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Morpheme Matrix

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

The Importance of Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary knowledge is a foundational literacy skill. As mentioned in our previous post, vocabulary is one of the strands highlighted in Scarborough’s Reading Rope that is an integral part of becoming a skilled reader.


If a child has a limited vocabulary, they will fall further and further behind their peers. This will initially present itself as difficulties in Language Arts but as other subjects depend more on reading skills, that difficulty will manifest itself throughout their academic experience. Successful readers have the added benefit of being exposed to more written vocabulary words because they can read more (Bowers & Kirby, 2009). So, the question again, where does that leave our struggling readers? How do we effectively bridge the gap?


It should come as no surprise, that English has a lot of words! So, when it comes to vocabulary instruction… what do we do? How do we ensure students are able to understand the meaning of the words they are reading? How do we teach all the words your child needs to know?


In this blog post I seek to address, one of the ways we target vocabulary instruction in our tutoring sessions.


There are two general approaches that teachers, parents, and tutors can take to vocabulary instruction. The “shallow but wide approach” which exposes students to about 10 words a day in the context of a story or the “rich and narrow approach” which seek to dive deep into the meaning and definition of significantly fewer words (Bowers & Kirby, 2009).


Alas, there is a third alternative. Morphology.

English is sometimes called a “morphophonemic language”. English uses phonics AND morphemes to communicate ideas.


Morphology is often accredited the ‘why’ a student who has never been taught a word knows it. It is estimated that 60% of student novel words can be worked out through problem solving using the morphological structure of the word and by analyzing the sentence.

We want students to recognize morphemes within complex words! When students see these morphemes they can understand complex word meaning… even in isolation. Noticing morphemes in words where the pronunciation or spelling changes due to spelling patterns, can make that tricky (Bowers & Kirby, 2009).


Carlisle (2003b) wrote, ‘‘Leaving morphological analysis to be discovered by students on their own means that those who are not inherently linguistically savvy are likely to be left behind their peers in the development of vocabulary, word reading and comprehension, and spelling’’ (p. 312).


Morphology and Generalizing

The best thing about morphology is that it allows students to generalize their knowledge to new vocabulary words.


Teaching Morphology creates order to the English spelling system. It has been shown to empower students to be creative problem solvers and it has even been shown to increase motivation for students to learn new words compared to the mundane one-at-a-time memorization of spelling (Bowers & Kirby, 2009).


Practically How Do We Do This?

A Word Matrix!


A word Matrix is a unique schematic diagram. When used correctly, students are explicitly taught morphological word families. For example, Bowers and Kirby (2009) created a ‘sign’ matrix with 18 different possible words using that root. While we explicitly teach some of them, students can explore and apply their knowledge. That way students get that “rich and narrow” AND that “shallow and wide”.


Another great thing is that it also links large word families in a very tangible and visual way (even if there are pronunciations). Recall, that students can have a difficult time identifying morphemes if the sound is altered (Bowers & Kirby, 2009).


If we substitute 20 vocabulary words with 20 different word matrices, students could be exposed to 196 words (Bowers & Kirby, 2009)!


At Latch Onto Learning, we would love to develop a program that not only aligns with the science of reading… but is custom built for your child!



Bowers, P. N. & Kirby, J. R. (2009) Effects of morphological instruction on vocabulary acquisition. Springer. 515-537.


Carlisle, J. F. (2003b). Morphology matters in learning to read: A commentary. Reading Psychology, 24, 291–332.



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