Morphology is concerned with word formation. The unique words in these pictures illustrate the morphological process. How were whole words and/or word parts combined to convey meaning? 

(Watch this marvelous little video on word formation or visit Popular Linguistics Online where Corrine McCarthy (George Mason University) neatly summarizes how words are formed through morphological processes.)

To generate words, we put whole words and word parts together in new configurations, new concatenations. Neologisms are coined daily; the English language is growing fast (read more). McFedries at tracks neologisms that have been published in print, including post-Potter and spillionaire. With apparent ease and enjoyment humans create words in living languages, including sign language. This ability manifests itself at an early age: When making rock candy, my friend's daughter asked, "Daddy, is the candy rockening yet?"

Morphology refers to the mental system involved in word formation or to the branch of linguistics that deals with words, their internal structure, and how they are formed" (Aronoff & Fudeman, 2005, p. 2). A morpheme is an indivisible unit of meaning--a prefix, suffix, root, or base. English contains words with morphemes seamlessly joined together, as in dis- + taste + -ful or sym- + phon + -ic. However, many words do not fit into this structure--and that's worth teaching, too. The English language is  flexible, tolerant, expansive. The Greek root morph denotes 'structure, form' and a morphologist is interested in how all words are formed and understood, including words with variant, irregular morphemes (teach-taught, child-children), acronyms like NASA and initialisms (abbreviations) like UFO. Morphological processes are also involved when we create compound words like sunshine and son-in-law, and when we smash words together into linguistic blends (aka portmanteau words) like Texarkana, skort, smog, FedEx and zootique, the gift shop at the zoo in Central Park.
We eventually become comfortable with a range of morphological word types, including base words (e.g., lunch), inflections (lunches), compounds (lunchbox, lunch table), derivations (luncheonette) and blends (brunch). Because we look inside words for recognizable chunks, because we are aware of and even knowledgeable about prefixes, suffixes, bases and roots, we can grasp morphologically complex derivations, including Lunchables (eek!), epigrammatic and exothermic reaction. The ability to make sense of these words appears to be due in large part to the construct we call MA or morphological awareness (Carlisle, 2003; Kuo & Anderson, 2006). 

Morphological awareness has been defined as, “The ability to reflect upon and manipulate morphemes and employ word formation rules in one’s language” (Kuo & Anderson, 2006, p. 161). It is conceptualized as one aspect of word consciousness (Graves, 2006), one aspect of metalinguistic awareness (Nagy, 2007) and thought to involve metacognition (McBride-Chang et al., 2005; Nagy, 2007). It is also thought that, in the mental lexicon, morphologically related words like sweet, sweeten, sweetener, sweetly, sweetness coactivate, priming each other, nudging each other if you will. Thus, in general, we recognize words faster and more accurately if they are reinforced by a large morphological family and/or if they are high-frequency words (Baayen, 2007; Carlisle & Katz, 2006; Dorfman, 1998; Nagy et al., 1989).

(we LIKE wordplay)
In kindergarten we read many simple words that have only one morpheme, as in yellow and song but by fourth grade we must come to grips with complex words like biological and unpredictability. We analyze the word's constituent parts and compare it to a word we already know. We seek similarity in form and meaning by looking within and across words. Thus, it seems that MA develops over time, contributing more to word knowledge as students are increasingly exposed to morphologically complex derivations, but here's the catch: With limited MA, vocabulary growth is significantly hindered (Anglin, 1993; Carlisle, 2000, 2003; McBride-Chang, Wagner, Muse, Chow, & Shu, 2005; Nagy, 2007). 

Implications for teaching and learning: 

If we are not looking inside words to find chunks of meaning then we need to be taught how to do so. Eventually, with instruction, we should be able to offer up a hypothesis for the structure and meaning of each word pictured on this page. More than that, we should be able to coin words more complex than any pictured here. Begin in primary grades with a simple morphological family like dodging, dodged, dodge, dodge ball, dodger. I suggest that by second grade, children need to understand how compound words convey meaning and in order to read fourth grade texts they must have a sense of more complex words containing prefixes and suffixes surrounding a root or base, as described by Marcia Henry. Instruction should be more effective if lessons coordinate context, semantics, morphology, orthography and phonology because that appears to be what the mind does to make sense of written language (Nagy, Berninger, Abbott, Vaughan, & Vermeulen, 2003). The mind also considers syntax, including the morphosyntactic properties of words (e.g., words that end with the suffix -ness tend to be abstract nouns--concepts, feelings, ideas--as in happiness, sadness, peacefulness, thankfulness). In fact, Maryanne Wolf (2007) uses the acronym POSSM to convey the five language components we must coordinate when teaching words. POSSM stands for phonology/phonics, orthography, semantics, syntax, morphology. For more information on syntax and morphology, see Suffixes. Also, if teaching English-language learners, see Carolyn Eddy's post on how we can help Spanish-dominant speakers learn the syntactic properties of English words. 

