Morphological Approaches

The following section of the module is an adapted excerpt from an LD@school article. Click here to access the original article, Learning to Read: The Importance of Both Phonological and Morphological Approaches.

Whereas phonemes are the smallest units of sound in a language, morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language – either in whole words or in parts of words. Morphology, the study of morphemes, explains the basis for our spelling system. People may understand morphology best when thinking about affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and root words: these are the three types of morphemes. For instance, the word unzipped has three morphemes: 1) the prefix un- which means “not” or “opposite”; 2) the root or base word zip; and 3) the suffix –ed, which indicates that this was an action done in the past.

Research has established that knowing root words, prefixes, and suffixes helps readers gain control over decoding and improves reading success as well as broader success at school [1]. Morphology is powerful, for those who know morphemes understand that the meanings of words are predictable from the meanings of their parts [2]. Bear et al [3] have shown that knowledge of morphemes is essential for accuracy in spelling, and Nagy et al [4] have shown that since almost all longer words are made up of numerous morphemes, understanding of morphemes contributes to fluency in the recognition of more complex words. Kirby and Bowers [5] emphasize that “morphology works” as it helps increase vocabulary knowledge and understanding and it predicts reading development and achievement.

A morphological approach thus not only complements a phonemic approach to decoding but it is of tremendous help for people who have difficulty with the phonics approach as it does not rely on the ability to hear the sounds in words. Rather, a morphological approach relies on recognizing and understanding the meanings of root words and affixes.

The earliest approaches to reading are sound/letter correspondences and phonological awareness training. Morphological approaches, however, can begin as early as grade 2 or 3. Morphological approaches to reading make a distinct contribution to reading success by grade 4, and the impact increases as students get older and words get longer and more complex [6].

Teaching Morphemic Awareness

Morphemic awareness is something that should be part of regular teaching practice. Explicit teaching of common prefixes, suffixes and root words should be part of the introduction of new words and new topics.

Example of how to teach morphological awareness with science vocabularyThese words should then be posted, either on chart paper with the name of the unit/topic at the top of the paper, or on a word wall. Prefixes will all be written in one colour, the suffixes in a different colour and the root words in a third colour. For example:

  • prefixes in green (like the “go” colour on a traffic light, signaling the beginning of the word)
  • suffixes in red (“stop” on a traffic light, signaling the end of the word)
  • root words in black.

Keep reviewing learned affixes and slowly add new ones. According to Honig et al (2000), the four most common prefixes in English (dis-, in/im-, re- and un-) account for 97% of prefixed words printed in school English, and the same is true for the four most common suffixes (-ed, -ing, -ly, -s/es).

Students will enjoy a game that reinforces prefixes, suffixes, and root words that can be played at least once a week. Try the Build-A-Word Game below with your class.

Click here to access a lesson plan for a morpheme awareness game entitled Build-a-Word Game.


[1] Bryant et al, 2014; Nagy et al, 2006; Wolf & Kennedy, 2003

[2] Nagy & Anderson, 1984

[3] Bear et al, 2004

[4] Nagy et al, 2006

[5] Kirby & Bowers, 2012

[6] Nagy et al, 2006