Post: Teaching morphology to improve literacy development



Teaching morphology to improve literacy development

Discover how teaching morphology can enhance literacy development. Claire Knight explores the importance of morphemes, word structure, and gives practical examples to boost vocabulary.
Claire Knight Morphology

Teaching morphology provides students with crucial tools for literacy development and academic success, enabling them to unlock new vocabulary and enhance their reading comprehension by understanding the structural elements of words. Through studying morphemes – the smallest units of meaning in language – students transform from beginners to more proficient language users, equipped to tackle the intricacies of the English language with confidence. 

What is morphology?

Morphology is the study of how words are put together from smaller, meaningful pieces called morphemes. These meaningful morphemes, including prefixes, suffixes, and root words, are the foundational building blocks of language and are essential for building vocabulary knowledge, reading comprehension skills and literacy development. This knowledge is critical for students’ morphological development as they navigate more complex texts and encounter more complicated words with intricate morphological features. Ultimately, learning about morphology allows students to see how spelling, vocabulary, and reading comprehension are interconnected, thereby improving their overall language skills.

Literacy development and morphology

Students also learn about suffixes and their functions in words. A suffix is added to the end of a word and can be either a vowel or a consonant. It helps identify if the word is a noun, adjective, or verb, though teaching this isn’t crucial. Instead, it’s important for students to engage with phrases and sentences that use various suffixes. For example, the suffix –er can behave as a noun or a comparative adjective –er meaning more than depending on the context within a sentence.

Morphology is one way to increase literacy development

Students will also learn common spelling patterns such as the doubling rule that is only applicable off a vowel suffix.

Teaching morphology in literacy development contexts

In literacy development, studying morphology involves examining how words are formed from basic units of meaning, called morphemes. These units usually stem from old languages like Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek. Initially, students typically learn simple Anglo-Saxon roots, such as the words playground and sunset, which are formed by combining two basic roots. This foundational knowledge helps students understand how new words are created and introduces them to more complex language concepts, highlighting the tapestry of our English language systems. Teachers can support basic suffixes and vocabulary development through stories read aloud and everyday content reading. Students were taught vocabulary words to support their writing.

teaching morphology in literacy development contexts

The critical role of teaching morphology in literacy development

Teaching morphology is particularly beneficial for learners who struggle with reading. Studies by Bowers et al. (2010) and Nunes et al. (2012) have shown that a solid understanding of word structure greatly improves reading comprehension, vocabulary, and spelling. Morphology also helps students recognize patterns in words, boosting their confidence with complex texts. As Kamil and Hiebert (2005) noted, vocabulary knowledge acts as a bridge between basic word recognition skills of phonics and deeper comprehension processes. Additionally, understanding a word’s structure, as shown in studies by Prince (2010) and Wolter & Green (2013), enhances vocabulary development and reading comprehension.

Using morphology to teach vocabulary

The roots approach (coined by Tim Rasinksi) to teaching vocabulary empowers students to decode new words efficiently by understanding their meaningful parts. For example, the word contract involves the prefix con- (together) and the root -tract (to pull), meaning to pull together towards a common goal. This method of teaching goes beyond simple phonics, helping students grasp the full meaning of words and then transfers this in application to other words.

Addressing the vocabulary gap with morphology

Vocabulary development is a lifelong process that grows incrementally through exposure to new words and experiences. Unfortunately, many children entering school today face a significant vocabulary gap. Research has shown that 3-year-olds from language-rich environments may have much larger vocabularies than those from language-poor environments. Teaching vocabulary through morphology – understanding the parts of words such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes – offers a practical solution to bridge this gap.

Why focus on morphology for literacy development?

Focusing on morphology in vocabulary teaching allows students to develop a depth and breadth of understanding of word meanings, applicable across various contexts and subject areas. This approach supports both the speed and flexibility with which students can process new information. By understanding the components of words, students can quickly grasp their meanings without having to stop to decode each new word, allowing for smoother and more effective comprehension.

Practical examples of morphology in literacy development

In the word reject, re– means ‘to do again’ and the Latin root -jects means ‘to throw’. Thus, reject basically means to throw away or throw out an idea or thing. This way of learning helps students move beyond just sounding out words to really understanding them. Teaching morphology should be done in a clear, direct, and systematic way, beginning with simple common prefixes and suffixes and then moving to more common Latin and Greek roots.

For example, the morpheme wr- appears in words like wring, wrap, write, and wrist, all involving a twisting motion, linking the way a word is spelled to what it means thus improving literacy skills through common spelling meanings.

literacy development is one part of morphology

Teaching morphology is a must as it enhances vocabulary, reading comprehension, spelling and literacy development by helping students understand the structure of words.


Bowers, PN and Cooke, G (2012) Morphology and the common core: building students’ understanding of the written word. Perspectives on Language and Literacy 38(4): 31–35

Bowers, PN, Kirby, JR and Deacon, SH (2010) The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: a systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research 80(2): 144–79. DOI: 10.3102/0034654309359353.

Kamil, M and Hiebert, E (2005) Teaching and learning vocabulary: perspectives and persistent issues. In E Hiebert and M Kamil (eds) Teaching and Learning Vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp 1–23). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

​​McKeown, MG, Deane, PD, Scott, JA, Krovetz, R and Lawless, RR (2017) Vocabulary Assessment to Support Instruction: Building rich word-learning experiences. New York, NY: Guilford.

Moats, L (2020) Speech to Print: Language essentials for teachers (3rd edn). Baltimore, MA: Paul H Brookes.

Prince, REC (2010) Making the Words Add Up: How morphology — viewing words as a combination of parts — can become an instructional tool for building reading skills. Usable Knowledge. URL: (accessed 24 February 2024).

Rasinski, T, Padak, N, Newton, RM and Newton, E (2008) Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to building vocabulary. Teacher Created Materials.

Wolter, JA and Green, L (2013) Morphological awareness intervention in school-age children with language and literacy deficits: a case study. Topics in Language Disorders 33(1): 27–41.

About the author

Claire Knight is a literacy facilitator for Massey Literacy under Tātai Angitu, providing high-quality professional development to schools in Auckland and the Waikato region. With over 20 years of teaching experience, she has served as a Deputy Principal and Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour (RTLB). Claire is currently pursuing her PhD at Massey University, focusing on improving reading comprehension for students in Years 4–8. She is passionate about seeing all students succeed and empowering teachers to be powerful resources for their classrooms, schools, and communities. Her extensive experience and dedication make her a key contributor to enhancing literacy practices in education.

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