Mmmmm …Morphology … Time to Get Everyone on the Same Page

The more I bring up morphology with people (as it relates to teaching reading and spelling), the more I realize that it is not very well understood.  Just a day or two ago a teacher asked how to help her 5th grade students who read quite well, but had significant problems with spelling.  Man.  Her students sounded like so many of the students I have known!  So I responded with this.  (It may seem like a long response, but I wanted to be clear about what I was saying.)

“I would be interested in knowing the types of spelling errors they are making. Does it have to do with an unawareness of morphology? It is common for me to see ‘barely’ spelled as ‘barley’ until I ask what the structure of this word is.  In my first question to the student I ask if they think the word has a prefix or suffix.  The student will say <ly>.  Then I ask what the base is, and they tell me it is <bare>.  I ask them to announce the word sum for the word.  They will say <bare + ly>.  Then I ask them if the <ly> will replace a single, final, non-syllabic <e>, and they respond with, “no.”  Finally I’ll ask them to spell the word.  They say, “bare ly.” (I teach them to leave an ever so slight pause between the morphemes to show they recognize those morpheme boundaries.)

My guess is that your students are spelling phonetically which is rarely the same as correctly by the time they are in fifth grade. You mentioned having checked the usual things, but you didn’t mention word structure. It can account for misspellings that indicate a lack of understanding about suffixing conventions, unfamiliarity with free and bound bases, and unfamiliarity with prefixes, suffixes and connecting vowels.

No matter what grade you are teaching, if you are teaching children to spell words based on sounds they hear as they pronounce the word, sooner or later that strategy will fail for them. Incorporating the influence of morphology and etymology on English spelling is a huge missing piece. It helps with reading AND writing.

If you’d be willing to share some of the students’ misspellings, I’d be interested in seeing them. I have taught spelling through morphology, etymology, and phonology in fifth grade for 8 years now. Students come in spelling phonetically, and I teach them to spell with word sums. The discussions we have, and how quickly they establish a broader understanding of English spelling is something to behold.”

The woman thanked me for my response but then said something very telling as far as her understanding about morphology.  She said that she lives in a foreign country and the words in their language don’t have many Greek or Latin roots, so she doesn’t teach much morphology.  Hmmm.  It isn’t hard to imagine how this woman got the impression that teaching students about morphology means teaching Greek and Latin bases.  Many teachers who don’t have the background knowledge to truly understand English spelling rely on materials put out by people who may be focused on vocabulary building rather than focusing on a word’s structure.  So often the teaching of morphology gets reduced to teaching words that have common Greek or Latin bases as if that’s all there is to it.

Teaching students to understand and use morphology in order to understand English spelling will often involve looking at Greek or Latin bases.  That’s a fact.  But it may not!  Looking to understand a word’s structure may lead students to Old English or Old French or any of a number of languages that are left out of the books that focus solely on Greek or Latin roots.  And my biggest complaint about the materials I’ve seen that are currently available to teachers is that they don’t really address the morphemic structure of words at all!

For instance, let’s say they pick the Latin verb ducere “to lead,” and state that it might be spelled ‘duce’, ‘duc’, or ‘duct’.  That is followed by a list of words that might include introduce, deduces, seduction, education, and reducing.  The rest of the page is a fill-in-the-blank for the students, usually related to the meaning of the words.  Is this terribly false information?  Not really.  But does it teach morphology?  Not really.

Are the students asked to hypothesize a word sum for the words?  Do they recognize for themselves the prefixes and suffixes in each of these words?  Do they know the sense that each prefix used brings to the denotation of the base?  Do they know whether the suffix is inflectional or derivational?  Do they find out why the author says the spelling is sometimes ‘duce’ and sometimes ‘duc’?  And what about ‘duct’?  There’s no <t> in the Latin verb ducere, so where is that <t> coming from?  Do they find out why the ‘duc’ in ‘education’ is pronounced differently than the ‘duc’ in ‘reducing’?

