Sunday, February 28, 2010

Morphemes: Structural Clues for Word Meaning (Henry)

Dr. Marcia Henry contributed the following post. Marcia is known for morphology research and her work with the International Dyslexia Association. Useful publications for teachers of reading and spelling include WORDS and Unlocking Literacy.

Thanks, Susan, for inviting me to participate in Vocabulogic. I’d like to introduce a framework for teaching morphemes that has been useful for me. Morphemes are the smallest unit of meaning in English words. They are the base words in compound words, the prefixes and suffixes, the Latin roots and the Greek combining forms (often called roots).

Click each slide to enlarge. Right click to save to desktop. When I began my doctoral program, I had taught Orton-Gillingham for over 20 years. Yet, I had no idea how etymology and word origin influence the form of polysyllabic words. When I tried to describe my dissertation idea, my mentor and professor at Stanford, Bob Calfee, said, “Don’t tell me, bring me your picture.” Huh? What picture? Well, two years later I had my picture of what I thought teachers should know about the English language for teaching reading to all students, especially those for whom reading acquisition is a problem. Here is the “picture.” 

Teachers need to know how the three major word origins impact letter-sound correspondences, syllable patterns, and morpheme patterns. These patterns become the strategies students can use to decode and spell unfamiliar words. We’ll concentrate on morphemes in this blog as morphemes are valuable for decoding, spelling, fluency, and vocabulary, and therefore, comprehension. Notice the morpheme column in the matrix. You’ll see that Anglo-Saxon base words, those common, short, everyday words both compound and affix (i.e., add prefixes and/or suffixes). Latin based words only affix. We can’t compound two Latin roots, but must add prefixes and/or suffixes to the root word. For example building upon the root struct, we can make struct, construct, reconstruct, reconstruction, reconstructionist and reconstructionists. This can be presented in a matrix, shown below. Greek words, on the other hand, usually compound. We combine psych(o) and logy to form psychology, therm(o) and meter to form thermometer. (Those o’s serve as connectives between the two combining forms.)
Now, how does all this relate to vocabulary? Children who understand word structure often get the meaning of words when they understand the meaning of prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Teachers can purchase or make drill cards with each of the base words and roots. Write the meaning and several examples on the back of each card. I color code the cards, making separate stacks for prefixes, suffixes, Latin roots and Greek combining forms (Henry, 2003, 2010; Henry & Redding, 2002). Students learn the meanings of each affix and root, and read and spell words, phrases, and sentences containing the word parts. Be sure to ask students to look for morphemes in context as they read content area text and literature, and to use the morphemes in their own writing. Discuss nuances of the meanings of words containing the various patterns.

NOTE: Remember that suffixes generally provide a syntactic meaning, not a semantic meaning. Suffixes are great ways to learn parts of speech as children learn that –ion, -ist and –or are noun endings; -ive, -est, and –ible are adjective endings; -ly is an adverb ending, etc.

I use the drill cards to establish automaticity as students see the now familiar word parts in words. This automaticity leads to accurate decoding and spelling, to fluency, and to vocabulary acquisition and comprehension.

Primary grade students can begin adding prefixes and suffixes to short Anglo-Saxon base words and discuss the meaning.  Anglo-Saxon base words both compound and affix. For example, using the base spell we can compound to make spellbound, spellchecker, and spellbind.  We can affix as in spell, misspell, respell, spelled, spelling and speller and of read, reread, preread, misread, reader, and reading. These examples require no special rules when adding suffixes, but eventually students will need to learn when to double the final consonant, drop the final e, and change y to i when adding suffixes (as in mad/madder, skate/skating, and baby/babies).

Students in upper elementary school and the secondary grades will benefit as they learn the meanings of additional affixes and common Latin roots and Greek combining forms. Knowing that spect comes from Latin 'to see, to watch' helps students understand the meaning of respect, inspect, spectator, spectacular, introspective, spectacles and retrospective.  Knowing the Greek combining form graph and gram, meaning 'written or drawn' accesses words such as phonograph, autograph, biography, telegram, phonogram and histogram.

