Morphological Awareness and Reading Comprehension

Research Recap: Mechanisms in the Relation Between Morphological Awareness and the Development of Reading Comprehension by S. Hélène Deacon and Kyle Levesque

Savvas Insights Team

Discover the relation between Morphological Awareness and the development of Reading Comprehension.

Can Morphology Help with Reading Comprehension?

In this Science of Reading Research Recap, we’ll answer that question by reviewing a recent study called Mechanisms in the Relation Between Morphological Awareness and the Development of Reading Comprehension by S. Hélène Deacon and Kyle Levesque. We’ll also explore what it says about teaching morphological awareness in the upper elementary grades and how that instruction can lead to reading comprehension. Let’s dive in!

Why the Research Matters: Literacy Instruction in Upper Elementary Grades

Recently, the conversation around the Science of Reading has turned toward how we can use this important body of research to support young learners beyond the primary grades.

As students progress into the upper elementary grades, typically defined as grades 3–5, the demand for understanding more complex vocabulary words and reading comprehension significantly increases across all subject areas.

However, if students are still struggling to read and understand the meanings of words, they will not be able to fully comprehend the text they read. Reading comprehension is critical not only for academic success but it’s also a practical and important life skill.

What can we do to support our students?

Students in upper elementary grades reading and comprehending texts.

Many educators are incorporating morphological awareness into literacy instruction as a way to help students master content-specific vocabulary, which will lead them to better reading comprehension. Since the Science of Reading has emphasized the importance of research-based reading instruction, let’s take a look at what this recent study says about the relationship between morphological awareness and reading comprehension.

First, let’s meet the researchers.

About the Authors of This Study

When evaluating the reliability of any research study, it’s important to first look at the credibility of the authors of the study. Mechanisms in the Relation Between Morphological Awareness and the Development of Reading Comprehension was conducted by S. Hélène Deacon and Kyle Levesque. The study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology in May of 2024. Here are their credentials:

  • S. Hélène Deacon is a member of the College of the Royal Society of Canada and Killam Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University, where she directs the Language and Literacy Lab. She completed her doctoral research as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in 2004.
  • Kyle Levesque received his Ph.D. in psychology in 2017 from Dalhousie University, where he completed a postdoctoral fellowship. He also served as a research associate for the Florida Center for Reading Research from 2016–2017.

Since we know the authors of the study have extensive experience in the field of reading research and their work was published by the American Psychological Association’s peer-reviewed academic journal, the Journal of Educational Psychology, we can consider their findings to be reliable.

So, let's now take a look at how the authors conducted their research.

What is the Relationship Between Morphological Awareness and Reading Comprehension?

Morphological awareness consists of two components: morphological decoding and morphological analysis. Deacon and Levesque set out to investigate which of those two components of morphological awareness had the greatest impact on reading comprehension.

But what’s the difference between morphological decoding and morphological analysis? Let’s discuss some vocabulary words and concepts related to their study.

  • Morphological awareness is the understanding that words are made up of smaller units of meaning (morphemes) such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes.
  • Morphological decoding is the ability to read a word with correct pronunciation using morphemes as a guide.
  • Morphological analysis is the process of determining a word’s meaning based on its morphemes.

Once a student understands that complex words are made of morphemes (morphological awareness), that knowledge can then be built upon and applied in two ways. First, students can use morphological decoding to break down and correctly pronounce multisyllabic words, such as geology: geo + ology. Second, they can use morphological analysis to determine the meaning of the word, in this case geo from the Greek word meaning earth and the suffix ology meaning the study of; therefore geology is study of the Earth.

Morphological decoding and morphological analysis branch off of morphological awareness, and they all can lead to reading comprehension

What the authors aimed to uncover in their study is whether morphological decoding (correct pronunciation) or morphological analysis (determining their meaning) of complex words has a stronger impact on reading comprehension.

Their next step was to do background research to uncover what other research on this topic exists so that they can then apply it to their own study.

What Does Prior Research Say About Morphological Awareness, Decoding, and Analysis?

In their background research, Deacon and Levesque found studies that showed morphological awareness has been proven to significantly contribute to reading comprehension.

This may be because complex words in texts can be challenging for children. Morphological awareness can help them decode (morphological decoding) and understand the meanings of words (morphological analysis), thereby improving comprehension.

But which component of morphological awareness — morphological decoding or morphological analysis — has the greater impact on reading comprehension? Here's what the authors found:

Existing Evidence that Morphological Decoding Supports Reading Comprehension

There is evidence supporting that upper elementary students engage in morphological decoding when reading.

For example, in a study by Carlisle & Stone, 2005, they found that students could more readily decode words with more than one morpheme (specifically derived words with a base and one suffix e.g., shady) than words with just one morpheme (e.g., lady). This data indicates that students engage in morphological decoding because they can more quickly read the base word shad (shade) as /sh//ā//d/ and suffix y as /ē/ than strictly the graphemes lad as /l//ā//d/ and y as /ē/.

Correlational evidence links morphological decoding to reading comprehension. Studies such as Deacon et al., 2017 and Nunes et al., 2012 have connected higher levels of morphological decoding to stronger reading comprehension.

Existing Evidence that Morphological Analysis Supports Reading Comprehension

There is also extensive evidence that children use morphological analysis to understand more complex words. Previous studies by Deacon and other authors have found that children better understand complex words that have familiar base words.

Like morphological decoding, correlational evidence in other studies, such as those conducted McCutchen & Logan, 2011 and McKeown et al., 2018, indicates that morphological analysis is also related to reading comprehension achievement.

A Longitudinal Study Focusing on How Morphological Awareness Contributes to Reading Comprehension

In their background research, Deacon and Levesque found previously established evidence that morphological awareness impacts reading comprehension. So, for their longitudinal study, they wanted to go a step further and evaluate which pathway — morphological decoding (reading words) or morphological analysis (understanding words) — has a greater impact on the development of reading comprehension.

Their study followed a group of 197 third- through fifth-grade students from eastern North America. This particular age group was chosen for the study because, at this stage, children are exposed to increased numbers of morphologically complex words and also have increased growth in their morphological skills. Additionally, literacy instruction at these grades is focused more on reading comprehension.

In order to isolate the specific impact of each of the morphological skills, the study controlled for age, phonological awareness, nonverbal ability, vocabulary, and basic word reading skills — as each of these factors can also impact reading comprehension.

All of the included children participated in at least two of the three-point assessments and had no diagnosed learning or language impairments. Additionally, all included students were exposed to a literacy curriculum that combined whole-language and phonics instruction and were from similar socio-economic backgrounds (middle to upper-middle class).

The authors hypothesized that understanding the meaning of complex words (morphological analysis) would be a more significant factor in improving reading comprehension than just being able to read them (morphological decoding).

Method and Assessment Measures

The current study method was a three-wave longitudinal study, meaning there were three points of assessment in order to observe changes and relationships over time. In 3rd grade, students were assessed for morphological awareness; in 4th grade, they were assessed for both morphological decoding and analysis; finally, in 5th grade, they were assessed for reading comprehension.

The authors used the results from student assessments to conduct statistical analysis and modeling to determine if, or to what extent, morphological decoding and morphological analysis impacted reading comprehension.

Results: Morphological Analysis Has a Positive Impact on Reading Comprehension

The study found that morphological awareness helps improve reading comprehension indirectly through morphological analysis, not through morphological decoding.

Essentially, receiving morphological awareness instruction in 3rd grade leads to better morphological analysis in 4th grade, which, in turn, leads to strong reading comprehension in 5th grade. Breaking complex words into their parts aids in understanding their meaning, which is crucial for reading comprehension.

Results of the study showed that receiving morphological awareness instruction in 3rd grade leads to better morphological analysis in 4th grade, which leads to strong reading comprehension in 5th grade.

While morphological decoding alone helps with decoding complex words, it was not found to significantly impact reading comprehension.

The authors stated that future research should investigate the effectiveness of interventions that teach morphological analysis compared to those that focus on morphological awareness more broadly. It is also important to study these interventions with a diverse range of learners to ensure effectiveness from both typical and struggling readers from all backgrounds.

Conclusion: Put the Research in Action in Your Classroom

How can these results help inform classroom instruction?

The study indicated that teaching students to understand the morphology of words can help support reading comprehension, especially when instruction focuses on the structure and meaning of words.

It’s important to note that before implementing new strategies in the classroom, it’s always important to consider the specific strengths, needs, and learning goals of your individual students.

Words Their Way Classroom

Hands-On Morphology Practice Activities for Grades K-5


Effective morphological analysis instruction involves teaching students to recognize, analyze, and manipulate morphemes in order to understand the meaning of complex vocabulary words. One way to help students build their morphological analysis skills is to teach related morphemes that appear within the context of a topic or lesson you’re teaching. For example, if you teach the word geology, you can also teach geologist.

Morphological Analysis Activities to Try in Your Classroom

Morphology Sort

Students sort words into categories (e.g., words with the prefix geo-). Then have students discuss the meanings of each category and how morphemes change the meaning of each word.

Morphology sort activity for classroom teachers.

Morphology Tree

Start with a root word (select a word from a relevant piece of text) at the base and add branches with different prefixes and suffixes. Students can add leaves to the branches with new words and their meanings.

Morphology tree classroom practice activity where students add prefixes and suffixes to a root morpheme to form new words.

Interactive Read-Aloud

Select a piece of grade-level or more challenging text for a read-aloud. During reading, pause and discuss more complex vocabulary words. Break down words into their morphemes (e.g., topography combines topo- [land forms and surfaces] and -graphy [writing or description of]). Discuss how understanding these word parts can help with understanding the whole word.

Teacher conducting an interactive read-aloud for students.

You can find ready-to-go morphology practice activities in programs like Words Their Way, which was designed to provide students with personalized, hands-on practice. Learn more about Words Their Way and request free sample activities here.


  • Carlisle, J. F., & Stone, C. A. (2005). Exploring the role of morphemes in word reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(4), 428–449. https://
  • Deacon, S. H., Tong, X., & Francis, K. (2017). The relationship of morphological analysis and morphological decoding to reading comprehension. Journal of Research in Reading, 40(1), 1–16. 1467-9817.12056
  • McCutchen, D., & Logan, B. (2011). Inside incidental word learning: Children’s strategic use of morphological information to infer word mean- ings. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(4), 334–349. RRQ.003
  • McKeown, M. G., Crosson, A. C., Moore, D. W., & Beck, I. L. (2018). Word knowledge and comprehension effects of an academic vocabulary inter- vention for middle school students. American Educational Research Journal, 55(3), 572–616.
  • Nunes, T., Bryant, P., & Barros, R. (2012). The development of word recogni- tion and its significance for comprehension and fluency. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 959–973.