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Building Scientific Literacy through Anatomy Prefixes and Suffixes

Medical terminology can seem quite complex, but it is all based in Greek and Latin roots. Teaching anatomy prefixes and suffixes can help our students grow into scientifically literate citizens and help them in future medical courses.

In college, I had a Biology professor that had one consistent and very annoying habit. 

At the end of every exam, he’d make one question that didn’t relate at all to the content we were learning.  In fact, the last question wasn’t a question at all.  It was a word.  He’d choose a scientific word that we’d likely never even heard before and ask us to define it. 

At the time, my compartmentalized, great-at-memorization brain would just about explode every time I came to that question.  How on earth did he expect us to know the definition of a scientific word that we’d never heard?!

Latin and Greek roots.  That’s how.  

You see, the basis of scientific terminology comes from Latin and Greek.  By learning prefixes such as “endo” and roots like “pulmon”, we could begin to dissect new scientific terms when we came across them in textbooks and scientific articles.  And in frustrating college exams.

Well, I’ve grown older and wiser since my college days and I see the validity in his methods.  Rather than frustrating my high school students, however, in my Anatomy and Biology courses, I try to work through scientific terms with them as we learn.

“Remember cytoplasm?  Well, now we’re discussing leukocytes.  “Cyte” = cell.  See?”

They love it.  Ok, well, not really.  But the goal is bigger than helping them ace the next test or get through Anatomy.  Ideally, during the short time they’re in my class, I’d like them to progress towards being scientifically literate adults.  And scientific literacy isn’t just memorizing a bunch of science facts. 

In my high school anatomy class, I list prefixes and suffixes that relate to the day’s content on the board at the beginning of class. Students make a notecard for each anatomy prefix or suffix and add it to a growing set of cards for the year. On each test, I use those terms to create a new scientific term that we haven’t used in class. They can then use their notecards to define the new term. Repetition of these prefixes and suffixes throughout the year along with terminology games like Bingo prevents the need to force them to memorize the terms.

In Biology, I have students simply keep an ongoing list of prefixes and suffixes as an appendix in their notebooks or binders. I generally like to start the year with a Greek & Latin pretest to see what terms they already recognize. If you’re interested in trying that, too, you can grab this free Biology Prefixes and Suffixes Pretest from my online store.

Why is scientific literacy so important? As adults in a first-world nation, we are constantly bombarded with media and politics that relate to science.  After my students head out into this great big world as adults, I’d like them to be able to interpret a scientific article or understand a nutrition blog without having to use Google for every new term they come across.  Raising scientifically literate citizens enables us to have knowledgeable voters and consumers that aren’t swayed by every new “study” conducted by the latest celebrity.  

As adults in a first world nation, we are constantly bombarded with media and politics that relate to science.

I know you join me in understanding the need for raising our students to think for themselves.  And that’s a lofty goal.  But I’m here to help you with the first baby step- at least in the world of science.  Much to the dismay of my college self, it’s Latin and Greek.  

A set of free, printable flashcards of the prefixes and suffixes I use in my Anatomy course is available for all my subscribers. Click the link below to grab your set today!

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