The study of morphology is for everyone. All students, including those with reading disabilities, can gain from such integrated instruction. The motivational and cognitive benefits for at-risk readers are outlined by Alexis Filippini. This applies to young children as well as adolescents (see sorting ideas and a children's book for learning the suffix -ish as in reddish, and see post by Pete Bowers). Learning a bit about morphology has been found to benefit adults, too: Professor Tom Bellomo has shown that teaching morphology to ELLs in college English promoted vocabulary growth for students of Spanish and also, to less extent, of Asian language background..

Because the development of a large vocabulary appears to rely on the development of morphological awareness, this topic is frequently broached in this blog. However, it should be noted that morphological awareness also facilitates spelling (encoding), reading (decoding) and comprehension, as mentioned in Metalingiustic Awareness, Comprehension, and the Common Core State Standards. Reasoning morphologically is cognitively engaging, as discussed by Shane Templeton in More Than the Sum of their Parts.

Limitations: Morphemic analysis helps us understand a great many words but indivisible morphological elements such as affixes and roots cannot account for all the words and phrases in one's mental lexicon (Aronoff & Fudeman, 2005). Many words appear to be swallowed whole, including base words like stem, umbrella and violin and derivations like happy - hapless - haphazard. The number of blended words has increased significantly, even explosively, in the last century, as many of the advertisements on this page illustrate, and English continues to adopt loan words from other languages. Therefore, we must also master the strategy of analogy, learn how to use context clues and become familiar with the dictionary. For example, by examining the context for baby-lag in the Word Spy clip below, and by drawing an analogy to something with a similar word structure that we already know -- jet lag -- we can infer the meaning of baby-lag. However, simply knowing the meaning of baby and the meaning of lag will not help us very much. Morphological processing works best with context.


A  related limitation is that morphemic analysis does not apply equally to every word. Words that belong to a large family are more readily accessed than, for example, squirrel, sabotage and smuggle. We want to learn the more generative base words, roots, and affixes. For example, if we know the word stable we should be able to use morphological problem-solving and context clues to decipher unstable, stability, instability, stabilize, stabilization—possibly even establish, establishment and—you guessed it—antidisestablishmentarianism

--Aronoff, M., & Fudeman, K. (2005). What is morphology? Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
--Anglin, J. M. (1993). Vocabulary development: A morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58(10)[238], v-165.
--Baayen, R.H. (2007). Storage and computation in the mental lexicon. In G. Jarema and G. Libben (Eds.), The Mental Lexicon: Core Perspectives, Elsevier, 81-104.
--Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & S. H. Deacon. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80.
--Carlisle, J. F. (2003). Morphology matters in learning to read: A commentary. Reading Psychology, 24(3), 291-322.
--Carlisle, J.F., & Katz, L. (2006). Effects of word and morpheme familiarity on reading of derived words. Reading and Writing, 19(7), 669-693.
--Dorfman, J. (1998). Further evidence for sublexical components in implicit memory for novel words. Memory and Cognition, 26(6), 1157-1172.
--Graves, M.F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
--Kuo, L-J., & Anderson, R. C. (2006). Morphological awareness and learning to read: A cross-language perspective. Educational Psychologist, 41-3, 161-180.
--McBride-Chang, C., Wagner, R.K., Muse, A., Chow, B.W., & Shu, H. (2005). The role of morphological awareness in children's vocabulary acquisition in English. Applied Psycholinguistics, 26, 415-435.
--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.
--Nagy, W.E., Anderson, R., Schommer, M., Scott, J.A. and Stallman, A. (1989) Morphological families in the internal lexicon. Reading Research Quarterly 24, 3: 263-282.
--Nagy, W.E., Berninger, V., Abbott, R., Vaughan, K., & Vermeulen, K. (2003). Relationship of morphology and other language skills to literacy skills in at-risk second grade readers and at-risk fourth grade writers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 730-742.
--Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper.