Morphological Awareness: The Building Blocks of Language


Reading and spelling are written language skills. These written language skills, or literacy abilities, differ from spoken language skills because they require active thought (metalinguistic skills) to help accomplish them.1

To decode or spell unknown words, we often use these linguistic awareness skills:

In this article, I am focusing on morphological awareness and what speech-language pathologists should know as they integrate the skill into their educational and clinical practices.

What Are Morphemes?

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in language. For example, when we say or write the word cat, we are using one morpheme. When we say or write the word cats, we are producing two morphemes; the ‘s’ in the word adds extra meaning—more than one.

When we converse with others using spoken language, we constantly use morphemes; however, we are not thinking about those morphemes at all. But when we engage in reading or spelling, we do consciously think of morphemes. This latter skill is called morphological awareness: the conscious act of thinking about morphemes.2

Building Meaning with Morphemes

Morphemes can be base words, such as cat, jump, or blue, as well as affixes (prefixes and suffixes). Affixes, besides being considered as either prefixes or suffixes, can be categorized as inflections and derivations.

Inflectional morphemes are affixes that add meaning to the base word about time, such as -ing, or -ed, and quantity, as in the plural –s, which indicates more than one, or the comparative –er, which indicates relationship to another. Derivational morphemes modify the base word, typically changing its meaning and/or word class, such as when the –er suffix that signals “a person who does” is added to teach—the verb teach becomes the noun teacher.

Interestingly, the type of derivational morpheme attached to a base word can make it either easier or more challenging for readers and spellers to recognize the meaning relations between the two word forms. For example, it can be quite clear that a base word and its derived forms are related because they look and sound very similar, as with friend and friendly. Some base words and their derived forms are less clear because of a change in the sound of the derived form, such as with music and musician, or a change to its letters, as in silly and silliness. In some cases, both the sound and the letters in a base word are modified when creating its derived form, as in busy and business, which can make it more challenging for readers and spellers to recognize the meaning relations between the two.

Pediatric SLP HEP

Why Does Morphological Awareness Matter?

Why is it important to understand the meaning relation between base words and their inflected and derived forms? There are actually two reasons:

  1. When a reader attempts to read an unknown, multimorphemic word, morphological awareness can be used to deduce the meaning of the word. For example, if I had never seen the written word magician but realized it may be related to magic, I might be more apt to decode the word and immediately assign meaning to it. On the flip side, if I had never spelled magician but knew it was related to the word magic and I knew how to spell magic, I might have a better chance of spelling magician correctly the first time I spelled it.
  2. Starting at about third grade, for every simple base word, there are about four multi-morphemic words.3 This means that morphological awareness helps increase one’s vocabulary.

Being knowledgeable about morphological awareness can truly help educators and specialists who teach and/or help remediate reading and spelling skills. Teachers can instruct students about the use of morphological awareness as early as first grade.

Research has shown that when students are taught explicitly about morphemes and how to use that awareness for reading and spelling, they do so.4, 5 Assessment and intervention with students struggling in the area of morphological awareness shows they can improve those skills and apply them to reading and spelling.6, 7 Both educators and specialists can help students by integrating morphological awareness instruction into their repertoire of assessment and instructional practices.

To learn more about morphological awareness and other important factors in developing language and literacy, watch all of Kenn Apel’s MedBridge courses on spelling and word-level reading.

  1. Apel, K. & Apel, L. (2011). Identifying intra-individual differences in students' written language abilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 31(1), 54–72.
  2. Apel, K. (2014). A comprehensive definition of morphological awareness: implications for assessment. Topics in Language Disorders, 34(3), 197–209.
  3. Anglin, J. M. (1993). Vocabulary development: a morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 58(10), Serial No. 238.
  4. Henbest, V. S., Apel, K., & Mitchell, A. (2019). Speech-language pathologist-guided morphological awareness instruction in the general education classroom. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 4(5), 771–780.
  5. Wolter, J. A., Wood, A., & D’zatko, K. W. (2009). The influence of morphological awareness on the literacy development of first-grade children. Language, Speech, & Hearing Services in Schools, 40(3), 286–298.
  6. Apel, K., Brimo, D., Diehm, E., & Apel, L. (2013). Morphological awareness intervention with kindergarteners and first and second grade students from low SES homes: a feasibility study. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 44(2), 161–173.
  7. McLeod, A. N. & Apel, K. (2015). Morphological awareness intervention: study of a child with a history of speech and language impairment. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 36(4), 208–218.