Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Morph in Morphology: How Form Facilitates Meaning (Bellomo)

Dr. Tom Bellomo teaches Applied Linguistics to a graduate cohort of reading educators at Stetson University; additionally, he teaches developmental reading and writing at Daytona State College. Morphological analysis is an integral part of the reading program for his college preparatory students, and he has developed a streamlined, informal curriculum to communicate essentials requisite for practical usage. He previously taught English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to non-native speakers of English, and obtained positive (quantified) results using morphological analysis among the adult L2 population (Bellomo, 2009b). Contact:

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in language. English morphemes include prefixes, suffixes, roots and monomorphemic base words. In the word pianist, which is clearly derived from piano, the suffix –ist carries intrinsic meaning as it conveys the idea of ‘a specialist or player of the piano.’ Morphological analysis (MA) in vocabulary acquisition capitalizes on morpheme knowledge to derive the overall meaning of words, particularly among those that are Graeco/Latin (classical) in origin, which are often morphologically complex in nature. As a vocabulary acquisition strategy, MA can assist in unlocking the meaning of newly encountered words, especially when aided by context (White, Power, & White 1989); also, it can serve as a mnemonic when learning families of words built around the same word parts.

In reading, recognizing these meaning units is facilitated by the visual clues afforded by the morpheme. In fact, the root morph literally means form. Venezky (1967) said it well, “Orthography is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but, instead, a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles” (p. 77). The following illustration will demonstrate how the visual form of a particular morpheme can better assist word recognition than the morpheme’s phonological composition. Were the English writing system to reflect a purely phonetic sound/symbol relationship, the words induce, reduction, and educate might be written respectively as [ĭn dōōs’], [rē duk’ shun], and [ĕj’ yōō kāt]. However, the root duc, which means ‘to lead,’ would not be apparent either aurally or orthographically since it is spoken, and consequently would be written, as dōōs, duk, and jyōōk. Moreover, in the word educate the morpheme jyōōk would be spread among three separate syllables. Yet a visual clue demonstrating a semantic connection among the words is evident due to the stable form of the morpheme duc—regardless of its pronunciation.

When children learn to read, they are taught to decode the grapheme-phoneme correspondence of print. Phoneme by phoneme a word gets encoded until aurally it is recognized—providing that the word has been heard and is known by the readers. However, if a reader had never heard a particular word before, or heard it but did not know the meaning of it, being able to pronounce the word would seldom assist in understanding its meaning. In contrast, readers seeing a new word may recognize one or more parts within it—either from other words with the same morpheme(s) or from direct instruction in roots and affixes—and infer meaning from this newly encountered word. Since stress patterns through affixation often change a morpheme’s pronunciation (note duc in reduce and reduction), visual assistance will often be more reliable than aural assistance. As the reader proceeds through the grades, the reading material becomes less contrived and words become increasingly morphologically complex. Hence, the ability to recognize morphemes and derive meaning from polysyllabic words will become increasingly invaluable as readers progress through the grades (Carlisle, 2003).

Word Frequency
Studies in word frequency demonstrated that higher frequency words are recognized more easily than words of lower frequency (Nation, 2001). However, recognition does not necessarily translate into comprehension. An early study by Howards (1964) directly challenged the long-held assumption that frequently occurring words were automatically easy words. For example, in my own perusal of the word run (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1983), there were 83 separate entries for this item. Though one may know the word’s primary meaning (the action verb), it is evident that the subtle nuances of this word complicate its full comprehension. Frequency tabulations seldom factor in a semantic count; that is, a word’s frequency is tabulated irrespective of its variant meanings. Howards, therefore, disparaged reliance upon word lists and readability formulas for use in evaluating reading material, noting that frequency of occurrence does not guarantee word comprehension for the reader.

It may be more efficacious to teach longer words and words from the sciences than it is to teach little “easy” words, since polysyllabic words can be attacked with word structure skills, and since such words are typically one-meaning words. Rarely does one find a scientific word or even a polysyllabic word which has more than one meaning attached to it, whereas we have seen that the so-called “easy” words, monosyllabic words, normally have dozens of meanings attached to them. (p. 381)

In contrasting their composition, high frequency words are predominately Germanic in origin, monosyllabic, and polysemous (having multiple meanings). Low frequency words, however, are predominately classical in origin, polysyllabic, and singular in meaning. Just and Carpenter (1987) remarked:

It is interesting to note that [the] unpredictability of a derived word’s meaning from its structural constituents is much more common among frequent words than among infrequent words (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). Thus, a reader’s structural analysis of a new word he encounters is more likely to be correct if the word is an infrequent one. This is fortunate, because it is precisely an infrequent word that a fluent reader is likely not to know. (p.125)

Morphological analysis is viable as both a vocabulary acquisition strategy to retain the meaning of directly instructed words and as a tool to unlock the meaning of newly encounter words (word attack strategy). However, instruction will be profitable to the extent that the inclusion of critical criteria sets the foundation of any such program (Bellomo, 2009a). Briefly, these criteria comprise the following…

Stable form:
a) Teach morphemes that are visually identical in each of the target words. (Note how the morpheme dict remains unchanged in the following words: benediction, dictate, malediction, predict.)

b) Introduce the specific word part as it is spelled in English, not its classical origin. (The morpheme malus is normally seen as mal; often these three letters alone are retained across a broad spectrum of words: malefactor, malignant, malfeasance, malcontent.)

