Years ago I gave a talk about spelling for Learning Difficulties Australia, focussing on how phonemes (speech sounds) are represented by graphemes (the spellings of these sounds).
At question time, someone asked me whether morphemes matter for spelling. Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in language. Short words (e.g. cat, red, help) often contain only one morpheme, but longer words (e.g. catflap, reddish, unhelpfulness) usually contain more than one meaningful part (e.g. cat + flap, red + ish, un + help + ful + ness).
Typical school-aged children who know the words swim-swimmer and dance-dancer can infer that the person who does the gazumping is the gazumper. If they know funny-funnier-the funniest and Roald Dahl teaches them “plussy” (adj: full of life and energy), they’ll be able to call extra-enthusiastic types plussier and the plussiest. The classic Wug Test established this in the 1950s.
I replied that word structure is part of our oral language system, which kids usually learn naturally, unless they have language problems like Developmental Language Disorder (see DLD and Me or RADLD for more on this). I added that most bound morphemes are spelt in fairly predictable ways, so they’re not hard to spell.
However, kids’ brains aren’t wired to naturally learn the special spellings we use for morphemes, or spelling changes often required when morphemes join (e.g. when adding vowel suffixes in words like big-bigger, ride-rider and funny-funnier), so I was wrong, mea maxima culpa. Special spellings for common morphemes should be taught, along with their meanings/effect on words.
For example, the unstressed syllable we add to verbs to show who or what is doing them (swimmer, blender, gazumper) is usually spelt ER, not OR (except in a few words like actor, sailor and governor) or AR (except for a few words like beggar, burglar and liar).
We add the unstressed syllable MENT (not MANT, MINT, MONT or MUNT) to verbs to make them into nouns like “embarrassment” and “excitement”. Not all kids can work this out by themselves, particularly kids with oral language difficulties.
Knowing about Latin “dict” meaning “say or tell” helps you better understand and spell words like “predict”, “contradict”, “verdict”, “dictate”, “indict”, “edict” and “benediction” (we’ve been making free telehealth-friendly WordWall activities you might like to try, including some on Latin/Greek roots).
You might be aware that some people argue kids should learn morphology INSTEAD of phonics. My suggested reading about this is this very sensible blog post by Greg Ashman. Our words all have phonemes and graphemes, and most of them also have more than one morpheme. A well-planned teaching sequence that attends to both word structure and word meaning helps kids understand, remember and use words. There is no need to choose.
Some phonics programs started out with morphology under-done, as I did, but most of the good ones now quickly teach at least regular inflectional morphemes (plural, possessive and third person -s, present participle -ing verbs, past tense -ed verbs, past participle -en verbs, and comparative -er and superlative -est, see this 2015 blog post for more on this) and those that extend beyond the early years typically work on word-building.
Excellent Melbourne Speech Pathologist Nathaniel Swain has alerted the DDOLL network to a free US webinar called “Best friends: why phonology and morphology should always stick together”, which I thought looked interesting (thanks, Nathaniel!):
Sadly (if I’m converting time zones correctly), it’s at 9am this Thursday our time, and I have an appointment then, so have realised I can’t attend. Perhaps you can, and check it out. I’d be very interested to hear what you think, and others might be too, if you put your comments below.
The photo I used to create the featured image for this post is from https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-eqrnr