One of the most powerful methods for improving vocabulary is morphological instruction. Morphemes (more often called roots, prefixes, and suffixes) are meaning units that help students develop the word consciousness to determine the meanings of words. Even more exciting, morphological instruction can be generative, meaning that students can control their learning rather than the teacher controlling it.
Generative vocabulary instruction builds upon and expands students’ current vocabularies. It operates on the belief that students have background knowledge that we can build upon and use. Check out an example of student-generated words from a mini-lesson I taught on the roots “pend” and “pens” last winter.
In this example, I explicitly taught the word independent. Then, I showed students how pend or pens mean “hang” or “weigh.” Students generated words in small groups. Then we discussed how the words related to the meanings “hang” or “weigh.” Sometimes they didn’t — a situation referred to as “false roots.” However, most do. Then, I teach a few new words to students, relating the meanings of new words to “hang” or “weigh.” Students report that this helps them improve their word-solving skills as well as their understanding of vocabulary in every subject area.
Students move from “the known to the new,” or they identify words they already know which contain the target morphemes. Once students can connect the meaning of the morphemes to their current vocabulary, they are better able to connect and remember new words that integrate the morphemes (Bear et al., 2012; Flanigan, Templeton, & Hayes, 2012; Stygles, 2011). In addition, generative vocabulary instruction emphasizes the spelling-meaning connection (Flanigan, Templeton, & Hayes, 2012). Consistent spelling of morphemes helps students make connections between words, even when they are pronounced differently. For example, the words category and categorical are pronounced differently, although the spellings of the words demonstrate that they are closely related in meaning.
I am currently integrating this approach into a language learning framework I am using in an action research study for the Governor’s Teacher Network. My new study incorporates similar mini-lessons to the pend/pens one, yet now I am having students connect morphemes to words in their native language. The participants in my study are in an ESL class, and they all share Spanish as a first language. I’m excited about how improved morphological knowledge will affect these students’ vocabulary as whole. Below I’ve included a photo from our first mini-lesson on the prefixes com-, co-, con-, col- and cor-, which all mean “together” or “with.” Students have already generated great connections between words like concert (concerto), company (compania), and coordination (coordination).
Do you use morphological instruction into your teaching? Have you used generative vocabulary instruction before? What types of lessons and activities have especially benefitted your students?