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Morphology - Key to Teaching Reading Across the Curriculum

Understanding morphology greatly simplifies learning vocabulary terms and also aids in spelling. Every teacher should have a basic understanding of morphology and how to leverage morphemes for introducing the vocabulary words related to her subject.

I will first provide a bit of background and then demonstrate the power of morphology for content teachers.

English words are comprised of two components: phonemes and morphemes. The phonemes are the sounds used to pronounce words. Phonemes are described in writing through phonograms - one, two, three, or four letters that represent a sound. Knowing the phonograms is the foundation to reading and spelling.

English words, however, are morpho-phonemic. This means that the spellings represent both sound and meaning. The morphemes in a word are the units of meaning. Recognizing morphemes can greatly reduce rote memorization, expand students' knowledge of English, and teach students critical thinking skills about language.

For example, in an elementary math class, many students struggle to memorize how many quarts are in a gallon. However, all we need to do to help them is to tie "quart" to its root meaning "four."

We can do this by having students see other words where "quart" means "four." Such as:

quarter - There are four quarters in a dollar.

quarter - If we cut something in 1/4's, it is called quarters.

quartet - There are four musicians in a quartet.

quarter to; quarter after - When we divide a clock into 1/4's we talk about time in quarters.

quarterly - Something that happens four times per year.

Almost every time I speak about morphology, a participant will raise her hand and say, "I never noticed that before about the word quart." Most English speakers simply haven't been taught that English words are comprised of morphemes or how to leverage this knowledge to reduce rote memory work.

Morphology is particularly useful in science. This is because a majority of scientific terms are derived from Latin. I have been told by my friends who are physicians that their co-workers who took Latin in school had a much easier time in anatomy than those who did not. This is also true for law and history. However, we do not necessarily need to add Latin back into our curriculum for students to benefit from this information if we teach roots in our classrooms.

Here are a few examples:

Let's say we are in chemistry class and the teacher is introducing "endothermic" and "exothermic." We should ask the students what root they notice these two words have in common. They both use the root "therm." We can then ask students to consider what words they know that have "therm" in them.

thermos

thermometer

thermostat

Notice all these words are related to heat.

We can then ask students to consider the prefixes. What words do they know begin with "ex-."

exit - to go out

extend - to reach out

express - to speak out

exoskeleton - a skeleton on the outside

(Here we can make a link between chemistry and biology.)

Therefore "exothermic" is a reaction where the heat moves out.

Endo-, which means "in," is more obscure. However, we can still create links to other scientific terms. For example an endoskeleton is one on the inside. We can also draw connections to endoplasm and endosperm. Therefore an endothermic reaction is one that draws heat in.

These are just a few examples of how morphology can enhance the teaching of vocabulary.