Reading & Literacy

Morphology Instruction: 5 Resources for Educators

By Sarah Schwartz — November 28, 2023 3 min read
Open book on a table in front of a bookshelf filled with books. Rays of light and letters fly out of the open book.
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As students are expected to read more challenging texts, the academic language they contain can be daunting. But a certain type of vocabulary instruction could help students break tricky words down into meaningful parts—and make parsing them less intimidating.

This type of instruction, called morphology, teaches students about common prefixes, suffixes, and root words that they can use to read, spell, and understand complex words.

Take the word “intramuscular” as an example. The prefix “intra” means within, conveying that something “intramuscular” takes place within a muscle.

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As more districts have embraced the “science of reading” movement, which aims to align classroom practice to research, some have implemented morphology instruction for older struggling readers, aiming to grow their ability to decode and understand multisyllabic words.

Some evidence shows that morphology instruction can have a moderate positive effect on vocabulary development, but there’s little research on which students would benefit most from this approach, how much time to spend on morphology, or how to sequence instruction. In part that’s because it’s hard for researchers to study morphology teaching apart from more general vocabulary and language instruction. (For more on the evidence base, see this article.)

In attempts to provide more of a roadmap, some researchers and organizations have created practical resources for educators. See below for five guides.

Intensive Intervention Practice Guide: Explicit Morphology Instruction to Improve Overall Literacy Skills in Secondary Students

This document from the National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention, a consortium for special education leaders funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs, reviews the research base on morphology instruction with a focus on secondary students with reading and writing difficulties. The guide also offers example activities and links to intervention programs.

Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4-9

This practice guide comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. For older struggling readers, it suggests building students’ decoding skills so that they can read complex multisyllabic words, and building students’ word knowledge so that they can make sense of text. The document provides activities for segmenting words into prefixes, suffixes, and bases and includes a list of frequently occurring prefixes and suffixes in academic language.

Morphing Into Adolescents: Active Word Learning for English-Language Learners and Their Classmates in Middle School

This article in the International Literacy Association’s Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, from researchers Michael Kieffer and Nonie Lesaux, describes an effective morphology intervention with middle school English learners. It also proposes four principles of good morphology instruction: teaching word parts in the context of rich vocabulary instruction, teaching morphology as a cognitive strategy, systematically introducing new knowledge with opportunities for practice, and situating explicit instruction in a meaningful context. (Note: The article is behind a paywall.)

re-source-s

Using Morphological Strategies to Help Adolescents Decode, Spell, and Comprehend Big Words in Science

Researchers Jennifer Zoski, Kristin Nellenbach, and Karen Erickson focus on using morphology instruction in middle and high school science classes in this article in Communication Disorders Quarterly. The paper explains how to identify morphemes to teach, how to provide this instruction, and offers a list of common science-related prefixes and suffixes.

What Should Morphology Instruction Look Like?

In this entry from reading researcher Timothy Shanahan’s blog, Shanahan on Literacy, he publishes recommendations on morphology instruction from Peter Bowers, the founder of the WordWorks Literacy Centre in Ontario, Canada. Rather than provide a list of words or activities, Bowers outlines the concepts about word structure that morphology instruction should teach.

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.

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