Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Open the Floodgates with Morphosyntactic Awareness

Action! Language is wrapped around action. A single word -- a verb -- can stand alone as a complete sentence: "Go!"  

In what ways does vocabulary knowledge depend on understanding the basic functions of verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs? How does morphological knowledge intersect with knowledge of syntax, grammatical function, or word class? How does vocabulary knowledge, morphological knowledge, and syntactic knowledge support reading comprehension?

In an earlier post I discussed the morphophonemic characteristics of English words, applied to learning to read (see Thunder & Lightning). Today, I discuss another important aspect of literacy: the morphosyntactic nature of English words. Morphosyntactic knowledge has to do with morphology (word formation) and syntax. English words are morphosyntactic because their morphemes -bases, roots, affixes- convey meaning (that's the morph part) while the suffixes in particular convey grammatical information (the syntax part). The final suffix in a word usually conveys whether the word is classified as noun, verb, adjective, or adverb.  For a well-known example, most words ending in the suffix -ly are adverbs, as in quietly, sweetly, loudly...but that is only the beginning. Let's really open wide those metalinguistic floodgates, with the goal of improved comprehension. ­čĺŽ

Latin roots or bases are often verbs. The root COGN denotes the verb 'to know' as in recognize, cognition, incognito, etc.  RUPT conveys 'to burst or break' in words like rupture, eruption, interrupt, corrupt. Likewise, CRED denotes 'to trust, believe' as in credibility, credit, incredulous, etc. 

Psst...The root CRED and its morphological derivatives illustrate the cover of the upcoming 3rd edition of Vocabulary Through Morphemes (Ebbers, in press with  Silvereye Learning Resources, who also holds limited copies of the 2nd edition). 

NOUNS - especially abstract nouns:
When we affix the derivational suffix –ion to the end of a root or word, it generally becomes a noun, as seen when the verb act becomes the noun action. Words that end with the suffix –ion are often abstract nouns; they represent ideas, concepts, feelings, or a process. They are not usually concrete concepts, not easy to see or touch or illustrate. Examples: The root TRACT means ‘to pull’ and it becomes an abstract noun with the suffix -ion: traction, detraction, contraction (an exception is tractor, a concrete noun). Similarly, the root FRACT means ‘to break’ as in the abstract nouns fraction, infraction, refraction. 

Morphological awareness (MA) helps us understand this transformation, at least at an intuitive level, if not with metalinguistic clarity. As we grow in MA, we begin to somewhat subconsciously realize that the invented word *taction would probably be a noun, something to do with the state or quality of showing tact, especially if we had some context to help: An effective diplomat must demonstrate *taction and discretion. 

On the other hand, if MA is not advancing, we may not grasp the noun-forming function of the suffix –ion. This is problematic for vocabulary development and for comprehension. Limited understanding of derivational-suffix morphology is evident in poor readers and writers as described in recent reviews of the literature (Levesque & Deacon; 2022; Liu, Groen, & Cain, 2024). Understanding the role of the suffix is key to understanding language. This becomes even more essential when reading informational texts, because derivational suffixes are ubiquitous to academic words. 

There are more than a dozen derivational suffixes and they all provide information about the word class, helping us decipher the syntactic property of the word. For example, words that end with –ize / -ise tend to be verbs, as in verbalize, fantasize, and exercise. Words that end with –ism tend to be abstract nouns, as in feudalism, pacifism, and capitalism. Words that end with –ive tend to be adjectives, as in creative, expansive, assertive, imaginative... 

The morphophonemic aspects of English words help us learn to read and spell, as discussed in Edview360. However,  morphosyntactic aspects help us understand the word and connect it with other concepts into meaningful sentences and passages. This is where the rubber hits the road for advancing beyond simple into complex texts (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018).

Helping  students develop morphological awareness, including morphosyntactic awareness, is an important aspect of literacy, as discussed quite a bit more thoroughly in the three papers referenced below. 

Check back again next month! Stay tuned for some thoughts on helping students develop word consciousness or word sensitivity,  drawn from correspondence with the ever-curious Andy Biemiller.



Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51. 