As children learn the various morphemes they will benefit from doing the word sums and matrices presented by Pete Bowers in Vocabulogic. I like to have children generate as many words as they can using a specific base or root before they they design the matrix. For example, in presenting the Latin root, rupt, children may come up with erupt, eruption, disrupt, disruptive, rupture, bankrupt, irrupt, etc. Students can make words sums and then a matrix. They could also create a wordweb, as shown below.
To paraphrase Pete Bowers' response to your questions of 1/04/2010, teachers can use the word sums and matrices with any program they currently find useful in their practice. And, I must say, students love to play with morphemes. They also enjoy generating words and making wordwebs.

Providing multiple opportunities to work with these morphemes in context will have lasting benefit for students. (See Ebbers & Denton, 2008 for the Outside-In Strategy for carrying out morphemic analysis in context.)

I am happy to respond to comments and questions!

  • Ebbers, S.M., & Denton, C.A. (2008). A root awakening: Vocabulary instruction for older students with reading difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(2), 90-102.  
  • Henry, M.K. (2003). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding and spelling instruction. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company. 
  • Henry, M.K. (2010). WORDS: Integrated decoding and spelling instruction based on word origin and word structure (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.  
  • Henry, M.K., & Redding, N.C. (2002). Patterns for success in reading and spelling. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.


  1. Thank you, Marcia. This is useful information. Thought you'd like to know that I received an email from a professor. Her teacher-ed students are using your post to study for the RICA exam (Reading Instruction Competence Assessment).

  2. Brandie Thomas3/06/2010

    Great timing for me! It worked out that our English text just happened to introduce rupt this week so I showed your slide and then we talked about the words. Then the next day we learned the root form, like in formal, unformed, and reformatiin and we made a web like yours and a matrix. Thanks!

  3. Anonymous3/06/2010

    I wish morphology had been in vogue when both I and my children were in school. Whole language was useful but it created a generation of kids who could not spell and now instant messaging and texting is dumbing down our youth which makes the work that you're all doing with morphology invaluable to society. The examples in this post demonstate how logical morphology is and how easy it is to assimalte the wealth of interesting information morphology reveals. Your post was so interesting and helpful. Thank you.

  4. Thanks, Brandie, I'm so pleased you are able to use this in your class. Keep going...students love working in small groups to see who can generate the most words containing a specific root. Try spect, port, and dict next. Be sure to connect meaning to each root and see how the various words relate to the meaning.

  5. Hi, Anonymous - I agree that whole language was great for some students, but many need more explicit & direct instruction. That's where the morphology comes in as it is logical, informative, and enjoyable. It pays a triple dividend as it the word parts are useful in decoding, spelling, and enhancing vocabulary. I find knowing the morphemes also aids fluency and of course comprehension.

  6. As one who has taught your WORDS programs to students from second grade through sixth grade, I speak from experience when I say it is definitely THE SHORTCUT to advanced reading and accurate spelling.

    Organizing decoding instruction according to "the language of origin" and directly teaching the letter-sound correspondences, syllable patterns, and morphemes patterns of each level brings order to the seeming chaos of English spelling and enables students to rapidly and dramatically increased reading achievement.

    Don Potter
    Odessa, TX

  7. Marcia Henry6/02/2010

    Thanks, Don, I know the work that you are doing in Odessa is making a huge impact on reading and spelling ability in Texas. I'm so happy that WORDS is helpful in your work.

  8. Anonymous11/10/2010

    I really enjoyed the workshop that I attended today at UT in Austin

    Linda Dalton

  9. Hi Linda,

    You contributed a good deal to the success of the day. It was a pleasure to meet you.


  10. Marcia - I teach at a school for children with Dyslexia. We use the O-G approach and teach word structure according the methods you outlined. My sixth graders were struggling recently to remember the Latin verb roots, so I created a visual (picture) representation for each one. Suddenly, they could recall the picture that went with each one and it all clicked. My students teach me so much. They are the experts at what works best for them. Just goes to prove, teachers never stop learning either!


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