July 1, 2013 Departments

Overheard: Know Your Morphemes

Julie Wolter, an expert in early language development, recently led an online chat about the contribution of morphological awareness to semantic understanding and literacy development. Here's what the Leader overheard ...

Biji Philip: In addition to morphological cues, do you also use contextual cues-cues present in the sentence-to help derive the meaning of a new, unfamiliar word? Also, do you have specific strategies that you use to target vocabulary instruction in elementary school students before they become the struggling middle or secondary student?

130701_Overheard

Julie Wolter: Great question. Contextual cues are definitely an important and useful strategy for word learning and reading comprehension. And this strategy is appropriate and dovetails nicely with the use of morphological awareness. Morphological awareness intervention is absolutely appropriate for younger elementary school students, before they struggle at middle and high school. The principles discussed in this presentation would still hold; however, adaptations might include the use of simpler vocabulary terms to refer to suffixes (for example, base word, word parts).

Amelie Carvallo: I was wondering if you had any tips for teaching teachers about morphological awareness and for getting them to incorporate it into their lesson plans. Second, I was thinking that elaborating a specific word sort based on something our student is studying might be a good idea. What should we take into account if we wanted to elaborate our own word list to sort?

Wolter: Incorporating this with teachers is so important. Often teachers already have some sort of curricular focus on morphemes. However, it is not always taught in a systematic way or with a link to meaning in the classroom. That is, affixes might be incorporated in spelling lessons, but not in a patterned way-words are randomly assigned-and/or the spelling is focused on, but not the meaning of the affix. Thus, if the SLP/literacy specialist can simply tweak existing lessons to include multiple examples of a specific morphological pattern in a spelling list or have the teacher focus more specifically on meaning, spelling, sound ... then that will help and teachers may be very open to those shifts of focus. Using word sorts-from "Words Their Way" or "SPELL-Links," for example-also provides some direct lessons without much prep. As for the adaptations for a word sort, keep in mind the words used in the student's curriculum, the developmental level (inflectional comes before derived) and how commonly derivatives would be encountered by a student (more common ones are preferable).

Diana Hylander: Most of my students are bilingual Spanish-speakers. Would you recommend showing a similar kind of prefix or suffix concept that might occur in Spanish to help these students relate to what is going on?

Wolter: Excellent question. Although I am not an expert on the Spanish context, more and more research is coming out in this area and findings show that the inclusion of morphemes in instruction is quite helpful. So the answer to your question is yes, the same concepts should be helpful.

Katelyn Salvato: The wonderful thing about morphological awareness is that it targets sounds, letters and meaning. However, I think that's part of the challenge of targeting them: the synthesis of several language skills. Perhaps that's why it's so tempting to overlook or avoid them!? Have you observed a marked resistance or embrace by students with such material? For students who do struggle with morphology, what tips do you have to set them up for success (an important element for students with specific language impairment and language delay)?

Wolter: As you have noted, scaffolding is always an important part of intervention with specific language impairment/learning disabilities. Scaffolding can take place in the linguistic context (using easier words/sentences), but also in the environment through the prompts the clinician gives (expansions/multiple choice prompts). See the first chapter in Teresa Ukrainetz's "Contextualized Language Intervention: Scaffolding Pre-K-12 literacy achievement" [Thinking Publications] for more on those scaffolding techniques. With that being said, I have found that when children are provided with a meaningful morphological context to "hook" the phonological and spelling information to, they have a more applicable foundation to learn this information. That is, the meaning may actually aid the child to learn all three, instead of learning each in isolation. Indeed, in some of my past research and the intervention research I cite in the presentation, I have found the inclusion of morphology to help those with SLI/LD.

Heidi Ben Joseph: I have come across numerous and varied lists of affixes and roots and I find myself jumping around trying to find a satisfactory source. Is there a "one-stop" resource you could recommend that I use? Similarly, I could use a recommendation as to where to find a list of the inflectional morphemes I can target. Thanks!

Wolter: One-stop is tough-but some of my favorites are listed in the reference list of the presentation. The two that I use the most come from "SPELL-Links to Reading and Writing" and "Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction." "Words Their Way" has books focused only on morphology as well. For inflectional morphology, again, "Words Their Way" is the one I go to the most for word sort lists.

Denise Joyce: I am wondering if you feel it's OK to have kids make up their own words using morphemes. I work with a largely English-language learning population in a high-poverty urban high school-almost all of my kids have small vocabularies-and I find that if I let them make up their own words, they are more likely to take a risk. Sometimes the words they make are actually real words, but most often they are not. I just want to check that it's still a good activity.

