How to Boost Students’ Vocabulary: Part 2.

What Works? Research into Practice. MoE Research Monograph #41: Morphology Works 

Morphology describes how words are composed of meaningful parts. It is fundamentally related to semantics, but it also provides clues about how words should be written and pronounced.
1. Both the quantity and quality of word knowledge are very important.
2. Morphological awareness predicts reading development.
3. Teaching morphology increases vocabulary and reading achievement. (Kirby & Bowers 2012)

Improving students’ vocabulary through morphological awareness

Vocabulary knowledge and morphological awareness are intertwined. Being able to break words apart to find meaning is an important skill as students come across new words in the content areas (Green, 2015).

In 2000, the National Reading Panel identified vocabulary instruction as one of the five essential components of reading instruction, and a large body of research indicates the critical role vocabulary knowledge plays in reading comprehension (Manyak, 2014). Vocabulary knowledge is critical to the long-term literacy development of all students, and high-quality vocabulary instruction should be a priority for teachers across all grades. (Graves, et al 2014)

  • Students from low-income and non-English-speaking families, face a large deficit in English vocabulary knowledge upon entrance to and throughout their school years
  • the continuing deficit in vocabulary knowledge experienced by many students represents a major obstacle to academic achievement in vital areas such as reading comprehension (Manyak, 2014).



Approximately 70% of English words contain Greek or Latin prefixes, suffixes, or roots. By teaching students how to tap into this deep-rooted system of meaning that underlies most English words, we help them generate a more extensive and deeply grounded vocabulary (Flannigan et al, 2012).

Academic texts contain up to 200,000 different words and, the majority of words in academic texts are morphologically complex, which means that they are made of multiple units of meaning. These words “convey abstract, technical, and nuanced ideas and phenomena that are not typically examined in settings that are characterized by social and/or casual conversation. This makes them more formal and therefore less well known (Goodwin & Perkins, 2015).

As students progress through the school system, they are exposed to increasingly complex levels of content, therefore, they need more precise tools (i.e., academic vocabulary) and more knowledge of how those words are used within discipline-specific registers (i.e., academic language in content-specific texts). Research in content area vocabulary has demonstrated the effectiveness of teaching Greek and Latin word roots, especially for struggling readers (Padak, 2008).

Morphologically complex words can be divided into three major categories:

  1. Compounds – words are composed of two or more words (Dragonfly)
  2. Inflections – words with suffixed morphemes that denote tense (walked), number (boys), and adjectival comparisons (taller, tallest). (suffix does not change the meaning)
  3. Derivations – words are formed with roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Derivational morphological awareness is essential to word solving complex words. Green (2015) states :

  • while all three categories need to be taught, derivational morphological awareness, (the ability to use the understanding of word formation to gain meaning through the knowledge of roots and affixes) requires the most focus and attention as it is the most useful for solving word meaning and identifying grammatical function.
  • teachers should focus on high utility words that have a large lexical family* with cross-curricular applications since there are more opportunities to see the base…if the suffix is unfamiliar, root/base familiarity can assist in determining the meaning.
  • Teachers need to give students a multiple opportunities to connect with roots & affixes on a deeper level through interactive and hands-on activities rather than simply having them fill in worksheets.

Which roots and affixes should be taught?

Teachers, especially those teaching multiple subjects, sometimes feel overwhelmed with teaching content and wonder how they can possibly squeeze in vocabulary instruction on top of everything else they are responsible for. Spending just 5 to 10 minutes a day focusing on high utility root words, that have large lexical families, such as equi-, trans-, mono-, etc., (lists below) and morpheme-combining principles can help students quickly learn significantly more words than can be taught with traditional words lists. This not only helps students to rapidly expand their cross-curricular vocabulary, but also helps them to word solve unfamiliar complex words and improves spelling and comprehension. Goodwin & Perkins state: 60% of words can be figured out using knowledge of the units of meaning and 12 Latin roots and two Greek roots can be combined with prefixes to make up 100,000 words.

Take Action! from Graves, 2014
  1. Select  informational texts that contain  challenging vocabulary.
  2. Identify  complex words in the text.
  3. Identify the subset of these words that students need to understand the text or that represent important concepts in the content area represented by the text.
  4. Identify those words that students can infer the meanings of using their contextual or morphological analysis skills.
  5. Decide which of the words require in-depth instruction and which can be taught with brief explanations.
  6. Edit the lists for any given text  so there is a manageable number to teach, no more than 12 and preferably somewhat fewer.

Words that have a large lexical family* download list:  HIGH UTILITY ROOTS

1.Roots & Affixes

From Padak et al 2008

2.Roots & Affixes

From Padak et al 2008

3.Roots & Affixes

From Padak et al 2008

The Cognatarium  is a website that divides all of the listed English words into their constituent parts, or morphemes. The Cognātarium contains over 2,600 morphemes. Morphemes are listed alphabetically. You can type in a root word and it will generate a list of words with that root.  To access  The Cognātarium click here

Cognat.JPGROOT WORDS & AFFIXES: LISTS content-area-roots

What Works? Research into Practice. Research Monograph #41: Morphology Works .WW_Morphology (1)



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