Morphology and Reading

In terms of language, morphology is the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language: ‘Morph’=shape/form and ‘ology’=the study of. It includes the identification and analysis of stems, root words (often of Latin or Greek origin), prefixes (added to the front of words) and suffixes (added to the end of words), as well as parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs, etc.), intonation, stress and the influence of context on the pronunciation of words and their meaning.

Rastle (2018) argues that the acquisition of morphological knowledge may be an important element of the ongoing development of reading expertise and this blog is a summary of the key points in her article.

There is a large body of evidence showing that learning to read requires a sound knowledge of the alphabet code (the letters and letter combinations we use to represent the different sounds in English). However, research shows that skilled adult readers routinely use morphological knowledge in addition to knowledge of the alphabet code to recognise words.

A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language. A morpheme may or may not be a word. A word by definition can be used in isolation, whereas a morpheme may or may not ‘stand alone’. Every word contains at least one morpheme. For example, ‘jump’ is both a word and a morpheme. The words ‘jumped’ contains two morphemes: ‘jump’ and ‘ed’. The morpheme ‘ed’ indicates past tense, but it cannot be used in isolation.

Rastle argues that because parts of words (prefixes, root/base words, suffixes) occur regularly, these morphemes help the reader map meaning to the words as we are able to use prior knowledge of these morphemes to decode other words containing similar morphemes. For example, if we know the meaning of ‘trust’, then we can surmise the meaning of ‘trusty’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘distrust’. Similarly, if we know the suffix ‘ist’ means a ‘person who’, as in ‘artist’, this assists in our interpretation of ‘physicist’ or ‘antagonist’.

This type of morphological knowledge is particularly useful in spelling. The classic example is the representation of past tense using the suffix ‘ed’. When spoken, this morpheme can be pronounced as /ed/ (painted), /d/ (sawed), /t/ (barked). However, a speller with a good understanding of this knowledge can easily determine whether a word ends with ‘ed’, ‘t’ or ‘d’ just by establishing whether the word being spelled is the past tense of a verb or if the /d/ or /t/ sound is a part of the word.

There is growing evidence that skilled adult readers are sensitive to morphological structure when recognising and comprehending the printed word. For example, how quickly morphologically complex words are recognised depends on how frequently the stem occurs (so ‘darkness’ with the stem of ‘dark’ would be recognised more quickly than say ‘recede’ with the stem of ‘cede’) and the size of the word’s morphological family (i.e., the number of words that can be constructed from the stem). Similarly, a word is recognised more quickly if the reader is presented with the stem prior to the whole word (i.e., the reader is shown the word ‘dark’ before being shown the word ‘darkness’). This is true whether the primed word have a genuine morphological relationship to the target word (e.g., dark-darkness) or a pseudo relationship (e.g., corn-corner), but not when there is no possibility of a morphological relationship (e.g., broth-brothel, ‘el’ is never used as a suffix).
The available data suggests that morphological analysis of printed words may be associated with processing in the ventral reading pathway. Beginning readers are more likely to rely on the dorsal pathway (spelling-to-sound-to-meaning), while skilled readers are more likely to use the direct ventral reading pathway (spelling-to-meaning).

There is evidence that young children already possess explicit morphological knowledge. This has been measured in oral tasks. For example: ‘Teach’. He was a very good …..). There are also studies showing that within the first few years of reading instruction, children have some level of morphological knowledge of printed words, although the effect is more pronounced in older adolescents.

Rastle contends that morphology provides a bridge between the form or structure of a word and its meaning and therefore the explicit instruction in morphology is beneficial at some point in the learning to read process. However, there is currently insufficient research to suggest that morphology instruction should take the place of systematic phonic instruction in the first stages of learning to read, but rather perhaps should be an integral part of the teaching of reading process.

For information on incorporating morthology into reading instruction go to the General Knowledge page or for practice activities go to the Editing page.

Rastle, K. (2018). The place of morphology in learning to read in English. Science Direct,

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