What is morphology and how do I teach it at home?

Help! I’m a parent who has heard about morphology as an important part of literacy teaching, but I’m not even sure what the term means! Furthermore, what are these so-called benefits? Will it really make a difference to my child’s literacy development?

You may be a homeschooling parent or a parent/carer who wants to support a child who is struggling in school.

In this post, we will discuss what a morpheme is and how it plays an important role in growing literacy skills.

Part 1: What is a morpheme?

Before we get started let’s consider what a morpheme is. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word.

For example, if we look at the word ‘unthankful’, we have built that word from 3 morphemes:

The word ‘thank’ can stand alone so we refer to this type of morpheme as a base word. However, we can add other morphemes onto that word.

When we add something onto the beginning of a word, we call it a Prefix.

When we add something to the end of a word, we call it a Suffix.

Prefixes and suffixes are collectively referred to as affixes.

In ‘unthankful’ we have formed the word by adding together:

The Prefixun’ [meaning not, or the reversal of]

The base word ‘thank’

The Suffixful’ [meaning full of]

Now let’s look at the word ‘rejected’.

Again, we have formed the word from 3 morphemes. However, in this example  ‘ject’ cannot stand alone as can the base word ‘thank’.

 A morpheme that must have an affix added to it is referred to as a ‘root’ or ‘bound morpheme’. In the Word Cracker resources  it is referred to as a  ‘root’.

Therefore, the word ‘rejected’ has again been formed from 3 morphemes:

The Prefix ‘re’ [meaning again or back]

The root ‘ject’ [meaning throw]

 The suffix ‘ed’[meaning past tense]

Let’s have a look at how we can form that on the cracker VIDEO

Now that you have a basic understanding of the term ‘morpheme’ here are some examples for you to practise on. Have a go at working out how many morphemes are in each word and whether it has a ‘base’ or ‘root’ in it.

[ answers down the bottom of this post-, no peeping!]

  1. depressing
  2. container
  3. transporting
  4. destructive
  5. deconstructed

Reading and Spelling

As parents your concern for literacy development in your child probably revolves around two main areas:

 The ‘reading’ thing and the ‘’spelling’ thing.

Now that you are skilled ‘morphologists’ lets have a look at how morphology plays a part in reading.

The ‘Reading thing’

Read this nonsense sentence and see what information you can glean from having a basic knowledge of morphology.

The freacher has been santically working with her students so that they will confinently sit their exams.

Were you able to read that nonsense sentence? The answer is probably yes.  Firstly, your phonemic knowledge came into play so your knowledge of letters and sounds is of course very important with any decoding activity.

In addition, your existing knowledge and experience of regular affixes over the years has brought you to a place where they are internalised [also known as orthographically mapped] which means that you don’t need to put any extra effort into decoding them.

Here is the breakdown:

The freach er is santic al ly work ing with her student s so that they will con fin ent ly sit their exams.

Not only can you ‘read’ the words, you could most likely also understand the sentence. This is because repeated exposure to regularly used suffixes has helped you to understand their function in grammar.

In this example, the suffix ‘er’ has been used to relate to someone who does something. You will have experienced that suffix many times as in words like teacher, baker, worker etc.

Can you work out what the suffixes ‘ing’ and ‘s’ are doing in that sentence?

 The ‘Spelling thing’

Now let’s consider ‘the spelling thing’ and see how morphology has an impact here.

Have you seen words spelt like this in your child’s writing?

dose instead of does?

walkt instead of walked?

mayking instead of making?

Each of these words can be tackled with a basic knowledge of morphology and spelling rules. As your child is explicitly taught how to use morphemes and spelling rules as a part of their strategy for spelling difficult words you should begin to see some improvement with spelling.

Now that you have a basic understanding of morphology you are probably beginning to see the benefits of incorporating it into your literacy instruction. However, you may feel at a total loss of how and where to begin.

Part 2: How do I start to teach morphology at home?

In Part 1 you learned about morphology and its impact on reading and spelling development.

This article will discuss some initial activities that you may try out with your child. Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed by this area of teaching.

 As in the old saying;

 ‘How do you eat an elephant?’

The answer is, of course: ‘One bite at a time.’

A word of warning!

You may be feeling excited to make a start on this area of literacy but before you do you will need to consider whether your child has the necessary prerequisites for this type of work.

  1. Whilst your child may not yet have a complete knowledge of phonemes it is important that you only work with base words and affixes containing known phonemes (units of sound).

For example, the commonly used suffix ‘ing’ should not be introduced if you had not taught each of the phonemes [i,n,g] .

Similarly, the suffix ‘ed’ can be tricky to work with since it makes 3 different sounds [ as at the end of printed, walked and buzzed], so these would need to be explicitly taught.