Levesque, K., & Deacon, S. (2022). Clarifying links to literacy: How does morphological awareness support children’s word reading development? Applied Psycholinguistics, 43(3), 921–943. 

Liu, Y., Groen, M. A., & Cain, K. (2024). The association between morphological awareness and reading comprehension in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Educational Research Review.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Teaching Reading with Thunder and Lightning

English words are morphophonemic.  

morph + phon 

Let's break that down quickly. 

Phon: Phonemes are discrete sounds within a word such as /k/  /a/  /ch/ in catch.  When learning to read, children study phoneme-grapheme correspondence --the sound associated with a particular letter(s), such as in "a is for apple" as the old saying goes.

Morph: Morphemes are the smallest units of semantic or grammatical information in a language-- prefixes, suffixes, roots, and bases—the smallest meaning-bearing elements, the building blocks of vocabulary. Morphology is the study of word structure or word formation with morphemes -- prefixes, bases or roots, suffixes. Morphological awareness (MA) refers to “the ability to consciously consider and manipulate the smallest units of meaning in spoken and written language, including base words and affixes” (Apel, 2017). 

Some weeks ago in EdView360 I discussed the morphophonemic nature of English words and provided some implications for teaching children to read.  English -- like virtually every language to greater or lesser extent-- is based on morphophonemic word structure.  

If phonemes are thunder, then morphemes are lightning, and they both exist in English words. They both provide vital information to a child learning to read, or a fluent reader striving to comprehend a complex text.  Phoneme-grapheme correspondences are to be clearly taught so these associations are instantaneous and resound in the mind like thunder.  In keeping with this metaphor, morphemes are like lightning in that most of them are more visual, being larger chunkier units. These chunks must also be taught. In written words, morphemes can be colorful, placed in bold format, circled, highlighted, etc. 

mis spell ing     

un fashion able    

pre dict ion s

Morphology is a universal language component, a key aspect of the various human languages, along with phonology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. The English spelling system is morphophonemic, representing linguistic information about how to pronounce a word (phonemic) and how to determine its meaning and usage (morphemic).  When learning to read beyond the basic beginner stages, children will benefit from both phonics and morphology.

Many teachers capitalize on the morphophonemic nature of the English spelling system in literacy instruction, providing lessons in phonics/ phonemic awareness as well as in morphological awareness. Students who learn both phonics and morphology will hopefully be more likely to quickly access words via two routes: morphological make-up and phonological make-up (Levesque, Breadmore, & Deacon, 2021; Levesque & Deacon, 2022). Not only that, morphological knowledge is strongly associated with reading comprehension (Liu, Groen, & Cain, 2024).

In the Word Families activity below,  children reinforce what they have learned about specific phonetic and morphological units. They have been taught the phoneme-grapheme correspondence for ow (as in now) and ou (as in shout) and then they expand that knowledge further, into morphological word families with ou/ow patterns. In this image the learner has begun to color or highlight words that contain the same base with the same color. (Supercharged Readers curriculum, Voyager Sopris).

When the child has learned enough of the phonics code, while still in primary grades, begin to layer in lessons in word structure. This includes lessons in compound word structure as well as affixation. Teach children about suffixes and prefixes, beginning with the most common affixes. Help children begin to conceptualize words as part of a morphological family of related words, such as sun, sunning, sunned, suns, sunshine, sunny, sunniest, sunnier, sunshade, sunblock, etc.

Make the most of the morphophonemic attributes of the English language.


Apel, K. (2017). Morphological Awareness Development and Assessment: What Do We Know? Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 43(2), 29–34. 

Levesque, K. C., Breadmore, H. L. , & Deacon, S. H. (2021).  How morphology impacts reading and spelling: Advancing the role of morphology in models of literacy development. Journal of Research in Reading, 44(1),10–26. 

Levesque, K., & Deacon, S. (2022). Clarifying links to literacy: How does morphological awareness support children’s word reading development? Applied Psycholinguistics, 43(3), 921–943. 

Liu, Y., Groen, M. A., & Cain, K. (2024). The association between morphological awareness and reading comprehension in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Educational Research Review.