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Opinion31st October 2019

Can morphology help us meet the linguistic needs of our students?

Chris Fountain

Chris Fountain is a Design Lead at English Mastery. Before joining the team in 2019, Chris worked as the Key Stage 4 English Lead at a North London comprehensive school. He previously taught in Oxfordshire and South Korea. Whilst teaching in North London, Chris completed an MSc in Learning and Teaching at Oxford University.

I suspect you have never used the word “lachrymosity” in everyday conversation; it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I had never heard of it or seen it before when it appeared in an article I needed to share with my year 7 class as part of a Black Beauty scheme of learning. After quickly looking it up in a dictionary (it means crying, surprisingly), I dutifully glossed it for my students, taught the lesson and moved on.

Except, that was not the end of the story. At home, I quizzed my wife about the exciting new word I had discovered. Did she have any idea what lachrymosity meant? “Hmmm”, she replied, “lacrima is tear in Latin, so I suppose it has something to do with crying”. I was completely flummoxed: what was this magical deductive skill my wife had used?

It is now well understood that the vocabulary gap is one of the biggest factors affecting disadvantaged students. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds enter school with smaller vocabularies than their peers, and struggle to catch up as their enthusiasm for reading drops off.

Teachers are now encouraged to teach “tier-2 vocabulary”: high-utility words used across a range of contexts. It is not the everyday language of the playground (tier 1), nor the esoteric language of the textbook (tier 3), but the words we expect all professionals to utilise (evaluate, innovate, and specific are all good examples). Intensively teaching students these words is undoubtedly good practice. However, it is estimated students need to know 80,000 words by the age of 17. That roughly translates as 13 words per day from the day they were born. Is there really enough time to teach all those words?

This is where morphology enters the picture. Morphology is the study of how word parts combine to create meaning: prefixes (such as pre- and un-), suffixes (such as –able and -ion) and roots (such as duct- and terre-). Most of us have a working knowledge of prefixes and suffixes but are more at sea when it comes to roots. I certainly am.

Yes, we can recognise lots of words that feature “duct” (conduct, productive, deduct, abduct), but few understand what “duct” actually means (to lead), unless you were lucky enough to study Latin. My wife went to a grammar school and ended up studying Latin to A-Level. My vocabulary is probably larger than my wife’s, but her morphological knowledge makes it much easier for her to understand new words. Is it possible to pass this skill on to our most disadvantaged students?

There is small body of research that has attempted to answer this question. Researchers argue that teaching morphology can be preferable to teaching vocabulary because it achieves more: for every morpheme (prefix, suffix or root) taught, up to 10 new words can be learnt due to the connections students form. Unfortunately, there had not been any organised practitioner research in a British classroom to test morphology’s impact on students’ reading ability.

What happened?

I attempted to fill this research gap as part of my MSc. I taught one morphology lesson per week to my Year 11 English class. Teaching this class morphology was an attempt to close their disadvantage gap and give them the linguistic tools to succeed and flourish as readers. Sixteen of the seventeen students were from pupil premium backgrounds, and they had an average reading age of below twelve. I cared about them deeply and wanted them to be in the best place possible for their exams, but mock exams showed they were struggling to understand the extracts and pick apart individual words. They simply did not know enough words.

My intervention was straightforward; I taught seven morphemes per week, and students practised identifying and using them before I tested their understanding. By the end of this 10-week intervention students had learnt 70 new morphemes, encompassing a range of roots, prefixes and suffixes.

To assess the impact of my intervention, I used mock exam and reading age data from before and after the intervention. I also used a survey to examine students’ attitudes to reading: my hope was that students would enjoy reading more as they were able to access it more easily.

Initial results were encouraging – mock exam results and reading age data increased faster for students who participated in the intervention when compared with the other 150 students in their year group who took the same exams but did not learn about morphology. Student interviews were also positive: one student said morphological knowledge made them feel they “had a card up my sleeve if anything went wrong or if I didn’t get something in the exam”.

However, it is important not to confuse correlation with causation. My students had a lot of improvements to make, so it is not a massive surprise they made faster progress. Equally, there is no evidence these improvements were definitively caused by morphology. Student attitudes towards reading were also sobering: their enjoyment of reading declined during the intervention! It is not entirely clear why this happened, but one possible deduction is that students didn’t really like seeing reading and words as such a mechanical process.

Next steps?

Like many people in education, I have been guilty of looking for a quick-fix panacea for inequality. Morphology, unfortunately, is not that. But, morphology does provide clear guidance on how we can adjust our teaching to better meet the linguistic needs of our most disadvantaged students.

Language is obviously important, and when teaching vocabulary we should all focus on derivatives. If we teach them “invite”, but then do not introduce them to “invitation, inviting, re-invite, uninvited” we are missing out on an easy win for their vocabulary gains.

It is also essential that all teachers have strong knowledge of word parts. I am neither a Latin or Greek expert, nor will or should I reach my wife’s level of Latinate knowledge. What is helpful though, is if we can talk confidently about word parts and derivatives so we can help students make connections and see patterns.

For me, the most powerful conclusion of this intervention was the need for a multi-faceted approach to linguistic disadvantage. It is simply not possible to shift the vocabulary gap through one method. As educators, we need to combine tier-2 vocabulary with a focus on morphemes and derivatives, as well as establish a reading culture in the school. Reading for pleasure still needs to be a part of the mix so students are aware of the ultimate purpose of reading: loving books and gaining understanding from them. Morphology has a place in the classroom, but it needs to be part of a wider menu of initiatives to truly close the disadvantage gap.

English Mastery’s mission is to transform the way English is taught in UK classrooms. The curriculum provides teachers with the resources to help students master the ideas, concepts and stories that have shaped the world. Find out more on the English Mastery website.