What Is Morphology and What Role Does It Play in the Literacy Classroom?

Savvas Insights Team

Learn how teaching morphology can improve student reading achievement.

Now that the Science of Reading is becoming more mainstream in early reading instruction across the country, educators are beginning to ask how they can use this important research beyond phonemic awareness and phonics instruction with students in the upper grades.

As students enter grade levels where reading is assessed on state standardized tests — often 3rd grade — a simultaneous shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” is taking place. Students are expected to go beyond word recognition and fluent decoding to comprehend and extract meaning from a variety of text types and then apply that knowledge across contexts. While these reading-comprehension tasks are measured on state assessments and used as a benchmark for our nation’s educational literacy health, they are also critical life skills.

Recent NAEP reading assessment scores have revealed concerning gaps in students’ abilities to complete these tasks — effectively comprehending and synthesizing information from texts is proving to be a continual struggle for many students as they move through upper grades.

These challenges can stem from many root causes, including difficulties in decoding complex vocabulary and understanding the structure of words encountered in more difficult texts.

Can instruction in morphology provide a promising solution to addressing these gaps? In this blog we will discuss what the Science of Reading says about the benefits of morphology instruction, what it doesn’t say, and how it can be applied in the classroom.

Morphology, Morphological Awareness, and the Science of Reading

Sometimes the terminology surrounding the Science of Reading can be overwhelming and a roadblock to accessing evidence-based strategies for instruction. So to get started, let’s dive into some straightforward, easy-to-understand definitions related to morphology.

Morphology is the study of morphemes, or the smallest units of meaning within words and how they go together. A related term — morphological awareness — is the ability to recognize that words are made up of smaller units of meaning, such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots.

What is morphology and morphological awareness?

Roots are essentially the base of a word and hold the most basic meaning. Oftentimes, roots cannot stand alone, but need a prefix and/or suffix to create meaningful words. A prefix is a small word part added at the beginning of a root to alter its meaning. Similarly, a suffix is also a small word part that alters the meaning of a word, but it is added to the end of a root. There are two types of suffixes: inflectional (e.g., -ed, -s) and derivational (e.g., -tion).

Here is an example of morphology to tie it all together: the word unhelpful is made up of three morphemes: the prefix un- meaning not, the root word help, and the suffix (derivational) -ful meaning capable or full of. Ultimately the meaning of the word unhelpful can be established as not able to help. In this case, the root help is able to stand on its own.

So why is it important to understand morphology? How does it relate to the Science of Reading? And can morphology instruction improve student multisyllabic-word reading, vocabulary knowledge, and reading comprehension?

Increased Vocabulary Demands for Students

As students progress into the upper elementary grades, typically defined as grades 3-5, the demand for vocabulary knowledge and comprehension significantly increases across all subject areas.

In these grades, students are exposed to more complex text with multisyllabic words, more sophisticated vocabulary, longer sentences, and denser information. They are required to understand and analyze these texts effectively — state literacy standards often explicitly address these skills — which requires a deeper understanding of vocabulary.

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Students will also encounter more difficult subject-specific terminology in areas such as science, social studies, and mathematics. Vocabulary knowledge in these specific content areas is crucial for comprehending the information presented, and participating in related problem solving, discussions, and activities. Morphology awareness can help students in mastering content-specific vocabulary.

What Does the Science of Reading Research Say About Morphology Instruction?

According to multiple research studies (Bowers, 2010; Goodwin, 2013; Liu, 2024; and Reed, 2008), morphology instruction can have a moderately positive impact on literacy skills. Specifically, students who have stronger morphological awareness may be better able to decode words, determine word meanings and decipher/remember correct word spellings. Morphological awareness is also correlated with stronger reading comprehension.

What is less clear is the most effective type of morphology instruction: how much should be taught, in what order, and which students (and their grade levels) is it most effective for, such as those who are developing on grade level, as well as those with learning disabilities or are multilingual learners. Studies are still needed to help answer these questions and inform best instructional practices.

