Expanding Vocabulary with Word Study at the Derivational Relations Level

Are you an upper elementary or middle school teacher? This post explains what word study looks like for students at your level. It explains the Derivational Relations stage and how it works. Check it out!

Have you ever wondered why spelling seems so boring to teach and for students, so boring to learn? Well, if you think about it, learning how to spell words in and of itself isn't that exciting if all you're doing is memorizing the words, looking them up in the dictionary, and putting them in sentences. Why is it that these practices are still used in many classrooms when we know that they lead to low engagement and only short term effectiveness?  Motivation is the secret ingredient to long term learning, and if we keep learning active and fun, students have increased motivation. Word study instruction can and should be active, and as we teach students to analyze words, we build a natural curiosity for learning more.

If you've been tuning in to my word study series, then you know I think we need to take a new look at how we teach words in our classrooms. The more we make word study into a game-like activity, the more engaged students will be in the learning process. As students engage in word play activities, they learn how to spell and USE the words, and they might also just find that they develop a fascination with learning other new words too.

In today's post, I'm going to focus on the final stage of word study, derivational relations. This stage begins at or around 5th grade. Kids at this stage demonstrate these reader characteristics:






The derivational relations stage is really an extension of the syllable juncture stage because students will continue working with multi-syllabic words. They delve into Greek and Latin roots, more complex prefixes and suffixes, working with silent letters, and even consonant changes from root to derivations. The key in this stage is on meaning and usage especially as we look at slight changes in spellings.


To begin, you really want to focus on meaning first with this stage and clearly explain the roots of the words you include in your sorts.  By studying related forms or demonstrating how the words share the same origin or derivation, students solidify how the words are used differently.

Silent/Sounded Consonants

With some words, letters that are silent are sounded in derivations. For example, in the word sign the /g/ is silent, but when you make the word signal you notice that the /g/ becomes sounded.  Believe it or not, once students have completed sorts for this feature, they begin to use words that have the sounded letters to help them spell those with silent.

Vowel Alternations

Once students understand the connection between silent and sounded consonants, they will see how that shift in sounded can also happen with vowels. Many words that come from the same root change in sound when new words are derived. For example, crime is related to the word, criminal, right? Well, you notice that the vowel shifts from a long sound to a short sound, BUT...knowing the root, crime, helps you know that criminal is spelled crim. In addition to long to short vowel alternations, students will study long vowels to the schwa sounds and short vowels to the schwa sounds too.

Greek and Latin Word Elements

At the middle of the DR stage, students really dig into Greek and Latin roots and all of the words derived from them. There are so many different prefixes and suffixes to include, and this part of the curriculum takes a long time to fully *know* and *apply*. To get an idea of what's included, here is a partial list. Can you see how intense this part is? The content is something we do not want to and should not rush. Our students will apply what they learn in future science studies, foreign language, and even in medicine.

Greek Prefixes

mono     bi     tri      

Greek Roots

tele     therm     photo     astr

Latin Roots

tract     spect     port     dict     rupt     scrib

Latin and Greek Prefixes

inter     intra     super     counter     ex     fore    post     pro     co/com/consil
sub     pre    anti     demi     semi     quad     pent

Greek Suffixes

crat/cracy     emia     ician      ine      ism/ist     logy/logist      pathy/path      phobia

Spelling Changes in Consonants and Vowels

The last section of the DR stage explores how consonants and vowels change when suffixes are added. Again, modeling with studies of the root word first and then the derivations. For example, the word permit (root) becomes permiss when ion is added, so we study words that end with /t/ and how they change when a suffix that starts with the /sh/ sound is added. 

Here are example words:
1. /t/ to /sh/
2. /t/ to /s/
3. /d/ to /zh/
4. /sh/ to /s/
5. Long to Short
Other topics included in this section are:
-able/ible     -ant/ance, ent/ence     consonant doubling and accents
Absorbed Prefixes

Activities for DR Spellers

Since the focus for DR spellers is on meaning, the type of activities have to focus on expanding knowledge of meaning too. Of course, the basis of word study is still on sorting, but the analysis is going to shift to patterns at the syllable junctures or where the prefix/suffix is added AND how the meaning changes.  Here are a few ideas you might use/include:
  • Vocabulary Notebooks-As new words are included in sorts, they can be added to vocabulary notebooks too. In the notebooks, students can include kid friendly definitions, new words they come across in reading, sample sentences showing how words are used, drawings, and derivations of the words they add.
  • Boxing/highlighting spelling changes in words, sorting, and writing of the sorts.
  • Posters that connect roots to the words formed from them (word webs)
  • Games such as Greek/Latin Root Jeopardy or I Have/Who Has.
  • Graffiti Walls where students add new words they've discovered through reading.
  • WOW Word Wall...add words to it to expose students at other spelling stages to the meaning of the words and encourage DR spellers to use them in writing.
  • Group words by how they're used...building or construction words, speaking/writing words, travel words, words that show movement, etc.
  • Dictionary word hunts (notice that I say hunts versus copying definitions), and
  • Frayer Model...take words and look more deeply at what they are/aren't, look like, and how they're used.

Pulling It All Together

Word study is a spiraling curriculum. We are always looking back to previous learning to build on new skills or understandings. As you think about what's been learned by the DR speller, you realize just how much time and effort has gone into the knowledge these kids have. They began years ago with recognition of a few letters. They've learned letters and sounds, blends, consonant digraphs, short vowels, long vowels, about Bossy R and L controlled vowels, complex consonants, syllable junctures, prefexes, suffixes, homonyms, compound words, and now Greek and Latin Roots. Eesh! That is a TON! If today's post doesn't hit your students' needs, you can revisit the previous posts to learn more. 

Are you an upper elementary or middle school teacher? This post explains what word study looks like for students at your level. It explains the Derivational Relations stage and how it works. Check it out!

For other Word Study posts, click on the images below:

Getting Started with Word Study: Explains how to get started with assessment and grouping.

Word Study for the Emergent Reader: Shares how kindergarten teachers can use the sorting process with concept sorts, font sort, and picture sorts to build understanding.

Word Study for the Letter Name Speller: This post includes the letter name features, teaching ideas, and look fors. 

Word Study for the Within Word Speller: Students at this stage are working on long vowel words, r contolled words, and words with complex consonants. The post includes the features included, activity ideas, and other relevant points.

Word Study for the Syllable Juncture Speller: The students at this stage are building fluency and are writing extended amounts. Check out this post if your students are confused with the spelling of multi syllabic words. 

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