#012: How to Target Affixes in Speech Therapy

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In this episode, I’m covering two different topics that have similar strategies for teaching: context clues and affixes.

As we talked about in the past few episodes, for students who struggle with vocabulary, it’s incredible to see the impact that just teaching some vocabulary can have on their comprehension.

So why target context clues?

There’s mixed evidence around this, but the theory is that by teaching context clues we’re metaphorically teaching students how to fish — we don’t want our students to have to depend on us to teach them new vocabulary words.

If they don’t have strategies to learn new words, then we’re in trouble.

But…there is not strong data to indicate that teaching a strategy instead of specific words broadly impacts reading comprehension, or that it helps them learn new words; our students really benefit from explicit teaching.

So it’s kind of a tricky — no one has the *best* answer here, but listen in to this episode to see where I’ve landed in my practice. 🤓

After chatting about context clues, I switch gears to affixes because there is some overlap — they involve a lot of similar strategies, as well as a bit more explicit instruction.

I love targeting affixes because you can get such a big bang for your speech therapy buck: there are four prefixes and four suffixes that account for almost all of the affixed words in the printed school English. Isn’t that wild?!

So by teaching eight affixes, we can make such a huge impact on our students’ vocabulary + comprehension.

But I don’t want to give everything away in the show notes…! Grab your beverage of choice (I’ll have an iced tea!), put your feet up, and listen in.

Key Takeaways

1. Strategies for Assessing and Teaching Context Clues
> Clue instruction
> Strategy instruction
> Closed procedure

2. Strategies for Assessing and Teaching Affixes
> Informal assessments
> Is a student is able to even identify prefixes and suffixes?
> Can the student identify the meaning of any given prefix or suffix?
> Can the student use the knowledge of the prefixes and suffixes to determine the meaning of those combined words or of that derivational word?
> Teach morphology in the context of rich, explicit vocabulary instruction
> Teach students to use morphology as a cognitive strategy with explicit steps
> Teach underlying morphological knowledge explicitly and in context
> Teach morphology in relation to cognates
> How the strategy for targeting affixes is similar to teaching context clues

Links Mentioned in the Podcast

> Affixes Assessment (SLP Now Member link)
> Book: Bringing Words to Life (Amazon affiliate)
> Site: ReadWorks
> Site: NewsELA
> Site: VocabGrabber
> Book: The Teaching Reading Sourcebook (Amazon affiliate)

Video Demonstration


Antonacci, P. A., & O’Callaghan, C. M. (2012). Essential strategies for teaching vocabulary. In Promoting Literacy Development (pp. 83–114).
Baumann, J. F., Edwards, E. C., Font, G., Tereshinski, C. A., Kame’enui, E. J., & Olejinik, S. (2002). Teaching morphemic and contextual analysis to fifth-grade students. Reading Research Quarterly, 37, 150–176.
Biemiller, A. (2004). Teaching vocabulary in the primary grades. In J. F. Baumann & E. J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to Practice (pp. 28–40). New York: Guilford.
Goerss, B. L., Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (1999). Increasing remedial students’ ability to derive word meaning from context. Reading Psychology, 20(2), 151-175.
Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2013). Teaching Reading Sourcebook: For Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. Novata, CA: Arena Press.
Kieffer, M. J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2007). Breaking down words to build meaning: Morphology, vocabulary, and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61(2), 134–144.
Nagy, W. E., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304–330.
Wood, K. D., & Hedrick, W. B. (2006). Vocabulary instruction in middle and secondary content classrooms: Understandings and directions from research. In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about vocabulary instruction (pp.150–181).

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Thanks so much!


Hey there, it's Marisha, and today we are diving into some more vocabulary goals and strategies and all of the good stuff. It's been so much fun and I hope you're enjoying the series along with me. We're going to talk about two different skills today. We are going to start talking about context clues, and then we'll dive into some strategies for affixes, and then I'll show you how I put all of the different components together and wrap up with some more practical demonstrations like we've been doing for all the other skills.

