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How to Teach Prefixes

Are you looking for the best way to teach prefixes? This mini teaching guide shows you how! And don’t miss the free printable prefix list, along with activities that help your child master words with prefixes.

What Is a Prefix?

A prefix is a word part that is placed in front of a base word. Common prefixes include pre, bi, and anti. Take a look at the examples below.

table showing prefix examples

A prefix usually changes the meaning of the base word.

Think about the word happy. The prefix un placed in front of the word happy makes a new word with a new meaning: unhappy. The prefix un means not so it changes the meaning of the word happy to not happy.

un + happy = unhappy

The Two Most Common Prefixes

The most common prefixes are un and re. These two prefixes are the most useful for beginning spellers to learn because they appear frequently and their meanings are easy to understand and remember.

The prefix un-

Un means not (unhappy = not happy) or the reverse of, or opposite of (as in untie).

The prefix re-

Re means again (redo = do again) or back (as in repay).

If you’re interested in learning more about prefixes, download and print this list of 90 common prefixes.

click to download a list of 90 common prefixes

Tips for Adding Prefixes

Tip 1: The spelling of the base word never changes. Simply add the prefix to the beginning of the base word, as in the word tricycle.

tri + cycle = tricycle

Tip 2: Be aware that double letters can occur. If you add the prefix un to natural, both the prefix and the base word retain their original spelling. The result is unnatural.

un + natural = unnatural

Other examples where double letters occur include misspell, irregular, and unnoticeable.

Tip 3: Watch out for prefix look-alikes. Some words contain the same string of letters as a prefix, but upon closer examination you’ll find that they are not prefixes. The re in real is not a prefix.

re + al ≠ re

Other examples include uncle, pretty, and interest.

Tip 4: Sometimes a hyphen is needed. If you are working with an older student, it is handy to know the six rules for adding prefixes found in the next section.

6 Rules for Using Hyphens with Prefixes

A prefix is usually added directly to the base word, but there are several cases where a hyphen is needed.

Rule 1: Hyphenate the word when you add a prefix to a proper noun or a numeral.

hyphenated prefix examples

Rule 2: Hyphenate the word when you add the prefix ex meaning former.

ex + president = ex-president

(Do not use a hyphen if ex means out of or away from, as in expel.)


Rule 3: Hyphenate after the prefix self.

self + respect = self-respect

Rule 4: Hyphenate to separate two A’s, two I’s, or other letter combinations that might cause misreading or mispronunciation.

hyphenated prefix examples a's, o's, and i's

Rule 5: A hyphen may be used to separate two E’s or two O’s to improve readability or prevent mispronunciation.

hyphenated prefix examples - e's and o's

Note that many words with double E’s used to be hyphenated as a general rule, as in re-elect, re-establish, and pre-existing. However, current style manuals and dictionaries now tend toward “closing” the word except in cases where readability is affected. Both versions are currently accepted and listed in most dictionaries.

Rule 6: A hyphen is sometimes used after the prefix re to prevent misreading or confusion with another word.

hyphenated prefix examples - re-cover vs. recover

As in “Re-cover the boat when you recover from the flu.”

hyphenated prefix examples - re-lay vs. relay

As in “Please relay the message that they will re-lay the tiles.”

Printable Activities for Learning Prefixes

By now you’ve probably realized that we take prefixes very seriously here at All About Reading and All About Spelling! And though this guide to prefixes may seem like a lot of information, we don’t overload your child with all of this material at once. We teach just one small concept at a time, incrementally.

Here are a few prefix activities from All About Reading and All About Spelling.

download free prefix word flippers

Prefix Word Flippers

Practice reading words with prefixes with these Word Flippers. Download this activity from All About Reading Level 3.

cover of Word Trees activity

Word Trees

Use Word Trees to explore prefixes in a novel way. Read more about using Word Trees in this this blog post, and download this activity from All About Spelling Level 7 to help your child practice building words with Word Trees.

download our blank prefix list

My List of Prefixes

Download our blank list and let your kids create their own list of prefixes. Start with a few examples and have them add to the list as they discover more words with prefixes. Discuss the meanings of the words on the list as they are added.

