Using Greek and Latin Roots to Help Students Learn Vocabulary in Science Classes

You can help students confidently approach science vocabulary by teaching them about Greek and Latin roots.

By Lynsey Peterson


Greek and Latin Roots in Science Classes

Strange as it may seem, science has a language all its own. I have joked with my students that there are more vocabulary words in our biology course than there are in an introductory foreign language class. Excellent teachers use a variety of techniques to help students learn this new vocabulary. However, it is still easy for students to become overwhelmed by unfamiliar vocabulary. Even students naturally interested in science can struggle with the sheer volume of terms they must learn to understand scientific content. Luckily, as teachers, we can help students confidently approach new vocabulary in science through the use of Greek and Latin root words.

Greek and Latin influences are found in more than just scientific names. Much of the vocabulary in science, and many other subjects, are based on these ancient languages. Teaching the meanings of the root words can require an initial investment of time, but  reaps rewards throughout the school year. While I teach this to my high school science students, I believe that incorporating a deeper understanding of language and vocabulary in the earlier grades can improve literacy in all subjects.

To begin teaching root words to students, I give them examples of scientific words they have already encountered and we break them down. Once we have discussed the meaning of the root word, I give them less familiar scientific terms and we work together to break them down to discover the meaning. After figuring out the meaning of more complex terms (without a dictionary) students soon see the value of understanding root words. Next, I have students work with partners to determine the meaning of several core Greek or Latin roots. They then brainstorm everyday terms and scientific terms that use the same root. They then  work together to create a visual to help them remember the meaning of each root word. The root words and the visuals are presented to the class and displayed around the room throughout the year. I also give students a handout that lists the roots and their meanings. They keep the handout in their notebook along with other essential course material for reference throughout the year. Whenever we encounter a new term, which is quite often, we avoid looking in the back of the textbook for the meaning. Instead, students must use the roots to create a working definition of the term. Only once we have dissected the term using root words do we use a dictionary to define the term.

Spending one class at the beginning of the year will help your students approach new vocabulary with confidence, rather than fear. However, it is not too late for your students this year! You can incorporate a Greek and Latin root lesson into the half class period you have between units. You could also just approach new vocabulary with the root in mind. When you would normally have students look up words and write their definitions, instead work with them on the root words. This especially works well with similar scientific words that are opposites, such as endothermic and exothermic, heterogeneous and homogeneous, hypertonic and hypotonic. In fact, this lesson idea and those below would be wonderful to incorporate into the end of a course, especially as you prepare students for standardized testing!

Root Word Lessons

Basic Etymology-Greek and Latin Prefixes and Roots

Students memorize 150 Greek and Latin prefixes and root words by making flash cards and quizzing one another, helping to improve vocabulary and memorization skills.  

Rooting Out Meaning 

Students use dictionaries to define roots, and also learn about root indexes as research tools. They then divide into groups and research the Latin and Greek roots of elements on the Periodic Table.

Connection to Language Arts-Hidden Meanings 

Students learn about the etymology of scientific words in this worksheet, then answer questions that bring together word histories, scientific terms, and root words.

Biology Guide

Lynsey peterson picture thumb

Lynsey Peterson