Some of you reading this may know enough to recognize that some of my proposed questions could be investigated by looking at the word’s etymology and at least one question needs to involve an understanding of grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  It just goes to show you that if you want a full explanation of a word’s spelling, you need to look at the interrelationship between the morphology, the etymology, and the phonology.  The etymology and the morphology inform the phonology.  They provide the reasons for the grapheme/phoneme choices.

I found the following video on Youtube.  I was searching for information on morphology that might broaden some of the narrow views some people have of it.  Overall I like this video.  It addresses content and function words which is a very helpful classification to know.  Understanding the difference between these two groups of words has been helpful when teaching spelling and grammar!  I also like the tree diagram that explains what is included under the heading of “Morphology.”

If I could change anything though, it would be to use the word ‘bases’ instead of ‘roots’.  It makes sense to me to reserve the use of the word ‘roots’ to refer to the furthest back relative of a word.  So, if the furthest back we can trace the <duce> in ‘reduce’ is Latin ducere, that Latin ducere is what I would call the ‘root’.   For discussions of the main morpheme in a Modern English word (<duce> in ‘reduce’), I would call that main morpheme a ‘base’.  I don’t see these two as interchangeable since they describe distinct situations.

The other thing I would change about this video is to have the host spell out all morphemes instead of pronouncing them as if they are words.  I know that pronouncing morphemes is a very common practice, but just think of how the repetition of spelling out those morphemes would  help them hold a place in a student’s memory.  If the student is trained to remember a pronunciation, there is no guarantee two children with slightly different personal pronunciations of a morpheme will spell it the same!

But an even bigger reason for not pronouncing morphemes when announcing a word sum is because until the word is complete, we don’t know the pronunciation.  One of my favorite examples of this is the bound base <dict>.  If you try to pronounce it as you would a finished word, how would you do it?  Would you pronounce it as you do in ‘diction’, ‘indictment’, or ‘predictable’?  Have you noticed that the base is pronounced differently in each word I mentioned?  If we model pronouncing it as we hear it in ‘predictable’, then a student is sure to mispronounce the word ‘indictment’.  Or when hearing the pronunciation of ‘indictment’, the student probably won’t recognize that ‘indictment’ has the same base as ‘diction’, and therefore a meaning connection between them.  After all, the vast majority of students are not taught that a specific spelling represents a specific meaning.  They are taught instead that a specific spelling represents a pronunciation and that a word’s meaning is what you will find in a dictionary.  What a loss for the student!

This video points out that morphemes can be free or bound.  By definition all affixes are bound.  The name ‘prefix’ and the name ‘suffix’ give that away, don’t they?  Looking at each word’s morphemes we can understand how they both function in a word.  ‘Prefix’ is composed of the morphemes <pre-> “before” and <fix> which derives from Latin figere “fasten.”  Its literal meaning is “fasten before.”  ‘Suffix’ is composed of the morphemes <suf>, an assimilated form of <sub> “up from under” and <fix> “fasten.”  Its literal meaning is “fasten or place under.”  So a prefix is fastened before the base and the suffix is fastened after the base.  No matter how many suffixes a word has, they all follow the base.  Similarly, all prefixes are found in front of a base.

Bases are the only morpheme that can be free.  Most of us are familiar with free bases and recognize them easily.  When asked to name compound words, a student might say, “chalkboard, playground, rainbow, hallway, and starfish.”  They have been taught that compound words are the result of two words being combined and becoming a new word with a new meaning. So, for example,  a star and a fish are different than a starfish.  That is true information about a compound word, but it isn’t the whole picture.

If I was asked to name some compound words, I might name a familiar one like doghouse, but then I might also name  emancipation, automatic, ice cream, and biography.  Don’t recognize them as compounds?  It’s probably because instead of including only free bases, they include one or more bound bases.  And in just the same way that an affix must be fixed to another morpheme, so must a bound base.   The reason that you might not recognize these as compound words is because you have most likely only been taught to recognize free bases.  So when you look at one of the words I’ve mentioned, you’re not sure how to identify its structure because you haven’t been taught morphology.

Let’s take a closer look at the compound words I named.  (The etymological information that is included in this post was found at Etymonline.)

‘Emancipation’ is composed of two bases along with one prefix and two suffixes.  The prefix is <e->.  It is a clip of the prefix <ex-> “out.”  This prefix is fastened to the first bound base <man> from Latin manus “hand.”  The next morpheme is another bound base <-cip>.  It is a vowel shifted form of the Latin verb capere “take.”  That bound base is followed by the suffix <ate> which would make this a verb if there wasn’t the final suffix <ion> (noun forming).  The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion>.  The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “the act of taking out of one’s hands.”

‘Automatic’ is composed of two bound bases that are joined by a connecting vowel.  It is a connected compound.  The first base, <aut> from Greek autos “self,” is joined to the second base, <mate> from Greek matos “thinking, animated,” by the Helenic connecting vowel <o>.  The <-ic> suffix signals that this word is an adjective.  The word sum is <aut + o + mate/ + ic>.  The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “self thinking or self animated.”

‘Ice Cream’ is composed of two bases that are not connected.  It is an open compound.  The first free base <ice> is from Old English is “ice, piece of ice.”  The second free base <cream> is from Middle English creyme, creme, creem “the rich and buttery part of milk.”  When we see this word, we recognize that it is a compound word.  Some interesting etymological information is that in the 1680’s the word was ‘iced cream’.  The word sum is <ice + cream>.  The bases provide the sense of a dessert in which flavored cream is partially frozen through a process.

‘Biography’ is composed of two bound bases joined by a connecting vowel.  It also contains a suffix.  It is a connected compound.  The first base is <bi> from Greek bios “life”.  It is joined to the second base <graph> from Greek graphia “record, account” by the Hellenic connecting vowel <o>.  The <-y> suffix in this word signals that it is a noun.  The word sum is <bi + o + graph + y>.  The bases and affixes provide the sense and meaning of “a record of someone’s life.”

Now that we’ve looked at a few different kinds of compound words, let’s go back and update the definition of a compound word.  Instead of stating that a compound word is the result of two words being combined, let’s say that it is the result of two or more bases being combined.  In this way, the bases don’t have to be free bases (able to stand alone as a word).  They can be free bases, bound bases, or a combination of the two!

At this point, you may be saying, “Is it really worth going into such detail about the structure of a word?”  And I would argue that it definitely is.  The true benefit of teaching students that words have structure and guiding them as they hypothesize what that structure might be is that the students will quickly realize that bases and affixes that they see in one word will appear in others as well!  Let’s take another look at one of the compound words I mentioned.

‘Emancipation’.  The word sum is <e + man + cip + ate/ + ion –> emancipation>.
Where else might we see the <e-> prefix?
erupt “break out”
educate “lead out”
erode “gnaw away”
evade “go or walk away”
——–
Where else might we see the <man> bound base?
manual “handbook”
manufacture “something made by hand”
manicure “care for hands”
manage “handle”
———
Where else might we see the <-cip> bound base?
participate “take part”
anticipate “take care of before”
principal “take first position; chief leader”
principle “take first; origin, source”
———
Where else might we see the <-ate> verbal suffix?
excavate “hollow out”
irrigate “bring water in”
decorate “embellish or beautify”
estimate “approximate judgement”
———
As we now look at the <-ion> noun-forming suffix, it is interesting to note that it is often paired with the <-ate> suffix!
excavation “action of hollowing out”
irrigation “action of bringing water in”
decoration “action of embellishing or beautifying”
estimation “action of approximately judging something”
———