Was this post helpful to you? Be sure to check out our mini teaching guide on suffixes, too!

how to teach prefixes pinterest graphic

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Dallas

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Thanks this was very helpful for me I love it.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Glad this was helpful, Dallas!

Margaret H Edwards

says:

Enlightening for sure. Very practical.

Robin E.

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Thank you, Margaret!

Emmanuel

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This is great!

Robbie Worley

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Love this thank you

Joep

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Este artículo me ayudó mucho muchas gracias :) . Después solo reforcé tomando clases en https://www.superprof.mx/ y listo.
Thank you Robin E. :)

Kathleen

says:

i loved the rules for using a hyphen in prefixes. What a gem to find and so beautifully displayed!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Yes, the rules for when to hyphen can be confusing. Glad to hear this was helpful, thank you.

Natalie

says:

I appreciate all the helpful information on this blog!

Mara

says:

I absolutely love this! I’ve been teaching my son this and this is so helpful.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this is helpful for you, Mara!

Julz

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We love your curriculum! Thank you for providing so many great resources!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Awww, you’re so welcome, Julz. 😊

Amanda Adams

says:

These were great reminders for my older students. Thank you for the wonderful resources.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Amanda. 😊

Christian

says:

Hi!
I teach ESL at secondary school. I usually get the same question from students – ‘is there any rule for me to know when to use one prefix/suffix or another?’ Some of them can come up with an answer and complete WORD BUILDING exercises. But others find it really difficult to realize. I wonder if you could help me give them some guidance. Thanks in advance.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Christian,
That is a tricky one, even for those that are native English speakers.

Suffixes are a bit easier, as they are more straight forward in meanings and there are fewer of them. Our How to Teach Suffixes blog post’s printable is a sheet of 30 common suffixes and their meanings. Our printable on this page is 90 common prefixes and their meanings. So many more prefixes to learn!

Which suffix to use has to do with meaning. However, there are a few that have the same meaning but different spellings (and a few of them are even pronounced the same) like -able/-ible, -ance/-ence, -tion/-sion, -ative/-itive. There are some generalizations that help with these, but there are lots of exceptions too. With -ance/-ence, -ance is most used when you just add the suffix to a recognizable base word. For example, allowance and resistance. However, as I said there are exceptions and insistence is one of them. Sigh. Another clue to use -ance is if the base word has an A in the last syllable, such as distance (from distant) and radiance (from radiate). The -ence suffix has to be used when there is a soft G or C that needs to stay soft. Recall that C says /s/ before E, I, or Y and G may say /j/ before E, I, or Y. So when you need to spell diligence, you must use -ence because otherwise the G will say the hard /g/ sound. It is the same for innocence. As with -ance, use -ence if the base word has E in the last syllable, such as silent becoming silence and different becoming difference. Note, this is taught over three separate lessons in level 7, the last level, of All About Spelling. This is the level that takes students through high school level spelling.

There are similar generalizations (but exceptions) to the other tricky suffixes too.

As I mentioned, prefixes are trickier because there are so many and many have similar meanings. This is because we have incorporated prefixes from multiple languages and tend to use them all. The trickiest, I think, are in- and en-. They sound just the same, but the meanings are different and this can help. The prefix en- means to cause or provide, while in- often means not but can also mean within or into.

Beyond all this, however, the number one way your students can improve their use of correct prefixes and become more comfortable with suffixes is to increase their vocabularies. And the way to do that is more and more exposure to higher-level English. So while conversations and TV watching are good and helpful, they will get more benefit from listening to books in English. There is a good amount of research about this. You don’t mention your student’s ages, but if they are younger you could spend some time most days reading aloud to them. If they are a bit older, you could assign audiobook listening for them to do (there are places online to get free audiobooks). Then discuss what they listened to. Go over vocabulary, but also focus on comprehension overall. And of course, the added benefit of discussing what they listened to is having more topics for discussion to encourage conversation. Our blog post How to Build Your Child’s Vocabulary is equally applicable learning vocabulary in a second language too.

I hope this helps some, but let me know if you would like more generalizations and tips for specific suffixes or prefixes.

Madeline

says:

This was very helpful! Thank you for sharing!

