Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Morphological Approach for English Language Learners (Eddy)

In this entry, Carolyn Eddy offers suggestions for teaching Spanish-speaking students to more quickly grasp English by exploiting cognates and by teaching high frequency academic words that do not share the same root. She draws from research and from her own secondary and post-secondary experiences as a language learner. Carolyn recently completed her undergraduate work in Spanish Language and Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in only three years, including a semester of study in Seville, Spain.

The rapid influx of immigrants into the United States has created a need for more English Language classes, as well as more effective methods of teaching the English language. English proficiency has been shown to be the strongest predictor of academic achievement among immigrant students (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). In order to master new content across the disciplines, students need to become competent users of the language with minimal delay. How can we expedite the learning process?

When I was beginning to learn Spanish, many of my classmates quickly became frustrated with exhaustive vocabulary lists and memorizing conjugation tables. Some soon gave up on learning another language altogether. It was years before we could correctly form complex sentences in Spanish. Given the necessity for expedience in learning English in this country, the traditional methods for teaching foreign language are largely insufficient for ELL programs.

One possible way to facilitate more rapid vocabulary development is by utilizing a morphological approach. Many words can be learned together by teaching words that contain a common morpheme. Since each word contains a common element, students learn the meaning of each morpheme separately. As more and more morphemes are added to students’ repertoire, a student is better able to hypothesize possible words for an unknown idea they want to express. I used some of these tools when I studied abroad in Spain, though in reverse. Even if I did not guess the word exactly, I could usually make myself understood. Here are a few possible vocabulary pairs that illustrate my point; some are cognates that share a Latin root and some are high frequency words that do not share a root: 

Adverbs (The suffix -mente =  -ly)
Recientemente Recently
Naturalmente Naturally
Abiertamente Openly
Inmediatamente Immediately

The Gerund (The suffix -ando/-iendo = -ing)
Practicando Practicing
Moviendo Moving
Viviendo Living
Diciendo Saying

Nouns (The suffix -dad = -ity)
Actividad Activity
Responsabilidad Responsibility
Autoridad Authority
Individualidad Individuality

Nouns (The suffix -ación = -ation)
Vacación Vacation
Conversación Conversation
Educación Education
Población Population

Notice that these word pairs contain English words that are similar to and also different from their Spanish counterparts. The use of cognates allows students to more easily isolate the equivalent morphemes, such as the use of –ing for the English gerund; they can see where the words differ. Using a certain amount of cognates also cuts down on feelings of frustration that many students experience. It underlines the fact that, while English and Spanish are different in many ways, there are also many similarities. On the other hand, the most-common words in Spanish and English are typically very different from one another, so I added those to the lists of word pairs. 

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One thing that troubled me when I was learning Spanish was all of the themed vocabulary lists--as if the first thing one needs to know in a foreign language is the word for every single animal or kitchen appliance. Studies have shown that this strategy of teaching vocabulary through direct memorization is inefficient and ineffectual (Carlo et al., 2004). Furthermore, because Spanish-speakers need to know as much relevant English as possible in very little time, opting to teach high-frequency words first, and then advancing to more and more esoteric vocabulary, just makes more sense. These same studies also underscore the utility of cognate use as well as teaching morphological relationships to expand vocabulary. It is important to note, however, that, like all linguistic “rules,” these morpheme pairs are not all-inclusive. Exceptions do exist.

For the many Spanish-speaking students striving to learn English in America, it is essential to keep the most immediate needs in mind. We must exploit common features across the two languages--the shared Latin roots and affixes. Taking a morphological approach to teaching English not only allows for more generative and more rapid vocabulary growth, but it also allows students to extrapolate meaning from words they have not seen before. 

Carlo, M.S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C.E., Dressler, C., Lippman, D.N., Lively, T.J., & White, C.E (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English-language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 2, pp. 188-215. 

Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M.M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


  1. Thanks for sharing these tips, Carolyn. This type of morphological approach addresses not only vocabulary but also promotes syntactical understanding.

    By the way, this type of approach should also support English speaking students, as was also shown in the study you cited, by Carlo et al. (2004).


  2. Anonymous8/25/2010

    This was very well written and contained exceedingly useful information. I wish I had known that when we went on a mission trip to Mexico and Guatamala. I'm going to print and keep this, since it finally makes understanding the Spanish language a little easier! Now that I see the connection between their endings and ours, I get it! Thanks for giving us this! Blessings, Fran

  3. Yes, this is true. This is very well written. There is a great deal of helpful information. there are alot of Spanish television stations. whenever I need to improve my Spanish, I turn on Telemundo. I watch the Spanish televison shows all day. They can be very addictive. the words are very fun to speak. Spanish is spoken with a lot of emphasis. spanish is spoken form the heart. There are also many Spanish radio stations. They play a variety of Spanish music. Some songs may be well known songs by American singers. Some songs may be Spanish western, that has a great storyline. My favorite are musica are the Spanish Long songs. these songs captivate you and draw you in. Listening to the Spanish televison shows and radio stations helps me to improve my Spanish vocabulary.I love just listening to how Spanish words are pronunciated. Learning sanish is fun. Especially when you can learn by watching televsion and listening to the radio. You can not have better Spanish teachers.
    Myra Biundo

  4. congratulation for you, because your research is centralized on a very interesting aspect that the language teacher, neither the students don't think it over. really, using suffix to teach vocabulary gets easier to the students to understand and form many other new words.

  5. A morphological approach for English language learners is truly excellent way to determine their skills and capacities, as well as to predict their development in advance! Follow this blog post for further details.

  6. Thanks, Myra, Fran, Antonio, and Sarah. Glad to hear from specialists and Spanish-speaking teachers.

  7. Using words that are morphologically similar as a starting point for English language learners. This will allow for immediate feeling of success which will boost moral in vocabulary learning. Great idea!

  8. , parents, education boards and the government. Motivation is often neglected in schools and because it affects achievement, it became an issue to be addressed.
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