How Can I Find Time for Morphology Instruction?
Why, hello there. Welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast. I'm Jocelyn Seamer. I'd like to begin by paying my respects to the people on whose lands this podcast is recorded, the Palawa People of Tasmania. This episode rounds out our series about spelling, and today I am going to discuss where morphology instruction fits into the literacy block for both early years and Year 3 - 6.
Let's begin with the early years. In episode 23of the podcast, I discussed the research that informs our focus on phonics, and I shared the critical role that phoneme-grapheme correspondences and phonemic awareness plays in our spelling development in the early years. While phonics is, by no means, the only element of literacy that we need to focus on, it does form the foundation of reading and spelling.
Morphology and phonics
In the Foundation year, 97% of your focus is going to be on phonics, with a small focus on the inflectional suffixes <s> and <ing>. Some Foundation students will be able to tackle past tense <ed>, but it really is just fine to leave it until year one if that's where your students are sitting. By the time Year 1 rolls around and students are well into learning the complex code with vowel digraphs, you can get stuck into past tense <ed> and a few common derivational suffixes, such as <er> and <y> and the prefixes <non> and <un>. It's important to reinforce that you aren't going to teach a new morpheme every week. Instead, you can teach one short morphology lesson per week or fortnight, first teaching adding suffixes without any spelling changes and then working with the suffixes all over again with a particular suffixing convention such as doubling.
Once you have taught students about what a suffix means and how it is added to a base word, you can then include that suffix in your phonics lesson as part of your word-level reading and spelling. In this way, you will teach a grapheme such as <ar> /ah/, like in the word farm. Students will practice this correspondence and then read and write with it at word level. This word-level reading and writing might include words containing prefixes and suffixes that the children know. For example, you might have the word 'farm' in your word list. You could then have farms, farming, farmed, and farmer. You can also give your students a base word, such as 'play' and challenge them to work with a partner to build a morphemic word family. They might come up with play, plays, played, playing, or replay. This is actually what the curriculum asks students to be able to do. It might seem a bit out of the ordinary if you are not used to including this work in your instruction, but students will be able to do it.
What does the research have to say?
The other area of instruction where you can include morphology, and this goes for all grades, is when you introduce new vocabulary. To understand why this is important, I'll share details about an open-access paper from Linnea Ehri and Julie Rosenthal from 2007, where they reviewed research and theory about the contribution that spelling makes to vocabulary learning. Ehri and Rosenthal conducted two experiments. In the first experiment with year two students, they found that vocabulary instruction where the spelling of a word was shown resulted in stronger retention of the pronunciation and meaning of the word. When they repeated the experiment with year five students, they saw that the effect was even greater.
Students with higher levels of reading proficiency benefit from being shown the spelling words, even after the first learning trial. Weaker readers' results were closer to that of year two, and it took a little longer to see the advantage of being exposed to the spelling of the word, but the advantage was definitely there. Ehri and Rosenthal suggest that this could be because the stronger readers were better able to use larger syllabic units than their peers. You can find the link to this paper below.
How might we include morphology in vocabulary lessons?
How might we include morphology in vocabulary lessons to strengthen student learning? This involves unpacking what a word sounds like, what it means, and how it is spelled. And these are the three components of orthographic mapping from Linnea Ehri's theory of sight word learning (Ehri, 2014). That is, they form the glue to help children embed words into long-term memory. And I'll say those three components again in case you missed it. What a word sounds like, what a word means, and how it's spelled, and all of these elements are necessary.
Every lesson can be a language lesson
Morphology comes into the picture as we unpack the spelling of the word. Now, of course, we can use phonics for this, but it's pretty unwieldy to use phonics to unpack a word like 'uncompromising' that has 13 graphemes. But to break it up into its two prefixes, the base and two suffixes makes more sense. This can be used, not only in English lessons but, right across the curriculum. In this way, we can bring literacy to science HASS, health and maths. Every lesson can be a language lesson. It's important to note that Ehri and Rosenthal's experiments had students being simply shown a word. They weren't unpacked. But there is strong research to suggest that morphology instruction strengthens vocabulary learning. So I think that it's reasonable to include morphology and vocabulary lessons and take advantage of this relationship between the two learning areas.
Three aspects of instruction to consider.