Besides noting the suffix convention of replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e> on the <-ate> suffix when adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, there is also the phonology of the <t> in the <-ate> suffix to notice.  The list of words that have <ate> final are pronounced with a final /t/.  But once the <-ion> suffix is added and the single, final, non-syllabic <e> has been replaced, the <t> now has a /ʃ/pronunciation.  I have found that students make less spelling errors when they understand the structure.  Let me explain what I mean.  So with ‘excavation’, the word sum is <ex + cave/ + ate/ + ion>.  From the first day of the school year, I tell my students that my goal for them is to spell words by spelling out the morphemes rather than spelling the words letter by letter.  They can’t imagine spelling a word any other way than letter by letter, but by the end of the year many have indeed made that change.  And they feel like their spelling is stronger for it.  This word is a good example of how that can be possible.  The student announces the word they are spelling.  Then they parse it into morphemes.  When they get as far as <ex + cave + ate>, they know that in adding the vowel suffix <-ion>, they will be replacing the single, final, non-syllabic <e>.  Then they proceed to spell out the <-ion> suffix.  At no point does the consideration of a ‘shun’ spelling cross their mind.  Through our repeated writing of word sums, the students have come to know that even when pronunciation shifts in a word family, the spelling doesn’t.  ‘Excavate’ wouldn’t become *’excavashun’ because they know the structure.  They are no longer spelling by what they hear, but by what they know of the morphemic structure.  And that structure is, of course, aided by etymological information.

You can see that in noting the morphological structure of one word (emancipation), my students have thought about the structures and meaning connections to at least 16 others!  THIS is how we build vocabulary (which aides in comprehension) and strengthen spelling (which makes writing less laborious).  When we seek connections in this way, students become aware of many more affixes which in turn helps them hypothesize logical and reasoned word sums.  This isn’t to say we never get stumped in trying to fully analyze a word’s structure.  We get stumped often.  But we don’t give up or call English crazy.  We look at our resources and based on the evidence we find, we write a word sum.  That means that at times we are limited by our resources and sometimes our ability to understand the resources.  That’s okay.   The really important thing is not to analyze further than you have evidence for.  Offer a word sum you can support with evidence.  Once you parse a word by how it looks or how it sounds, you have abandoned the methodical scientific aspect of Structured Word Inquiry.

Now spotting a particular base or affix doesn’t guarantee the student will automatically know the word it is in.  But it does mean that the student will pause and think about the word.  They will wonder if the morpheme they recognize is indeed the same morpheme that we have looked at in class.  If they have recognized a base element, they will pause and try to see if the denotation of the base element can give them a clue to the meaning of the word they have just found it in.  It might also be that the word is very familiar, but the student never before recognized that it could be further analyzed.  In this case they are often delighted to now see the structure they were previously unaware of.  For me, I remember how I felt when I realized that ‘been’ was really <be + en> and that ‘happen’ was <hap + en>.  Having a real understanding of how words are structured, where those morphemes come from, and what sense and/or meaning they bring to a word has brought me such joy!  I wonder about words all the time.  And researching their heritage to better determine the morphemes is a pursuit powered by fascination.  I never know what I will find and that is so motivating!

The benefits of teaching morphology are many.  Here are a few specific benefits that I have seen in my classroom. 

~ Students are able to identify the structure of the words they use.  They don’t have to wait to know about an <-ous> suffix because of some arbitrary suffix scope and sequence.  If it is used in the words they use, and they routinely identify other suffixes, then they will already understand some things about suffixes in general and grow their understanding of word structure in general.

~ Students will recognize that frequently the words they read have more than one suffix or more than one prefix.  There is so much information revealed when the structure is understood.  Often the stress in the word shifts with the addition of a suffix (when adding that suffix adds another syllabic beat).  Specifically pointing that out to children helps them see that ‘photograph’ and ‘photography’ or ‘interrogate’ and ‘interrogative’ are related words even though they are pronounced in a way that makes them feel like two totally different words.

