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Grasping Roots as a Way to Understand Words and Build Vocabulary

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: English teacher Nina Weinstein talks about building vocabulary by understanding root words.

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Basically half of all the words in the English language come from other languages. But the majority of those words come from the same source: Latin and Greek. And so if we learn certain Latin and Greek root words, we have kind of a window into the English language so that we're not always using dictionaries to help us understand words."

RS: "So we've got a big key into our language here. Can we talk about some of these?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: Let's imagine that we learn a couple of root words. One simple one is tri, t-r-i, which means three. The next one is let, l-e-t, which comes at the end of a word, and that means small. So if we just start with this and we imagine people talking, the first person says, 'Has she had her baby yet?' The second person says, 'Yes, she had triplets.'"

RS: "Three little ones."

AA: "Three babies."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Exactly. This is a very simple example for us to learn the pieces, but we want to apply it to other things. So let's imagine a book and a booklet. What would be the difference?"

AA: "A small book."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "A small book, exactly. A movie star and a movie starlet?"

RS: "How can you be a small movie star?"

AA: "Haven't you ever heard that term, starlet?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Starlet -- less important. When we think of a celebrity, we say that person's very big."

AA: "A starlet would be a small star."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "It would be a small star. So that person hadn't achieved that much fame yet or importance in their field."

RS: "And what are some other hints that you haven't -- tri is one, it means three; let means small."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "OK, we can learn sext, s-e-x-t, which means six, and we can apply it to the example I gave in the beginning. We talked about triplets. So triplets are three babies. How many babies are sextuplets?"

RS: "Oh my gosh."

AA: "That would be six."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "It would be six."

RS: "That's a lot of babies."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "That's a lot of babies. And we can apply that to another field now. Let's say we're talking about music and we're talking about musical notes. How many notes are sextuplets?"

RS and AA: "Six."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Right, but we have the l-e-t on the end, so what does the l-e-t do to the word?"

RS: "Little notes."

AA: "Oh. So like ... "

RS: "So six little notes."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Six little notes as opposed to ... four regular-sized notes. Another common example is cide, c-i-d-e, which means kill; herb, which means plant, h-e-r-b; and carn, c-a-r-n, which means meat. So we learned herb and cide, so what does an herbicide do?"

AA: "Kills plants."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "What does an insecticide do?"

AA: "Kills insects."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Right. And I didn't teach you insect. So we can apply this piece that we just learned to common words as well, as we break these words apart. We can talk about a carnivore. What does a carnivore eat?"

RS: "Meat."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Meat. What does an herbivore eat?"

RS: "Plants."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Plants. What does an omnivore eat?"

RS: "Both."

AA: "It eats everything."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Exactly. What does v-o-r-e mean, vore?"

AA: "Like voracious? It has something to do with eating."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Exactly. So v-o-r-e means eat. And so now you mentioned the word voracious. We can apply what you just said to the word voracious. So we've got v-o-r. It doesn't have to be spelled exactly the same way as we present the root. But if we see enough of the piece to recognize it, then that is the piece that we're going to assume it is. And we try it. If it doesn't work, then we try something else.

"So one of the other tools that I give my students is to ask a simple question when they don't understand a word. They should just ask themselves if the word gives them a positive or a negative feeling. And sometimes this is enough to understand the sentence."

RS: "They can figure it out [from] context."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Exactly. And for test-takers this is really, really important. I just took a test in a totally different field where I had absolutely no background and I didn't have a lot of time to study for it, so I just used my root words to kind of help me out with the test questions and I passed it -- really more based on my knowledge of root words and vocabulary words than my knowledge of this field."

AA: "Can we ask what the field was?"

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Yes. I just got my amateur radio license."

AA: "Hey, good for you."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Thank you."

AA: "So now you can talk to people around the world on your radio."

NINA WEINSTEIN: "Well, as soon as I buy a radio, yes. I think I might need that, I don't know. [Laughter]"

RS: English teacher and author Nina Weinstein. One of her books is called "Vocabulary Tools," available through And you can find our previous segments with Nina at our Web site,

AA: And that's it for Wordmaster this week. Our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.