  1. You will also need to be mindful of whether you have taught your child the difference between a short vowel sound and a long vowel sound.

For example, the word ‘reprinted’’ appears quite straightforward in that it is made up of 3 morphemes [re-print-ed], but it requires knowledge of open and closed syllables with long and short vowels in order to decode each syllable.

Reading by Bolting on

If you are working with a child with severe difficulties, you may be finding it hard to move them on from reading words with more than one syllable. Decoding 2 syllable words such as ‘picnic’ and ‘robot’ which require high level skills can be quite exhausting for struggling readers and yet as a parent you want to keep them moving in the right direction.

Whilst you will still need to persist with working on syllable division strategies, taking a side step by introducing simple regularly used suffixes such as ‘ing’ and ‘ful’ is helpful in starting to expand the reading.

Using the Word Cracker resources begin by selecting the Suffix Lesson Presets – Suffix ‘s’. Demonstrate to your child how a suffix can be ‘bolted on’ to the word to make a bigger word. Work through each of the words with your child. Once the child can understand the concept you can use the use the + sign in base and roots, or the keyboard function to type in more words for reading.

Over time you can gradually introduce more suffixes so that longer words can be read [ drinking, helpful etc.] The point here at this early stage is to get the student familiar with recognising a base word and a suffix and bolting them together.


Only work with base words that have a ‘safe’ ending. This means that there is no adjustment needed to the base word when adding a suffix. For example, words like ‘make’ or ‘hit’ are not safe since they necessitate knowledge of spelling rules when adding a suffix like ‘ing’, which begins with a vowel.

This ‘bolting on’ practical work can gradually be extended to include prefixes so that multi-syllable words such as ‘unthankful’ can be read.

Revision. Revision, revision!

As each new affix is introduced the student should be given plenty of follow-up exercises to do such as:

[a] Word sums to read and write:


spend + ing   =   _________________

dress + es    =     _________________

help + ful     =     _________________

[b] Boxing or highlighting suffixes and reading:

Box the suffix  s,  es,

 helps                 smashes                 kisses

 sticks                bends                     hisses

munches           bosses                    wishes

tricks                 spots                      stands

Timed reading:

1.____________ 2. _________ 3. __________

[c] Cloze activities

Highlight the suffix.  s ing y ness ful Read the words.

rooms        hooting        books       moody

goodness   roomful       hooks       tools

boots        coolness     gloomy      looking

  1. Ben ______________ a fish on the line.

  2. It is a cold and _______________ morning.

  3. I am _____________ for my friend but I can’t find him.

  4. My ______________ are muddy after football.

  5. The ____________ are in the tool shed.

Teaching Spelling and Spelling Rules

Teaching morphology is one tool in your toolbox that can help to develop spelling skills.

There are rules for adding suffixes which will need to be introduced over time. We refer to these as ADD, DOUBLE, DROP or CHANGE but in the early stages it is better to avoid the more complex rules and use words that fit into the ADD rule.

Chopping off

Teach your child to chop off the suffix from the base word. By doing this, there is a greater chance of spelling accuracy.

For example, in the word ‘acts’, a child with severe difficulties will find it hard to segment a-c-t-s into individual phonemes due to the consonant blend ‘-ct’ being swallowed up with the addition of the suffix ‘s’.

By prompting your child to identify the suffix first and then segment the phonemes for the base word, there is a greater likelihood of spelling success. It is helpful to place the word in context. For example, if you just say ‘acts’ your child may respond with ‘axe or ax or acks’. It is better to say place the word in context and say something like:

I act in the play and Tom also acts in the play.
Ask your child:
‘What is the suffix?’
Place down the suffix ‘s’ tile
‘What is the base word?’
Ask the child to segment ‘act’ into individual phonemes.
Type ‘act’ onto the Word Cracker.

After working through several examples on the Word Cracker your student can practise this skill by using the student Word cracker board or a copy of the Blank Crackers worksheet.

Remember to only use words and suffixes with known phonemes!

Dictate words for your child to practise this skill.

Each time ask your child:
‘What is the suffix?’
‘What is the base word?’
After identifying and articulating the 2 parts the student is directed to write the word on the Word Cracker board or blank crackers sheet.

As with any new skill that you are teaching your child is likely to need multiple with spelling activities so as with reading build into your lessons short and frequent opportunities for revision.


Back to eating that elephant!

If you have done any research about morphology instruction you will have heard how it improves not only basic reading [decoding] and spelling skills but also comprehension, vocabulary development and grammar knowledge. These are all important aspects and will need to be introduced at some point in your child’s learning.

However, as we said at the beginning, rather than feel overwhelmed, just make a start with some of these simple activities which are fun and easy to do.

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