Using Structural Analysis to Determine the Meaning of Words

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Discover the importance of using structural analysis to understand unfamiliar words. In this lesson, we'll discuss how to divide unknown words into known pieces to comprehend their overall meanings.

Understanding Structural Analysis

Unfamiliar words are a lot like puzzles. When we come across a word we don't know or understand, it helps if we can look at it like it's a puzzle that can be broken apart into puzzle pieces. Structural analysis is dividing words into parts to discover what an unknown word means. Word parts contribute to the overall meaning of a word. Many words in the English language are composed of a root, a prefix, and/or a suffix.

A root word is a word that does not have a prefix or a suffix and is the base or core that can't be reduced into a smaller word form. A prefix is a letter or group of letters that is placed at the beginning of a word to change its meaning. For example, let's say you have the root word agree. Then, you add the prefix 'dis' (which means not or opposite of) to the word agree. That gives you the word disagree, which means to not agree.

A suffix is a letter or group of letters that come at the end of a word and change its meaning. Suffixes can indicate how a word is being used grammatically and what tense is being used. For instance, the word close becomes closed when you add the suffix 'd' to show that the action already took place and is over. The verb manage can change to a noun by adding the suffix 'ment' (which means a product or resulting state) to form the word 'management.' Although both prefixes and suffixes change the meaning of the word, the key to not getting the two confused is to remember that 'pre' means before and 'suf' means after.

The Importance of Structural Analysis

Studying roots, prefixes, and suffixes helps students:

  • Learn to break apart unfamiliar words in order to understand their overall meanings
  • Understand how prefixes and suffixes can change a word's meaning and how much of our language is constructed
  • Increase vocabulary and reading comprehension

Just by learning a few prefixes, roots, and suffixes, a world of new words linked to that one word part is introduced to that student. Take the prefix 'dis,' which means not, apart, or away. It's linked to a variety of words like disconnect, disappear, and dishonest.

Now, if a student is presented with a word like dislocate and he only recognizes the prefix 'dis,' he will at least know it's something negative. But, if he has also learned the root 'loc,' which means place, then he can understand why someone would be in a lot of pain if she dislocated her shoulder. By knowing the root 'loc,' words like locomotion, locale, and locating can all be understood. Changing the suffix for a word, like locating, can alter its meaning by making it present tense as in locates, or changing it to locale so that we're now talking about a setting or location.

How to Teach Structural Analysis

The best way to teach beginning readers how to use structural analysis is to explain what prefixes, suffixes, and root words are and then build on words they already know so that they can break down unknown words into smaller, more familiar word parts. For example, you can teach the prefix 'un,' meaning not, and have students add it to the beginning of words like happy, clear, and common to show them how unhappy, unclear, and uncommon are created.

After discussing what each of those words mean with that added prefix, you could ask them to try to think of another word they know that starts with 'un' or to look in a dictionary for other examples to show how one prefix is tied to multiple words. The same strategy can be applied when teaching roots and suffixes.

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