What is Morphological Awareness?
Morphological awareness is an understanding of the morphemic patterns in words and knowledge of what the morpheme means. The English language is full of polysyllabic words that contain prefixes and suffixes to extend and expand the meaning of the base element or root. These small parts of words (morphemes) and learning about a word’s etymology (where the word came from) provide the missing information needed to discover the complexities of the English language.
Unfortunately, there has been a shift away from explicitly teaching morphemes in schools over the past few decades. When schools include morphology instruction during their Language Arts programs, students gain strategies for decoding new words while reading, for different spelling patterns that exist in English words and enhancing their vocabulary knowledge.
Before going to details about the importance of morphological awareness let’s go over some terminology first.
Affix – a prefix, suffix or infix that can attach to stems or roots to make a new word
Allomorph – any variant form of a morpheme; the spelling of a morpheme can change depending on what precedes or follows it, for example:
s -> hats; es -> foxes; en -> oxen
Etymology – the historical origins of a word; many English words can be traced back to Greek, Latin, French, English and Germanic roots
Grapheme – the smallest unit of a writing system; in English, these are the letters of the alphabet
Infix – are put in the middle of the word
Morpheme –the smallest unit of meaning in a word; a free morpheme can stand alone or be combined with another to form a new word (ex. happy); a bound morpheme must be attached to another morpheme to make a word (ex. un)
Phoneme – the smallest unit of sound in spoken language
Prefix – a morpheme at the beginning of a word or root and affect the meaning of the word
Root – a morpheme which is the basis of a word and rarely stands alone
Suffix – a morpheme added to the end of a word or root; it can change the word to a different form (noun, verb, adjective or adverb)
Why should Morphology be taught in schools?
There is no argument that every student should have a solid foundation in synthetic phonics in order to become competent readers and spellers. However, teachers should not stop their reading and spelling instruction there, they should include explicit morphological awareness instruction. Teaching students about morphemes provides them with strategies they can use to read and spell unfamiliar words as well as giving them hints to what the word might mean (e.g. Henry,1993).
When students are taught approximately 130 prefixes, roots, and suffixes, they will have the tools for reading and spelling many more words than they could if they were just sounding them out using their basic phonics. The knowledge of these morphemes will provide access to hundreds of thousands of words (Henry, 2019).
How do you teach Morphology?
Teaching morphology is as simple as regularly teaching students new prefixes, affixes, roots and suffixes as they fit with the curriculum.
Children can be taught about morphemes and the etymology of words at the same time as they are learning phonics in kindergarten and grade 1 (Devonshire, Morris, & Fluck, 2013). Young children can understand that words are built differently depending on where that language came from. If teachers discuss these different spellings with their students, the students have a better chance of understanding why sounds are spelt differently.
When educators are first introducing morphemes to students in the primary grades, it is best to start with adding suffixes to words. In the beginning, start with words that will not require a change in spelling when the suffix is added (ex: hope + less = hopeless; sad + ly = sadly).
As the students get more comfortable with this process, they can start to learn the rules associated with adding different suffixes to words. For example, the doubling rule when adding a suffix to a single syllable word with a short vowel sound (can + ing = canning; fan + ed = fanned).
The middle and upper elementary grades are when the shift from teaching children how to read to expecting children to read to learn new information occurs. During these grades, it is important to ensure to focus on morphological awareness because it contributes to students decoding and spelling ability. Teachers can use graphic organizers with their students to form word webs for different morphemes.
They can also create word matrices and word sums to help show students how morphemes combine to create words in the English language.
Morphology instruction does not just have to happen during language arts lessons, the majority of content specific words found in Social Studies, Science and Mathematics are made up of morphemes with Latin and Greek origins. This allows teachers to include instruction about the morphemes related to the content area during lessons focused on vocabulary.
The following websites can provide valuable information about the morphology and etymology of different words in the English language:
- English-Word Information
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- Learn that Word: Root Words & Prefixes Quick Reference
- Learn that Word: List of English Suffixes
Devonshire, V., Morris, P., & Fluck, M. (2013). Spelling and reading development: The effect of teaching children multiple levels of representation in their orthography. Learning and Instruction, 25, 85-94.
Henry, M. K. (1993). Morphological structure: Latin and Greek roots and affixes as upper grade code strategies. Reading and Writing, 5(2), 227-241.
Henry, M. K. (2019). Morphemes matter: A framework for instruction. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring 2019, 23 – 26.
Moats, L. C. (2004). Science, language, and imagination in the professional development of reading teachers. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.) The voice of evidence in reading research(269-288). Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
* The Word Matrix was made on Neil Ramsden’s Mini Matrix-Maker Edit Page