Wolter: Absolutely; love it. In fact, this is such a fun activity, you can provide the prefixes and suffixes to make new combinations (as I provided in the examples). But another fun activity is to make up completely new words. When "Harry Potter" was really big, I used to do a fun activity where I gave pictures of items that were not readily identifiable and then had kids make up words for new candies found in the "Harry Potter" candy store (there are already some great examples in the text that provide wonderful descriptions of the candy with the use of original morpheme combinations). Very fun and educational.

Gretchen Galvin: When reading about disciplinary literacy in science I keep reading about normalization. Do you have any great resources or activities for help my students understand normalization? So far, I keep large Post-its of the base word and how it changes.

Wolter: What a great opportunity to integrate morphology in science. I agree that speaking about the base word and how the addition of affixes changes meaning is very appropriate. It might also be appropriate to talk about how the meaning of this word changes in different disciplinary literacy contexts (for example, math). It would also be appropriate to think about how the addition of this affix changes the meanings of other words, and look for examples of those in the science and other disciplinary contexts as well.

Diane Renaud: When you discuss relationship activities and word sorting, this seems to be for children who are at a very high-functioning cognitive level. Have you tried these activities with children who are more language impaired, and if so, how do you modify this activity?

Wolter: Good question. Just a note, I have completed this activity with children as young as second grade with SLI/LD. The case I noted in the article written by Laura Green and me—available from Topics in Language Disorders—is a second-grader with SLI, and we successfully completed this with him. I have found that the concept is not a problem if there is enough repetition and the student is provided with multiple opportunities to talk about how words can sound alike and look alike but may or may not have a similar meaning. I will often start out with the obvious or transparent relationships (swim-swimming versus car-carrot). I have also been known to act out the relationships to make it more concrete: Swim and swimming are pretty much the same pantomime, but driving a car and eating a carrot are not.

Amy Fields: Julie, thank you for such a thoughtful and informative presentation! It really motivated me to continue using morphological awareness as a strategy, but I will now certainly employ more of a systematic approach. Since most of my middle school and high school students are tech savvy, are you aware of any apps or websites that have games or drill that target morphology? Or better yet, have you considered developing an app that targets morphological awareness?

Wolter: Ha! Love your hint-perhaps I will get on that. Some things that I have successfully used include the online dictionary of made-up words. I am not aware of new apps at the moment but imagine there likely are some out there.

Irene Sanders: Do you find that you must spend time establishing the conceptual framework of time before tackling the morphological structure of past-tense endings? Also, do you have any opinion about the phonological confusion that the student with weak morphological awareness might have when it comes to the /d/, /t/ past-tense endings? Is it possible that the past-tense endings issue might be a combined phonological awareness/morphological awareness weakness?

Wolter: I do believe that a student has to have some concept of time to "get" the past tense. With that being said, even young, young children develop this concept. So this inflectional morpheme is one of the first to be focused on in intervention (if a child does not have it by school). The question of whether this is a phonological awareness/morphological awareness issue is a very good hunch. Indeed, like many other areas of language, it is difficult to separate these two language areas. The key is that by focusing on the morphological reasoning or meaning of -ed while introducing the phonological differences (popped /t/ versus rained /d/), this may help students to understand why the spelling is always the same. The combination of strategies may be an aid for students to recognize patterns.

Robin Scott: Teaching reading is my passion and I love using morphology as a way to build vocabulary and spelling. I love your idea of showing how sometimes words are related (swim-swimming) and sometimes they're not (car-carrot) but I'm wondering how you tell students how to tell when the root/base is actually a base and when it's a foil base?

Wolter: I think the key is to think about the meaning. Through talk-alouds, the clinician can model how to think about word and base words. So, in the aforementioned examples, we consider swim the "base" because the word swimming has everything to do with the act of moving arms and legs in the water for both words; whereas the car one drives really can't have anything to do with the carrot we eat. Talking aloud one's thought process, and practicing doing it together, may ultimately lead to the student understanding and applying the concept (the "I do," "we do" and "you do" approach).

Sandra Ferrier: How does one deal with emerging "languages" such as Ebonics or cellphone text language from a morphological or syntactical point of view? Can they be used with adolescents who value and perhaps understand these languages better than academic language?

Wolter: I love the question and the concept but have honestly not thought too much about it. I would have to think a little more and get more examples. I would, however, note that the examples I can think of immediately are more phonetic in nature (e.g., R, are; U, you) are examples that are most letter names linked to phonemes. I am intrigued with linking intervention with student motivation/trends, so perhaps there are some base word meanings that could be incorporated.

Julie Wolter, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor in the department of communicative disorders and deaf education at Utah State University. Her research interests include the linguistic factors of morphological awareness, orthographic processing and phonological awareness as they relate to early identification, assessment and treatment of children with language and literacy impairments. She is an affiliate of Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education, and 10, Issues in Higher Education.

cite as: Wolter, J. (2013, July 01). Overheard: Know Your Morphemes. The ASHA Leader.

  

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