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Thunder and Lightning: Sound and Meaning in a Morphophonemic Language

Literacy Expert and Author of Power Readers and Supercharged Readers
Updated on
Modified on May 2, 2024
  • Morphophonemic Language

The English spelling system, or orthography, is morphophonemic, representing linguistic information about how to pronounce a word (phonemic) and how to determine its meaning and usage (morphemic). Morphemes are the smallest units of semantic or grammatical information in a language. Morphemes are prefixes, suffixes, roots, and bases—the smallest meaning-bearing elements, the building blocks of vocabulary. Morphology is the study of word structure or word formation with morphemes. Finally, morphological awareness (MA) refers to “the ability to consciously consider and manipulate the smallest units of meaning in spoken and written language, including base words and affixes” (Apel, 2017). English words are morphophonemic. If phonemes are thunder, then morphemes are lightning, and they both exist in English words. 

Many teachers capitalize on the morphophonemic nature of the English spelling system in literacy instruction. Students who learn both phonics and morphology will correctly decode tripod, for example, rather than saying trip-od (obliterating the meaning entirely). These students will recognize the prefix tri- and correctly parse tri-pod at the morphemic juncture. Hopefully, they will know the morpheme tri- means ‘three’ and, with context, gain a sense of the word.

Through phonics, children will learn that fetched has three sounds, or phonemes: /f/ /ĕ/ /ch/. Blending and segmenting sounds in words is key to learning to read and spell. Children will hear one syllable in the word fetched and therefore may want to spell it *fecht, until they learn the tch trigraph and the suffix -ed. When they learn about morphology, including the inflectional suffixes -ed and -ing, they will hopefully recognize two morphemes in fetch-ed.

Eventually—and sooner rather than later—youngsters need to learn the most common morphemes. By adding the suffix -ness to the end of a word, we create an abstract noun. The feeling of joyfulness. The concept of happiness. Keep in mind, ness is a closed syllable, readily decodable, learned early in phonics programs. The spelling of this suffix is always the same, and it is always placed at the very end of a word: -ness in neatness, sweetness, repleteness. The suffix -ness can never be placed in front of another suffix. Peace-ful-ness, not peace-ness-ful.

Prefixes and suffixes are collectively called affixes. The prefix sub- (also a closed syllable) means beneath, below, or less than in submarine, subtraction, subdermal. We affix sub- to the front of the base word human, resulting in subhuman. Understanding what is meant by subhuman relies not only on morphologically parsing the word into sub-human, but also on context and vocabulary nuance. This is veering into comprehension.

Recently, through a systematic review and meta-analysis by Liu, Groen, and Cain (2024), a stable association has been found between reading comprehension and morphological awareness (MA) in students learning to read English as a first language. This is the first systematic review and meta-analysis that addresses this question, and the findings are telling, indicating a large (r =.565) and significant effect for the association between MA and reading comprehension in 13,790 students across the ages of 6–16.

So, once children have learned the basics of phonics and English orthography—once they have begun to read one-syllable words via a systematic, explicit, sequential approach to phoneme-grapheme correspondences (PGCs), we can begin to layer on the affixes, to add the meaning inherent in the morpheme. Do not delay. Do not wait until fourth grade or until fluency is achieved in all syllable types and phonograms. Many morphemes are easily decoded.

Consider the prefixes that mean not or negative for example: un-, non-, dis- (untap, nonfat, disjoin). These prefixes are formed with basic closed-syllable patterns. Likewise with suffixes: When children can decode plant, they can—with lessons in morphology—decode and understand planted, planting, planter, planters—and eventually, the more complex notion of a plantation. This academic word ends in the derivational suffix -ion (sometimes taught in elementary curriculum as -ation, -tion, -sion). Indeed, derivations ending in -ion, such as pro-duct-ion and re-flect-ion, begin to crop up more frequently in mid-elementary grades and must be addressed to help establish advanced decoding skills along with vocabulary and comprehension (Anglin, 1993; Ebbers, 2017).  

Empirical evidence shows MA is essential to literacy, and at a much younger age than once thought (Apel, 2017; Levesque, Breadmore, & Deacon, 2021; Levesque & Deacon, 2022; Liu, Groen, & Cain, 2024). Morphology instruction begins in K–1 with affixes and with compound words like sunshine and shoebox. Lessons in morphology begin in kindergarten and will likely make an even greater difference in second grade and beyond, when school texts contain more derivations, which are morphologically complex (Anglin, 1993).





For children with reading challenges, including dyslexia or any type of obstacle to phonological awareness, visual and hands-on lessons in MA will likely add a great deal to a phonics approach. A growing body of evidence suggests that, with instruction, MA might help compensate for phonological challenges (Brady & Mason, 2024; Georgiou, Vieira, et. al, 2022; Law & Ghesquière, 2021). Morphemic chunks are typically larger and thus more visual than graphemes, as in predict-able and even pre-dict-able. Also, structure is consistent: Prefixes are placed in front of the base, like an engine, and suffixes at the end, like a caboose, making them stand out. Lessons with morphemes can be quite colorful, visual, multisensory, and hands-on. Students can build words with morphemes and bases using Post-it® notes, letter tiles, recycled building blocks and legos, or recycled paper squares. They could color-code and highlight morphemes within words, sort words by morpheme, create word family displays, etc. The ultimate goal is to use morpheme clues and context clues to comprehend passages. 

However, to be clear, and lest we get ahead of ourselves, we first learn to read through a sequential phonics approach. We do so because it works (Foorman, 2023; National Reading Panel, 2000). We do so because those who seek to read and write in English require a map, a code. English is a sprawling language built on numerous etymological layers: Germanic/Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, French, and Other (Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, etc.). We see these various origins reflected in English spelling. For example, the sound /sh/ is spelled sh in ship, but also ch in quiche and /ci/ in spacious. English orthography is complex.

Having said that, English spelling is nonetheless fairly regular, with  phoneme-grapheme alignment in about half the words analyzed for spelling predictability, and about 80 percent after rethinking the vowel. These figures are based on a watershed analysis of more than 17,000 words (Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, & Rudorf, 1966). Their landmark study was more recently revisited (Fry, 2004) and in more advanced computational models (Coltheart et al., 2001). These various types of word analyses provide evidence that English is not a hot mess of irregularities in spelling. Some experts contend only about 4 percent of English words must be learned whole, by memorization—the true irregularities (Joshi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2008). Thus, we do teach phonics well, adding in sight-word recognition, morphology instruction, and a little etymology to make the lexicon more accessible.

We teach phonics but we do not stop at phonics. It is insufficient in the long run and will only achieve so much (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018). Help students “get to know” the word through the lens of phonics/phonology and through the lens of spelling/orthography and gradually through the lens of meaning/morphology and semantics. Bind all this linguistic information into a robust, multidimensional, well-consolidated mental representation of the word, and ground it in context and knowledge about the world (Ehri, 2020; Perfetti & Stafura, 2014).

Finally, encourage children to practice their newly learned linguistic skills with short decodable books aligned to their individual level. The decodables should be assigned only after the student has demonstrated knowledge of the phonetic and/or morphemic unit—linguistic skills gained through explicit instruction. Teach children well, so that when they finally do get to crack open their little beginner book they experience enough success to enjoy it and to develop self-efficacy—that “I can! I will!” feeling. Celebrate effort and growth. Create a love for all kinds of  books: Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Experience the joy of vivid children’s literature together. 

Please join my EDVIEW360 webinar, “Building Reading Skills in Grades 1–4: Strategic Reading Practice,” at 4 p.m. (CT), May 8. I’ll share more, including tips and strategies. You can register here.

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

Apel, K. (2017). Morphological Awareness Development and Assessment: What Do We Know? Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 43(2), 29–34.

Brady, S., & Mason, L. H. (2024). A Literature Review of Morphological Awareness Interventions and the Effects on Literacy Outcomes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 47(1), 16-29. https://doi.org/10.1177/07319487231171388

Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51.  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1529100618772271

Coltheart, M., Rastle, K., Perry, C., Langdon, R., & Ziegler, J. (2001). DRC: A dual route cascaded model of visual word recognition and reading aloud. Psychological Review, 108(1), 204–256. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.108.1.204

Ebbers, S. M. (2017). Morphological awareness strategies for the general and special education classroom: A vehicle for vocabulary instruction. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 43(2), 29–34.

Ehri, L. C. (2020). The science of learning to read words: A case for systematic phonics instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(Suppl. 1), S45– S60.

Foorman, B. (2023). Learning the code. In S. Cabell, S. Neuman, & N. Patton Terry (Eds.). Handbook on the science of literacy (pp. 73-82). New York, NY: Guilford Press. 000-Cabell_Book.indb (thereadingforum.com)

Fry, E. (2004). Phonics: A Large Phoneme-Grapheme Frequency Count Revised. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(1), 85-98.

Georgiou, G. K., Vieira, A. P., Rothou, K. M., Kirby, J. R., Antoniuk, A., Martinez, D., & Guo, K. (2022). A Meta-analysis of Morphological Awareness Deficits in Developmental Dyslexia. Scientific Studies of Reading, 27, 253 - 271.

Hanna, P. R., Hanna, J. S., Hodges, R. E., & Rudorf, E. H. (1966). Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement, USDOE Publication No. 32008. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. 

Joshi, M., Treiman, R., Carreker, S. H., & Moats, L. C. (2008). How Words Cast Their Spell: Spelling Is an Integral Part of Learning the Language, Not a Matter of Memorization. American Educator, Winter 2008-09, American Federation of Teachers.

Law, J. M. , & Ghesquière, P. (2021).  Morphological processing in children with developmental dyslexia: A visual masked priming study. Reading Research Quarterly, 57(3), 863–877.  https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2022-02072-001

Levesque, K. C., Breadmore, H. L. , & Deacon, S. H. (2021).  How morphology impacts reading and spelling: Advancing the role of morphology in models of literacy development. Journal of Research in Reading, 44(1),10–26 https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2020-47286-001

Levesque, K., & Deacon, S. (2022). Clarifying links to literacy: How does morphological awareness support children’s word reading development? Applied Psycholinguistics, 43(3), 921–943. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/applied-psycholinguistics/article/clarifying-links-to-literacy-how-does-morphological-awareness-support-childrens-word-reading-development/8BA65B23729527F2C3377E7AAF1CC0F9

Liu, Y., Groen, M. A., & Cain, K. (2024). The association between morphological awareness and reading comprehension in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Educational Research Review.

National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read, an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf  

Perfetti, C., & Stafura, J. (2014). Word knowledge in a theory of reading comprehension. Scientific studies of Reading, 18(1), 22–37. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2013.827687

About the Author
Susan Ebbers
Susan Ebbers
Literacy Expert and Author of Power Readers and Supercharged Readers

Susan Ebbers is a literacy expert and author of Power Readers and Supercharged Readers, as well as the rhyming picture books, Jamie’s Journey: The Savannah and Jamie’s Journey: The Mountain. She has consulted across the country and continues to work to promote reading, focusing especially on vocabulary and morphological awareness. She served as a primary grade teacher for more than 10 years before moving on to work with adolescents striving to read. In doctoral studies, she focused on vocabulary development and morphological awareness. To learn more, visit, Vocabulogic at https://vocablog-plc.blogspot.com.

Learn more about Susan Ebbers