Morphemes are the smallest unit of meaning in a word and each morpheme provides either semantic (an understanding of meaning) or syntactic (set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences) information. Many English words often consist of multiple morphemes (base or root words, prefixes and suffixes). Base words and prefixes contain semantic information. The base word ‘spell’ means to place a series of letters in a commonly accepted order to represent a particular word. Prefixes are fixed before root and base words. The prefix ‘pre’ means before. ‘Prepaid’ means you paid before receiving the item. Suffixes are fixed to the end of base and root words and often contain syntactic (grammatical) information. The suffix ‘ed’ indicates the word to which it is affixed is being used as a verb and the action occurred in the past (e.g., jumped).
Considering there are around a million words in English (and growing daily), the knowledge of a few morphemes will enable children to decode (read) and encode (spell) hundreds of thousands of words, and there is a growing body of research to support this thesis.
The origin of a word influences its pronunciation and the rules governing the addition of prefixes and suffixes.
Old English: Originates from Germanic and Norse languages.
- Most Old English words are short words and many contain irregular spellings of the vowel sounds (e.g., laugh, jump, eye, skin, friend).
- Expanded by compounding (e.g., flashlight) or affixing (e.g., speller, unfriendly).
- Most Latin-based words contain short vowels (e.g., rupt=to break), a vowel-consonant-vowel pattern (e.g., scribe=to write) or r-controlled vowel pattern (e.g., form=to shape).
- Most cannot be used in isolation but require a prefix or suffix to be added (e.g., dis+rupt=disrupt, rupt+ure=rupture).
Greek-based: Found primarily in science and maths disciplines.
- Greek-based words often contain unique sound-symbol correspondences (e.g., ch=/k/, ph=/f/).
- Generally compounded and not used in isolation (e.g., micro=small + scope=to see = microscope).
Henry (2017) provides a framework for teaching morphemes.
- Teach students to identify base/root words, compound words, prefixes and suffixes.
- Begin by teaching the meaning of common suffixes and prefixes.
- Students practise adding these suffixes and prefixes to words requiring no changes in the base word (e.g., spell+er=speller).
- Teach rules associated with adding suffixes to words which require a change to be made to the base word (e.g., ‘e’ on the end of words goes away when adding suffixes beginning with a vowel, but not a consonant – bride+al=bridal, safe+ty=safety).
- Systematically teach Latin and Greek root words.
- Use graphic organisers to build multiple words from a given root word (see accompanying image).
- Help students analyse words they are learning to read and spell according to their morphemes.
- Make word pairs according to their prefixes (e.g., extrovert vs introvert).
- Match prefixes with their meanings.
- Match suffixes with their parts of speech.
- Find the morphemes in a list of words and determine if they are bound (cannot be used in isolation) or unbound (can be used in isolation).
- Investigate the etymology of words to find how they have changed over time and give understanding to the current spelling or pronunciation.
Online Etymology Dictionary: https://www.etymonline.com/
Word Nerdery: https://wordinquiry.wordpress.com/
The Cracking the ABC Code Multisensory Reading Level 3 and 4 books systematically teach root words, prefixes and suffixes and this information forms a part of the learning to spell process.
Henry, M. (2017). Morphemes matter: A framework for instruction. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 43 (2), 23-26