mor·​phol·​o·​gy |

  • The system of word-forming elements and processes in a language.
  • A study and description of word formation such as inflection, derivation, and compounding in language
  • One of the four universals of language and literacy which also include phonologysyntax and semantics
  • Building blocks of words

Putting it together for learners!


There are many languages in the world and they all have a structure for their concepts. Let’s break apart and put back together what we need to help our learners know about English morphology.

The same steps used to describe phonology are used for morphology: discrete units, categorize the units, classify the units and find the dependencies.

Discrete Units

Morphemes: the smallest groupings of letters that give a concept.  Some folks refer to them as the building blocks of words. For example, the word “brick” – you know, the rectangular red things many house and schools are built out of is a single morpheme. But an “s” is also a morpheme since when applied to brick it means more than one.

What’s important: Our learners who can recognize, separate them and then recombine these smaller parts and make connections have a better chance of increasing their vocabulary.

Categorize the Units

There are two units of morphemes: free and bound.

In the example above, brick, is a free morpheme – it has a meaning all by itself but the ~s is a bound morpheme since it is reliant upon or tied to something else to make sense.

As a general rule, most affixes are bound morphemes. They are added to other words and cannot stand alone.  Here’s where it gets fun; there are two types of affixes (yes – prefix and suffix, but you know about those already).

Inflectional affixes refine the meaning of a word without changing how it behaves in a sentence.  Add an ~s to brick, rabbit or chocolate and you still have the same thing, just more of them (bricks, rabbits, chocolates). 

Derivational affixes change the meaning or the way a word functions in the sentence. Derivational affixes can be prefixes (un+happy) or suffixes (kind+ness).

What’s important:  Helping learners differentiate between morphemes that can stand alone and others that cannot plus how they change, modify or refine a word when they are put together.

Group the Units

There are four groups of morphemes: simple, complex, compound, and compound-complex. Yes, just like types of sentences and they follow similar patterns. Words with one morpheme like brick are simple. When the word uses a free morpheme and a bound morpheme like bricks, it is complex. When the word is a combo of two free morphemes it is compound, ex: hotdog. Finally, when the word contains two free and one or more bound morphemes, it is compound-complexhotdogs. Look familiar? 

What’s important: Knowing the different grouping units and practicing them with your learners. And make it fun. Metacognitive think-alouds are a great way to help learners practice and work through these four groups. 


These basic patterns are easy.

A bound morpheme must have a friend – a base or root to make sense. Likewise, a prefix must have a friend – a base or root to form a word.

You can add one or more affix to a base or root, but the inflectional suffixes come before the derivational. For example: learners learn+er+s.

What’s important: Practice, practice and more practice. Model metacognitive thinking and reason for students and have them talk it out with you, their classmates and themselves.

Remember: It takes time to teach morphemes, prefixes, suffixes, roots, bases and all the things that get put together to form a word. It takes time, practice, repetition and more practice. It also takes seeing the words in context with other words and helping learners understand the nuances and patterns in forming and taking apart words to make meaning of all those letters on the page. 

Applications & Activity Examples

Discrete Units

(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Combining Units

Here are some activities focused on helping ELs and other learners recognize and work with affixes. 
(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

Grouping or Categorizing Units

(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.
Thanks for you patience.)


(Check back for more  as this is still under construction.  Thanks for you patience.)

More if You Absolutely Have to Know

The 8 Inflectional Affixes

Here are the 8 suffixes and the types of words they work with: nouns (add ~s, ~es or ~’s), verbs (add ~s, ~ed, ~ing, ~en) or adjectives and adverbs (add ~er or ~est).

Derivational Affixes

Prefix examples: dis~, un~, non~, in~, im~, ir~, and il~ all mean not. If a learner understands that these seven prefixes change the morpheme/s that follow, they will know that it isn’t the same or the opposite. For example: unnecessary means not needed. 
Suffixes are similar: ~ity, and ~ty mean the state/condition of. Bold becomes boldly, saint/saintly.

More Groupings

Additionally, words can be grouped semantically and syntactically, but you’ll need to go to those respective pages for that discussion.

Three forces that influence word meanings

Freeman and Freeman (2014) talk about the three forces that affect word meaning as phonological – changes in pronunciation, semantic – changes in meaning over time, and etymological – keeping archaic spellings  when pronunciation changes.

References & Resources

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2016). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (6th ed.). Pearson.

Curzan, A., & Adams, M. (2012). How English works: A linguistic introduction (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2014). Essential  linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and  grammar. (2nd ed.). Heinemann.

Helman, L., Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Invernizzi,  M., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way with English learners: Word study  for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (2nd ed.). Pearson.

Johnston, F., Invernizzi, M., Bear, D. R., &  Templeton, S. (2018). Words Their Way: Word Sorts for Letter Name –  Alphabetic Spellers (3rd ed.). Pearson.

Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2017). Building  literacy with English language learners (2 ed.). Guilford.

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