Morphological Awareness Thesis Statement
Although there is less empirical research regarding the role that morphological awareness plays in writing extended text compared to reading it, there is research documenting the frequency of various morphological forms in children's written narratives. As in oral language, where children develop inflectional morphology knowledge (tense and plural markers; e.g., walked and birds) by ages six to eight (Menyuk, 1988), children's use of written inflectional forms also precedes their use of all but the most common derivational forms (Carlisle, 1996; Green, McCutchen, Schwiebert, Quinlan, Eva-Wood, & Juelis, 2003). Children's productive use of derivational (i.e., lexical) morphology develops later than their use of inflectional morphology in writing, typically beginning in the early elementary years (Berninger, Abbott, Nagy & Carlisle, 2010; Carlisle, 1996) and continuing to develop throughout the middle elementary years and beyond (Green et al., 2003; McCutchen & Stull, 2015).
In addition, theoretical models of writing suggest some important possible roles for morphological skill during the production of extended text. Hayes and Flower (1980) offered a model of the writing process that consists of three major processes: planning, translating, and reviewing. Planning includes generating ideas, organizing them, and setting goals; translating includes transforming ideas into language; and reviewing includes reading and revising the existing text. Recognizing the increased challenges that translation processes present for young developing writers, Berninger and Swanson (1994) further articulated subcomponents of translating: text generation and transcription. Text generation involves transforming ideas into language whereas transcription involves converting that language into written symbols. Transcription processes thus include spelling, handwriting, and typing, whereas text generation entails more fundamental lexical, syntactic, and rhetorical processes involved in translating ideas into words, sentences, and extended multi-sentence texts.
According to Berninger and Amtmann's simple view of writing (2003), transcription, text generation processes, and higher order executive processes (e.g., planning, goal-setting, revising) all compete for limited working memory resources during writing, especially for young writers. By such an account, increased fluency of transcription and/or text generation (resulting from increased morphological skill) could result in improved writing either because of specific aspects of the language generated (e.g., more precise word choice and accurate spelling, more varied or sophisticated syntactic structures) or because of increased ability to attend to higher level goals, such as planning and revising, as a result of increased available working memory resources (see also McCutchen, 2000). Consistent with this view, Berninger and Swanson (1994) documented that both transcription and text generation skills contributed significantly to composition quality across the intermediate and junior high school years.
Thus, morphological skill may be implicated in children's syntactic development. With the complex syntax that is common of academic language, the syntax that children are asked to read and write becomes increasingly complex as they progress through school (Hunt, 1970; Lawrence et al., 2010; Nagy & Townsend, 2012). Younger children often write by stringing together independent clauses (Hunt, 1970; Crowhurst, 1983), whereas somewhat older children tend to use more clausal subordination. Still more mature writers (indexed by age and writing skill) are able to vary their syntax to suit their intentions, often packing more information into fewer words by reducing clauses into more semantically dense phrases within syntactically simpler sentences. In a linguistic analysis of adolescents' writing, Myhill (2008) found that weaker writers tended to use less variety in their word choice and syntax, often relying on common organizational markers such as when, also, and because. Stronger writers, in contrast, effectively used a greater variety of organizational markers and syntactic structure (see also Dobbs, 2014).
Knowledge of lexical morphology (Jarmulowicz & Taran, 2013), with its morpho-syntactic aspects, could help a writer manage syntactic choices by assisting with the fluent change of verbs into nominalizations, or the reverse, via manipulation of suffixes. Consistent with such an account, Berninger, Nagy, and Beers (2011) found that, among first-grade students, morphological awareness explained unique variance in a sentence-writing task that required syntactic manipulations, and McCutchen and Stull (2015) reported similar findings among fifth-grade students. Additionally, morphological instruction has also been shown to improve children's use of morphologically complex forms in sentences and in multi-sentence written responses (McCutchen, Stull, Herrera, Lotas, & Evans, 2014). McCutchen and Stull's (2015) data also suggested that children use their morphological skill not only to retrieve words they know but also to construct novel morphological forms to fit the developing syntax of their sentences (e.g., solidize, presumably by analogy with crystallize). If students can manipulate words that they already know by altering suffixes, they may be better able to express their intended meaning more precisely and succinctly. Thus, morphemes may serve as a bridge that relates the word level to the sentence level, with word-level manipulations assisting with sentence-level syntax.
Consistent with Berninger and Amtmann's simple view of writing (2003), influences of morphological skill during the generation of extended multi-sentence text could also help writers manipulate written language more effectively to achieve larger rhetorical goals, as well as maintain syntactic accuracy, by freeing working memory resources to attend to those goals. For example, revising the phrase the people who lived in the colonies in America to the American colonists does much more than smooth the syntax; it conveys a more nuanced meaning about the emerging identity of the colonists, which could influence interpretation of entire sections of text and thus help achieve the writer's rhetorical goals. As did Clemens with his use of the word “sentimentering,” a skilled writer can accomplish much with a single word. Thus, while morphological skill has been found to have well documented relationships with reading at the word, sentence and text level, morphological skill may similarly contribute to writing across words, sentences and extended text.
The Power of Morphology
Morphological awareness is the recognition, understanding, and use of word parts that carry significance, but it is often overlooked in the learning process. Learn activities that help integrate morphological awareness for students learning to read and write.
For example, root words, prefixes, suffixes, and grammatical inflections (e.g., -s or –es for plurals) are all morphemes which can be added or taken away from a word to alter its meaning.
Morphology is one of the often-overlooked building blocks for reading fluency, reading comprehension, and spelling. Research is now demonstrating the importance of strong morphological teaching as early as first and second grade (Apel & Lauraence, 2011), where traditionally it has been the focus in middle and high school years.
"By 10 years of age, knowledge about the structure of words is a better predictor of decoding ability than is phonological awareness."
(Mann & Singson, 2003)
In addition, there is evidence that students learn orthography (phonics), phonology, and morphology in concert rather than in stages, when learning how to read and write. Students with strong morphological skills possess a distinct advantage over students who use a "whole word approach" to decode words. With strong morphological skills, students can approach a novel multisyllabic word and break it into parts in order to predict the meaning. This skill helps in all areas of literacy: decoding, spelling, comprehension, and oral language. Many times struggling readers are unable to identify a word they encounter in the text, even though they know it in their oral language. As a result, their expressive vocabulary remains quite limited compared with proficient readers who incorporate novel vocabulary from their reading into their oral language. Strong readers accomplish this because they recognize the word, infer its meaning, and are able to pronounce it. They efficiently map the vocabulary from their reading with previously known oral vocabulary as well.
As previously mentioned, children seem to simultaneously learn and integrate their phonological, orthographic, and morphological knowledge as they learn to read and write. Early learners may not always do so efficiently or completely, but they do show evidence of emerging awareness. Therefore, instruction and intervention might also be most efficient when these skills are explicitly taught in parallel. There are many ways in which this can be done. Several types of activities will be outlined with specific examples following in the appendix:
- Word sorts with self-discovery to aid in recognition of word families based on morphology or orthography.
- Explicit instruction of syllable types to recognize orthographical patterns.
- Scaffolding to turn patterns into "rules" about meaning and spelling.
- Word manipulation through blending and segmenting morphemes to further solidify patterns. Flashcards, syllabication, Word analysis while reading, letter tiles, etc.
- Practicing both decoding and encoding activities in tandem is like strengthening both tricep and bicep muscles to maximize the outcome. They are held in tension and the knowledge of one supports the other.
In sum, morphological awareness is an integral part of reading instruction and is especially so for struggling readers. Explicit instruction that integrates morphological awareness with orthographical knowledge (e.g., phonics), and phonological awareness provides the greatest impact. Students who learn how to attach meaning to parts of words will be empowered to be better readers and spellers. Success starts here!
Appendix: specific activities
Find the Roots: Teach the concept of root words to your students. You might say, "A root word is the 'main' word in a longer word." Give examples and then have your students practice identifying the root words.
Ask your students to highlight the root words in following complex words.
Fix the Affixes: Explicitly teach students that affixes are extra parts that are "fixed on" to the root word. The affixes at the beginning of words are called "prefixes" because "pre-" means before, and a "suffix" comes at the end of a root word.
Ask your students to "fix" the broken root words with the correct "affix."
- Love -ful
- Treat -ly
- Grate -less
- Mood -able
- Do -ing
- Sad -tion
- Pink -y
- Tempt -ish
- Move -ed
- Aggravate -ment
Word Sort: Ask students to sort the following words according to their affixes. Then they should guess the meaning of the affix based on their prior knowledge and the patterns they see.
Building Blocks: Make flash cards and ask your students to make as many real words as they can with these cards. Make sure that the cards contain several root words and multiple affixes.
A starter set of morphemes might include:
- En- -ous
- Courage -ing
- -Ment Dear
- Trust Fold
- -Y Humble
Syllabicating the "Big Words": Ask your students to preview the next chapter of their textbooks and write down 10 "Big Words." Next, have them highlight the root words that they recognize and take off any affixes that they see. Next they should break up the remaining parts of the word into syllables. Encourage them to infer the meaning of the word based on these word parts. Ask them how they would pronounce the word. A couple of examples follow:
- Root: Morph (change)
- Affix: meta (whole/big picture)
- Possible meaning: change of the whole thing
- Possible pronunciation: meta/morph/a/sis
- Root: Oxygen (an element on the periodic table)
- Affix: -ate (to fill)
- Possible meaning: to fill with oxygen
- Possible pronunciation: ox/y/gen/ate
There have been many studies done on morphological instruction and its effects on literacy abilities. Joanne Carlisle published a research article in 2010 compiling the results of various morphological instructional studies whose results overwhelmingly show improvements in literacy abilities of the participants. Carlisle suggests that these studies’ results support the teaching of morphological awareness in order to improve students’ reading abilities. Read her article “Effects of Instruction in Morphological Awareness on Literacy Achievement” to learn more about the connection between morphological instruction and increased literacy.