Key Literacy Component: Morphology

By: National Institute for Literacy

Morphology is the study of word structure [1]. Morphology describes how words are formed from morphemes [2]. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word. A morpheme may be as short as one letter such as the letter, 's'. This letter adds plurality to a word such as cats. Likewise, a morpheme can consist of letter combinations that contain meaning. These units of meaning could be roots, prefixes and suffixes. An example of a morpheme that consists of letter combinations would be the word pronoun. This is also a compound word. Several combinations of word types can be created by compounding words; however, it is important to point out to the student that the meaning of a compound word does not always match the meanings of the individual words separately [3].

Morphemes can be manipulated to modify the word structures in order to change the meaning of the word [4]. For example, "She bakes cookies", can be changed to "She baked cookies." In this example, the "s" that signifies the third person singular is changed to "ed" and is indicative of past tense. Here the meaning of the word changes as well as the meaning of the sentence.

Morphology does make a reliable independent contribution to both reading and writing [5]. The unique contribution of morphological awareness to literacy skills is evident in the decoding rate of students in grades 8 and 9, and importantly morphological learning is still developing in the late school-age years [6].

What do good readers do?

Students who understand words at the morphemic level are better able to get the meaning of words and are better prepared to deal with the increased reading and writing demands across the curriculum and content areas [7]. Good readers use their knowledge of morphological structure to recognize complex words [8].

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What challenges do adolescent readers face with morphology?

Struggling adolescent readers who lack the knowledge of morphological structure will have more difficulty in recognizing and learning words. Research shows that this awareness of the morphological structure of words is correlated with students' vocabulary knowledge as well as their reading comprehension [9].

Students with language learning disabilities may experience difficulty with delayed vocabulary and difficulty in defining specific vocabulary words because of a deficit in their knowledge of morphology [10].

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How can instruction help adolescent students with morphology?

When adolescent students learn frequently used morphemes this knowledge improves not only their spelling, but also provides strategies for decoding and for building vocabulary [11]. Learning morphemes helps students particularly in the upper elementary grades and beyond as they encounter more unfamiliar words and morphologically complex words across their expository textbooks and narrative literature as well as in spelling tasks [12]. Students with morphological knowledge are better able to separate out the morphemes into meaningful units for use in decoding, comprehending or spelling the word [13].

Teach Different Morpheme Patterns

When teaching new words, teachers should not only consider the spelling of the word, but also should explain the morphemes role in changing word meaning. It is important to teach the different morpheme patterns and although formal instruction in the different morpheme patterns is likely beyond the scope of a content-area instructor, these instructors could introduce the morpheme patterns that are related to the content vocabulary that they will need to teach in their class. For background purposes, there are several morpheme patterns that include: Anglo-Saxon morphemes, Latin morphemes, and Greek morphemes. Adolescent readers will benefit from learning these morpheme patterns.

The Anglo-Saxon words tend to be the first taught words in primary school [14]. These words tend to be common, everyday words that are found in primary grade text [15]. Examples of these words are: cat, do, friend, and want.

Latin words make up the majority of the words in English and are the words that are generally polysyllabic and found in the upper elementary and secondary literature as well as expository text. Words of Latin origin contain a root along with the addition of either a prefix and/or suffix [16]. Examples of these words are: informing, conventional, and disrupted.

Greek words form about 10% of the words we use and are found in students' science, math, and philosophy textbooks around the 3rd grade and beyond [17]. Words of Greek origin tend to consist of a combination of roots that are connected to make a word [18]. Examples of these words are: chromosome, hydrogen, physiology and atmosphere.

Bound morphemes are suffixes and prefixes. These morphological word endings are meaningful units only when attached to another morpheme that is the root word. Examples of these bound morphemes that would help students comprehend the words being taught are: -ed, -ing, -s, and -'s [19]. When bound morphemes are added to a word they can change the meaning of the word.

Free morphemes are another type of morpheme that can present difficulty for students. Free morphemes can stand alone as a word and do not have to be combined with other morphemes. An example of this type of morpheme is the word man. These particular morphemes are divided into content words and function words. Function words such as pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, articles, and auxiliary verbs are learned early; however, these are often problematic for the student with language learning disabilities [20].

There are several recommended classroom activities that will help with the learning of morphology. Specifically these activities relate to the structural components of words plus relationships among words. Brice (2004) [21] suggests that general educators, special educators, and speech language pathologists all share the responsibility for teaching the following:

  • Syllable types and syllable division,
  • Base words, prefixes, and suffixes,
  • Compound words, and
  • Function words.

