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“Rooting” On Adolescents

By Rebecca Hendrix and Robert Griffin
 | Nov 22, 2017

Rooting on AdolescentsEquipping adolescents to improve their vocabulary proficiency through greater morphological knowledge is not solely an exercise in isolated skills or memorization. Rather, it is a cohesive piece of the greater literacy puzzle that improves learners’ overall reading and writing abilities by strengthening both their vocabularies and their critical thinking skills.

Often young readers are exposed to roots, prefixes, and suffixes as part of early literacy development. However, in many instances—particularly for students in middle and high school—this area of study is shelved until it’s time for skill-and-drill test preparation, that is, standardized testing.

Although it may be important for adolescents to refresh their knowledge of affixes prior to these types of assessments, “one-and-done” cram sessions or other isolated examples are not effective for true morphological acquisition or vocabulary application.

Gaps within students’ vocabulary bases result in vocabulary equity gaps that only continue to widen without explicit, targeted attention. To avoid these gaps, adolescents need classroom opportunities to apply morphological study to authentic literacy tasks.

Practical advice for literacy educators

Literacy educators can provide both middle and high school students with opportunities for improved interactions with morphemes by ensuring that morphological awareness is an integrated part of classroom literacy culture. The key word here is integrated; morphological awareness is found to be most advantageous when it is included as part of balanced literacy curricula and initiatives.

By integrating morphology study within literacy curricula and in conjunction with other proven best practices in literacy, word study becomes a part of students’ literacy “tool kits,” as they individually strive to become more adept readers, writers, and thinkers. To equip adolescents with the skills they need to improve their morphological awareness, educators need to assess vocabulary from a morphological standpoint and authenticate students’ morphological knowledge using relevant literacy tasks.

Begin with a differentiated focus

Within the parameters of morphological study, operating with a differentiated focus is critical to the development of morphological awareness by English learners (ELs). Greek- and Latin-based languages share more cognates (words with similar etymology and pronunciation across languages) with English speakers. Therefore, ELs from Greek- and Latin-based languages have stronger baseline knowledge of morphemes than their native English–speaking peers.

Language teachers should be directly involved in morphology instruction using appropriate formative assessments that measure students’ prior morphological knowledge and their ability to interpret words from a morphological standpoint. Quick, informal, and ungraded tickets in the door or out the door can be used to briefly assess students’ understanding of morphemes. Students can be grouped on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses for more targeted instruction.

Implement strategic instruction

Scaffolding specific morphological word-attack strategies empowers students to learn how to analyze words with the assistance of an instructor or peer, eventually moving toward independent application. Approaching morphology study from a differentiated standpoint allows educators to cater instruction and coaching to the needs of individual students.

For example, students who have a basic understanding of morphemes to investigate basic word families with common roots, such as hydro- or spec would be a good starting point. For advanced students, manipulating familiar roots with various affixes allows students to revisit prior knowledge and build new connections and meaning. All students can keep a running personal glossary in their notes or journals of new vocabulary and new morphemes to which they may refer when reading and writing.

Provide authentic applications

Morphological knowledge, like other literacy skills, should be reaffirmed through authentic reading and writing tasks. Scaffolding text difficulty on the basis of the Lexile levels of texts and on learners’ reading levels directly influences the type of vocabulary with which students interact, and provides opportunities for them to apply morphological knowledge for the ultimate purpose of reading comprehension.

Integrating widespread texts across content areas can be synthesized through text-based writing, through which students apply newly acquired and morphologically rich vocabulary and bolster the critical thinking skills necessary for college and career readiness. For example, if a student encounters a science or social studies text—which are increasingly more common as literacy expands throughout curricula—he or she will need to use morphologically complex words from that text in his or her written reader’s response. If the student paraphrases a morphologically complex word, teachers can aptly assess whether the student understood morphemes and comprehended the text.

Moving forward

Improving morphological awareness among adolescents is best achieved using long-term integration alongside other literacy best practices. Educators who include targeted morphological study in the adolescent literacy classroom provide students with the opportunity to develop vocabulary acquisition skills that will prepare them for college, for careers, and for literacy interactions throughout their whole lives—this, indeed, is something to “root” on.

Rebecca Hendrix Rebecca Hendrix is a third-year candidate in the University of West Georgia School Improvement Doctoral Program as well as a sixth-grade English language arts and reading teacher at a rural northwest Georgia middle school, where she has taught for nine years.

Robert GriffinRobert Griffin, an ILA member since 2016, is an instructional leader who inspires culturally and linguistically diverse students to achieve and perform to their highest potential. He is also a part-time faculty member in the Department of Literacy and Special Education at the University of West Georgia.

This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine. 

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