Many words contain more than one meaningful part. We discussed this concept in an earlier unit when we first talked about morphemes. Remember, morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language. Here we expand on this idea.

Take the words morpheme and morphology, for instance. They share a root—morph—but have different endings. The root word morph comes from Greek, meaning shape or form. The ending –ology indicates a field of study. We know this from the names of academic classes we might take: biology, psychology, musicology, and so on. Morphology, then, literally means the study of form. In terms of language, it has come to mean the study of how words are formed and how they relate to other words.

Understanding basic elements of morphology can help with learning to read. Imagine that you’re reading and have come to the word “bicyclist.” And imagine that this word is unfamiliar to you. One way of figuring it out would be to break it into its component parts. It’s similar to the process of segmenting, but instead of splitting the word into its component sounds, you split it into its component units of meaning (that is, morphemes).

For bicyclist, this would look like bi-cycl-ist. The root word, cycle, of course means a pedaled vehicle. The prefix, bi- indicates two—in this case, that the cycle has two wheels. And the suffix -ist, indicates a person who does something. Bicyclist thus means a person who rides a two-wheeled cycle—a bicycle.

The coming together of these morphemes demonstrates an important concept: modular construction. Just like modular construction of buildings, modular construction of many words relates to their assembly from component parts.  Here are some examples:

Examples of Modular Construction

Mono + tone = Monotone

Re + mark + able = Remarkable

Proto + type = Prototype

Strategies for Decoding

We’ve already learned how to decode words using sound-symbol clues—the process of phonetic decoding. We can also add in what we know about morphology to help us decode. This use of word-meaning clues for decoding is illustrated in the examples above.