The effects of morphological instruction in the higher EFL classroom

An empirical study

Project Report, 2018

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction
1.1 Interest in the current study
1.2 Morphology in the curriculum

2 Theoretical Background
2.1 The importance of morphological awareness
2.2 Morphology and the lexicon
2.3 Morphology in the higher EFL class

3 Research Questions

4 Methodology
4.1 Participants
4.2 The diagnostic test
4.3 Introduced morphological aspects
4.4 Procedure

5 Results
5.1 The diagnostic test
5.2 The final test
5.3 The questionnaire

6 Conclusion

Cited sources


1. introduction


The present study was realised during the first phase of teachers’ vocational training in Germany and seeks to observe the effects of morphological instruction in a class of the qualification level (Q1). A diagnostic test that was carried out based on some spelling mistakes in writing tasks during the first month of the training, suggested that learners lacked knowledge in some basic spelling changes in the area of derivational morphology (see also Results in 5.1). Also, when they were asked to draw lines between morphemes in some words, in order to control to what extent they can identify word components the degree of uncertainty was high. Given the fact that no explicit instruction on morphology ever took place in the class, it was decided to observe whether learners of higher classes can benefit from a morphological instruction (even if in this experiment the available time was too little) and what conclusions can be drawn from the results.


Teaching about word morphology in the EFL classroom is explicitly connected with vocabulary instruction. School curricula seem to pay little or no attention to this topic.1 In fact, knowing about the morphology of English words is not itself a learning goal to be achieved, but a strategy that facilitates the achievement of certain goals.2 The German curriculum’s guidelines for the integrated comprehensive schools in North Rhein-Westphalia imply only for the supportive so-called ‘extended’ course (E-Kurs) of the secondary level I (middle classes) some basic knowledge in word-formation processes when it says: ‘[Schülerinnen und Schüler] können die Bedeutung unbekannter Wörter unter Bezug auf Wortbildungsregeln erschließen.’3 When it comes to the secondary level II (higher classes—both in grammar schools and comprehensive schools) there is no similar reference to morphological instruction. Since the guideline for the secondary level I is not further explained with regard to its content or the amount of time to be spent on word-formation processes and related issues, it is the teacher who has to decide about it based each time on the learners’ needs. The fact that the above guideline concerns solely the supportive ‘extended’ course might falsely imply that teaching about morphology is an indicator of learners with dyslexia or other learning difficulties.4 On the contrary, as empirical studies have shown (see below), morphological instruction has in general a positive effect on the learning achievement of all learner types since learners gain a better understanding of how language works. Consequently, the absence of morphology from the EFL classroom, and particularly from the lower classes, may be judged as an underestimation—if not neglection—of this chapter in English language acquisition.

2. Theoretical framework

2.1 the importance of morphological Awareness

In the context of language learning morphological awareness is generally used to refer to learners’ implicit skills and knowledge of how words are inflected or derived following some standard patterns.5 By focusing on morphological functions learners are introduced to an order of the English spelling system, which contributes to problem solving as it connects vocabulary to spelling;6 on the contrary, when studying words through one-at-a-time memorisation many learners are not motivated to discover word structures. Those who begin to understand morphological structures can better observe the ordered spelling and meaning associations in words that morphologically unaware students would classify as irregular.

Due to the various levels on which literacy achievement can be affected with the contribution of morphological awareness, there has been a growing research interest in this area since the beginning of the century. Numerous empirical studies have shown that morphological awareness facilitates learning in the areas of (1) pronunciation, i.e. in better text and word reading (as a n compensatory strategy);7 (2) in orthography, i.e. spelling with a better understanding of morpho- o phonemic rules and without dry memorisation;8 and (3) word meanings, i.e. better understanding of the functions and meanings of word components.9 Morphology plays an important role in language learning already from early childhood on, due to the fact that by encoding base words and affixes as phonological units and by experimenting with word formations young children gradually learn not only their meanings and usage,10 but also engage themselves with metalinguistic functions. For instance, considering that a large amount of new vocabulary is constantly present in the higher EFL classroom (novels etc.), it makes sense to promote strategies for recognising word components in order to facilitate prediction of word meanings and functions of word classes. One problem that has been addressed in this area is the difficulty in determining which morphological approach is most effective for the desired result.11 Presumably both learners’ pre-knowledge of English and their learning motivation as well as the teacher’s personality are to be regarded as decisive factors for the quantity and quality of morphological instruction in the EFL classroom.


