Breaking Down Words to Build Meanings: Morphology, Vocabulary, & Reading Comprehension in the Urban Classroom

by Amira Smale, June 2014

900 words

3 pages



This paper observed Spanish- speaking English language learners and native English speakers’ ability to use morphology to attack complex words and improve reading comprehension in the fourth and fifth grade. It also explored how the relationship changed between the fourth and fifth grade.

As vocabulary demands of text increase in the upper elementary and middle school grade, many students struggle with comprehension, especially those in the content fields. When encountering a new word, many students have an unclear notion of what the word intended to convey and others may not identify the word at all. As an outcome, students’ understanding of a text may suffer. Even when teachers make appropriate scaffolding available for use with relation to decoding these words by reading them audibly, students with limited vocabularies may not be able to access the meaning of the text.

To identify word learning strategies that will best equip students to comprehend text, researchers have investigated the strategies that successful learners use naturally. Kieffer and Lesaux (2007) identified one such tool called Morphology. The word morphology can be broken down into two meaningful parts morph-meaning the shape and -ology meaning the study of (Kieffer & Lesaux, 2007). Morphology in language and reading refers to the study of the structure of words. There are two types of morphemes: bound morphemes and unbound morphemes. Bound morphemes are prefixes and suffixes that can cannot stand alone as words (e.g., geo, re, -ity, etc.). Bound morphemes that are suffixes are called inflection morphemes (e.g., -ed and -s). It changes the tense or number of a word without changing its part of speech. Derivational morphemes such as –ity and -tion changes the part of speech. Unbound morphemes are roots within more complex words that can stand alone as words (e.g., popular). Therefore, understanding word structure can be a powerful tool for students who have difficulty understanding academic vocabulary. A large number of the unfamiliar words that students encounter in school can be understandable if students knew the more common roots and could break the word down.

Kieffer and Lesaux (2007) examined Spanish- speaking English language learners and native English speakers’ students’ ability to use morphology to attack complex words and improve reading comprehension in the fourth and fifth grade. Then compared how this relationship changed between fourth and fifth grade. The data was collected from 111 students (87 Spanish- speaking English Language Learners (ELLs) and 24 native English speakers in a large urban school district in southern California. The students understanding of morphology were assessed by asking them to extract root word from a complex word to complete a sentence (e.g., students were given popularity and asked to complete “The girl wanted to be very _____”. Then students were given a wide range of standardized tests to assess reading comprehension tests, word reading fluency, and vocabulary Kieffer and Lesaux (2007):

Reading comprehension were assessed with Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery- Revised.

A cloze test in which student provide a word …

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