So, let's dive in to context clues. So, as usual, we're going to talk about some strategies that we can use when assessing and teaching context clues, and then we'll also just give all of the practical demonstrations and giving some different ideas for activities that you can use to work on these in your therapy room. And we've talked a lot about the importance of targeting vocabulary in general. We all know that it's super helpful when it comes to helping students read. It also supports reading comprehension. So we're not just helping students build out their vocabulary, we're setting them up for success in a lot of different ways. And it's just so incredible.

If you haven't experienced this, just do a cold read of a reading passage and that ask comprehension questions, and then... Well, I guess it wouldn't be pre-teaching anymore, but then it's like a dynamic assessment, but then teach some of the vocabulary words and do another comprehension measure. It's so incredibly powerful to see that. Or if you want to get super scientific, just use two different passages, and then that gets rid of all of the yucky interactions between all of that, like practice effects.

But it's really amazing. For students who struggle with vocabulary, it's incredible to see the impact that just teaching some vocabulary can have on their comprehension. It is amazing, and it fires me up every time I see that in action because we're really giving them some amazing tools that they can use.

So why target context clues? Theoretically, there's some... And there's mixed evidence around this, but you would think that by teaching context clues we're teaching students how to fish. here is some evidence for the benefits of this kind of approach, and it makes sense. I want someone teach me how to fish, I don't want them to just feed me a fish every time and me having to depend on them. We don't want our students to have to depend on us to teach them new vocabulary words. If they don't have strategies to learn new words, then we're in trouble.

But there is not strong data to indicate that teaching a strategy instead of specific words broadly impacts reading comprehension or helps them learn new words, especially for our students, they really benefit from that explicit teaching. So it's kind of a tricky... No one has the best answer. The best we can do is... The strategy that I ended up adopting after I read this was, "Okay, I'm still doing direct instruction of words, but I'm going to embed a little bit of strategy practice to see if that helps them."

And if it's definitely not helpful, then it's something that I won't continue to do. But if I'm seeing that it's helping them, even get rough understanding of a word or at least help them get by enough to see some improvements, then that's something I might continue. But it's something that I've moved away from. I spend a lot more times teaching vocabulary words now and practicing them, but we might just include a little bit of meta talk and just thinking to figure out what the word might mean.

Okay. So, we always want to start with an assessment, and there's a number of things that we might be looking for when we're doing an assessment. So when I have... And I built my own assessment, but it's pretty easy to pull some vocabulary words and create some sentences, and then you give the student a word, like hypothesis, and then you put it in a sentence that... And you can have varying levels of difficulty. So there are different types of clues, and we will totally dive into all of the examples in the demonstration component because I think it's easier to see it paired with a visual. But there's different types of clues.

So in some sentences, we can just include the definition. And some of our students struggle to define the word even if the definition is given to them in the sentence. So if that's the case, that's a pretty easy strategy that we can teach them, and showing them a bunch of examples of what it looks like when a word is defined and then going through there. There's other sentences that have synonyms for the words, antonyms for the words, and then teaching them about the sentence structure that they can use to figure out if that might be a synonym or an antonym.

And so there's... We can look at those different types of context clues and see if they're able to use any of those or if they're able to use the general meaning, if they have any kind of strategy around it. Sometimes they won't even really consider the context of the sentence and they'll just give a definition for the word, so there's ... It's really interesting to see. I like to see, why did you guess that, or how did you know that that means that word, and looking that that word means what you said. And it's really interesting to hear the rationale and thinking behind it and get an idea as to where they are and what strategies they are using.

Then when it comes to teaching, we have some different evidence that we can use to help us. So from the research... And it's really mixed. So I did find an article published in 1998 by [inaudible 00:07:15]. I'm not sure to how to pronounce that, but I will put the citation in the show notes, but they said that clue instruction has been found to be the most effective instruction type when compared to other methods. And this is in regards to teaching context clues.