All of these activities could be incorporated into instructional practice for reading specialists and language arts teachers. Content-area teachers could focus on teaching base words, prefixes and suffixes, and compound words relevant to the new content-area vocabulary being introduced rather than as a separate activity to build morphological skills.

Use Speed Drills to Develop Automatic Recognition of Syllables and Morphemes

One way to build the automatic recognition of syllables and morphemes is through the use of quick speed drills [22]. When the quick speed drill is conducted as a challenge game to achieve a goal, it is more likely to be successful [23]. This activity would likely best be conducted by a reading specialist or a language arts instructor rather than in the context of instruction in subject-matter and content-areas.

Teach Students the Different Syllable Types

In general, it is important to teach students the six syllable types: closed, open, vowel-consonante, vowel pair, vowel-r, and consonant-l-e. Formal instruction in these syllable types could be conducted by a reading specialist or by language arts instructors where appropriate. More generally, content-area teachers can strengthen students' literacy skills by further developing their morphological skills during activities such as content-area vocabulary instruction.

Teach the Meanings of Morphemes within the Context of a Sentence

It is important to teach morphemes across the content-area classes with attention given to the word's internal structure and meaning within the context of a sentence [24]. Instruction should include not only the spelling, but also the role the morpheme has in changing the meaning of the word. It is very common for adolescent students to make grammatical errors with the endings on words.

Inflections and derivations change the meaning of a word. Both inflections and derivations use affixes, in general mostly suffixes, to change the form of words. Inflectional affixes change such grammatical factors as tense, gender, number, or person. For instance, one could change the tense of 'jump' from present to past tense by simply adding 'ed' to form jumped or change the person of the verb 'jump' by adding 's' (e.g. I jump versus he jumps).

Derivational affixes on the other hand create new words by changing the grammatical category, so for example 'jump' the verb can be changed to a noun by adding the suffix 'er' to form 'jumper', the noun or by adding 'y' to form 'jumpy', the adjective. Derivations are the aspect of morphology that is most closely tied to achievement in reading [25].

Inflections are generally learned by the early elementary school years; however, this is not the case for derivations. Derivations are learned from the preschool years through adulthood, thus an ideal time to pursue instruction for adolescents.

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What do we still need to know?

To date, little research has been done to develop instructional programs that would help children with language-learning disabilities. These students have a need to acquire strategies as well as knowledge of words, both aspects of effective morphological processing [26]. The Green et al. (2003) [27] study has documented developmental changes in the students' use of morphological forms in their writing. This study has also established preliminary connections between morphological performance in writing to include skills such as spelling and reading. However, there is a need for more research to explore the role of morphological knowledge in both the transcription as well as the text-generation stages of the writing process.

There is a need for systematic studies of methods to help adolescent students improve their awareness of morphological structure, their knowledge of affixes, and their understanding of how to untangle complex words during reading [28]. This research would provide insights into the characteristics of instructional programs that ultimately would help students with reading problems or language-learning disabilities.

Further research on the effect of morphemic structure on word reading is needed. The complex relations of sound, spelling and the meaning of morphemes in words most likely influence word reading, but these relations are not well understood [29]. Word reading in sentences or longer text versus reading words in isolation also requires more study.

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Brice, R., Connecting oral and written language through applied writing strategies. Intervention in School and Clinic, 2004. 40: p. 38-47.

Carlisle, J. and C.A. Stone, Exploring the role of morphemes in word reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 2005. 40: p. 428-447.

Carlisle, J., Morphological processes that influence learning to read, in Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders, C.A. Stone, et al., Editors. 2004, The Guilford Press: New York.

Green, L., et al., Morphological development in children’s writing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 2003. 95: p. 752-761.

Henry, M., Spelling instruction in the upper grades: The etymology/morphology connection. Perspectives, 2005. 31: p. 30-32.

Joshi, R. and P. Aaron, Spelling: Its development, assessment, instruction, and the science of it. Perspectives, 2005. 31: p. 1-4.

Moats, L.C., When older kids can’t read. Educational Leadership, 2001. 58(6): p. 36-40.

Nagy, W., V. Berninger, and R. Abbott, Contributions of morphology beyond phonological to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle-school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 2006. 98: p. 134-147.

Tolman, C., Working smarter, not harder: What teachers of reading need to know and be able to teach. Perspectives, 2005. 21: p. 15-23.

National Institute for Literacy. (2007). Adapted from What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/publications/adolescent_literacy07.pdf