Morphology is the branch of grammar that focuses on word formation, word structures and the coinage of new words through analysis of their morphemes, the smallest functioning units that carry a meaning.12 The importance of morphological awareness lies in enabling learners to observe that a morphologically complex word consists of many smaller components with meaning. Since meaning is a key aspect in knowing and understanding, morphology plays a crucial role in research regarding how words and meanings are represented in our mental lexicon, which is “the stored mental representation of what we know about the lexical items in our language.”13 According to the most discussed theories, derivational words are not enlisted alphabetically as full words like in written dictionaries (Full Listing Hypothesis), but are rather decomposed in morphemes (Decompositional Theory) for reasons of economy of storage and for avoiding redundancy in the representation.14 The latter theory concerns mainly nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, due to that they are examples of word classes where a morphologically high complexity is often observed. In particular, this complexity involves the presence of various morpheme types like roots, prefixes and suffixes. A root carries the central meaning of a word and is defined as “the base form of a word which cannot be further analysed without total loss of identity.”15 For example, in the word impressions the root is press, because this is the least that can remain when all other elements, called affixes, are removed.16 The affixes that precede the root are called prefixes (im-), whereas those that follow the root are called suffixes (-ion, -s). One can observe, too, that the core meaning of ‘to press’ is metaphorically preserved in impression as ‘something pressed in our mind or memory.’ In this example with the prefix im- it is important to know that the letter m results from a phonetic and orthographic change of in- when the anteceding consonant is labial, i.e. pronounced with the lips.17

Thus, in- as a prefix can occur in alternative forms—called allomorphs— 18 among which are ir-, il-, im- and ig- depending on the anteceding consonant type.

To sum up, learning processes can be influenced in various positive ways, if planned morphological instruction can, too, influence the mental lexicon to identify word components and establish connections between morphemes and meanings. One might think for a while that word components are often transparent enough. Nevertheless, when talking about EFL it is believed that leaving morphological analysis to be discovered by learners on their own is likely to cause many of them to fail to achieve the same level of vocabulary, comprehension and spelling as their classmates.19 Thus, when talking about literacy achievements in a class, instruction is strongly recommended.


With the advancement to higher classes learners of English encounter gradually longer texts and more uncommon or complex vocabulary in various subject areas. In order to assist reading comprehension it is necessary to offer morphological instruction with the aim to enhance word recognition not only through the segmental understanding of words and how meanings change, but also through the recoginition of cross-linguistic features from the L1 such as borrowed words.20 It should be made clear, though, that morphological instruction does not aim at developing accurate word-prediction skills or at replacing the look-up of words in the dictionary. On the contrary, it mainly seeks to establish a linguistic awareness in a way that vocabulary acquisition does not depend on pure recalling from memory or on contextual hints, but additionally on morphemic meanings and on an organised understanding of word-formation processes and the interrelated phonetic changes. The expression ‘root awakening’ that Ebbers uses for the consequences of raising morphological awareness upon learners, refers to the development of self-efficacy and metalinguistic skills that are necessary when dealing with texts.21

3. Research Questions

The current study seeks to compare the results of a diagnostic test—before any morphological instruction or recap took place—to those of a final control test after the instruction. The first research questions can be formed as follows:

(1) Considering the score achievement in the two tests (diagnostic and final test) to what extent did the proposed morphological instruction through selected suffixes help the pupils (a) learn about orthographic changes in word-formation processes (suffixation); and (b) identify word components?

Given the fact that due to the curricular guidelines morphology-related exericises or instruction are absent from the higher EFL class, the questionnaire seeks to provide an answer to the following question:

(2) What conclusions can be drawn from the pupils’ evaluation of the experiment regarding both their interest in morphology and the effectivity of the instruction?


4.1 participants

The study was conducted in a class of the German qualification level 1 (Q1)—corresponds to a 12th-grade class in England—of an integrated comprehensive school in Bonn. 3 pupils (17,6 per cent) spoke German as L2 (n = 17, ages = between 16,5-17,5 years, 35 per cent male). The participants had quite different English learning backgrounds and, thus, different proficiency. Nevertheless, their learning motivation and co-operation seemed at first to have been positively influenced by the fact that morphological instruction during a long novel-reading period (Brave New World by A. Huxley was being read by that time) was an interesting pleasant variation. Finally, the class was quiet and the co-operation with the teacher also positive.

4.2 the Diagnostic test

As it was intended to check the status quo on selected morphological issues, no recap took place before the diagnostic test. The first task consisted of four sentences where the underlined verbs had to be changed to adjectives so that they match the pattern in-xxxx-able/-ible (see Appendix A4). It sought to control whether learners know what orthographical changes can occur after adding certain affixes to words. Some of these changes apply to verbs, too, when adding, for instance, tense endings. In the above pattern the following orthographic phenomena are involved: the finale dropping as in inescapeable; consonant duplication as in irregrettable; assimilation as in irregrettable; truncation (although quite rare) as in negotiatable; and the correct decision between the allomorphs -ablel-ible. Many words of such form occurred also in Brave New World.

