Should we be teaching phonics or morphology as a first step to teaching children to read and write?

Morphology is the study of form or structure. In linguistics, morphology is the study of words, of how they are formed and of what their relationship is to other words in the language. English is both synthetic or inflectional and agglutinative or affixing. Both of which can be subsumed under the heading ‘fusional’.

Inflectional languages, such as Latin, add suffixes to indicate tense in verb forms and indicate whether nouns are the subject or object in a sentence. In agglutinative languages, words contain spaces into which small, verbal elements can be placed. For example, in the word ‘unusually’, un- expresses the meaning ‘not’, and -ly shows that the word is an adverb, which can qualify a verb – The animal seemed to be behaving unusually – or used as an intensifier of adjectives – She is an unusually happy person.

Firstly, a morpheme is the smallest unit of sound that signifies meaning. You’d probably think that the smallest unit of meaning would be the word but this gives rise to a number of problems. For example, the words ‘swim’ and ‘swims’ are different, even though the words are clearly related and also follow a similar pattern to many other verbs in English. In English, we might say ‘I swim every morning’, but ‘Emma swims every morning’. In the first example, the word swim is what is called a free morpheme; in the second, the  -s attached to swim is a bound morpheme, in this case signalling the third person singular present indicative active of the verb to swim.

Free and bound morphemes are mutually exclusive. ‘Swim’ is a free morpheme and can stand or occur alone; bound morphemes, like the -s and -ed, on the other hand, are not ‘free-standing’ and need to be bound or linked to other morphemes. The convention is to indicate this by using a hyphen to follow a morpheme that precedes another morpheme, such as in the word unhappy, in which the bound morpheme, a prefix, would be indicated un- (happy). Similarly, when a bound morpheme follows another morpheme, this is shown by a hyphen which precedes the bound morpheme, such as we see in the case of (swim) -s.

In English, words can be formed by combining morphemes to create new words. Here are some examples:

Compound words, such as ‘stairlift’ and ‘graveyard’, both combine two free morphemes.

‘Lightly’ is a combination of ‘light’ and -ly, a free and a bound morpheme.

The example ‘conjoin’ puts together the bound morpheme ‘con-‘ with the free morpheme ‘join’.

We can further distinguish between the two types of bound morpheme: inflectional and derivational.

Regular English verbs, such as ‘film’ and ‘limp’, are free morphemes, which provide a ‘base’ for inflections and which change their meaning. Thus, we have ‘films’, ‘filming’ and ‘filmed’, and ‘limps’, ‘limping’ and ‘limped’. Similarly, nouns can be inflected to resonate a change in number and gender. [In languages, such as Spanish and Italian, pronouns and adjectives also inflect to indicate a change in number and gender.] So, an inflectional morpheme can change a verb’s tense, aspect, mood, person and number. However, inflections don’t change the basic meaning of the word.

Derivational morphemes, such as un- and -er, on the other hand, alter significantly the meaning of ‘base’ forms inasmuch as they form different words. For example, the meaning of ‘unimportant’ is the converse of ‘important’. Similarly, the addition of -er changes not only the meaning of a word but often the word class: for example, the verb ‘help’ becomes the noun ‘helper’ when the suffix -er is added.

I would expect anyone teaching phonics to begin introducing the idea of morphemes in the concrete context of teaching reading and writing. At a fairly simple level, this is easy to do as, in the words of David Crystal, ‘most children give the impression of having assimilated at least three quarters all the grammar there is to learn’ by the age of between four and five years. There is then a point at which the teaching of morphology can run in parallel to phonics teaching but it doesn’t precede phonics teaching and in fact, because of the complexity of conceptual understanding of how the alphabet code works, morphology shouldn’t be taught in tandem with phonics teaching when children are in the early stages of beginning to read.

When older children who have fallen behind and are being taught as an intervention, it goes without saying that bringing together phonics teaching with meaning, etymology, morphemic analysis, and so on is likely to enhance interest while deepening knowledge. It’s what knowledgeable phonics teachers have always done.

The primary function of our writing system is to represent the sounds of the language one at a time from left to right across the page. This starting point enables teachers to base their teaching on a finite number of sounds in English, which happens to be around forty-four, depending on accent.

Teaching children morphology first makes absolutely no sense at all. Even at its most rudimentary level, the teaching of simple inflections, which, of course, children are able to employ in their everyday speech by the time they arrive in primary school, makes no sense if children haven’t had fairly considerable instruction in learning the code, the skills required to be able to use it, and the beginning of conceptual understanding of the way in which the code works. To take a simple example, the spelling < ng > in the bound morpheme -ing is, for most children, a two-letter spelling of a single sound. Teaching its function as a present continuous verb ending (‘The girl is running.) or as a gerund (‘Running on the grass is not allowed.’) when, in fact, most children use these forms spontaneously in everyday talk is a step too far and is likely to result in cognitive overload. Much easier is to teach the spelling of the sound /ng/ in the context of single-syllable (root) words, such as ‘ring’, ‘sing’ and so on and then go on to teach it later in the context of two-syllable words while, at the same time, discussing its morphological significance.

Similarly, teaching children the word ‘orthodontist’ by way of the word’s morphemic structure first would lead them to ‘ortho-’ ‘don’ and ‘-ist’ (literally ‘correct’, ‘tooth’ and ‘a person who does (something)’. This is to place the morphological cart before the syllabic horse.

When writing, children would break the word into its syllables or | tho | don | tist, think about how to spell each sound in each syllable until they got to the end of the word. When reading the word, they must decode each spelling into a sound, combine the sounds until they’ve got a syllable and, after all the syllables have been decoded, read the word. Only once that has been done and possible errors have been corrected, can we then talk about the structure and the meaning of the word in morphological terms, i.e. two affixes and the root ‘don’.

In addition to further fine-tuning the teaching of polysyllabic words and the scope and sequence of vocabulary teaching throughout these years, our new Years 3 to 6 course covers these areas of morphology and etymology.

3 thoughts on “Should we be teaching phonics or morphology as a first step to teaching children to read and write?

    1. Yes, thanks, though who uses ‘hap’ any more other than people performing (mostly) Shakespeare’s plays? There is, of course, ‘hapless’, which is still used in modern discourse. But, knowing the root doesn’t help a young child read or write it and, in that context, the first step would be to teach ‘hap’, the CVC word – if it was thought useful and it is a highly infrequent word – and then teach the suffix -y for the sound /ee/.

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