An article offering advice and suggestions on how to teach affixes in a contextualized way.

I am an English teacher in secondary education and I´d like to ask for your help. I have to do a didactic unit to teach prefixes and suffixes in a contextualized way.

Isabel Flores Gómez

Isabel, I’m not sure how long your 'didactic unit' is (a single lesson or a series of lessons?) but here are a few suggestions, for what they’re worth:

Option 1

To borrow an idea first suggested by Thompson (in 'The ‘master word’ approach to vocabulary training', 1958), one way is to give learners a list of words that together demonstrate the major affixes (i.e. both prefixes and suffixes) and word roots in English. Thompson’s lists consist of only 14 latinate words, but, using the elements out of which those 14 words are composed, it is possible to build at least 14,000 English words. Here is Thompson’s list:

detain, intermittent, precept, offer, insist, monograph, epilogue, aspect, uncomplicated, nonextended, reproduction, indisposed, oversufficient, and mistranscribe.

The word offer, for example, can be broken down into its prefix: Latin ob- meaning 'to, toward, against', alternative spellings of which are oc-, of-, op-, and the root fer meaning 'bear, carry'. Prefix ob- with the root of indisposed gives opposed; root fer with the prefix trans- of mistranscribe gives transfer, etc, etc.

Personally, I find Thompson’s chosen 'master words' a bit obscure, but I think the principle is a good one, and a less scientific list of words might not bother trying to include the most important roots, and just stick to prefixes and suffixes. E.g. translation, mismanagement, obstructive, non-refundable…etc. (Even this little list yields the prefixes trans-, mis-, ob-, non-, and re-, and the suffixes -tion, -ment, -ive, and -able).

The list could be dictated, written on the board, or an overhead transparency, or distributed in the form of a handout.

Learners first underline each affix, and then, using a dictionary and working in pairs, assign a basic meaning to each one. To contextualize this language, they could be asked to put the words into sentences, or, even, to try and fit as many of the words as possible into a story (a prize for the group that can use the most words!).

To test their memory of these words you could design an activity similar to the popular Cambridge First and Advance exam task, that is, to complete a sentence with the correct form of the word in brackets:

She works in Brussels as a simultaneous ______. (TRANSLATE)

The doctors removed an ________ in his intestine. (OBSTRUCT)

Even better would be to get learners, working in pairs or small groups, to design test sentences themselves, which they exchange with other groups.

Option 2

An alternative approach (and one which could be combined with the previous ideas) might be to start with a text that is rich in affixes. For example:

Doctors of the ancient world combined folk tradition, observation and philosophy to treat illness. Scientific medicine began in the 1600s, with the invention of the microscope and the discovery of microscopic bacteria, and with developments in anatomical knowledge. Today doctors use antibiotics to kill harmful bacteria. Surgeons can transplant organs, and scientists are uncovering the previously unknown secrets of the gene.

Ask learners to find examples of affixes, by setting them clearly focused tasks. For example:

Find a suffix that turns an adjective into a noun (-ness)

Find a prefix that means 'across' (trans-)

Find two suffixes that go with scient- and say what part of speech they are. (-ific (adjective), -ist (noun))

Find a prefix which means 'against' (anti-)

Find two prefixes that go with cover and explain their meaning (dis-, -un)

The next stage is for learners to find (or think of) more examples of the major kinds of affix represented. For prefixes this is easy, using a dictionary (e.g. transport, transmit, transfer, etc), but for suffixes it is more difficult (how many words ending in -osophy can you think of?!), so it’s best to concentrate on only the most common endings, such as -ness, -ic, -al, -tion, -ful, -ist, for example.

These words should be put into sentence contexts. The same kind of peer-testing procedure could be used as suggested in part 1 above. Learners write gap-fill sentences for each other, in which the missing word is derived from the word in brackets:

Pasteur was a famous ______ (SCIENCE)

An alternative variety of testing activity is to ask learners to make 'corrections' to a composition whose affixes are mistaken or non-existent. 

Incidentally, there is a very useful summary of word formation rules in English, including a handy list of common affixes and their meanings, in the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners in the central Language Awareness section (LA22).

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