Part 2 – Teaching Morphological Awareness

In part one of this blog on morpheme awareness, we talked about the strong relationships between morphological awareness and other reading skills. We learned that morphological awareness:

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

Knowing that awareness of words at the morpheme level can positively impact our students’ reading and spelling abilities provides a reason to take a deep breath and delve into this unfamiliar world to enrich our own knowledge about morphemes. When we are confident in our own knowledge, we are more apt to teach this awareness.

If you haven’t yet read my previous blog, Part One: The New Awareness – Morphological, take a moment to read it and begin your study or refresher about morphemes there. It offers a morphological awareness primer which sets up this blog to help you apply your understanding of the skill to multiple ways to teach morphological awareness in your classrooms.

Just to reiterate – morphological awareness means that we have an awareness of the meaningful forms that make up words. Just like phoneme awareness means we can identify, isolate and manipulate speech sounds in words, morphological awareness means we can isolate, identify, and manipulate morphemes in words, too.

Humans are wired for language. As infants we are sensitized the language sounds we hear and eventually express language drawing upon that implicit phoneme knowledge. Our development of receptive and expressive language is also dependent on implicit morpheme knowledge. Early language use begins with expressing single morpheme units – momma, daddy, ball – and then later, inflectional endings – balls, played, bigger. Three year-olds have even expressed implicit knowledge of prefixes, “I unspreaded the jelly,” after scraping the jelly off a piece of toast with a knife.

Our job in the classroom is to create an awareness of our students’ implicit knowledge of morphemes.

Morphological Awareness builds on our implicit knowledge of morphemes.  Awareness refers to the ability to consciously consider and manipulate the smallest units of meaning in spoken and written language, including base (and root) words, inflectional endings, and affixes, or prefixes and suffixes (Apel, 2017).

Early Grades

Researchers suggest that the three kinds of linguistic knowledge – Phonological – Orthographic – Morphological – work together contributing to literacy development.

We are predominantly focused on phonological and orthographic awareness during the first 3 or 4 years of school. Let’s begin with the morphemes that students are learning to read. The first words students read are usually cvc words, single morpheme words like cat, sit, bun.

Include word meaning in your phonics lessons. The main focus of our early phonics lessons is on building decoding skills and accurate word reading, however, we also know that when the orthographic form of a word is linked to its meaning, the wiring becomes stronger and reading more automatic.

We assume students are connecting meaning to the words they read, but many times they are not! Play little games with their reading words such as “Clue Game”. Students have their reading words in front of them, you give a simple clue for a word – “This word is an animal with a tail that wags.  Students find the word among their options, point to it, and read it, or even better, write the word.

If you use sound spelling boxes, phoneme-grapheme mapping, with your students, begin your inflectional ending awareness with the plural suffix -s. Choose a couple of nouns to make plural by adding an -s, no other spelling changes needed. Map out the word, b u n. then introduce the next word, buns. Use it in a sentence, explain how the word bun changed, explain that when we add /s/, -s, to the end of this word, we now have more than one! Explain that this is one way we change the meanings of words. Then do this with another word. Students will have a visual of the two, singular and plural forms, for visual comparison in their spelling boxes. You can then ask students to highlight the new part that changed the meaning of the word to more than one.

Make the focus on morphemes auditory. Use two large paper squares different colors to show two-morpheme words. Display one colored square.

Touch the square and say, “Brick. What word?” Students say, “brick.”

Add another square next to the first. Touch it and say, “/s/”. Run your hand across both squares and say, “bricks. What is our new word?” Students say, “bricks.”

Remove the second square, ask, “What is our word now?” Students say, “brick.” Replace the second square, touch it and say, “/s/. Now what is our word?” Students say, “bricks.” Use the words in sentences, explicitly teach one brick, two or more bricks.

Add the orthographic, the written forms of the words, after playing with the words auditorily.

Move to other inflectional endings as your program introduces them. Try

Development of Morphological Knowledge and Awareness

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.

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.


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.

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