One method of morphology instruction that has been studied is known as Structured Word Inquiry, or SWI (Bowers, 2010). SWI is essentially a word investigation where students study the spelling of words while considering morphology, etymology (word origins), and phonology. This investigation process includes the use of word matrices and word sums. Studies of Structured Word Inquiry have had mixed results.

Structured Word Inquiry is a method of morphology instruction where students study the spelling of words using word matrices and word sums

In general, the overall research on morphology instruction draws a few tentative conclusions. Explicit morphology instruction within the context of text and in conjunction with rich vocabulary instruction has the potential to be beneficial for students for decoding, spelling, and reading comprehension. Thoughtfully considering a scope and sequence for morphology instruction — for example, high-utility inflectional suffixes (e.g., -ed, -s, -er) being taught earlier — can play a role in its success. Morphology instruction can be particularly useful for older students who struggle with reading.

Overall, there is not clear empirical evidence as to a best method for morphology instruction or a one-size-fits-all scope and sequence. Educators must consider the development and needs of their individual students first and foremost.

Why Is Teaching Morphology Important to Classroom Instruction?

Early morphological awareness instruction can be important in elementary classrooms because it can support emergent readers in decoding, spelling, and understanding words with high frequency inflectional suffixes such as -ed, -s, -es, -er, and -ing. This type of instruction can be introduced in the early grades; however, researchers are still debating exactly which morphemes to teach and when, in a phonics scope and sequence, it would be most appropriate or effective. It is important to note that morphology instruction is not a replacement for phonics instruction, but an additional high-yield strategy.

As students move into the upper grades of elementary school, continuing morphology instruction beyond whole-group phonics instruction can be important because it has the potential to benefit students in decoding, spelling, and comprehending multisyllabic words, as well as content-specific vocabulary. Morphology instruction can become more sophisticated — including Greek and Latin roots in addition to more advanced prefixes and suffixes — to align with increasing vocabulary demands in grade-level texts. Students can learn how to analyze unfamiliar words by breaking them down into morphemes and using the knowledge of word parts to infer meanings and remember spelling patterns.

Teaching morphology helps students learn how to analyze unfamiliar words.

By introducing more complex roots, prefixes, and suffixes, morphology instruction can also impact content beyond English Language Arts (ELA). Subject-specific vocabulary in areas such as science, social studies, and mathematics is often highly complex and by learning to identify relevant morphemes in words, students will theoretically be able to better understand word meanings in context.

For similar reasons, the benefits of morphological awareness can extend beyond the K-12 classroom into college-level coursework.

Can Morphology Provide a Promising Solution to Addressing the Gaps in Reading Achievement?

Overall, morphology is an instructional strategy that can positively impact decoding, spelling, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. While researchers continue to study the most effective method of teaching morphology, in general, incorporating explicit morphology into your ELA framework can be a beneficial way to impact student reading achievement.

Free Morphology Practice Activities

Put what you know about morphology into action and download these morphology practice activities from Words Their Way® Classroom.

Morphology Word Sort: Latin Root Words

Morphology Word Sort: Prefixes

Request a live demonstration of Words Their Way Classroom, and gain access to six more practice activities today!


  • Bowers, Peter & Kirby, John & Deacon, Hélène. (2010). The Effects of Morphological Instruction on Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Review of Educational Research - REV EDUC RES. 80. 144-179.
  • Goodwin, A. P., & Ahn, S. (2013). A Meta-Analysis of Morphological Interventions in English: Effects on Literacy Outcomes for School-Age Children. Scientific Studies of Reading, 17(4), 257–285. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2012.689791
  • Liu, Y., Groen, M., & Cain, K. (2024). The association between morphological awareness and reading comprehension in children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 42, Article 100571. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2023.100571
  • Reed, Deborah. (2008). A Synthesis of Morphology Interventions and Effects on Reading Outcomes for Students in Grades K–12. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice. 23. 36 - 49. 10.1111/j.1540-5826.2007.00261.x.