Nicole

says:

Thank you for sharing this. My daughter is in the third grade but is a bit behind. She is currently using the All About Reading level 2 program. At what point do you introduce prefix and suffix? Also, what grade level does your curriculum go to and should I be using another curriculum at the same time I’m using the level 2 program?
Thank You for your time.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Nicole,
Both prefixes and suffixes are taught in All About Reading level 3.

You don’t need another reading curriculum in addition to All About Reading. It is a “No Gaps” approach. However, a student in All About Reading level 2 is ready to begin spelling, if you haven’t already. The Right Time to Start Spelling Instruction

All About Reading ends after level 4, but it is not “4th grade”. The levels don’t correlate to specific grades, because the order of the words in AAR is not “grade-level” order. As an example, here is a very simple online assessment. A child completing AAR 1 would be able to read most of the words on the 1st-grade list, about half of the 2nd-grade list, and a third of the words on the 3rd and 4th-grade lists. All About Reading groups words in a logical manner based on similar rules or patterns regardless of their supposed grade level, which allows students to progress quickly and confidently.

At the end of level 4, students have the phonics and word attack skills necessary to sound out high school level words, though they may not know the meaning of all higher-level words yet. Word attack skills include things like dividing words into syllables, making analogies to other words, sounding out the word with the accent on different word parts, recognizing affixes, and more.

This blog post, What Happens after All About Reading?, gives lots of ideas and suggestions for what to do after your child completes All About Reading level 4.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you need more information or have additional questions.

Kevin

says:

Do specific prefixes precede specific beginning letters of a word?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Kevin,
Good question, but no. The first letter of the base word doesn’t affect what prefixes are used.

Does this help? Let me know if you have more questions.

Kelly B

says:

Very good refresher for us older folks.

Felicia

says:

This was a very helpful min teaching guide. Thank you for sharing.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Felicia. 😊

Barbara Field

says:

I especially appreciate the 6 rules for using hyphens with prefixes. I tutor students with dyslexia and use an Orton-Gillingham based program. Your materials are so helpful to add on to what I normally do. I shared your site with my daughter who is homeschooling her two children. She is gradually switching over to your program. Thank you for all your awesome books and resources!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are very welcome, Barbara. 😊

Irfan khoso

says:

Please help me.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I am happy to help as best I can, Irfan. What questions or concerns do you have?

Patriotisch

says:

Really the method is good !
If you add few sentences of especiall prefixes ,it will shine your hard work.your method made me your fan 😍

Heather

says:

Thanks! This was super helpful reviewing prefixes with my son this week.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Heather, for letting us know this was helpful for you and your son!

Mohamed Omar Ali

says:

The most important prefixes are really here and they are very helpful.
Thank you so much for being transparent with me.

Jamie Welch

says:

Thank you for resource! I have been looking for a good way to teach my first grader prefixes and haven’t really found anything so complete and thorough.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jamie. Let me know if you have any questions as you teach your student. Prefixes can be a lot of fun to learn because the way they change the meaning of the base word is so interesting.

Nur

says:

Thank you for such an informative post and the free downloads! I feel prepared to help my daughter with this.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m pleased this post and the downloads have helped you to feel prepared to teach prefixes, Nur. If you run into any questions or need more information, just let me know.

Jodee

says:

Thank you for so many great resources! Could you also state when they should be used? Thanks so much!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Jodee,
Most children are ready to start learning prefixes when they can read one and two syllable words comfortably. Some less common prefixes, like “ir” will be taught later than that, but once children can read “happy” they are ready to read “unhappy”. The same applies for spelling. Once children can spell one and two syllable words, they are ready to start spelling words with prefixes.

Does this help? Please let me know if you have additional questions.

Mary

says:

Love your free downloads! Thanks :-)

Jennifer Meadows

says:

Thanks for the info! I can’t wait to try it!

Kelli basile

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Great information thank you . I’m looking to begin home schooling and this helps.

Tiffany Schmitz

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Great information!

Ebun

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Send me weekly e-newsletter

Robin E.

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Ebun,
I have signed you up for our weekly email newsletter and you should have received a welcome email by now. Let me know if there are any problems.

Abdulrafiq

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Kindly send me weekly news later at prefix sufex and other English study help for child

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Abdulrafiq,
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Tammy Crowder

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Great ideas! Thank you!

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