First, though, you might be wondering: what is a morpheme?

A morpheme is defined by Miriam-Webster as, “a word or a part of a word that has a meaning and that contains no smaller part that has a meaning.”

In other words, it’s the smallest unit of language that has meaning and cannot be further broken down.

“Free” morphemes can stand alone, while still retaining their meaning. Words like, ‘eat,’ ‘week,’ ‘work.’

“Bound” morphemes have “affixes”—that’s prefixes or suffixes—tied to them to create meaning. In a word like, ‘dissent,’ ‘sent’ is the base morpheme and ‘dis’ is the prefix.

As is the case with phonemic awareness, researchers have found that students who have an understanding of morphemes and morphology (or the study of morphemes) will have a stronger base on which to build their reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills.

For more on phonemic awareness, check out the Journal’s article in our Keys to Reading series, here:

Morphological awareness can develop naturally over time as children build their reading skills and as they are exposed to more complex words. At the same time, literacy experts such as Marcia Henry and Louisa Moats have written about the power of explicitly teaching morphology to students.

In the preface to her landmark 2003 book, ‘Unlocking Literacy,’ Dr. Marcia Henry observes, “I found that although teaching the structure of the language is important with all children, it is essential for those who have dyslexia or need explicit instruction to acquire the alphabetic code.”

Dr. Louisa Moats has observed, “As students’ syllable recognition and spelling progress, teachers can emphasize morphemes — prefixes, bases, and suffixes, mostly from Latin and Greek (Henry 1997). Beginning with inflections that may change the spelling of a base word (fine, finest; begin, beginning; study, studied), students analyze words into units that often link meaning and spelling — designate, signal, and assignment, for example, share a root). Instruction must be cumulative, sequential, and systematic, so that students overcome the bad habit of relying on context and guessing to decode unknown words.”

“We can’t think of something as big as learning vocabulary and especially academic vocabulary as something that you do in sixth grade. [Students] start to become better at learning words in fifth and sixth grade and move up through the eighth grade.”

—Dr. Nonie Lesaux, Harvard Graduate School of Education

For ELLs—or English language learners—researchers have also found that dedicated instruction in morphology can improve reading scores.

In 2010, Professor Nonie Lesaux of the Harvard Graduate School of Education conducted a study with 90 fourth grade ELL students in the California public school system. Her findings are detailed in the July 2010 online edition of ‘Usable Knowledge,’ Harvard Graduate School of Education’s newsletter.

To read a summary of Dr. Lesaux’s work, head over to Usable Knowledge:

Dr. Lesaux and her team found that students who were able to locate morphemes in larger words and then make connections to similar words scored higher in tests of reading skill and fluency.

But what does the research say about direct morphological instruction for native English speakers? How much instruction is required? When should explicit morphology instruction begin and how long should it last?

For many reading and literacy researchers, these questions require further investigation through controlled studies—though many believe there’s strong evidence in studies already conducted to date that suggest direct instruction in morphology can be effective for all students. Many also feel that students can benefit from explicit lessons in morphology beyond the elementary grades.

In a 2010 installment of the Voices of Literacy podcast—created by Dr. Betsy Baker of the University of Missouri—Dr. Lesaux comments, “We can’t think of something as big as learning vocabulary and especially academic vocabulary as something that you do in sixth grade. We need to think about it as something. [Students] start to become better at learning words in fifth and sixth grade and move up through the eighth grade.”

Perhaps surprisingly, researchers found that just ten percent of reading instruction beyond third grade supports vocabulary. Dr. Lesaux and her team note that when vocabulary was introduced it was incidental to lessons and not a focus in the middle and upper elementary grades.

To hear the full Voice of Literacy podcast featuring Dr. Nonie Lesaux, click here:

From their 2010 research and earlier work in this space, Dr. Lesaux and her team have devised four major strategies for teaching morphology in the classroom. They call for these methods to undergo further investigation in future studies on the effectiveness of explicit morphology instruction:

1. Morphology should be taught as a distinct component of a vocabulary improvement program throughout the upper elementary years.

2. Morphology should be taught as a cognitive strategy to be learned. In order to break a word down into morphemes, students must complete the following four steps:


3. Students also need to understand the use of prefixes, suffixes, and roots, and how words get transformed.

4. Students who have a developed knowledge of Spanish can use cognates (words with similar spelling and meanings in both languages) to help their reading comprehension in both languages.

To read a review of the current literature on studies assessing the effectiveness of morphological instruction, check out: