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How to Build a Word Knowledge Toolbox

How to Build a Word Knowledge Toolbox


Upper intermediate and middle school students can enhance their reading comprehension by focusing on six areas of word knowledge.

It’s a simple fact… if students do not understand the words on the page or screen, they cannot make meaning from what they are reading. For this reason, having strong word knowledge is essential to reading comprehension, and it goes beyond memorizing lists of vocabulary words.

There are three important aspects to word knowledge:  having linguistic knowledge of words, knowing the meanings of words, and understanding the relationships between words.

Recognizing words, understanding their meanings, and applying them in new contexts are skills that students can (and should) develop and apply in social studies, science, and math, as well as language arts.

As students move to higher grades, they will encounter more complex texts. However, they will be able to comprehend these texts more effectively if they have the proper tools in their word knowledge toolbox.

Word Knowledge Toolbox Unpacked

There are six areas (or tools) of word knowledge that can have a significant impact on the reading comprehension of our intermediate and middle school students.

A student’s word knowledge toolbox should include the following:

  1. Greek and Latin roots
  2. Prefixes and suffixes
  3. Homonyms, homophones, and homographs
  4. Context clues
  5. Synonyms and antonyms
  6. Denotation and connotation

Becoming familiar with these areas of word knowledge and knowing how to use these tools can help students expand their vocabularies, identify word relationships, understand technical terminology, and make inferences about the meanings of unfamiliar words. It also improves their reading comprehension.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each tool in the toolbox.

Word Knowledge: Filling the Toolbox and Building Vocabulary
Photo by Zinkevych

1. Greek and Latin Roots

Greek and Latin roots are words or parts of words from Greek and Latin languages. These languages have been used to describe and name things for thousands of years, so they are the basis of many English words. They have been incorporated over time, especially in fields such as science, medicine, law, and technology.

multi- Greek root that means "many" 

Examples:  multicolored, multivitamin, multiplication, multitask

audi- Latin root that means “hearing, listening, or sound”

Examples:  audience, audible, auditorium, audiometer

To access a directory of Greek and Latin roots, check out Learn That Word.

2. Prefixes and Suffixes

A base word is a complete and meaningful word that can function on its own. When a prefix is added to the beginning of a base word, the original word’s meaning is changed, and a new word might even be formed. On the other hand, a suffix is added to the end of a base word to alter its meaning or create a different word.

prefixun + happy = unhappy 

The prefix un- means “not,” so this changes the meaning of “happy” to “not happy.”

suffix:  happy + ness = happiness 

The suffix -ness means “the state of,” so this changes the word “happy” from an adjective to a noun since “happiness” means “the state of being happy.”

FREE Common Prefixes and Suffixes
FREE Common Prefixes and Suffixes (grades 4-8)

3. Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

The English language is so… shall we say tricky? Some words are spelled the same yet mean completely different things. Others are spelled differently but sound alike. It’s so easy to mix them up!

Some of the trickiest words are homonyms, homophones, and homographs. These are all important when building word knowledge, so let’s take a look at each one.


Homonyms are two or more words with the same sound or spelling but different definitions. These are also known as multiple-meaning words.

close-  can mean "near" or "to shut" 
Example: I’m close to home, so just close the door and don’t lock it. 

right- can mean "correct" or "opposite of left"

Example: You are right. Please turn right, not left. 

Fun Fact:  Homonyms can also be homophones and homographs.

To provide your students in grades 4-6 with practice, try using this digital lesson on multiple-meaning words.


Homophones are two or more words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning and spelling. 

you’re- a short way of saying “you are”
your- shows possession

Example: You’re going to be surprised when you see your gift.

they’re- a short way of saying “they are”
there- refers to a place
their- shows possession

Example: They’re over there playing their games.

Try this digital lesson on common homophones to provide your students with practice in grades 4-6.


Homographs have the same spelling but differ in meaning and sometimes in pronunciation.

tear- (verb) to rip something 
tear- (noun) liquid that flows from the eyes when crying

Example: She began to tear up when she found a tear in her dress.

4. Context Clues

Context clues can help readers infer the meanings of unknown words. These are the words surrounding an unfamiliar word that can be found in the same sentence, in different sentences, and even in different paragraphs.

Keep in mind that not all words in a text have context clues, but it’s always a good idea to check for them, especially since not all words have a prefix or suffix to help unlock meaning.

Five types of context clues help build word knowledge:

  1. Definition: The word’s meaning is explained in the text.
  2. Example:  An instance or case is cited in the text to illustrate a word’s meaning.
  3. Synonym: Another word with a similar meaning is in the text.
  4. Antonym:  Another word with the opposite meaning is in the text.
  5. Inference: A hint to the word’s meaning is in the text.

Try this digital lesson on context clues to provide your students with practice in grades 5-7.

5. Synonyms and Antonyms

Synonyms are words or phrases with similar meanings that can be used interchangeably in a sentence. Antonyms, on the other hand, have opposite meanings.

Synonyms:  enormous and immense; gleeful and joyous

Antonyms:  enormous vs. minuscule; gleeful vs. melancholy

To access a cool graphic thesaurus that maps synonyms and antonyms, check out The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

6. Denotation and Connotation

Denotation refers to the dictionary definition of a word. To clarify, it is the literal meaning devoid of any personal interpretations.

In contrast, connotation refers to the cultural associations that a word carries and the feelings, images, or ideas it evokes. The connotation of a word changes based on the context in which it is used and on a person’s past experiences with the word.

Understanding denotation and connotation helps students interpret how words are used in literature, media, and everyday communication.

Denotation: "home" is a place where one lives

Connotation: "home" evokes the feelings of warmth, safety, and comfort

To provide your students in grades 5-7 with practice, try using this digital lesson on denotation and connotation.

By filling their word knowledge toolbox, students will have the necessary tools to comprehend text and become independent readers. In addition, strong reading comprehension skills are essential for success in school and life.

If you want to learn about an engaging activity to explore lists of words, consider reading about the List-Group-Label strategy.

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Jan's File Cabinet Intermediate and Middle School Language Arts

Hello there!

I’m Jan. I’m a pet mom, an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and a MASSIVE book hoarder. My philosophy of teaching is simple… start where students are and build them up with the right interventions at the right time. I enjoy making digital and printable resources for upper intermediate and middle school language arts.

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