Strategy, instruction, so they are talking about clue instruction, and then strategy instruction, however, also appears to be a promising method. In their article, they discuss a variety of strategies that we can use when teaching context clues. So That's interesting. So the clue instruction just looks at looking at the different types of clues. So you would teach... You would go through a bunch of examples of how to identify the sentences in a word or going through a bunch of examples where the definition is in the sentence, and then you teach them how to use that clue, then you use them how to use the synonym clue, the antonym clue.

But I think that even that gets a little bit tricky because that involves a lot, a tremendous amount of meta awareness because they can do the worksheet where they're given a bunch of sentences with definitions in it, but then when they're out in the real world, that they're reading an article about... So like in social studies, they're seeing all of these words that they don't know. It doesn't say what type of sentence it is, they don't have context around that and they have to identify it and then use the clue to figure out what the word means. That can get a little bit tricky. There's a lot of meta stuff that's happening when we're working on context clues, which is why it's tricky because that involves a lot of language.

And then strategy instruction is another promising method. And I like doing... So, this is one that has worked for some of my students. I taught it to them, and then I actually observed them using it in the classroom effectively. It helped them on... I walked in when one student was taking a one on one test, and so they were... She was giving the answers verbally, and she was singing her little songs that I used to teach her the strategy.

So it was circle underlying guess check, and that was my process. And like I said, I'll dive into the visual and do a closer demonstration of it, but we made it into a song like, circle underlying guess check, circle underlying guess check, and that really helped stick in her brain. We did it so many times, we practiced circling the word we didn't know, we underlined the clue, which is still identifying the clue, and then we make a guess and then we plug that guess into the sentence and if it's good, that we have a good guess, if it makes no sense, then we go back to the drawing board and look for some other ideas. But I really like adding the check component. I think that's been super helpful, and I've seen it work as you just heard.

Another thing that we see a lot of was a closed procedure. So this focuses on practice versus instruction. And a closed procedure is when we delete keywords from a passage, and then students are asked to identify the appropriate word. Like if they're given three options, then they have to plug in the appropriate word. And the study that... Some of those studies that I looked at found that that wasn't as helpful. And I've seen a lot of that happening. But like I said, this is all... There's so much mixed evidence here. I couldn't find a super clear answer, but this is one that was maybe a little bit more consistent. But if you are a vocabulary expert and spend your whole life researching this, I'd love to chat more too. I am always open to learning. But from what I found, this wasn't as helpful.

And then I relied heavily on Beck's book, Bringing Words to Life, and she has a really... I love the book. It's super practical, tactical, and she has an instructional sequence that we can use to introduce context clues, and it involves a lot of therapy self-talk. So we're modeling that meta thinking and then we fade that as the student makes progress. So we read the text or we paraphrase it, that's the first step. And then the second step is to establish meaning of the content. So we want to make that meaningful, and then we provide an initial identification or rationale and then we consider further possibilities.

And then the fifth step is to summarize this. But there's a sample script and really helpful overview of this process in an article by [inaudible 00:12:55] 1999. So I'll also link to that, and I'll star that, because that has some really practical information that we can use. And I always love seeing sample scripts and resources like that because it helps me implement it how the researchers intended it to. Because a lot of times we'll get a lot of theory and not as much of the, this is how we actually did it component. So I always appreciate that and I'm always willing to try and see how it works, and it's mixed bag approach, but we'll see what makes sense.

So now we've done some teaching and like all of the other vocabulary skills that we've talked about, we want to make sure that we're moving into the embedded practice as quickly as possible. And really, with context clues, we want to maybe have a couple sentences where... just simple sentences where it's really transparent and we can model the process there and give the students some practice with it in a really simple context.

We want to move to real context pretty quickly because that's where there'll be using this strategy. So we can use children's books, reading passages, ReadWorks and Newsela are some of my favorites, and anything from the curriculum is fair game. And I know that it can sometimes be tricky to identify which words you want to target, so I always... In any of my resources for children's books or reading passages, I always pull vocabulary lists and include just the different tiers of vocabulary. And with this approach, we typically want to use tier two words. And then I also do that for my reading passages.

