Sunday, July 7, 2013

Mindful Zen of Morphology, revisited

We strolled the San Francisco wharf, stopping at the National Historic Park Maritime Museum and checking out the ships on the Hyde Street Pier. Near Aquatic Park we approached this refreshingly pungent tree.

Click the tree image. It will grow.


According to the Common Core State Standards, children in kindergarten and first grade must learn how common inflectional suffixes like -s, -ed, -ing, -er and -est create various forms of the same word, as with grow, grows, growing, and big, bigger, biggest.

But inflections are only the beginning. The inflectional suffix -er in greener and brighter is not the same as the derivational suffix -er in painter and preacher. (See The Slippery Suffix -er.)

By third grade, students need to be working with derived words, particularly those countless English words formed by adding a derivational suffix. (Read about suffixes.)


Finding a semantic overlap  between tree and treelet is a matter of morphological problem solving (Anglin, 1993). This involves knowledge of prefixes and suffixes, and a readiness to seek similarities in form and meaning across words. It also involves analogy: "I know what  a piglet is, so I can guess what a treelet is." The ability to problem solve via analogies or morphemes is facilitated by knowledge of similar words: booklet, owlet, piglet, eaglet, and applet, a small computer application.

Eventually, if students are shown how to explore morphological connections and taught common prefixes and suffixes, they become more apt to seek that satisfying "ah-ha" moment, when word meanings click into place. It's often quite rewarding, like the snap of a puzzle piece. This moment is more likely to happen when students are reading, rather than listening.


Photographed at San Francisco National Maritime Museum
Along our walk we visited this fabulous -- and free -- museum. Of course, I began to wonder about these two words, given their close proximity on the display. My first thought was that the root brig might mean "ship"...

...but in addition to brig and brigantine, we have brigadier and brigade. Are they all part of the same family of words? (So then I thought the root meant either "ship" or 'to fight').

Asking the question is important. Coming up with an answer is secondary to asking the question. Are students asking the question? Are teachers modeling this habit of thought?


In kindergarten, analyze words like big, bigger, and biggest (inflections).
Also analyze tip, tipping, and tipped (inflections).

By first grade, birdhouse, doghouse, and -- not quite the same pattern -- tree house (These are compound words, but notice a tree does not live in a tree house, unlike the birdhouse and doghouse examples. Also, a tree house is an open compound, rather than closed.)

Explore how meanings change in words derived from a known base: pig-piglet, owl-owlet, and tree-treelet.

Into middle school and beyond, address more complex derivations: brig, brigantine, brigand, brigadier, brigandage, etc. The word brig is perhaps a clip, a shortened form of brigantine. However, brig has developed a unique meaning over the years. By the way, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, the root does mean "to fight" (Middle English via Italian).

According to seminal research by Jeremy Anglin (1993), inferring word meaning via morphological reasoning predicts vocabulary growth. Anglin tested children in grades 1, 3, and 5, finding a sharp increase in word knowledge between grades 3 and 5. He suggested that this steep increase is largely due to increased awareness of the process of suffixation, in particular, the process of creating new words by adding derivational suffixes. Those students who were more skilled in this type of "morphological problem solving" performed comparatively better on the vocabulary test.

While root words (words that have no prefix or suffix attached, like shoe, rope, tree) accounted for the most words known by the average first grade student, derived words accounted for the most words known by a typical fifth grader.

The chart is from Anglin's monograph. His test included treelet, among other words. I added some color and the other forms of tree as examples only, providing an instance of each of the five types of words he included in the test: root words, inflected words, derived words, literal compounds, idioms.

In the years since Anglin's monograph, the relationship between linguistic insight and literacy has become a fairly hot topic in research circles. Not surprisingly, Berninger et al. (2010) found a similar linear relationship between vocabulary knowledge and morphological insight, in large part confirming Anglin's findings.

Promising research by Bauman et al. (2007) suggests that vocabulary increases as a result of a combined instructional focus that includes four components: 1) creating a language-rich learning environment, 2) providing explicit word instruction, 3) teaching word-learning strategies (including inferring meaning via morphological problem solving), and 4) fostering word consciousness. This line of inquiry is based on theories advanced by Graves (2006).  See the MCVIP post, where a large team of researchers describe even newer findings.

The more our vocabulary grows, the more we are able to make connections when practicing The Mindful Zen of Morphology. The more we make connections, the more our vocabulary grows.


Anglin, J.M. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58(10), v-165. 

Baumann, J.F., Ware, D., & Edwards, E.C. (2007). “Bumping into spicy, tasty words that catch your tongue:” A formative experiment on vocabulary instruction. The Reading Teacher, 61(2), 108-122.

Berninger, V. W., Abbott, R. D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010). Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39(2), 141-163.

Graves, M. F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
Nagy, W.E. (2007). Metalinguistic awareness and the vocabulary-comprehension connection. In R.K. Wagner, A.E Muse, & K.R. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension (pp. 52-77). New York: Guilford Press. 

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  1. Kathleen Pope7/22/2013

    This is wonderful, Susan. I loved the original Mindful Zen of Morphology piece. Somehow, the conversational tone is so easy-going and peaceful, but the research is still there. This post gives me the same feeling. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Kathleen! Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Hey Susan,

    I'm always pleased to see the emphasis you place on morphology for vocabulary learning. The topic of what aspects of morphology (e.g. inflections / derivations) to teach at what age has been one of interest to the reading research for some time. Early on, the at the general message from the research was based on an assumption that morphology was something best left to the later grades (e.g., Adams, 1990). But that assumption was not based on research testing the question.

    Since 2009, four meta-analyses of morphological instruction have been conducted. There was no evidence from this work supporting the view that we should wait to teach young or less able readers about morphology. In fact the meta-analyis I was involved in (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010) that was published in Review of Education found that the less able students gained the greatest instructional effect, and that those in Pre-school to Grade 2 gained as much and usually more than the students in Grade 3 and up.

    I don't know of research that carefully investigates the question of teaching of inflections or derivations for the youngest children. The implication from the Common Core that derivations should start to feature by Grade 3 is that derivations should not be addressed much earlier than this grade. It is important for teachers to know that this is an untested assumption.

    Without clear research to guide teachers to know if they should teach about derivations from the beginning, I recommend teachers ask themselves whether the young children they work with show understanding of derivations. I believe that back in 2003 Joanne Carlisle references the Anglin monograph you mentioned when she pointed out that young children made up words like "flyable" which signals derivational knowledge.

    I can say anecdotallly that when I do oral morphological instruction with preschool children, I see no evidence of children struggling with derivational morphology or compounds for that matter. In preschool classes I address morphology orally by talking explicitly about base words, prefixes and suffixes as we use sentences that build on a base word like “play” Children have great fun identifying what we fix to this base when we make sentences with the words like playing, playful, replay and playmate.

    After countless experiences like that with students from the earliest years, I am very happy to recommend that teachers not accept the untested assumption that we should wait until around Grade 3 to start explicitly teaching about the very rich derivational morphology. After all, when children gain experience and understanding of this dimension of morphology, the potential for expanding and deepening vocabulary knowledge really grows.

    For those interested in seeing this kind of instruction in action in the early years, I can do no better than to recommend your readers visit this teacher blog by Lyn Anderson:

    I hope all of that is useful. You know I have a hard time writing a short comment!

    1. Thanks, Peter. Well said. I tend to agree.

  3. A person’s vocabulary is the set of words they are familiar with in a language. A vocabulary usually grows and evolves with age, and serves as a useful and fundamental tool for communication and acquiring knowledge. acts as a building link for the development of the Vocabulary.


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