Subject Specific Vocabulary

Every subject has vocabulary that students need to understand in order to make sense of the content being taught.

The current research suggests (see for example Rastle, 2018) that skilled adult readers routinely use morphological knowledge in addition to knowledge of the alphabet code to recognise words. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of language. It can be a whole word consisting of one or more syllables (e.g., dog, giraffe, kangaroo). It can be part of a word that can’t be used in isolation and again can be one or more syllables. For example, in telephone, ‘tele’ means ‘afar’ and ‘phone’ means ‘sound’, so literally ‘telephone’ means sound coming from far away. A morpheme can also be a single phoneme (sound) consisting of one or more letters. For example, ‘air’ or ‘a’ meaning ‘on’ like in aboard, ashore, aground.

Rastle argues that once a reader has encountered and understood a morpheme then they can apply this knowledge to map meaning to new words that contain similar morphemes.

For example, if we know the meaning of ‘trust’ (a belief in the reliability of a person or information), then we can surmise the meaning of ‘trusty’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘distrust’. Similarly, if we know the suffix ‘ist’ means a ‘person who’, as in ‘artist’, this assists in our interpretation of ‘physicist’ or ‘antagonist’.

From a teaching perspective, once a student has a good understanding of the ‘alphabet code’ (i.e., they can accurately decode (read) words, then teaching with a focus on morphemes will substantially increase a student’s vocabulary over and above the focus word which they are learning.

Teaching Process

  1. The starting point would be to break the focus word into its individual morphemes. You can use to assist in this process.
  2. Once the meaning of each individual morpheme has been determined they can be recombined to determine the meaning of the whole word. For example if the focus word was ‘export’. You could help students break the word into ‘ex’ meaning ‘out of’ and ‘port’ meaning to carry. Combining these two meanings gives you the literal definition ‘carrying something out’.
  3. This can then be applied to the context in which the word is contained to further refine the meaning to ‘carrying something out of a country for trade in another country’.
  4. The next step would be to apply this knowledge across to other words containing similar morphemes. In this example, you could discuss import, transport, porter, reporter, portal, etc. To help in this process you could have students insert the morpheme ‘port’ into a search engine such as

Example Maths Words and Morphemes

Word Morpheme (meaning) Related words
millimeter milli (thousand) milliliter, milligram
quadrangle quad (four) quadrant, quadruple
triangle tri (three) triple, tripod, triplet, trilogy
equilateral equ (equal) equality, inadequate
polygon poly (many) polygamy, polyester, polynomial

Example Science Words and Morphemes

Word Morpheme (meaning) Related words
photosynthesis photo (light) photography, photograph
thermometer therm (heat) thermos
microscope micro (small), scope (see) microwave, stethoscope
geology geo (earth) geode, geometry
graph graph (write) autograph, graphic

Example Social Science Words and Morphemes

Word Morpheme (meaning) Related words
century cent (hundred) centennial, centipede
translate trans (across) transcontinental, transport, transfer
international inter (between) interstate, intercontinental
hydroelectric hydro (water) Hydrology, hydrogen, hydrate
export port (carry) import, porter, reporter, portal

The Cracking the ABC Code Mulitsensory Reading Level 3 and 4 programs include the teaching of morphemes along with the explicit systematic teaching of phonics.



Rastle, K. (2018). The place of morphology in learning to read in English. Science Direct,



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