Morphological Awareness: The underrated contributor to reading ability

When one thinks about early grade reading, the image that usually comes to mind is that of children trying to ‘decode’ or ‘sound out’ some text. As obvious as it may seem, it is important to remind ourselves that the ultimate goal of any reading program is for children to understand the meaning contained in the text, and not just to master associating sounds to written symbols though that is an important first step. That is, the elements of reading comprehension and vocabulary are fundamental to reading. In this post, I want to talk about the crucial role of ‘morphological awareness’ in reading comprehension and vocabulary, and hence in children’s reading ability.

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language; units that can serve as freestanding words (e.g., electric) or that are “bound” to such words (e.g., -ity in electricity). The former are called roots or base morphemes and contain the core meaning of a word while the latter are called bound morphemes. In a word, bound morphemes (or affixes) that precede the root are called prefixes and those that follow the root are called suffixes.

Hence, morphological awareness deals with understanding how words are formed from these meaning units or ‘the ability to reflect on, analyze, and manipulate the morphemic elements in words’ (Carlisle, 2010, p.466). The following infographic—borrowed from here –explains it well:


As children move up the grades, they encounter a number of multi-morphemic words and most of them can be derived from other words; thus suggesting the importance of morphemic awareness (Nunes and Bryant, 2006) in developing an extensive vocabulary and improving their reading comprehension. Various theories have been proposed to help explain this link.

Wysocki and Jenkins (1987) put forward the Morphological Generalization Hypothesis, which states that children can use prior morphemic knowledge about a word to infer the meaning of an unfamiliar but related word.  The process involves analyzing a novel word into its constituents (e.g., prefix, stem, suffix), accessing the previously stored meanings of these parts, and then combining them to determine the meaning of the new word. This gives students a powerful tool for independent reading and for expanding their vocabulary.

Perfetti (2007) argues that the quality of mental representations of words affects the access to those words. He presents orthography (representation of sounds by written symbols), phonology, grammar, and meaning as the first four features affecting a word’s lexical quality. The fifth element is conceptualised as a binding element that links the other four features. Bowers, Kirby and Deacon (2010) propose that this binding element could be the morphological structure linking families of words with consistent orthographic patterns. Thus, increasing this morphological knowledge may facilitate access to the other four word features, which may, in turn, lead to a better vocabulary and reading fluency.

Chomsky’s (1970) idea of lexical spelling could be extended to explain why morphemic awareness might help improve vocabulary. The idea is that English orthography preserves the identity of morphemes in spelling and thus increasing children’s sensitivity to these similarities across words might help them use their knowledge of existing words to novel but related words, irrespective of phonetic variations.

What all this means is that it may be worth our while to consider building the component on morphological awareness into the teaching of reading. In this post, I only present this idea and the theoretical support for it. In my subsequent posts, I will share findings from some studies that examined this idea by incorporating morphology instruction in their reading/vocabulary programs.



Carlisle, J.F. (2010) Review of Research: Effects of Instruction in Morphological Awareness on Literacy Achievement–An Integrative Review. Reading Research Quarterly, 45 (4), pp. 464-487.

Chomsky, C. (1970) Reading, writing, and phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 40(2), 287-309.

Nunes, T. and Bryant, P. (Eds.) (2006) Improving literacy by teaching morphemes. London: Routledge.

Perfetti, C. A. (2007) Reading ability: Lexical quality to comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11, 357–383.

Wysocki, K. and Jenkins, J.R. (1987) Deriving Word Meanings through Morphological Generalization. Reading Research Quarterly, 22 (1), 66-81.



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