Etymology of Biology

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Students will build their language acquisition skills by learning common Greek and Latin word stems.

Big Idea

The structure and composition of scientific words is Greek to me.


5 minutes

Warm-Up:  How do you decipher words that you don’t know when reading scientific text?

Allow students to share how what they do when they encounter a word that they don’t know when they are reading scientific text.  Listen to their comments then ask students to show, by raised hands if any students just ignore words that they don’t know when reading scientific text.   

Introduce New Material

20 minutes

Begin by showing this brief video: Prefixes, Suffixes and Roots

After the video clip,display this word:  pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. 

First, ask students to tell you how they would pronounce this word.   Expect that most students will be reluctant to try but encourage them to try pronouncing the word to the person sitting next to them.  Listen to how students pronounce the word.  After a minute of student attempts at their tables, ask for a volunteer to attempt the word pronunciation aloud to the class.  Remind students that this is a safe environment where effort is what’s most important.  Consider having a small reward (candy or a homework pass)for the person who attempts to pronounce the word.  Do not make any corrections to the pronunciation at this point.

Second, ask students to turn and talk about what this term might mean.  Walk around the room for 1-2 minutes and listen to the strategies students use to try to figure out the meaning of the term. 

After 2 minutes of student attempts, pronounce the term correctly for students.  Be sure to clearly articulate each syllable for students.  Ask students to repeat each syllable after you say it.  Then, tell them the meaning of the word according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is "an artificial long word said to mean a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust."

Point out that the word is divided into the following segments: pneu, mono, ultra, micro, scopic, silico, volcano, coni, osis.

Tell students that there is a process that they can use when they encounter words in scientific text that they do not know.  The process is called the inside/out strategy. Display the outside/in strategy.  Instruct students to follow steps for the inside/ out strategy:

  1. Look outside the word at context clues, visuals:
  2. Look inside the word for known word parts:
    pneumono  ultra microscopic  silico  volcano  coni  osis

Display and read this sentence:

In the coal mine, the air was thick with dust. The miners coughed, suffering from pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Many of them died.

Ask students, “What context clues can you gather from the sentence to infer the meaning of the word?” Distribute a commonly used Greek and Latin word part list. Instruct students to use the list to identify the parts of the word using the list as a reference.

Model how to use the outside/in strategy using "think aloud":

Say,  “I don’t know this sickness, but I know pneumonia and I know volcano, so if I think of this like a metaphor, I might be right to think this sickness might have something to do with lungs and heat—maybe the lungs are inflamed.”


Guided Practice

10 minutes

Explain that effective use of the inside/out strategy requires that students build their language acquisition skills.  Display the word stems assignment.

Instruct students to look over the word stem list and identify stems that they have seen before in biology.  Share that many biology terms will use these common stems in different terms.  Explain the value of learning the stems in order to build students’ language acquisition.

Explain that the assignment requires students to select 30 word stems from the list that they will use to create a set of illustrations to demonstrate their understanding of each of the word stems. 

Explain that the purpose is to think of images that will cue them to the root words’ meanings and hopefully help them to learn and remember the word stems.  

Explain that the assignment requires students to select 30 word stems from the list that they will use to:

1) identify a scientific word that uses the stem,

2) create a set of illustrations to demonstrate their understanding of each of the word stems, and

3) write a sentence using the word.

It may be helpful to show students how to complete the task by modeling how to create a memory cue for one of the word stems.  Think aloud as you think about an image that you associate with the word stem so that students will be able to hear the thinking process used to make a correct association between two terms. 

For example:

Root word: derm, meaning skin

“I see that derm means skin. Hmmm….. When I hear the word derm and I think of its meaning, skin; what image or thoughts comes to mind?   What can I associate with derm that would help me remember its meaning is skin?  Oh, I know.  A person with acne goes to a dermatologist.  I know that –logy means study of as in biology so a dermatologist must study skin. I think I will draw a picture of a face with lots of acne.”

Independent Practice

20 minutes

Provide markers, colored pencils and paper for the students’ use. Legal size paper is best because of its larger size, given the number of illustrations.

Guide students to think about how they want to depict the terms before they commit the idea to paper with the markers. Emphasize that this assignment is not about the artwork but the personal associations’ students make between the word stems and images that will help them retain the meaning of the word stems. Encourage students to displaying the memory cues in any creative manner that they choose.  

Instruct students to work independently on the assignment. Students should be able to use the root word list to develop a list of scientific words and images. To scaffold the assignment, allow students to use their notes to help them find scientific terms or scientific word families that use the root words they select.  

The student work demonstrate solid scientific language acquisition as shown by sentences developed, as evidenced by the student work. Student work 1 and student work 2 are exemplars that reflect the high level of quality and effort with which students approached the task.  Both works display awesome creative work and an excellent use of the root words in scientific terms that are relevant to the content that has been taught.

Walk around the room and observe students as they work. If a student appears to be challenged by the assignment, take a minute to explain and model the assignment again. Use their notes to show them how they are full of terms that use Greek and Latin root words from the list. Every student will not embrace the artistic component of the assignment so encourage those students who are struggling to complete the visual component of the task to focus less on the art and more on the terms, as noted in student work 3. All works are well done and reflect students' engagement in the task.


5 minutes

Allow students to share 1-2 of the words that they found that used the root words. Listen for frequency of the terms students use, noting those that are mentioned more frequently, as these likely have a greater penetration in the students' base of knowledge than others. The more frequent terms that will be used  will likely include biology, biosphere, photosynthesis, herbivore, etc...

Listen for new terms that students select that use the root words and take the opportunity to introduce the terms to others in the class.

Collect the assignment and review the submitted work for accuracy of word stem usage, not only for the word selected but, more importantly for correct usage in sentences.