Morphology or morphological awareness. We all have heard about it. Maybe you have a working knowledge of what it is. You may even know why it’s important for vocabulary acquisition, decoding, and comprehension skills. But did you know it also helps to improve spelling and composition and is a great predictor of how students will perform on future literacy tasks? No? Well, read on to find out more!
According to the International Dyslexia Association, morphology is the ability to “explicitly think about the smallest units of meaning (morphemes) in language.” Morphemes convey meaning. For example, if you heard the word cat, the meaningful unit in the word is the image that it conjures up in the reader’s brain- that of a smallish, four-legged feline with a long tail that chases mice and purrs; one definition that is universal to most. However, if you heard the word cats, then there are two morphological parts or meaningful units; the smallish, four-legged feline with a long tail that purrs and the consonant suffix -s, which means “more than one”. We now know the mental image we should see when reading and we understand that there are two or more cats being mentioned.
What Are Base Words, Root Words, and Affixes and Why Does It Matter?
A base word is a complete English word. It makes sense by itself. A root word could be a complete English word, but often it needs an affix or another root word to make sense.
An easy way to instruct in morphology is by adding affixes. An affix is a prefix (a letter or letters added to the beginning of a base or root word to change its form or usage) or a suffix (a letter or letters added to the end of a base or root word to change its form or usage).
Explicit introduction of affixes could start at the suffix level. Easy-to-understand suffixes to introduce could be:
- -s (more than one)
- -ing (act of or state of doing)
- -less (without)
- -ness (quality of)
- -ed (past tense)
- -er (that which, one who, more than)
- -est (the most)
- -en (made of, consisting of)
- -ly (like or in the manner of)
- -y (full of or having)
- -ful (full of)
Adding suffixes to base words (a complete English word) could start at the Kindergarten or 1st-grade level.
If students have strong morphological awareness skills, they can problem-solve what these words might mean by thinking about each of the individual morphemes and then combining those meanings together to determine the word’s meaning
Higher-level morphology instruction could be introduced with prefixes. Prefixes that an instructor could start with, but are not limited to are:
- a- (on, in, at)
- pre- (before)
- re- (again)
- de- (not)
- co-, col-, com, con- cor- (together, jointly, with)
- dis- (not)
- un (not)
- in-, im- il-, ir- (no, not)
- sub- (below or against)
- super- (above or beyond)
Adding affix instruction could be started as early as second grade.
Bound and Free Morphemes
Some words are base words and some words are root words. A base word is a complete English word when it stands without an affix. Examples of base words are chair, tree, dog, track, etc. These are also known as free morphemes, as it needs nothing else attached to it to convey meaning. A root word could stand alone, or it is a just word part/stem. It could need an affix. Root words that need an affix are bound morphemes. They do not stand alone.
As we mentioned, cat is a base word. The word cats are two morphemes, but only the base word cat is a free morpheme, and -s is a bound morpheme.
If we were to think about root words, -ject- is a bound morpheme. It means to throw or lie. The root -ject- does not occur in words without an affix. Examples- reject, inject, subject, dejected.
The root -port- could be a bound or free morpheme, depending on its intended use. Examples: if port (place where ships wait) is used as a base word, it is a free morpheme. But if -port- is used as a root word, it means to carry. Variations of adding affixes to root word -port- could be report (two bound morphemes), deport (two bound morphemes), and reporter (three bound morphemes).
Additionally, most morphemes can be divided into three language layers – Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek, which can be helpful in determining not only the origin of the word, but the meaning of base, root, or affix, and how it is pronounced and spelled.
A great way to instruct in morphology is that once the meaningful word part is taught, generate words with the base word/root and various affixes and reflect on the meaning created. For example, if the base/root word is “phone/phono”, students could generate words such as telephone (to hear across), or phonology (the study of sounds). This activity could be started as early as fifth grade.
Morphological awareness is important. It helps students identify and understand difficult academic vocabulary of unfamiliar words with multiple morphemes. If students have strong morphological awareness skills, they can problem-solve what these words might mean by thinking about each of the individual morphemes and then combining those meanings together to determine the word’s meaning. Activate students’ understanding through explicit and systematic instruction of meaningful morphological parts. Allow students to generate words from previously learned affixes and root words to demonstrate their understanding. By doing so, you are one step closer to your students accessing comprehension.