Unravelling the Power of Morphological Awareness: Enhancing Word Reading and Comprehension skills

What does morphological awareness involve and what is its contribution to reading and comprehension skills?

Morphology is the study of the structure of words; the component of the grammar which includes the rules of word formation and morphological awareness is one of the subcategories of metalinguistic awareness (Yucel-Koc, 2015).

Morphological awareness plays a major role in literacy acquisition because “English language is a morpho-phonemic language” (Carlisle, 2003, p.292) meaning that words are characterized simultaneously by sounds (phonemes) and meanings (morphemes).

Text by: Panagiota Vampoula

How is a language learnt?

Noticing hypothesis is one of the second language acquisition theories. Noticing is the first step to acquire language forms. Meaning learners` noticing and understanding of morphemes, the stem, the root of each word as well as form-focused instruction induces language learners to pay attention to linguistic forms. In that way, if for example a student can understand the stem ‘product’, they can also understand ‘productive’ (the suffix –ive) because words that share a common base morpheme also share some aspects of meaning. Carlisle and Katz (2006) found that the frequency of derived words, root words, and the size of the word family are important in assisting with word recognition. Therefore, knowing what a morpheme means helps one to understand or guess the meaning of new words. Morphological awareness helps to decode the words, infer their meaning and facilitate both word reading and understanding of words in texts. Consequently, understanding the meaning of a word, reading is facilitated as well as comprehension.

How can we help learners to decode and notice the words to facilitate reading and comprehension?

There are various practical techniques and activities that teachers can employ to assist learners. One helpful activity is the ‘match maker’. Learners are given a word e.g., ‘doubt’ and are asked to derive a new word from it. They can work in pairs or groups and make a list of the prefixes and suffixes they know and experiment with the language trying to find a combination they think is right.

Learners often find the right ‘matches’ or combinations for a word but when they do not, they are given a part of a text which contains a word, e.g., ‘undoubtedly’. In this case, since they did not manage to find the right `combination` on their own, they are asked to become detectives for a while and scan the text for a word that derives from the word ‘doubt’. The first pair that manages to find the word is the winner. Learners should not be provided with the right answer, as their involvement in its discovery is what makes the whole procedure memorable.

Morphological awareness can also help learners with pronunciation and spelling.

Some students may not develop morphological awareness skills as easily as other students but these learners may benefit from explicit teaching. Although morphological awareness is important, it is not explicitly taught in class whereas phonological awareness is now commonly incorporated into classroom activities. Morphological awareness helps learners decode language better and provide a rationale for studying words and as words have different parts this helps students in reading, spelling and learning new lexis. Certainly, when introducing new words to learners, a helpful approach is to start with base words, such as "help," "do," "name," "happy," and "teach," and then introduce affixes like "un-" to create words like "unhappy" and "undo." By teaching students to identify affixes and suffixes, they can extend their vocabulary and word recognition skills.

Additionally, engaging students in word-related games like the "Word Detectives" activity and word investigation can be effective in enhancing their awareness of word structure. A word sort activity, where students categorize words into prefixes, base words, and suffixes, can further boost their understanding. Exposing learners to various prefixes and suffixes and encouraging them to experiment with language helps them discover these linguistic elements on their own. This approach not only improves word recognition and comprehension but also enhances spelling and pronunciation as students become familiar with derivatives and their distinctive spelling and pronunciation patterns.

Relational awareness is the ability to recognize the stem in morphological complex words and understand the relationship between the stem and the suffix (Kuo & Anderson, 2006). For instance, understanding "advertise" allows students to comprehend "advertisement."

But how can morphological knowledge empower sentence comprehension?

Syntactic awareness involves recognizing how derivational suffixes affect a word's part of speech and its function in sentences, enabling teachers to help students construct grammatically and syntactically correct sentences based on word morphology. For example, if a student recognizes the word ‘advertisement’ and ‘advertiser’, which contain the same stem, the suffixes that have been added can determine the part of speech and the way the two words function in a sentence. Therefore, based on the morpheme of a word teachers can aid their learners form sentences which are grammatically and syntactically correct. For instance, learners are provided with a set of words written on cards and are asked to recognize the words based on their morphology and put them in the right order to form a sentence that makes sense (pronouns, articles, verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs) e.g. The children played happily. It is true that more sophisticated skills are required in syntactic morphology than in relational.

Distributional awareness

It is equally important learners to be taught how to form derivatives while becoming aware of the language constraints. Distributional awareness pertains to understanding how affixes are constrained by the syntactic category of the stem. For instance, the suffix "-less" can be added to nouns, as in "senseless," but not to verbs. Teachers can help students develop distributional awareness by exposing them to various examples and constraints, allowing them to experiment with language and recognize the limitations of affix usage.

And how can teachers help their learners with language constraints and their recognition?

In summary, teachers can foster morphological awareness and its various aspects in learners by providing exposure to the English language and encouraging experimentation with language structures. While morphological awareness may not receive as much attention in second language teaching as phonological awareness, its contribution to reading and comprehension skills is significant. Recognizing word structures, stems, and their relationships facilitates word recognition, pronunciation, and comprehension, ultimately enhancing language proficiency.

ELT News

ELT News