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Overlooked Secrets of the English Language With Jean Rishel

Categories: Curriculum & Access, Education & Teaching, Educators, English Language Learners, Professional Development, Reading Strategies for K-12, Teacher Best Practices

Image of Jean RishelWhen asking U.S. educators to speculate on how much of the English language actually follows some sort of rule set, Jean Rishel sometimes hears answers as low as 10%. “This tells me that we need to help our population better understand how the English language is structured,” says the Level 5 Master Instructor for Multi-Sensory Education Institute (IMSE), who is an expert on these rules. It is a generally held belief among native English speakers that our vocabulary set is of the most rebellious and unpredictable, but despite exceptions, there are some fundamental rules to our words that, when understood, can help struggling readers unlock their comprehension

At this year's Spotlight on Dyslexia Virtual Conference, Rishel sat down with the Learning Ally community to share some overlooked insights about the structure of English words. She explains, "When we first begin teaching language to students, we start with phonics: the study of how letters and sounds work together. These rules are helpful when trying to pronounce our most common, one-syllable words, like “go”, “see”, and “from”. These base words often originate from Anglo-Saxon and Old-English vocabulary. As students get older, they can learn to combine these common bases to create compound words like “playground” or “armchair”.

But phonics can only take students so far. Rishel recommends that as early as first and second grade, students should be introduced to Morphology. Morphology is the study of the structure of words within our language. It focuses on the use of morphemes: meaningful units of language which cannot be further divided. Morphology can help older students to decode multi-syllabic words that can’t merely be interpreted with phonics. 

What is Morphology?

Morphology breaks down multiDefinition of Morphologysyllabic words into bases and common affixes. These smaller units of language help students build the meaning of bigger words. For example, if we were to break down the word “unpredictable” into morphemic parts, we’d get “un”, “pre”, “dict”, and “able”. “Un” is a common prefix, meaning “not”. “Pre” is also a common prefix meaning “before”, and “able” (sometimes seen as “ible”) is a common suffix and means “able to”. If we scramble these thoughts together, we get “not able to, before”. “Dict” is the last piece of the puzzle.

When dealing with morphology, we introduce base words that come from Latin and Greek backgrounds. Common Latin bases for students to start with include “rupt”, “tract”, and “aud”. Common Greek bases for beginners include “micro”, “tele”, and “bio”. In the example of “unpredictable”, “dict” is a Latin base. “Dict”, sometimes written “dic” means “to say”. When we combine this meaning with our affixes, we are able to fully decode the word. “Unpredictable” means “not able to say before”. 

This method of linguistic analysis can give students a very literal understanding of multi-syllabic words that they may encounter for the first time when reading independently. That’s why Rishel is pushing to bring Morphology back to the forefront of language education. She recommends that educators teach young students the common affixes, as well as the common Latin and Greek bases, the same as other vocabulary is taught. “You can do this with blending drills using flashcards,” she says, “Ask the children to write them down three times a week”. 

Rishel also recommends exercises in which students must break down words into their morphemic parts. Using different notations, such as underlining and circling, students can recognize and differentiate the bases, prefixes, and suffixes. 

For more information on the magic of Morphology, watch Jean Rishel’s full lecture by registering for Learning Ally’s Spotlight on Dyslexia on Demand.

Article by: Michael Manzi. Michael was a struggling reader. Now, he writes articles and blogs to promote research-backed literacy interventions for students across the education spectrum.