Hands on Morphology

Once children have developed the ability to fluently decode words with the simple alphabetic code (single sounds plus the common consonant digraphs sh, th, ch, ng etc) you can begin to explicitly teach them about morphology.  A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word. It includes prefixes, suffixes and Greek and Latin roots and is the key to moving reading and spelling beyond the basics of ‘sounding out’.  Now, don’t misunderstand me, building phoneme grapheme correspondence and the ability to blend words is a critical skill and will be used by students far into the future.  But sounding out using straight phonics will only get you so far.   When it comes to spelling and creating meaning in reading, an understanding of morphology is absolutely crucial.

When we first start to teach an unfamiliar concept it can be tempting to reach for a student textbook.   While it is probably better to use a text book rather than not teach something at all, there are ways to explore morphology in a hands-on way that will help students understand about morphemes much better than a text book or worksheet based activity.  It is entirely possible to make your morphology teaching a black line master free zone!

The beauty of teaching morphology is that you can teach that words that share meaning can also share spelling. Think about the root ‘tri’, which means ‘three’.  All the words below have some aspect of ‘three’ when we examine their meaning.

When we can make these links explicit we can help children understand that spelling isn’t random and that they can absolutely learn to understand how words work.

There is a bit to learn when it comes to morphology but I’m not going to go into all of it here.  For those who have not had a lot of experience in morphology it can all feel quite overwhelming. What I want to share with you today is a simple lesson structure that will allow you to dip your toe into the waters of morphology teaching without feeling like you have to be a linguistic expert.

One of the basic structures that you can use to help your students explore morphology for spelling and reading comprehension is:

Let’s apply this to the past tense ‘ed’


Let’s say that your students have been writing past tense verbs with ‘t’ at the end as in

‘I mist the bus’ or ‘He helpt his friends’

Past tense ‘ed’ is such a common morpheme that it can be found in just about any text.  Use a quality text to be the model for the language that you want children to master. 

  1. Identify the past tense verbs that you want to include in your explicit teaching. Make a list. In this case ‘ed’.
  1. Unpack the relevant features for the students.

“The ed that tells us that a verb is past tense has 3 different sounds associated with it.  It can be /ed/ /d/ or /t/.  Let’s have a look at these words. (lived, hugged, rolled, missed, pushed, dropped, rubbed, padded, twitched).  Today I ‘live’, yesterday I ‘lived’. etc.  There are three ways to say this suffix, but it doesn’t matter how you say it, it all means the same thing, that something has happened in the past and the ‘ed’ is spelled the same way.


I do – model for the students how to sort the words according to their relevant pronunciation

We do – Read out a list of words and have students write them on cards. Have students work in small groups to sort the words according to the pronunciation of the ‘ed’. (Make sure that the students know the rule about when to double the consonant first.)

You do – provide an opportunity for students to sort words themselves

Apply and Practise

There are a number of options for this step depending on your students’ skill level.

-Present a base word
– Ask students to ‘Talk to your partner’ using this word in both present and past tense.
“Today I __________”
“Yesterday I __________”

-Present a past tense verb
-Ask students to write down the base word
-Ask students to write down the original past tense verb

NB – Be sure to provide practice at word and sentence level. You could design your sentence of the day activities around the morpheme that you would like children to practise.

You can find a very informative and free morphology guide here.

What to Teach When

It is generally agreed that there is no, one best scope and sequence for morphology. After all, language is dynamic and what your students will need to learn may well depend on your context, the literacy development of your students and the number of EAL/D students in your class. But, when you don’t know what you don’t know, a little guidance can really go a long way. So, here is a scope and sequence from WCPSS (I think this is Wake County Public School System).

You can access the document this came from here.

Today’s post is, by no means, a comprehensive guide about teaching morphology. There is a lot more to share! My hope in this post was to show you that teaching grammar does not have to be a decontextualised, worksheet based activity where children learn random bits of information and don’t really know how to apply it. Grammar teaching can be:

  • based in the skills students have shown that they need to develop
  • modelled using quality, rich text
  • hands on
  • collaborative
  • taught explicitly

If you would like to learn more about teaching language and grammar using quality texts as a stimulus, consider joining my Term 1, 2020 Teach Along. You can learn more here.

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4 thoughts on “Hands on Morphology”

  1. Jocelyn, thank you for this information. May I add that one of the important parts of how I teach morphology is to talk of the “linguistic sense” it makes. For instance, there is a reason why the ED morpheme has 3 sounds, the sound depends on the last phoneme in the base word and whether that phoneme is voiced or unvoiced or a T or a D. You probably know all this. I just find that my students delight in making sense of phonology and morphology and orthography. I would love to talk to you more about what we both do.

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