Morphological awareness can give struggling readers and spellers a real boost!
I saw a presentation at the 2018 ASHA Convention in Boston and it was life changing for me.
Ginger Collins and Julie Wolter were the presenters and it was about teaching morphological awareness to third graders (2). Since then, I have been making a concerted effort to teach my students about morphology whenever appropriate in my speech and language therapy sessions.
WHAT IS MORPHOLOGY?
First things first. A few definitions for you (apologies in advance to the non-language-nerds):
Morpheme: the smallest unit of language that carries meaning. For example, the word “cat” means an animal. The plural marker “-s” only has one letter, but it carries the meaning of plurality. Therefore, the word “cats” contains two morphemes. “Letter” is one morpheme, “teacher” is two morphemes. If you get the distinction, congratulations – you understand what a morpheme is!
Morphemes can either be free or bound. “Cat” is a free morpheme because it can exist on its own. The plural marker “-s” is a bound morpheme because it cannot exist on its own; it always has to be attached to another morpheme.
Base words are free morphemes that can stand on their own, whereas root words usually aren’t able to and are often derived from Latin or Greek (e.g., hydro-, astro-, derma-, geo-, thermo-, etc.)
Bound morphemes are affixes (prefixes or suffixes) and can be either inflectional or derivational. Inflectional morphemes don’t change the word’s grammatical category (i.e., the noun will remain a noun, like when “cat” changes to “cats”). Derivational morphemes change a word’s grammatical category (e.g., adding the suffix “-er” to the verb “teach” creates the noun “teacher”).
Morphological awareness: a metalinguistic skill that focuses on learning to understand, read, spell, manipulate, and combine morphemes.
Sorry about all that.
Now, onto the fun stuff!
WHY SHOULD WE TEACH MORPHOLOGICAL AWARENESS IN SPEECH THERAPY?
As kids are learning how to read and spell, phonological and phonemic awareness are big areas of focus, with good reason; kids need to know about individual sounds in words in order to be able to hear, say, read, and spell them accurately. (See my post here about phonological and phonemic awareness.)
However, as Collins and Wolter (2) stated, “phonological awareness is not the be-all and end-all.”
And I agree.
I have found that teaching struggling readers and spellers about morphemes in speech therapy gives them a very practical boost. And, as an SLP, I feel very equipped to teach my students about morphology because it encompasses so many areas we specialize in, including phonology, semantics, and literacy.
HERE ARE A FEW REASONS MORPHOLOGICAL AWARENESS CAN BE SO POWERFUL:
Morphologically complex words make up about half of the words in English.
Teaching students about morphological awareness may also help to improve their phonology skills.
Knowing syllable (and morphological) boundaries in words is important for both reading and spelling, e.g., misheard (you would divide the s from the h because they are separate phonemes) versus fishing (you would keep the sh together because they form one phoneme).
Starting in 2nd grade, kiddos begin to infer the meanings of new words based on word structure, which can give them a big advantage when encountering novel vocabulary, both orally and in text.
You can use spelling analysis to see if kids are aware of the morphemes in words. For example, if a child is spelling bats like “batz”, there’s a good chance they’re not aware of the plural -s morpheme. If they’re spelling jumped like “jumpt”, they’re probably not familiar with the past tense -ed morpheme. You get the idea!
Currently (in 2023), there is no standardized test that assesses morphological awareness.
WHAT ARE THE BEST MORPHEMES TO TEACH?
Here’s a link to a list of the most common root words, prefixes, and suffixes in English on the Reading Rockets website.
IDEAS FOR ACTIVITIES TO TEACH MORPHOLOGY IN SPEECH THERAPY:
1. Do a sorting activity with words ending in past tense “-ed”. Make categories for the words where “-ed” sounds like /d/, like /t/, or like /ɪd/. You could do the same kind of activity for the plural “-s” morpheme and other morphemes.
2. Do a word building activity by giving students a combination of root words, prefixes, and suffixes and having them tell what the words they create mean.
3. Have students highlight the roots (or prefixes, or suffixes) in complex words.
4. Collaborate with teachers to have a powerful effect on students learning about morphology in the classroom. This article (3) provides a guide.
5. And, my favorite of course, use StoryWhys book companions! The comprehensive book companions all contain morphology sections that use words from the book that feature common prefixes and suffixes. Your students will have a chance to work with words in a meaningful context, think of other words with the same affix, explore the meaning of the affix, and invent a new word with that affix. Here’s a link to all of the book companions that contain morphology sections.
LEVEL UP YOUR SPEECH THERAPY ACTIVITIES WITH STORYWHYS
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1. Brimo, D., & Henbest, V.S. (2020). The Importance of Speech-Language Pathologists' Explicit Knowledge of Morphology. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools, 51 3, 561-571.
2. Collins, G. & Wolter, J.A. (2019). Morphological Awareness Strategies to Promote Academic: Success at Tier I through Interprofessional Collaboration. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, Academic: Success at Tier I through Interprofessional Collaboration. Perspectives on Language and Learning Education, 4, 781-789.
3. Henbest, Victoria & Apel, Kenn & Mitchell, Alexis. (2019). Speech-Language Pathologist–Guided Morphological Awareness Instruction in the General Education Classroom. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups. 4. 1-10.