Part 1 – Morphological – The New Awareness

After reading the title of this blog, you probably fell into one of two camps: 1) I’m intrigued, or 2) I’m scared, or maybe one foot in both. Either is OK, either is who you are! Read on…
I am devoting two blogs to this topic. This blog, Part 1, will create an understanding of morphological knowledge and awareness. Part 2, will delve into what learning and teaching morphological awareness looks like in our classrooms.

You may recall the news exploding with research about the importance of phonological awareness in 1999 and the NRP publishing their findings, also supporting this “unfamiliar” component of reading. Teachers everywhere were trying to grasp what phonological awareness meant, thought they understood it only to find that it took several workshops, classes, attempts to ‘teach’ it, before they realized that they “maybe” understood it. Perhaps this challenge has been more recent for you.

Anyway, now that most teachers have heard of phonological and phoneme awareness, and great strides have been made to incorporate it into our literacy instruction, we have another awareness to understand and teach – morphological awareness. Hold onto your hats – dictionaries, lesson plans, and word lists – here we go again!

I believe that morphological awareness has been slow to gain momentum in our reading curriculum because it is scary. Many teachers hear morphology or morphological awareness and shut down or turn away. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame you! We know we can’t teach something we are not familiar with, something we know very little about. So, I suggest here, that we focus on learning not instruction. Let’s focus on being learners right along with our students. If we are going to teach morphological awareness, we need to develop our own awareness AS we teach it. I think you will be amazed at how much you already know and teach! You know more than you know, now we need to create an awareness of what you know and build upon it. You can do this!

Why Morphological Awareness?

Morphological knowledge has the potential to affect literacy skills in at least three ways, through word recognition, comprehension, and motivation. Morphological knowledge impacts decoding, spelling, vocabulary knowledge, and comprehension. And the findings continue. Morphological awareness:

  • Makes a powerful contribution to word reading abilities.
  • Impacts reading comprehension positively.
  • Improves spelling and written compositions.

And we also know that for our vulnerable students, literacy skills are positively impacted when morphological awareness is taught during intervention.

  • Morphological awareness uniquely predicts reading and writing skills even when other linguistic awareness skills are considered.
  • In some cases, morphological awareness is the sole or strongest predictor for reading and spelling ability.

Wow! I know that this information certainly caught my attention!

Morphological Knowledge and Morphological Awareness – A Primer

First of all, it is important to know that a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. Sound familiar? A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning.  A single unit of meaning, a morpheme, for example, is the word book. However, if we change the word to books, we now have two morphemes, the base book and the inflectional suffix, the plural, which changes the meaning.  So -s is also a morpheme in this word. You know this. You intuit this. You know that when you add /s/ to book, that the meaning changes to more than one book. There is an implicit quality to your knowledge of words and their morphological construction. This is morphological knowledge – this knowledge might be implicit, you just know this at a subconscious level, and it might be explicit, you can put into words what you know about morphemes. Either way you have an understanding of how words convey meaning when you have morphological knowledge.

Morphological Awareness takes knowledge a step further.  This level of understanding refers to the ability to consciously consider and manipulate the smallest units of meaning in spoken and written language, including base (and root) words and affixes, or prefixes and suffixes (Apel, 2017).

Similar to the auditory phoneme awareness tasks we give to our students, “Say grow without /r/”, “go”, we can use auditory tasks with morphemes too. “Say swimming. What is the base form? Swim. What is the suffix ending? -ing. Change the suffix ending to /s/. Swims. Change the base to drink.” What did you end up with?

Another exercise might sound like this, “Say convention. What is the Latin Root? -ven -Change the Latin root to struct. What is the word?” What did you end up with?

These exercises are examples of how we can engage students in a conscious manipulation of morphemes and help to create morphological awareness. Of course, we want to include the meanings of the affixes and roots – ven(t) means to come and stru(ct) means to build – and also include writing and reading the words to help develop orthographic mappings for these words and their morphemes.

If you just had a quick sweat come on when we started talking roots and meanings… remember, we are focusing on learning, not instruction…yet!

Development of Morphological Knowledge and Awareness

Linguists have recorded accounts of 2 and 3 year-olds experimenting with their morphological knowledge: A 3-year old saying, “I jellied my toast.” “Deers eated the flowers.” “I unpaperclipped it apart.” It is amazing how these young speakers of the language intuit these morphological changes to convey meaning!

Here is some morphological development information for you:

  • Growth in phonological and orthographic awareness taper off after the first 3 or 4 years of school.
  • In contrast, morphological awareness showed some growth in the early years, but more substantial growth after 4th grade.
  • Researchers suggest that the three kinds of linguistic knowledge – Phonological – Orthographic – Morphological – work together contributing to literacy development.

Following are some suggested guidelines for you:

  • Once students are beginning to decode multisyllabic words you can start with compound words. Be explicit, “These are free base words. They can stand alone but we can also combine them to make one word that means something different than one word alone.”

Tip: the second word in a compound word explains the first. Pinecone – a cone from a pine tree. Housefly – a fly that comes in your house. Backpack – a pack that we wear on our back. Notebook…??

Then, here is a general rule of thumb to from our planning for teaching awareness of morphemes:

  • First and second grades – add suffixes to words that require no spelling changes. (help – helpful, sad – sadly, storm – stormy)
  • By mid-second grade – teach beginning spelling rules for adding suffixes. (swim – swimmer, hide – hiding, cry-cried)
  • Start with common prefixes: in-, un-, dis-, mis-, fore-, re-, de-, pre-, a- (These are derivations and change the meaning of the base/root)
  • Teach inflections: -s, -es, -ed, -er, -est, -ing. Then, -ly, -less, -ness, -ship, fold, -ment.

We all know that it takes years of practice to build the orthographic mapping for the words that require spelling changes – drop it, double it, change it. Continue instruction for several years! Correct misspellings and reteach continuously!

Move into roots and derivations big time once students are in fourth grade. You do not have to wait until fourth grade to introduce and build curiosity, but this is where a lot of your instruction will lie.

Focus on yourselves as learners for now. Pay attention to words. Foster your curiosity about words and look them up. Scroll down to Word Origin in and you will find information on the affixes, roots, bases, and even some etymology – the history words, the stories behind words.

Next time, in Part 2, we will focus on instruction!


Apel, K. (2017). Morphological awareness development and assessment: What do we know? Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 43, (2), 11-16.  Spring 2017.

Carlisle, J.F. & Goodwin, A.P. (2004). Morphemes matter: How morphological knowledge contributes to reading and writing. In: Handbook of Language and Literacy, eds. Stone, Silliman, Ehren, & Apel. Guilford Press: NY, NY.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *