Morphology: word grammar

Affix biscuits – yummy!

The term morphology was taken from biology where it is used to represent the study of the form of plants and animals. Its first recorded use is in writings by Goethe (1796). It was first used in relation to linguistics by August Schleicher (1859) to refer to the study of the form of words (Salmon, 2000).

Morphology now refers to the systematic form-meaning relationship between words and the study of the internal structure of words.

Take the word ‘talk’, if you were to look it up in a dictionary you would not find separate entries for: talks, talked, talking – these words are derived from/ examples of, the same word. Talk is a lexeme and talks, talked and talking can be qualified as word forms.

When acquiring speech (a biologically primary function) children absorb and apply these patterns automatically. However, in order to write them correctly (a biologically secondary function), children benefit from being taught explicitly about how words are formed – their internal structure – as part of the orthography of our language.

Moreover, an understanding and application of morphology improves reading too: both decoding ability and fluency. Together with syllabification, the ability to quickly recognise and apply affixes is crucial as readers progress.

The internal structure of words: like building blocks.

In teaching morphology to learners with working memory and word identification weaknesses, they are enabled to chunk words rather than hold a string of sounds in mind to blend them – something which becomes impossible as words get longer.

This is also true of spelling where learners might struggle to encode a long word by breaking it up into a phoneme at a time.

Discovering prefixes

In the activity above, students are invited to experiment, making words from the prefixes and root words offered.

Words consisting of more than one morpheme are polymorphic. There can be free or bound morphemes. Bound morphemes carry meaning but do not make sense on their own eg in talk: s, ed, ing can be added. In general, prefixes change meaning and suffixes change word tense or class.

Morphological rules have two functions: to specify predictable properties of complex words listed in the lexicon and to indicate how new words can be made.

Phonological properties of a word may determine which affixes are suitable and morphological structure may impact on the phonological form of a word. Consider how the stress changes from cooperate to uncooperative.

The assembly of the various affixes is known as concatenation.

Awareness of morphology can begin in Year One with ‘ed’ a perfect opportunity to teach spelling beyond phonics:

The suffix ed makes three sounds:
/id/ /t/ /d/

Once affixes are understood as units, this knowledge can be generalised and applied. It also helps with the tricky schwa sound as found in ‘ment’, ‘ence’/‘ance’ and other suffixes.

Further Reading:

The Grammar of Words (2005); Booij, Geert, OUP

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