In my younger years, I loved the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. This American superhero television series was part of 90’s pop culture. For those of you not in the know, the show was based around a team of youths who morphed into the Power Ranger superheroes – using their strength and agility to fight various enemies. Each had their own unique power and they combined together to battle larger opponents.

Now, what does this have to do with language? Well, language itself is powerful, but the building blocks within words can also be channelled into learning potential.

These small units of meaning are called morphemes and they cannot be divided into smaller parts, but they can be combined with other morphemes to change the meaning, function or usage of words.

Consider the word cat. This contains a single morpheme – a single unit of meaning. The word cats, however, consists of two units – the root word (base or stem) cat and the suffix -s indicating that there is more than one cat.

When we combine morphemes (roots, prefixes and suffixes) to form words, we call this morphology. Morphemes themselves are the building blocks of vocabulary and can play an important role in the way we approach the teaching of spelling and reading comprehension.

Just as the Power Rangers combine to battle opponents, so can we teach our learners to recognise and combine morphemes – supercharged tendrils of lexical information.

Language and meaning

So, how do you help your learners explore these meaning networks within language?

In the Foundation Stage, children learn to express ideas relating to different points in time. For example: “I like to jump” vs. “I jumped in the pool”.

Which is happening now? Which happened in the past? How do the words jump and jumped sound different when we speak them out loud? 

These morphological changes in words (e.g. the addition of an -ed suffix indicating past tense) are often learned implicitly through communication – hearing and sharing stories read aloud and absorbing language patterns in action.

Morphological knowledge is foundational as it helps children to express ideas more specifically when communicating for different purposes.

To strengthen this knowledge, play a simple game of ‘Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.’ Give children an action (e.g. smile, laugh) and ask them to use the word to share something that happened at each point in time. How did the word change? What stayed the same?

In KS1, children learn ‘compounding’ – fusing two or more root words together to create something new (doghouse, playtime). The morphology of the word compound helps us to explore its meaning; com- (a Latin root meaning ‘with’) can also be found in words like communicate and complement. Playing a compound-word matching game can be a fun inroad to this concept. Provide a range of familiar roots such as one, where, any, time, some, thing and discuss how words can be mixed and matched to create compounds with new meanings. Try them out in sentences.

Inflectional suffixes are also introduced in KS1. These change the function or purpose of the root but do not change the word class. These are explored in the following forms: 

  • plural (dog becomes dogs or box becomes boxes)
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  • possessive (the dog’s toy - as in the toy of the dog) *plural possession isn’t introduced until KS2 (the dogs’ toys - or the toys of several dogs)
  • tense – present tense (I walk), past tense (I walked), progressive tense (I am walking. I was walking) *the perfect tense is introduced in KS2 (I have walked. I had walked.)
  • comparative (small becomes smaller) and superlative (big becomes biggest).

Word families KS2

Just as the Power Rangers harness their skills and powers, by the end of KS1 children have a range of morphological tools with which to explore and connect language for more sophisticated purposes.

As they move into KS2, the focus shifts to word families as learners traverse the challenge of examining a range of prefixes and suffixes that can be used to alter the grammatical function of words. This is when vocabulary, grammar, spelling and comprehension begin to truly intersect.

Word families are groups of words with a common root. To investigate this idea, encourage learners to create a word web of related words with the target root at the centre.

Consider the scrib/script family (from the Anglo French scrit meaning to write) – words such as scribble, scribe, script subscription, prescribe, describe or description may be identified around the web. Now, tune children in to the morphemes within each word by segmenting them in morpheme frames. 

sub /  script /  ion

de /  scribe

These frames reveal opportunities to link associated words with shared morphemes – describe (descend, defer) or subscription (education, institution).

This is where the mighty morphing power of language truly shines – akin to the pinnacle moment in the show when the Power Ranges would shout, “It’s morphin’ time!”

The Power Rangers were always stronger as a team. This is the same when learning about words. Springboard and connect mental models of language by linking morphemes. Discuss and unlock connections and personal associations. The power is in the connection. This power to harness and transform our lexicon must reside with the learner. Strong morphemic knowledge can unleash this potential.

When teaching the range of affixes (prefixes and suffixes) in the KS2 curriculum, consider how to group morphemes based on meaning, usage and purpose. This will help to further mobilise connections between the teaching of vocabulary, grammar and spelling.

A large proportion of the KS2 curriculum focuses on derivational affixes – those which are added to root words and change the word class. Here are a few examples to consider:

  • verb to noun – enjoy/ enjoyment, educate/ education, teach/ teacher
  • noun to adjective – sense/ senseless, child/ childish, poison/ poisonous
  • adjective to adverb – sensible/ sensibly
  • noun to verb – garden/ gardening, identity/ identify, local/ localise

If learners can spot a familiar root word, access knowledge of the function of affixes and use syntactic (sentence structure) knowledge, they are on the road to more active comprehension.

Prefixes (another type of affix) are somewhat easier to teach as they do not result in spelling changes, but rather change the meaning of the root word.

Model connected thinking by introducing prefixes in meaning groups, for example: negation – in, im, il, ir, dis, un, de; numbers – uni, tri, bi; location – super, trans, post, sub.

Finally, consolidate knowledge of prefixes in upper KS2 by teaching Greek and Latin pairs such as: hyper/ super (above); hypo/ sub (below); di/ bi (two/ twice); hydra/ aqua (water); anti/ contr (against) and peri/circu (around).

Try out a KS2 morphology lesson plan KS2 morphology lesson plan from James Clements.

Use these strategies to help learners channel their inner Power Ranger – kick, punch and roundhouse your way to more focused vocabulary teaching. Go, go, vocabulary rangers!

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Morphology activites

Try these Morpheme Marvel challenges (part of my Word Power approach to vocab) to ignite morphemic awareness:

  • Think about words we’ve been learning together. Can you spot the root words?  Can you think of other words in a word family that are connected?
  • Look for prefixes in words. How does the prefix affect word meaning?
  • Spot the suffixes. How do suffixes change the function, use or word class of the root word?
  • Get ready for a morpheme shuffle! Write a range of prefixes, suffixes and roots on individual whiteboards. Choose a board and shuffle around to form, reform and discuss new words.
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  • Be a morpheme spotter. When you come across an unfamiliar word as you’re reading, look for a familiar prefix, root or suffix to help you unlock meaning.
  • ———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————— Kelly Ashley is a freelance English consultant based in Yorkshire and author of Word Power: Amplifying vocabulary instruction (2019). Follow Kelly on Twitter @kashleyenglish and see more of her work at kellyashleyconsultancy.wordpress.com