~ Students will learn the difference between free and bound bases.  They will recognize familiar bases when they encounter them in unfamiliar words and quite possible by able to figure out what the unfamiliar word means.  My students have given me numerous examples of this happening to them.

~ Students will come to know the suffixing conventions well because they will encounter it often as they write and announce word sums.  Not only will they understand what the suffixing convention is, but they will understand why it is needed or why it is not in a specific word.  That means that they will be able to apply that understanding on their own to the vast number of words they will encounter for the rest of their lives!

~ Students will spell a word by thinking through its structure and by spelling it out morpheme by morpheme.  They will write words sums and announce them, acknowledging any suffixing conventions that were applied.

~ Students will learn the functions of the single, final, non-syllabic <e>.   My students have typically come into fifth grade with only a “sound it out” spelling strategy which doesn’t work at all for a non-syllabic <e>.  Understanding why that <e> is there has helped many of my students who used to leave it off in words like continue, house, and breathe.

~ Students will understand that a prefix brings a sense to a word, but that the same prefix doesn’t always bring the same sense to every word it is a part of.  This is when an etymological resource is important.  An example of this is in the word ‘corrode’.  The prefix <cor-> is an assimilated form of <con-> (which is generally thought to bring a sense of “together” to words it is part of).  The base is <rode> and has a sense and meaning of “gnaw”.  (If you are recognizing that it might also be a base in the word ‘rodent’, you are right!)  In the word ‘corrode’, though, the prefix is an intensifier.  It intensifies the action of the base.  So if a battery corrodes, you can imagine it intensely gnawing at the components around it!

~ When a student is reading and comes to a word they don’t think they know, they can spell it out, looking for recognizable morphemes.  It might just be that they haven’t yet encountered that base with an attached prefix before.  This strategy works more often that you might think.

~ Students will become familiar with the idea that one grapheme can represent more than one phoneme.  The example I will use is the grapheme <t> in <act> representing the phoneme /t/.  When we add the <-ion> suffix, the grapheme <t> now represents the phoneme /ʃ/.  In word families where the pronunciation shifts, it is crucial that the student understand that it is the spelling that is consistent.  When they know the morphemes in ‘act’ and ‘action’, they won’t be tempted to use an <sh> in the spelling of ‘action’.  They will understand the difference between a word divided into syllabic parts and a word analyzed into its morphemes.  Students acquire word meaning and spelling by learning morphemes.  Syllabic division is used as an aide to pronunciation.

~ Students will learn that words have a history and that even alphabet letters have a history.  Often this history part, this etymology, helps us understand a modern spelling.  As an example, my students understood the <ph> spelling in ‘sphere’ when we learned that the word is from Greek sphaira and I was able to show them the actual Greek spelling,  σφαιρα.  The second letter in the Greek spelling is phi.  It was the Roman scribes who transcribed it as <ph> since they didn’t have the letter phi in their alphabet.

~ Students will encounter and build an understanding of connecting vowels.  These vowels can connect two bases, a base to a suffix, or a suffix to another suffix.  They are used when one or more of the bases in the word is from either Greek or Latin.  The use of <o> as a connecting vowel is specific to Greek and the use of <i>, <u>, or <e> is specific to Latin.

~ Students will learn about bases that derived from Greek and Latin, many of which we notice when studying the sciences.  They will also learn that the majority of the words we use every day are in fact from Old English.  When identifying a morpheme such as the base element, finding out its language of origin helps us see the bigger picture of how our language has evolved.  They will become aware of the influence of Old French and more.

~ Because we don’t deal in “right” or “wrong” answers and instead deal with “likely” or “less likely” based on the evidence, students are much more willing to hypothesize a word sum.  They also discover that once you investigate a word, even though you learned a lot, there is always more to learn.  Once the awareness is established, specific bases and affixes seem to appear left and right!  My students have described it this way, “With spelling, once you know the word the door is shut.  You don’t need to go back.  With orthography, you can come back to the word as many times as you want.  There will always be something else to notice.”