The second task sought to check if learners can divide words into morphemes. This would show how well they can identify and understand word components, e.g. dis|trust|ful|ly, offer. In more ‘hidden’ morphemes like in offer (< Lat. ob + fer-) the learners do not actually need to know their etymology, but it would be enough if they already possess an ‘awareness’ through which they could determine a morpheme via paradigmatic relations to similar compounds such as refer, prefer, suffer etc22. Given the fact that many words are composed of Greek and Latin morphemes that most people do not recognise as separate parts of the words, this task may be considered difficult.23 Nevertheless, with a few exceptions the selected words were meant to be quite easy or medium for the intended purpose.

4.3 INTRODUCED MORPHOLOGICAL ASPECTS The four sessions were organised as follows:

Session 1: Some key theoretical aspects on word morphology were introduced here and they were accompanied by practice tasks. These included basic terms such as roots, prefixes, suffixes, and bound/free morphemes (see Appendix A1).24

Session 2: In the next step followed some practice in the diverse de-adjectival formations of the morpheme -able (see Appendix A2).23 Its choice was based on the fact, as already mentioned in 4.2, that it involves several orthographic changes and, besides, adjectives ending in -able occurred often in Brave New World. The learning effectivity is higher when the selected aspects are part of the pupils’ readings or even when they are more likely to be used in conversations.26

Session 3: Further common suffixes that occurred in the novel and created denominal or deverbal adjectives served as a basis for an exercise with nouns and verbs that could take one of the following endings: -ary/-ory, -ar, -ic/-al, -ous, -ive, -ant (see Appendix A3). It was taken for granted learners of this level recognise the above endings as adjectival endings. What is likely to be difficult here is to tell which ending has to be used to form an adjective from a noun or a verb.


1 Cf. Bowers and Kirby 2010, p. 516.

2 Cf. Elbro and Arnbak 1996, p. 213ff. For a brief overview of the goals set for the German integrated comprehensive schools, see Kernlehrplan für die Gesamtschule – Sek. I, 2004, p. 20; and Kernlehrplan für die Sek. II, 2014, p. 18.

3 Kernlehrplan für die Gesamtschule – Sek. I, 2004, p. 46.

4 Cf. Ebbers 2009, p. 8.

5 Cf. Elbro and Arnbak 1996, p. 223.

6 Cf. Bowers and Kirby 2010, p. 519.

7 Nunes et al. 2006; Lyster 2002. 8

8 Elbro and Arnbak 1996; Lyster 2002.

9 Chow et al. 2008; Zhang and Li 2016; Pacheco and Goodwin 2013, p. 542f. (adult learners).

10 Cf. Carlisle et al. 2010, p. 465; cf. Milton 2009, p. 113; cf. Bowers and Kirby 2010, p. 517f.

11 Cf. Pacheco and Goodwin 2013, p. 543.

12 Cf. Crystal 2008, p. 313f.; cf. Lieber 2009, p. 2.

13 Crystal 2009, p. 279.

14 Cf. Marslen-Wilson et al. 1994; cf. Szubko-Sitarek 2015, p. 42ff. Further sources to empirical studies are quoted.

15 Crystal 2009, p. 419.

16 For more details, see ibid., pp. 15f., 419; cf. Lieber 2009, p. 33.

17 Due to spelling conventions the rule cannot be applied when the prefix is e.g. un- as in impossible vs unpredictable.

18 Cf. Crystal 2008, p. 313.

19 Cf. Bowers and Kirby 2010, p. 518.

20 Cf. Pacheco and Goodwin 2013, p. 542f.

21 Cf. Ebbers 2009, p. 12.

22 Cf. Lynne Murphy 2010, p. 109.

23 Cf. DeCapua 2017, p. 36f.

24 The theoretical part was based on Delahunty-Garvey 2010, pp. 121–46 (Chapter 5).

25 The offered rules where based on Aronoff 1976, pp. 121–9.

26 Cf. McKeown and Beck 2004, pp. 16, 26.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The effects of morphological instruction in the higher EFL classroom
An empirical study
University of Bonn  (Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
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ISBN (Book)
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morphology, word components, affixes, phonetic changes, spelling changes
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Dipl. Archäologe / B. Ed. Englisch-Latein Michail Barkas (Author), 2018, The effects of morphological instruction in the higher EFL classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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