And the reading passages go into even more detail and they have different graphic organizers and just different materials to help you get started. But if you're wanting to use your own resource and you just want to use whatever they're using in the classroom and it's not something that someone else has a vocabulary list for, I really like the tool VocabGrabber. It's free, and you can just paste in the text. And if we have time in the demo, I'd love to show you how that works. But I just paste in the text, and then it pulls out the different types of vocabulary for us. And yeah, it's just super helpful. I love that tool, and it makes my job a lot easier when I'm identifying big bang for my buck vocabulary. So that's all that we have for context clues.

And I'm switching over to affixes because I feel like the affixes still involve some of the strategy behind it, but we have some other little tricks that we can use, and it involves a little bit more explicit instruction and it's a little bit clearer of a strategy because they can learn to recognize the prefixes and suffixes. But we're going to dive all into all of that goodness. I'm going to switch over here. So again, we're going to talk about the strategies that we can use to assess and treat affixes, and then share a bunch of different ideas on how to put that all together.

And why affixes in particular? So students are expected to read more complex texts that have an increasing number of derivational words. And that was from A.G. and Anderson 1984. And by teaching affixes, is we have a... it's a really great strategy that we can give them to break down words. It's a little bit more concrete, they just have to recognize the word versus using a bunch of more abstract super meta strategies. And it's still quite meta, but it's not as meta as context clues.

And suffixes account for a huge number of the words that they're seeing in the texts and all of that, and it's really exciting because there are four prefixes and four suffixes that account for all of, or almost all of the prefixed and suffixed words in the printed school English. And so this came from the Teaching Reading sourcebook by [inaudible 00:17:51]. By teaching eight affixes, so four prefixes and for suffixes, we're giving students really... like we just have to teach those eight things, make sure they're really good at them, and then they can use them.

And they won't be able to use it for every word, but it gives them a really good strategy. It gives us a lot of bang for our buck, not a single... One of the context clues or all of the context clues strategies combined wouldn't give us quite that much bang for our buck and so that's really exciting to see that. And then, yeah, we can just teach those. And while we're teaching prefixes and suffixes, we're still building out their vocabulary and teaching specific words. So we get the best of both worlds. And we can still do that with context clues too, but this is just a little bit more specific.

Okay. So then when it comes to assessment strategies, I like to administer an informal assessment, and I look at three different things. I look to see if a student is able to even identify prefixes and suffixes, do they know what they are, can they break the words into meaningful parts, or can they only see the word and not understand that the different parts have different meanings? So that's the first step, and that is the key skill that they need.

Then they also have to be able to identify the meaning of any given prefix or suffix. So do they know what dis means in disappoint? And if we go back to step one, they would be able to say, "Okay, the dis is a prefix, and then a point is the next part. Then the meaning dis means not." And then they have to use the knowledge of the prefixes and suffixes to determine the meaning of those combined words or of that derivational word. So it's a three step process, and so I like to see if they're able to do those pieces. And then you can go and...

I typically ask them if they know what the word means first, and then I like to ask them how they know what that means. Do they see any different word parts? Do they know what the word part means or if they know what prefix means, I'll just ask for that. But that's how I typically put together my strategy and start with the assessment.

And now we get to dive into some treatment strategies. So these strategies came from Keifer and [inaudible 00:20:50]from an article in 2007. As always, I will link to the article in the show notes. But they had four key strategies. The first one was to teach morphology in the context of rich, explicit vocabulary instruction. That sounds similar, doesn't it? The second strategy was to teach students to use morphology as a cognitive strategy with explicit steps. So that's super helpful.

Then the third strategy is to teach underlying morphological knowledge in two ways. So we want to do that explicitly and in context. So we might teach them pre means before and have that be super explicit, and then in context we're finding words that have pre, we're defining those words in all of those pieces. And then for the fourth strategy, for students who are bilingual and have a developed knowledge of Spanish, we can teach morphology in relation to cognates. So that's just an extra piece of knowledge that they can use to really help them.

