The Right Tools Can Lead More People to Read: Children Who Read Early Become Strong Readers for Life

By Brittany Selah Lee-Bey

Reading is a powerful tool that allows us to learn something new, visit faraway places and experience new adventures. It expands our vocabulary, trains our brains, increases wellness, lowers stress and even helps with depression. People who read are over 25% more likely to be healthy than non-readers, have a lower mortality risk and have a reduced chance of developing dementia.


For many people, reading comes naturally. For others, not so much. Low literacy is a serious situation in our country with millions of people, including many children, struggling to read. This often leads to low self-esteem, feeling ashamed and powerless and being unable to fully participate in society.

As a reading specialist, I’ve taught students who struggle with reading and fluency, including those with dyslexia. In addition to phonics instruction, I teach word derivations and etymology to help students strengthen their word attack strategies. Students reading at least two grade levels below can improve with a systematic word study curriculum and help from a teacher with a strong linguistic background who can navigate them through the complexities of the English language.

Why is etymology so important?

Reading is crucial to developing foundational literacy skills. For decades, researchers have found that reading comprehension is dependent on both language comprehension and word recognition. Good readers often have strong word recognition skills and can quickly decode or identify a word shortly after seeing it in print. Fluency is also key to comprehending words.

Another key component to strong reading skills is language comprehension—background knowledge, linguistic structures, verbal reasoning and vocabulary. Strong vocabulary skills allow readers to comprehend text and strengthen word recognition.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how their meanings change over time. Learning etymology can improve word recognition as students learn to identify affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and root and base words. For example, knowing the root word “tract” aids in decoding words like “protractor” and “retraction.” Etymology instruction also contributes to language comprehension, specifically syntax and vocabulary.

Suffixes indicate a word’s part of speech or its syntactic function. Knowing roots and affixes can help readers build vocabulary skills and define unknown words. For example, knowing that the root word “graph” means “to write or draw” unlocks part of the meaning of words like “biography” and “videography.” Likewise, if a reader knows that “bio” means “life,” it can be determined that a biography is a “writing about a person’s life.” Readers can add thousands of words to their vocabulary via word derivations as 60% to 80% of the English language derives from Greek or Latin roots.

I wrote “EtymologyRules: Back to Basics” because of the lack of linguistic and language training for teachers. Teachers are required to take classes in content-area literacy for certification but aren’t required to learn the word knowledge necessary to foster word consciousness and, more importantly, word acquisition amongst developing readers. “EtymologyRules” seeks to create word connoisseurs that can confidently and effectively teach linguistic concepts critical to reading.

Adding etymology to literacy instruction is particularly effective for struggling readers and English language learners. Since content-area vocabulary—such as mathematics, science and English literature—is primarily of Greek and Latin origin, teaching word origins and word parts is effective in helping struggling readers increase their vocabulary. Struggling readers also benefit from etymology as they develop word-learning strategies that can be applied to unknown words.

Children who learn to read at an early age become strong readers for life. One in six children who are not reading proficiently by third grade do not graduate from high school on time. The rate of graduation is four times greater than that for proficient readers. The stakes are even higher for students of color and those from low-income households. Therefore, it is critical that children receive effective literacy instruction at an early age.

Brittany Selah Lee-Bey is the author of “EtymologyRules: Back to Basics” and a reading specialist in Washington, D.C., who also promotes the need for effective literacy in underserved communities. 


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