Lesson 6: More on Verb Affixes


Lesson 2.2 on verb morphology fits in nicely here, if you haven't done it already, or you could review it here. It focuses on ways to identify verbs, using affixes unique to verbs, such as the past tense -ed (an inflectional affix), but also derivational affixes (that “derive” new words) like dis-, re-, -ate, -ize, and -en. (And not focusing on a meaning-based definition of verb as an action word or a state of being.) There are lots of different kinds of problem-solving activities that could grow out of this verbal affixation topic. It’s important, however, to make sure that the students discover the patterns and categories, rather than simply telling them that some affix attaches to some verb and changes the meaning in a particular way. 


There's a good lesson here on TeachLing that focuses on re-, illustrating the patterns – the kinds of verbs re- attaches to, the restrictions on the attachment, and re- with roots that are not stand-alone verbs.


And there are lots of lists of prefixes and suffixes (and Latin and Greek roots) and accompanying lessons already out there, some mentioned in Lesson 2 on Latin and Greek roots. here.


An example of the kind of exploration comes from a prefix like un-. It has a straightforward meaning that students can discover when they examine a set of data:







The prefix means something like “reverse action” of whatever the verb is. There’s another un- that attaches to adjectives:






And this affix doesn’t mean “reverse” but rather “not.” So there are two affixes that look the same, but have different meanings and attach to different parts of speech.


(These two distinct affixes which attach to two different parts of speech and have different meanings results in a cool ambiguity with words like the adjective unlockable. Notice that this word can have opposite meanings, that the door can be unlocked (able to be unlocked) or that the door cannot be locked (not lockable). You can have students think about how this can be. It’s not a typical situation since there are not many homophonic affixes like un-; there’s the un- that attaches to adjectives and means ‘not’ and the un- that attaches to verbs and means ‘reverse.’ It’s a good activity to get students to think about these pieces of words and how much meaning is packed in there that we usually take for granted.)


Another take-away from these activities is the awareness that we build up words in a step-wise fashion, attaching certain affixes before others. Again, we do this automatically as native speakers, but understanding the complexity of this automatic process is empowering for native speakers and instructive for non-native speakers of English. There’s a TeachLing lesson on that here.


Don't forget to check out Ann Whiting's 7th graders' word exploration blog for other great ideas and similar word study. And if you're feeling intimidated about your analysis of these complex words, Whiting's students take advantage of a great resource, the Online Etymological Dictionary, where you can look up affixes as well as whole words. This dictionary offers a way to continue the exploration using something other than a standard dictionary, especially when seeking a single answer to "what part of speech is this?" That is, you want to encourage students to figure out the parts of speech on their own, but if this is too challenging, or if you want to focus on research tools and etymology, send them to this dictionary to help them explore the meanings of the parts.