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Mass Literacy

Vocabulary and Morphology

Reading is the act of processing text in order to derive meaning. To learn to read, children must develop both fluent word reading and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). Language comprehension encompasses vocabulary and morphology, knowledge, syntax, and higher-level language skills.

How Vocabulary and Morphology Contribute to Reading Development

Vocabulary refers to "all of the words of our language. One must know words to communicate effectively. Vocabulary is important to reading comprehension because readers cannot understand what they are reading without knowing what most of the words mean. Vocabulary development refers to stored information about the meanings and pronunciation of words necessary for communication" (Florida Center for Reading Research Glossary of Reading Terms).

"[T]he role of vocabulary in academic success increases through the grades, and that early vocabulary knowledge predicts reading comprehension skill in later grades" (Pierce, Wechsler-Zimring, Noam, Wolf, & Tami Katzir, 2013).

Morphology refers to "the knowledge of meaningful word parts in a language (typically the knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and/or roots and base words)" (Foorman et al., 2016 ). Knowledge of word structure and how words are formed is linked to both greater vocabulary development and stronger reading comprehension (Prince, 2009; Wolter & Green, 2013). Research has shown that in children as young as first grade, knowledge of word parts has influenced their literacy development (Wolter, Wood, & D'zatko, 2009).

Promoting Vocabulary and Morphology Development in the Classroom

Vocabulary and morphology knowledge are supported by explicit teaching in word meaning, word parts, and spelling. "Current vocabulary research confirms the benefits of explicit teaching over implicit teaching in promoting vocabulary development" (National Reading Technical Assistance Center, 2010 ). Also, "teachers need to show the spellings of new vocabulary words when they discuss their meanings. Students need to stop and pronounce unfamiliar words rather than skip them during independent reading" (Ehri & Rosenthal, 2007). "Instructional implications are that teachers should include written words as part of vocabulary instruction and that students should pronounce spellings as well as determine meanings when they encounter new vocabulary words…Students who see the spellings of words actually learn the meanings of the words more easily — orthographic knowledge benefits vocabulary learning" (Rosenthal & Ehri, 2008).

When teaching vocabulary, activities that support deeper understanding allow students to:

  • make connections between a new vocabulary word and other known words
  • relate the word to their own experiences
  • differentiate between correct and incorrect uses of the word
  • generate and answer questions that include the word (Foorman et al., 2016 )

To support students with vocabulary and morphology, teach word parts: roots, prefixes, suffixes, tenses, and plurals. See the Basic Morphology section of this sample LETRS scope and sequence for Word Study, Spelling, and Reading.

Selecting Vocabulary for Instruction

When selecting vocabulary for instruction, approaches that support students to make connections and build knowledge include:

  • Focusing on new word meanings from oral sources such as content rich read alouds (Beimiller, 2015)
  • Deriving vocabulary from content learning materials so students can readily use them in many contexts (National Reading Panel, 2000)
  • Presenting words in integrated contexts to support students in remembering not only the words themselves, but the linkages in meaning between them (Wright & Neuman, 2014)

Additionally, the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities recommends targeting words that are

  • essential to understanding the main idea of the text or unit,
  • used repeatedly or frequently encountered across domains, and
  • not part of students' prior knowledge.

Resources to Support Selection of Vocabulary for Instruction

Examples of Evidence-Based Vocabulary Strategies

Learn More about Vocabulary and Morphology

Considerations for Students Learning English

English learners should have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all literacy instruction. The WIDA Can Do Descriptors highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development.

Taking Bilingualism into Account

While vocabulary instruction is important to all learners, explicit vocabulary instruction with second language learners has bigger impacts on learning than usually reported for first language students (August et al., 2008).

Supports for English Learners


August, D., Beck, I. L., Calderón, M., Francis, D. J., Lesaux, N. K., Shanahan, T., Erickson, F., & Siegel, L. S. (2008). Instruction and professional development. In D. August, & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing reading and writing in second-language learners: Lessons from the report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth (pp. 131–250). New York: Routledge.

Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014–4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website: Product Search.

Beimiller, A. (2015). Which words are worth teaching? Perspectives on Language and Literacy. Summer 2015. The International Dyslexia Association.

Ehri, L.C., & Rosenthal, J. (2007). Spellings of words: A neglected facilitator of vocabulary learning. In Dorit Aram & Ofra Korat (Eds.) Literacy development and enhancement across orthographies and cultures, pp.137–152.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the national reading panel: Teaching children to read: reports of the subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Hogan, T. P., Adolf, S. M., & Alonzo, C. N. (2014). On the importance of listening comprehension. International journal of speech-language pathology, 16(3), 199–207.

Pearson, P. D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317–344.

Pierce, M.E., Wechsler-Zimring, A., Noam, G., Wolf, M., & Tami Katzir, T. (2013). Behavioral problems and reading difficulties among language minority and monolingual urban elementary school students. Reading Psychology, 34(2), 182–205.

Prince, R.E.C. (2010). Making the words add up: How morphology — viewing words as a combination of parts — can become an instructional tool for building reading skills. Usable Knowledge.

Rosenthal, J., & Ehri, L.C. (2008). The mnemonic value of orthography for vocabulary learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(1), 175–191.

Wolter, Julie A.; Green, Laura. Morphological awareness intervention in school-age children with language and literacy Deficits: A case study. Topics in Language Disorders: January/March 2013, (33)1, 27–41.

Wolter, J. A., Wood, A., & D'zatko, K. W. (2009). The influence of morphological awareness on the literacy development of first-grade children. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools, 40(3), 286–298.

Wright, T. & Neuman, S. (2014). The magic of words: teaching vocabulary in the early childhood classroom . American Educator.

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Last Updated: February 16, 2023

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