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V.2 #3 Recommended Practices - What I Missed in Educating Tim: The Role of Morphology Instruction in

Tim was a student with learning disabilities I had the opportunity to teach during his elementary years and again during his high school years. This unique circumstance allowed me to see the long-term impact of the intervention program employed and to identify an area that I failed to address. I first worked with Tim in my primary special education classroom from second through fifth grades where he received systematic, intensive reading intervention designed to develop his decoding, fluency and comprehension skills. Tim was successful and was reading on grade level by the end of 5th grade. Fast-forward six years to my next encounter with Tim. I was the reading specialist at our high school and he was assigned to my 11th grade caseload for reading support. His records indicated that he was experiencing difficulty with vocabulary and comprehension skills appropriate for his grade level. I was puzzled as to why his vocabulary and comprehension skills were weak and wondered what was missing in his repertoire of skills to cause this level of difficulty.

During our first session, Tim arrived in my resource room with his Social Studies textbook and told me he was having trouble understanding what he had been reading. So we started in with his assignment. Tim read the following sentence with no errors: “The historical context of the events leading to America’s fight for independence was instrumental in rousing the populace of patriotic nationalists.” Tim stopped, looked at me and said, “See what I mean? This stuff is Greek to me!” And he was correct—Greek, along with Latin, and Anglo-Saxon origins, make up over 90% of all English words. While Tim was proficient at decoding words, his reading program had lacked instruction in word attack skills appropriate for handling the complex language of high school expository and narrative texts.

English is a morphophonemic language—meaning that words are represented both as units of sounds (phonemes) and units of meaning (morphemes). It seems to make sense that since both phonological awareness and morphological awareness contributes to the reading of English, that morphology instruction may be a good alternative for students who have failed to develop adequate reading, spelling, and/or vocabulary ability despite good phonological instruction.

Morphology instruction involves the teaching of affixes, root words, and derivational words. Affixes are prefixes and suffixes. Relatively few affixes exist, but they are used in many words. Affixes have relatively constant meanings, consistent spellings, and are easy to define. Knowledge of affixes makes multisyllabic words easy to read and spell and helps identify the meaning of words. To teach prefixes, you can follow the following procedure described by Irwin and Baker (1989).

  1. Explain the meaning of the prefix (e.g., mono).

  2. Have students construct a word family list (e.g., monogram, monologue, monorail).

  3. Invent new words using the prefix.

Another useful strategy for teaching affixes is to present them in semantic webs and matrixes. The affix can either be in hub of the web or in the spokes when a root word is in the hub. Suffixes consist of inflection endings. The most common are: -s, -ed, -ing, -er, -es, and -est that change the number, person, or tense of the base word. Roots are the main part of the word with a specific meaning that is changed by the addition of affixes. Identification of and knowledge in roots are helpful for decoding, spelling and vocabulary.

Lessons for Latin and Greek Roots are especially informative at the middle and secondary level. Latin roots are technical, sophisticated words used primarily in more formal contexts such as literature and textbooks. Latin-based words are always affixed as in disruptive, subscription, predicted, and reflecting. Greek roots are specialized words used mostly in math and science. Unique letter-sound correspondences provide clues to word meanings. Combining forms are compounded as in photograph, chlorophyll, microscope, anthropology, and pterodactyl. Some of the combining forms such as tele and auto act as prefixes. Some of the combining forms such as ology and logue act as suffixes. A procedure for teaching these roots are as follows.

  1. Write a root word on the board or in the middle of a semantic map (e.g., rupt, port, form, tract).

  2. Have students generate as many words they can think of that share this root.

  3. Have students try to figure out the meaning of the root.

  4. Discuss how affixes change the meaning of the root.

Derivational endings modify the root and produce a word that is often a different part of speech (e.g., -ly, -less, -ness, -ship, -fold, -ment) (Henry, 2003). To teach derivatives, provide explicit instruction in prefixes and suffixes and show how they affect meaning. Henry (2003) recommends teaching all derivatives of a word and showing how the syntax changes based on the part of speech (e.g., friend, friendly, befriend). To teach derivational endings as a way to enrich and expand vocabulary and improve spelling and reading, teach a base word and how to form derivatives, then group words into a graphic organizer.

All children can benefit from morphology instruction. Research has shown it is particularly effective for improving reading comprehension (Kieffer & Lesaux, 2007). Many students benefit from advanced word analysis instruction and it was evident that this was something Tim required from our first session together.

Failing to include morphology instruction in Tim’s early intervention plan, hindered his vocabulary development and comprehension. They say hindsight is 20/20, but when it comes to teaching our children to read, there is no time for hindsight, only foresight—and morphology instruction should be considered as part of a comprehensive, systematic and explicit treatment protocol for students who are failing to progress as expected.


Carlisle, J.F. (2000). Awareness of the structure and meaning of morphologically complex words: Impact on reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 12, 169-190.

Henry, M. K. (2003). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding and spelling instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Irwin, J. W., & Baker, I. (1989). Promoting active reading comprehension strategies. Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kieffer, M.J. & Lesaux, N. (2007). Breaking down words to build meaning: Morphology, vocabularly, and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61, 134-145.

Recommended Readings and Websites

Archer, A.L., Gleason, M.M. & Vachon, V. (2000). Reading excellence: Word attack and rate development strategies (REWARDS). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Henry, M.K. (1988). Beyond phonics: Integrated decoding and spelling instruction based on word origin and structure. Annals of Dyslexia, 38, 258-275.

Moats. L.C. (2000). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  • ReadWriteThink is a partnership between the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the Verizon Foundation. Established in 2002, the site provides educators and students with access to the highest quality practices and resources in reading and language arts instruction through free, Internet-based content.

  • Related lesson plans and Related Readings

- Mountain, L. (2002). Flip-a-Chip to build vocabulary. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 46, 62–68.

Flip-a-Chip: Examining Affixes and Roots to Build Vocabulary

- Mountain, L. (2005). ROOTing out meaning: More morphemic analysis for primary pupils. The Reading Teacher, 58, 742–749.

Rooting out Meaning: Morpheme Match-Ups in the Primary Grades

Tuley, A.C. (1998). Never too late to read: Language skills for adolescents with dyslexia. Baltimore: York Press.

Annmarie Urso, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Ella Cline Shear School of Education, Division of Special Education, at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her current research interests include the role of processing speed in the cognitive profiles of poor readers and effective interventions for students identified as treatment resisters in reading. Dr. Urso also studies pre-service teachers as they prepare to teach culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional learners. She is interested in the role of cultural historical activity theory and cultural modeling design as frameworks for course design in pre-service teacher education programs.

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