You know what a prefix is. And you might even be able to explain what a prefix is.
But do you know how to teach prefixes?
An understanding of prefixes is an important step toward proficient reading and spelling. This mini teaching guide will fill your teaching toolkit with tricks and tips that will help your children master this skill and become better readers and spellers.
So What Is a Prefix?
A prefix is a word part that is placed in front of a base word. A prefix usually changes the meaning of the base word. Take a look at the example below.
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.
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.
Un means not (unhappy = not happy) or the reverse of or opposite of (as in untie).
Re means again (redo = do again) or back (as in repay).
When teaching a skill, it helps to identify a few easy-to-remember tips that simplify the application of a skill. The tips below can make remembering how to add prefixes much easier for your child.
Handy Tips for Adding Prefixes
- The spelling of the base word never changes. Simply add the prefix to the beginning of the base word, as in the word unhappy.
- 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. Take a look at these other words where double letters occur:
il + logical = illogical im + mature = immature il + legal = illegal un + necessary = unnecessary
Other examples: unnoticeable, illiteracy, immaterial, immeasurable, immigrant, immobile, immoral, dissatisfy, disservice, dissimilar, dissolve, irreconcilable, irredeemable, irreducible, irregular, irrelevant, irreparable, irresistible, irresponsible, misspoke, misspell, misstep
- 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.
Other examples include: uncle, pretty, press, interest, reach, irony, dish, and antique.
A prefix is usually added directly to the base word, but sometimes a hyphen is needed. Following are six common rules for adding a hyphen between the prefix and the base word.
6 Rules for Using Hyphens with Prefixes
- Hyphenate the word when you add a prefix before a proper noun or a numeral.
Examples: un-American, pre-1980
- Hyphenate the word when you add the prefix ex meaning former.
Example: ex-president (Do not use a hyphen if ex means out of or away from, as in expel.)
- Hyphenate after the prefix self.
Examples: self-respect, self-assured, self-control
- Hyphenate to separate two a’s, two i’s, or other letter combinations that might cause misreading or mispronunciation.
Examples: ultra-ambitious, anti-intellectual, co-worker
- A hyphen may be used to separate two e’s or two o’s to improve readability or prevent mispronunciation.
Examples: co-opt and co-owner vs. coordinate; de-emphasize vs. reenter
(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.)
- A hyphen is sometimes used after the prefix re to prevent misreading or confusion with another word.
Examples: re-cover vs. recover, as in Re-cover the boat when you recover from the flu. re-lay vs. relay, as in Please relay the message that they will re-lay the tiles.
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, you need to know that we don’t dump all of this info on your child at once. We teach just one small concept at a time, incrementally.
Here are a few prefix activities that you can try with your children.
- Practice adding prefixes to base words to form new words. Start with a common prefix such as re and have students add the prefix to simple base words. Words for this activity can be written on index cards or slips of paper. Be sure to discuss the meanings of the new words. Once students are comfortable with the activity, they can practice combining other prefixes and words. re + do = redo re + build = rebuild re + open = reopen re + think = rethink re + fill = refill re + pay = repay re + make = remake re + move = remove re + place = replace re + turn = return
- Use Word Trees to explore prefixes in a novel way. Working with Word Trees helps students see the patterns of and relationships between hundreds of words.
- Create a prefix list. Start with a few examples and have students add to the list as they discover words with prefixes. Discuss the meanings of the words on the list as they are added.
To get you started, here’s a list of 90 prefixes you can download and print.
Would you like to look inside some of our lessons on prefixes?
Download Lesson 35 from All About Reading Level 3 to see how we teach prefixes in our reading program.
Download Step 5 from All About Spelling Level 4 to see how we teach prefixes in our spelling program.
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