Faculty of Education

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Morphology Improves Literacy Development

In their studies on children's literacy development, Dr. John Kirby and Ph.D. student Peter Bowers find that morphology improves vocabulary acquisition, spelling, and reading ability.

Morphology: Morphemes are the smallest units that can carry meaning in a word. They include bases, affixes (prefixes or suffixes), and connector vowels.

As shown in the illustration, morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in words, and morphology is the study of how words are constructed from these units. Most adults know about morphology implicitly, but they only know about it explicitly if they have taken courses in Linguistics. Kirby and Bowers’ research suggests that many children (and their teachers) would benefit from enhanced explicit knowledge of morphology.

Morphology plays a significant role in children’s literacy development; in a number of developmental studies, Kirby has shown that children's understanding of morphology is a good predictor of reading success. Bowers’ M.Ed. and Ph.D. studies have shown that teaching morphology improves vocabulary and reading skills. Not only should teachers use morphology in their classes, parents should use it at home to improve their children's literacy development. And, the earlier the better: a meta-analysis shows that the effects are stronger for younger and less able children.

See recent papers by Kirby, Bowers and colleagues in the Review of Educational Research (2010) and Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal (2010, 2011).

Key Findings

  1. Children's understanding of morphology predicts reading success
  2. Morphology has a particularly strong role in reading comprehension
  3. Instructional programs that include morphology are more effective for literacy than those that do not

Further information: John Kirby and Peter Bowers’ WordWorks Literacy Centre.