In celebration of World Book Day, Nicky Dawson has put together some thoughts on morphology… 

Read the following sentence and try to fill in the gap: ‘This is a wug. Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two……’.


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What did you come up with? It’s likely that the nonsense word ‘wugs’ seemed an appropriate choice. Children as young as 4 years are able to complete tasks such as these by producing a word they’ve never heard before. How do they do this?

The answer is that they have developed some knowledge, however implicit, of morphology. Morphemes are commonly referred to as the smallest units of meaning in a word. A morpheme can itself be a word (e.g., the word break is a single morpheme: it cannot be broken down further into meaningful units), but morphemes can also be affixes that do not stand alone as words yet still convey meaning and grammatical information. For example, the suffix –able attaches to the word break to form the adjective breakable, meaning ‘can be broken’. Likewise, the prefix un– attaches to breakable to create unbreakable, reversing the meaning. To successfully complete the nonsense word task above, children need to be sensitive to the changes in meaning and grammar brought about by the addition of the plural suffix –s, and apply this knowledge in a novel context.

Morphology is an important source of regularity in the English writing system. Spellings in English are morpho-phonemic, meaning that they reflect morphemes as well as sounds. For example, the word health could feasibly be spelled helth, but it is not because it is related in meaning to the word heal, and this information is preserved in the spelling. Morphology also provides links between word form (how a word sounds and how it is spelled) and word meaning. In words comprising one morpheme, overlaps in spelling and sound (e.g., cat, hat, sat) do not usually correspond to overlaps in meaning. However, for morphologically-related words (e.g., break, breakable, unbreakable, breaking, or breakable, likeable, adaptable, manageable), there are strong links between similarity in form and similarity in meaning.

How might knowledge about these morphological regularities support literacy acquisition? Firstly, it may provide children with clues to the meanings of unfamiliar words. For example, if a child has never encountered the word manageable before, but they are familiar with the meaning of manage, and they have encountered the suffix –able in other words, then they may correctly infer its meaning. Evidence suggests that children do indeed use this strategy of ‘morphological problem-solving’. Secondly, sensitivity to morphemes in words may assist in the development of rapid word recognition characteristic of skilled reading. While the foundations for reading are built through explicit instruction in the mappings between letter and sound combinations (i.e. phonics), as readers become more experienced, they build on these foundations and increasingly access meaning directly from the written forms of words. Morphological knowledge may be important in this transition from effortful decoding to efficient word recognition because of the links morphemes provide between spelling and meaning, as outlined above.

Recent research conducted in the LARA lab investigated the role of morphological knowledge in the development of word reading. It is well established that skilled adult readers process morphemes in words very rapidly during word recognition, but less is known about how this skill develops. These studies included data from children, adolescents and adults, and revealed that while children and younger adolescents are sensitive to the presence of morphemes in words during word recognition, it is not until mid-late adolescence that we start to see the rapid analysis of morphological structure that is typical of skilled adult reading (see here for more details on the first of these studies).

Why might adolescence be an important period of development for this aspect of reading? One argument is that it is not age per se that is important, but rather the accumulation of experience with morphemes in words. Individuals who read widely will have more opportunity to build knowledge of morphological regularities in the written input. The benefit of this experience may be due to repeated encounters with a variety of stems (i.e. words to which affixes attach, such as break) and affixes (e.g., –able), but evidence also suggests that the diversity of this experience is important, with better learning of affixes when they are attached to a diverse range of stems. If experience is important for the development of morphological knowledge, then we would expect to see individual variation even in skilled readers, and indeed this appears to be the case.

However, adolescence represents a period of transition in many other areas, with structural and functional developments in the adolescent brain underpinning many behavioural, emotional and social changes typically observed during this time. There is some indication that the areas of the brain involved in visual word recognition continue to develop into mid-adolescence, with recent evidence also linking these areas to processing of morphological information. Whether these changes occur as a consequence of reading experience, or whether they are specific to adolescence as part of a wider reorganisation of the adolescent brain, remains to be determined.

Knowledge about morphology is clearly important for reading development, particularly once children have developed a solid understanding of the links between spellings and sounds. In particular, appreciation of morphological regularities in the writing system may help children along the pathway to becoming a skilled reader. There is some evidence that explicit instruction in morphology can have benefits for literacy outcomes, and in recent years, morphology has been introduced to the primary school curriculum in England. From Year 1 (age 5), children are taught about prefixes, suffixes and stems in the context of word reading, reading comprehension, vocabulary and spelling, and they are assessed on this as part of the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Test (SPaG) at the end of Year 2 and Year 6. Whether these changes impact on children’s processing of morphemes in words as they become more skilled readers would be an interesting question to explore.

Nicky Dawson is a PhD student in the LARA lab. She recently submitted her thesis and is preparing for her viva – watch this space!

You can find out more about her work here and Undergraduate Research Assistant Charlotte Stoate has put together a poster summarising her first article from her PhD, which you can see here.


Happy World Book Day! Some thoughts on morphology from Nicky Dawson

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