Morphology can’t be taught as a stand alone any more than phonology or etymology.  You have probably noticed in the list above that in identifying a word’s structure, etymological information is often necessary.  Once the etymology has been considered and the morphemes in the word sum identified (matching the understanding of the person writing the word sum),  the grapheme/phoneme correspondences are noted and oftentimes better understood because of the etymological research involved.  Deciding for a child that learning morphology, etymology AND phonology is just too much, and that they only need to focus on sounds in order to read, is denying them the opportunity to see the bigger picture of our language.  It is setting them up to view English spelling as full of exceptions that have no explanations.  And it’s not that there aren’t explanations, it’s that someone is keeping a full two-thirds of the story from the child, thinking that later on some other teacher will supply that.  The problem is that when reading and spelling difficulties arise, no matter the grade level, the advice is to start back at step one.  Many children are never offered the full picture, the complete story, the understanding they deserve.  Teaching morphology can’t be taught in isolation.  So making the commitment to teach morphology is making the commitment to teach the combination of morphology, etymology, and phonology.  It is making the commitment to show students how all the parts work together to build an understanding of a word within a language.  It is empowering the student with the ability to read a word, write that word, and to see meaning connections across words because of what they understand about morphemes.

6 thoughts on “Mmmmm …Morphology … Time to Get Everyone on the Same Page

  1. Mary Beth this is not simply a lucid essay on why teach morphology but more importantly you reveal that in investigating English orthography you are studying the interrelationship of the three components of morphology, etymology and phonology that form the whole. You also offer clear examples of what to note in a student’s work or what can be gleaned from a miscue. Most importantly you show that when planning for orthographic investigations, you are considering not simply an isolated or tiered list of words – rather you are considering the underlying principles and conventions of the English language system as a whole. In investigating one word you are noting the principles and conventions that apply to hundreds. You have revealed that spelling is cognitive. English orthography is not an approach nor should it be reduced to one component. The interrelationship of morphology, etymology and phonology is how our language works. Through the inquiry process – formulating a hypothesis, gathering evidence and researching with reliable resources, you show how we uncover the sense, order and meaning of the English language.

    • Thank you, Ann.

      It is so important to teach this interrelationship. Often one (phonology) is thought of as more important than the others in teaching children to read, but that can’t be true. Reading without recognizing what is in the morphemes of the word (sense and meaning) is empty. It is an act that camouflages lack of comprehension as fluency increases and provides no strategies (that make sense and are based on how our orthography works) for spelling.

  2. Awesome post! I have tried to incorporate very similar activities in my Structured Word Inquiry lessons for a number of years. I never tire of seeing the “Aha!” moment when the students suddenly realize why the letter ‘e’ is placed on the end of a word like “give” or when working out a Word Sum for a word like “interrupt” and making connections to other words with the ‘rupt’ base. Thanks for sharing this information!

    • Thank you, Neal!

      I know exactly what you mean when you mention seeing the “Aha!” moment on the faces of your students. Mine are regularly delighted to find out that a base’s denotation combined with the sense brought by the prefix defines the word, often without the need for a dictionary! I’m thinking of the word ‘supply’. The base ‘ply’ has a denotation of “fill” and the prefix a sense of “up”. So the word literally means to “fill up.” When we supply something, we fill up a need. There were so many smiles in that moment of revelation!

  3. 100% A-G-R-E-E!! Not only did you explain the benefits of studying the interrelationship of morphology, etymology and phonology but you provided a mighty bit of evidence too! Bravo Mary Beth!

    • Thank you, Lisa! Just trying to explain how very important the interplay of morphology, etymology, and phonology are when it comes to any model of teaching literacy. If a teacher doesn’t really understand what teaching morphology means, it is easy to skip. But then, later on, that teacher will be wondering how to help the students with their poor spelling.

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