Since the early 2000’s, researchers have focused on five subskills deemed critical for readers to obtain while learning to read English: vocabulary, phonology, decoding skills, reading comprehension, and fluency.  While there is little argument that these five skills are critical, a subskill seems to be missing, morphological knowledge.  Considering that English is a morphophonemic language (print English represents meaningful word parts as well as a phonological code), it seems logical that phonological and morphological instruction would be important to decoding the language while reading. 

Morphological knowledge includes understanding that morphemes are the smallest part of language that still has meaning, being able to break words apart into their morphemes (e.g., happiness can be broken up into happy and -ness), and being able to follow rules to combine morphemes to make new words (joy and -ful are combined to make joyful).  Morphemes fall into two categories: inflectional and derivational.  Inflectional morphemes change the tense, number or gender of a word and provide readers with clues about the grammar of a sentence.  Take the sentence “The boy is walking.”, the inflectional morpheme -ing tells the reader that the act of walking is ongoing.  Also the lack of an -s on the word boy tells the reader that there is only one boy walking.  The second type of morphemes are derivational morphemes.  Derivational morphemes are combined to make new words or are used to change the class of the word.  When you add -ful to help, the noun or verb help becomes the new word and adjective helpful.

Teaching morphemes meanings and how to break apart or combine words is helpful because the English language is more regular in the way it is written than in the way it sounds.  For example, the words heal and health have the same morpheme heal.   Although they are spelled the same, the words sound different.  Readers can use the spelling pattern to help them figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  Also, teaching morphology gives the students a way to generate vocabulary knowledge on their own.  About sixty percent of new words can be decoded using morphological knowledge.  If you teach students that bio- means life, they are able to get the gist of words like biology, biography, and bioluminescence.  On the other hand, if you only teach students how to sound out bio- using their phonological skills, they may have no way to understand what the word means.  Students who receive morphological instruction have the ability to decode for meaning when reading. 

In addition, morphological knowledge continues to develop and support reading comprehension after phonological skills have plateaued around the age of eight or nine.  Morphological knowledge also makes a unique contribution towards reading comprehension because it supports word knowledge in a way that phonology cannot.  For the reasons listed, researchers are encouraging educators to add morphological instruction to their daily reading lessons.  Morphological instruction benefits readers with and without disabilities as well as deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) readers.

DHH students’ struggle with reading has long been documented.  Some believe that DHH readers get stuck at the very basic level of reading, decoding.  There are at least two reasons for this: vocabulary knowledge that is not equal to that of their peers who are hearing and delayed morphological knowledge that starts in preschool and persists to college.   DHH readers experience delayed English morphological knowledge because they may not hear the morphemes in spoken language and the morphemes are represented differently in signed languages.  Both of these situations lead DHH students to being underexposed to morphemes causing a delay.  To ameliorate the delay, teachers of the DHH (TODHHs) can provide morphological instruction through spoken or printed English.

When teaching morphology, TODHHs should include the following instruction: (a) how to recognize component morphemes within words that have multiple morphemes, (b) the morphemes’ and root words’ meanings, and (c) the rules to create new words from morphemes.  For example, a text may contain the word immunology. Immunology can be broken down into immune and –ology. Immune is the root word meaning resistant to a particular infection and –ology is the suffix meaning the study of. First, the student learns to recognize these two parts of the word. Second, the student learns to define the word parts. Third, the student learns how to put the meanings together to define the full word (i.e., Immunology means the study of resistance to infection). Fourth, the student attempts to decode the word with meaning in context.  Last, the student and TODHH look for other words that also include that morpheme and practice determining the meanings of those words.  Often, one morpheme can be found in 10 or more new words.   For more information, check out this link:

Jessica W. Trussell, Ph.D.
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY, USA

Further reading

Trussell, J. W., & Easterbrooks, S. R. (2015). Effects of morphographic instruction on the morphographic analysis skills of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 20(3), 229–241.

Trussell, J. W., & Easterbrooks, S. R. (2017). Morphological knowledge and students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing: A review of the literature. Communication Disorders Quarterly.

Trussell, J. W., Nordhaus, J., Brusehaber, A., & Amari, B. (2018). Morphology instruction in the science classroom for students who are deaf: A multiple probe across content analysis. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11(3), 742–751.