How understanding roots and affixes improves literacy

Morphology is key to understanding new vocabulary

Explicitly teaching morphology – how words are made up – can unlock new vocabulary and unfamiliar concepts. Here, we look at:

how words are made up of roots and affixes
why morphology is key to literacy
common roots and affixes
how to teach roots and affixes
how Bedrock Morphology engages students and improves literacy

Download your free common roots flash cards

What is morphology?

In linguistics, morphology is the study of how words are put together. This includes:
1. how words are formed from morphemes (the smallest unit of meaning):
Roots: the primary component of a word – knowing the most common roots can help you figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words
Affixes: a combined term for prefixes (added to the start of a root) and suffixes (added to the end)
2. how words relate to other words – e.g. which roots they have in common

All words can be broken down into roots and affixes. When students know what the word parts ‘mis’, ‘calcul’ and ‘ation’ mean, they can work out that a miscalculation is something that has been counted incorrectly. Similarly, when they know what the word parts ‘auto’, ‘bio’ and ‘graphy’ mean, it’s easy to see that an autobiography is a life story that someone writes about themselves.

Even the word ‘morphology’ can be broken down – the root word ‘morph’ means ‘shape’, and the suffix ‘ology’ means ‘study’, so morphology means ‘the study of shape’.

Why is morphology key to literacy?

Knowing the most common word parts empowers students of all abilities to break words down and decode their meanings. As they independently decipher unfamiliar words, they unlock new vocabulary. This illuminates new concepts and improves literacy across and beyond the curriculum.

This means an understanding of morphology can:

Increase vocabulary – especially Tier 2 and 3 terms critical to academic success
Improve spelling – from helping students use the correct spelling of a prefix (like ‘in’ versus ‘im’) to spelling complex roots such as ‘psych’ or ‘socio’
Foster independence and confidence in decoding new words
Improve literacy by enhancing understanding of complex texts across the curriculum
Create an appreciation and enjoyment of the English language and written works
Prepare students for the next stage of their education

These aren’t the only reasons to teach morphology. It’s key to narrowing word gaps, as it gives students with smaller vocabularies the tools to break language down into composite parts. In addition, the ability to decode unfamiliar language is crucial in the unseen element of GCSE English papers, where students encounter new and unknown language.

What are the most common roots and affixes?

Many English root words have Greek or Latin origins:

Common Greek roots

auto self autobiography, automobile
bio life biology, biography
chron time chronology, chronic
graph to write biography, graphic
logy study of psychology, sociology

Common Latin roots

ambi both ambidextrous, ambiguous
aqua water aquarium, aquamarine
aud to hear audio, audience
cent one hundred century, per cent
dict to say dictate, dictator

Common prefixes

The four most commonly-used prefixes – un-, re-, in- and dis- – appear in 58% of all prefixed words (White et al, 1989).

un-, in-, im-, ir-, il-, dis-, non- not unhappy, indisposable, impossible, irrelevant, illiterate, disagree, nonfiction
re- again recycle, research
over- too much overthink, oversensitive
mis- wrongly misinform, misspell
pre- before prehistory, preview
sub- under submarine, subway

Common suffixes

The suffixes -s/-es and -ed are the most popular.

-s, -es more than one schools, buses
-ed past participle crossed, acted
-ion, -tion, -ation act or process submission, hesitation
-ly forms adverbs quietly, monthly
-ish to some degree tallish, happyish
-est forms superlative adjective cleverest, calmest

How Bedrock Morphology engages students and improves literacy

Bedrock Morphology has been designed for students of all abilities in Years 5-9. Over 13 topics, the scheme teaches 37 common roots (download our free flashcards), 38 prefixes and 32 suffixes. It also teaches key terms such as ‘morphology’, ‘consonant’, and ‘adjective’, plus spelling patterns like consonant doubling.

As well as assessing students’ understanding, quiz questions assess their ability to apply their learning in context. Learning objectives at the start of each lesson focus learning, while built-in consolidation lessons provide consistent recapping and ensure new skills are retained. Explicit teaching is combined with original prose that shows affixes in context.

Bedrock Morphology will launch in September 2021. To stay in the loop and learn more about how it can benefit your students, submit the form below.

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