And I want to dive back to teaching in context really quickly. So Stahl and Fairbanks in their 1986 article found that the most effective approaches provided multiple exposures to words. So this is not new. We know that we need multiple meaningful productions that really dive in deep and help the students process those meanings in a deep way. So this also, again, emphasizing that this has substantial effects on vocabulary knowledge, but also on reading comprehension because they need to understand those words to target those, to work on that comprehension to be able to comprehend what's happening in the text.

And some tips that they gave were to choose useful academic words that we can find in a variety of texts. We want to have student friendly explanations of the words and learner's dictionary. I'll share a link in the show notes for that as well, but that's a super helpful tool. So we want to have that rich and explicit instruction. We're telling them what the word means, we're making it simple, easy to understand, it's very explicit, and we are setting up context that give them useful information. And I do a whole presentation about different ideas to put these words into context, and we'll dive into it a little bit in the demonstration. But I'll also share the link to that presentation for some more detail there.

And then we also want to teach students to use morphology as this cognitive strategy. So circling back to that second strategy. As therapists, we're always modeling, we're using that think aloud strategy, that meta talk and we... The student has to be able to know that he or she doesn't know the word and that he or she doesn't have a deep understanding of the meaning. So they have to be able to gauge how much they know about the word, and then they have to be able to analyze the word and identify any morphemes that he or she recognizes.

So it's like root or suffix or prefix. And this process can be difficult if it's not... Like there's some words that are really clear, they have an s at the end, we know that that's really clear, but some of them change in how they sound and how they're spelled, which makes it a little bit tricky. And that's where we can model that. Like, this isn't exactly the same, but it looks like this word. So I think it might be blah, blah, blah, blah. And so that is not... It's not always going to work, but it'll get us a little bit closer.

And it's a lot like the context clues strategy. So we circle the word that we don't know, and instead of underlying underlining the clues in the sentence, we underline what we think might be a prefix or suffix, or we might put a line through the word to separate the different parts of the word, and then we guess what the word means, and then we check and put that into context to see how that works. In this article, they suggested that teachers or therapists teach these four steps explicitly, model, model, model, model, model. I can't emphasize that enough with a variety of words and maybe start with the ones that are super transparent, and then move toward some of the more challenging ones and then give students opportunity to practice with the more transparent words and move to the more difficult ones.

And then teachers are... We as therapists can scaffold this process and we gradually... Like we might start to be like, "Hmm, I wonder... Ooh, I don't know this word," and then we circle it. "I wonder what the parts of the word are. Is it here or hear?" And then we can give... So we can scaffold it that way, and that we're guiding the towards the answer. We're giving them a field of options and then they identify what makes sense, and then we gradually decrease.

And Clark and Graves have a thoughtful discussion on how to scaffold this in their 2005 article, so I will think that in the notes as well. So that is all that we have for the strategy piece and more of the theory. But I am really looking forward to diving into some demonstrations with some different materials and pulling the vocabulary words, showing what that would look like. So head to the next section if you're in the course or if you're listening to this in the audio only format, head to the show notes to see a demonstration. Thanks for joining me.



Hi there! I'm Marisha. I am a school-based SLP who is all about working smarter, not harder. I created the SLP Now Membership and love sharing tips and tricks to help you save time so you can focus on what matters most--your students AND yourself.

Reader Interactions


  1. Loved this episode– thank you! There were a couple of articles you referenced (one was by Gorse et al, 1999? – might have the spelling wrong) that I couldn’t find in the notes section. Do you mind linking them for us? Thanks for all you do!

    • Thank you so much, Haley!

      Here’s the citation: Goerss, B. L., Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (1999). Increasing remedial students’ ability to derive word meaning from context. Reading Psychology, 20(2), 151-175.

  2. I listened to the podcast and you mentioned there are 8 common affixes. Did you mention what these affixes were and I missed it or if you could let me know where you got the information from and I could look it up myself that would be great. Thanks!

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