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Teaching Greek Words: Their Definitions and Origins

written by: Audrey Alleyne • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 7/12/2012

Students will learn to build vocabulary in a fun way with this method of teaching Greek by first understanding root words and their definition and then finding their own root words and using those during an in-class lesson.

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    Teach In Context

    Every subject taught at school is connected in some way or another to Greek and Latin derivatives. From the English language and literature to math and science to poetry and the arts, they're all somewhat related. Greek root words and definitions should be taught in context. It is not enough for students to learn an endless list of prefixes, suffixes, root words and definitions. In order for them to memorize the Greek definitions and root words, there should be relative examples as the following lesson example will demonstrate.

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    For this lesson, students will learn the Greek root –dem which is the root of many common everyday words. To use the word in context, briefly introduce some history and civics into the lesson and talk with them first about democratic countries and communist countries. After the discussion, introduce a little debate about the pros and cons of living in a democratic country versus that of a communist one. Now introduce your root word –dem and show how the word democracy was derived from it. Students can now reflect on other words they may recall with this root. If they can’t, prompt them to do some research. Let them work in groups. For each word a group finds, that group should provide a sentence.

    Address your students:

    For the next few weeks we will study some Greek word roots and definitions, and explore how they play a part in the English vocabulary. We just discussed the word democracy. We talked about democratic nations whose governments have been elected freely and equally by all their citizens. From our discussion, what is the basic meaning you have gleaned from that word? Yes, you are right, it is basically about people. Democracy is a word which has its root in Greek. It comes from -dem meaning people. Can anyone tell me another word that sounds alike? We used it in our discussion. Yes, that’s right “democrat" and another? Yes “democratic." That’s great. We talked about a democrat who is a member of the Democratic party, one of the two major political parties in the United States.

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    Now, let’s move away from the word democratic. I’ll give you another popular English word which has its root in the Greek root word –dem. The word is pandemic. Can anyone tell me what this word means? Yes, it means something that has a widespread effect. Out of this word we also get the word epidemic; because a pandemic is a widespread epidemic that affects many people in many different countries. Recently, there was the swine flu which became an epidemic, and nations feared that it would become a pandemic, do you remember?

    Can anyone give me an example of a disease that is considered a pandemic? Yes, of course "AIDS." AIDS is indeed considered to be a pandemic. Pandemic comes from the Greek "pandemos" which means “public," literally of all the people. Once again, this all stems from the Greek word "demos" meaning people, with the root -dem. The word people represents the source of English democracy.

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    Now I would like to divide the class into groups. Each group will research a word with a Greek root. On finding your word, you will provide the definition, and then make a sentence to demonstrate it; and finally you will present it to the class. It may happen that more than one group submits the same word, but this will be interesting to see the different sentences you create.

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    Some More Words

    Some words which students may produce are the following: endemic, demagogue, demography. For your next lesson, try some common Greek root words like –path from which you get sympathy and –anthrop from which we get anthropology. You may follow the lesson plan laid out here, or come up with ideas of your own.

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    1.Greek Words, Prefixes and Suffixes

    2. Base Words and Roots the Same?