letter count. Some English language learners, understandably, are easily intimidated by words with many letters. However, the knowledge that “over-” usually means either excessive or upper/above allows students to infer the full meaning of longer words like overestimate, overthink, to overachiever and overdue. By building on their current knowledge, English teachers can help intermediate ESL students develop a far stronger vocabulary. In my own teaching, I’ve found that prefix and suffix-centered exercises and discussions expand both working vocabulary and general curiosity.

Sometimes we forget the obvious. You can find list of prefixes and suffixes many places. For my tastes, I like the simple one here from Scholastic.com. I also recommend the website www.wordhippo.com for more advanced ESL students for both prefixes and suffixes. For World Elephant Day, you might ask students what words rhyme with elephant? Can you think of five?

Encouraging students to examine and explore English words like a detective remains an excellent classroom technique. Asking students to create – with their grey cells before checking smart phones – a list of ten words in small groups remains an effective vocabulary expansion activity. These flexible vocabulary exercises can also be done with limited preparation and no textbooks!

Here’s a sample exercise I’ve developed for classroom use on this subject.

Adding the Latin Prefix “dis-”

We can build a strong vocabulary with a few simple techniques. We can also make new vocabulary words by adding a few letters to the beginning of the vocabulary word. These letters are known as a “prefix”.  This powerful technique allows us to build our vocabulary bank and to help us recognize unfamiliar vocabulary words.






apart, away from



not, opposite



Complete the chart below by following the example. For the last two rows, add new base words.




New Word























Pick four words from the above chart and create a question for your partner.

  1. _____________________________________________________________________
  2. _____________________________________________________________________
  3. _____________________________________________________________________
  4. _____________________________________________________________________


How do you approach prefixes and suffixes in your classroom? How do you spark student curiosity about English words?


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Today’s blog post features material introduced in Compelling American Conversations – Teacher Edition, the companion text to the original Compelling American Conversations. Each individual, original chapter plus the Teacher Edition expansion is available on Teachers Pay Teachers, with select sample chapters on CompellingConversations.com and ChimayoPress.com. We also offer a free copy of the Teacher Edition with class sets for adult ESL schools, literacy centers, Intensive English language programs (IEP) , church and other non-profit groups offering ESL classes to immigrants and refugees. Contact Eric Roth here for more information.

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