There’s a saying that if you give a man food, you will feed him for a day, but if you teach him to farm you can feed him for a lifetime. Believe it or not, the same principle can be applied to vocabulary instruction. Teaching students to be proactive wordsmiths rather than simply passive memorizers of definitions can empower them to tackle unknown words with confidence and, often, success.
Morphology, literally translated, is the study of form. Teaching students to zero in on the different parts that make up a word’s form allows them to use more than just context clues to understand its meaning. Teaching Greek and Latin roots is certainly a part of this. But morphology takes root study a step further by encouraging students to think about words they already know.
For example, imagine students come across the word "contradict". The meaning of this word is fairly simple to derive if one knows one’s Latin roots. But students can figure out this new word by comparing it with words that are already in their vocabularies.
First, the word must be divided into two parts, contra- and –dict-. Next, students should list words they know that contain either of those parts and make a list.
contra- : contraband, contrary, contraption
(And since “contra-“ is related to “counter-“ we can add: counterproductive, counterintuitive counterfeit, counterclockwise.)
-dict- : benediction, dictionary, predict, diction, dictate, dictator, verdict.
Now for the fun part: Turn students loose to try to figure out what each word part means based on the words they already know. After some thought, it becomes clear that if counterclockwise means “the opposite of clockwise” and counterproductive means “not productive,” contra- must mean “opposite of” or “not.” (This hypothesis should be checked against the other words: A contrary person is someone who has a negative attitude, and counterfeit money is the opposite of real money, so it fits.)
Similarly, a dictionary contains words, and a prediction is something you say will happen before it happens, so dict- must be related to words or speech. Put together, it can be deduced that contradict means “opposite of + speech” or, more elegantly, “to say something that goes against someone else’s words.” This is a good time to point out that some words students may list, like contraption as an example of a word with contra-, won’t really work; while morphology is a great tool, students need to know that they may have to work around some inconsistencies. This is a great lesson to learn, because that’s the way language works!
Morphology is a fantastic approach to teaching vocabulary because it takes the emphasis off of memorization and shifts it to authentic analysis of language. It is also empowering: Instead of feeling unprepared, students will be confident in the knowledge that they can reason through unfamiliar words. The focus in this case may be on contradict, but as a bonus, students have encountered all the other words their classmates have listed. In this way, they have the opportunity to teach each other new words and think deeply about what these words mean based on their structures.
Vocabulary flashcards may be a favorite method for cramming before a vocabulary test, but to gain true, lasting word knowledge, morphology is a far better approach. For a great way to make morphology more visual, look for Rod Winters’s 2009 article “Interactive Frames for Vocabulary Growth and Word Consciousness” in The Reading Teacher.