Semantic Transparency:
Words taught should exhibit a clear parts-to-whole relationship, i.e., the morpheme’s meaning is to be evident and offer a semantic clue in each of the target words. (The meaning of ject is ‘to throw.’ That sense is conveyed in each of the following words: eject, reject, interject, projectile, trajectory.)

Morphemes taught are to be found in a minimum of five words from the same family, not mere derivations that change only the part of speech, as from produce (verb) to productive (adjective). Consider duc: abduct, aqueduct, deduction, ductile, induce, seduce, etc. (Note: there are reasons for the variations duce/duct, yet for pragmatic purposes helpful to the college preparatory student, teaching and recognizing the first three letters of this morpheme would suffice.)

Eventually, the most adept reader will learn to recognize words that contain the meaningful morpheme despite shifts in phonology and/or orthography, but initial forays into morphology might follow the critical criteria described above. To read more about these nontransparent shifting patterns, click here.


Bellomo, T. S. (2009a, April). Morphological analysis and vocabulary acquisition: Critical criteria. Reading Matrix, 9(1), 44-56. (pdf available online, here)

Bellomo, T. S. (2009b, December). Morphological analysis as a vocabulary strategy for L1 and L2 college preparatory students. TESL-EJ 13(3), 27pp. (pdf available online, here)

Carlisle, J. F. (2003). Morphology matters in learning to read: A commentary. Reading Psychology, 24, 291-322.

Howards, M. (1964). How easy are ‘easy’ words? Journal of Experimental Education, 32(4), 377-382.

Just, M. A., & Carpenter, P. A. (1987). The psychology of reading language comprehension. Newton, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Nagy, W. E., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19(3), 304-330.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: University Press.

Venezky, R. L. (1967, Spring). English orthography: Its graphical structure and its relation to sound. Reading Research Quarterly, 2(3), 75-105.

White, T. G., Power, M. A., & White, S. (1989). Morphological analysis: Implications for teaching and understanding vocabulary growth. Reading Research Quarterly, 24(3), 283-304.


  1. Thanks to Tom Bellomo for this post and Susan for providing the forum for it to be posted! I'm always pleased to see instruction which targets learning how to identify the meaning cues marked by the consistent spelling of morphemes within complex words despite pronunciation shifts. The quote from Venezky is one of my favourites! He effectively points to the order of English spelling when the interrelation of morphology and phonology is accepted as a foundational principle of how spelling works. I'm still amazed by the fact that linguists like Venezky made this point at least as early as 1967 but morphology has only fairly recently become an important topic in research on literacy learning and instruction!

    Since Dr. Bollemo focuses on the recognition of the consistent spelling of morphemes across derivations, I thought I'd add a comment on the usefulness of the linguistic tool of the orthographic word sum for developing learners' ability to recognize written morphemes within complex words. The word sum can be used right from Grade 1 to help children build their awareness of how the spelling of morphemes marks meaningful connections across words. Teachers can use word sums in fun activities to help children see how the spelling of bases, prefixes and suffixes build words and show links between related words. Consider how the following word sums help show the link between these words built on the base with the spelling 'heal' even when the pronunciation of that base changes. (Note the double dash should be an arrow.)

    heal + ing -- healing
    heal + ed -- healed
    heal + th -- health
    heal + th + y -- healthy
    un + heal + th + y -- unhealthy

    Word sums also help learners understand the morphological connections between related words even when suffixing conventions lead to spelling changes where a suffix is added to a base or stem. For example:

    hop(p) + ing -- hopping
    hope/ + ing -- hoping
    try/i + tries -- tries

    Dr. Bollemo rightly points out that there are reasons for the variation of duct/duce in the set of words he presents with this base. With the word sum, it becomes much easier to use the set of words he provides to learn about this special kind of base called a 'twin base'.

    If you are interested, you can watch a video of a Grade 5/6 class being introduced (intro + duce/ + ed) to this concept with the help of word sums and a word matrix. One reason I could not resist pointing to this video is that this lesson just happened to use exactly this twin base duct/duce to introduce this concept!

    Below is the link to part 1 of this lesson. If you are interested, you will have no difficulty finding part 2.

    Thanks again!

  2. Good morning, Pete. I agree with you; the word sum is a useful tool for deconstructing morphologically complex words. I think it could help with transfer of learning, too: In primary grades, students learn to write a number in expanded notation in math class and, similarly, with the word sum operation, they learn to write a complex word in a form of expanded notation. Thus, perhaps we are teaching students a way of thinking about complex ideas that could also transfer to a number of other topics, such as sentence analysis, paragraph analysis, discourse analysis, historical analysis, complex problem solving, etc.

    Thanks, Tom, for the interesting post.

  3. Tom Bellomo11/02/2010

    Thanks, Pete, for your explication regarding "word sums" and for the link you furnished. I copied the link address and pasted it in an email to my grad cohort; many of them teach in the k - 6 environment. Timely response, thank you!


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