When it comes to upper primary, morphology takes on a much more prominent role in the classroom. My personal view on this is that there are three aspects of instruction to consider. The first one is low-variance systematic instruction that occurs most days of the week. In our approach to morphology instruction, this occurs across four days, with each day varying slightly so that students have ample opportunity to interact with peers, read a text, and practise spelling.
The second aspect is during content lessons across the curriculum. If we're teaching science, there will be many Tier-two and Tier-three words to learn. This idea of Tier one, Tier two, and Tier three words come from Isabel Beck and colleagues, and you'll read about that in the book Bringing Words to Life. Tier two words can be characterised as academic words that we won't typically learn from conversation and everyday interactions. They need to be taught explicitly. For example, the word select could be tier two, whereas choose could be tier one. Tier three vocabulary is technical, specific language related to a learning area. Words like 'fulcrum', 'photosynthesis', and 'solute' are examples of Tier three vocabulary. Regardless of which tier a word falls under, it's a good idea to include morphology and general word structure in teaching these words, and we've already discussed the importance of this in this episode.
The third aspect of instruction to consider is the really lovely teachable moments where we just explore words because we find them interesting. You may come across great words during your English lesson, or students might identify words of interest in their own reading. We can't very often stop and deep dive into words when they're discovered. So I suggest having an 'I Wonder' board or a 'word detective' board somewhere in your classroom so when great words come up, you can record them there and go back to them later. From there, you might explore the words in terms of examples of use, morphological structure, other words they relate to, the word's history; and you can use Etymonline for that, and you can also look at the pragmatic aspects of the word. So which words might be more formal or less polite?
There isn't usually heaps of time for this sort of thing, and you will need to make sure that you support students appropriately so that everyone can participate. But I think it's well worth scheduling the time every now and then to just showcase interesting words and get excited by them. Your enthusiasm for language will rub off on your students.
How often and how long might you spend on each aspect
So how often and how long might you spend on each aspect? Daily instruction would take somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on how familiar your students are with the tasks you're asking them to do. In our lessons about prefixes, suffixes, Latin bases, and Greek combining forms, students will undertake a variety of tasks from reading and breaking apart a list of words, conducting a partner spelling quiz, reading a text containing words with the new morpheme being learned, the construction and use of word matrices, examining words in the context of sentences and reviewing words with previously learned morphemes. Resource Room members already have access to a range of lessons, but Spelling Success in Action books 2 and 3 flesh these lessons out even more and include a weekly assessment. This kind of morphology instruction replaces any spelling work you might be doing with students. It isn't just a brief add-on.
Once students have knowledge of the alphabet code, we really do need to leave it behind as a major focus of instruction and engage students in deeper learning. Improved spelling will be an outcome of strong morphology instruction, as will improved vocabulary and reading comprehension. When it comes to examining words in the context of curriculum content, this will occur whenever it's suitable, but certainly wherever you introduce new vocabulary. That final word detective part could be every four weeks or so for about half an hour.
It can feel challenging to find the time for new elements of instruction, especially in upper primary, where the number of minutes allocated to English is fewer than in the early years. However, in reviewing how you can connect morphology instruction with your existing phonics in the early years and then how it can replace your existing spelling in Year 3-6, you will be able to find time for meaningful, high-quality instruction in this area.
Want to know more?
Throughout the past five episodes of the Structured Literacy Podcast, we've shared several aspects of morphology and spelling instruction, such as how to kickstart our upper primary spelling improvement plan. What to do when we feel like we don't have strong knowledge of how words work, what we can do instead of 'look, say, cover, write, check', and how to identify where the starting point is for morphology instruction in your upper primary class. If you haven't listened to these episodes, you can do so anytime through our website, jocelynseamereducation.com or from your favourite podcast listening app.
If you know someone who might benefit from any of these or other episodes, please share it with them. And can I ask you a favour? Can you please rate our podcast and subscribe? It will help others be able to find us and benefit from the learnings we have to share.
I hope that these spelling-focused episodes have been useful, and I look forward to seeing you in the next episode. Until then, see you later.
Linnea C. Ehri (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word
Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21,
Ehri, L. C., & Rosenthal, J. (2007). Spellings of Words: A Neglected Facilitator of Vocabulary Learning. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(4), 389–409. https://doi.org/10.1080/10862960701675341
Your search for quality, engaging, evidence informed morphology instruction materials is over. The Resource Room has a range of lessons and units for all ages. Click hereto access.