Word Knowledge


By Eugene Lylak, Ed.D.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

English vocabulary acquisition is critical to the development of word knowledge and is needed by deaf learners to become at least marginally successful readers of English. Among the many skills needed to become a fluent reader, the ability to accurately identify word meaning is particularly important. The strategies that readers use to build up their word knowledge are honed from birth through the post-secondary school years and beyond by making full use of both the auditory and visual channels of perception. Many deaf people are able to make use of their residual hearing to complement their visual perception of English words, but often their complete acquisition of English lags behind hearing individuals, who have full access to both auditory and visual input.

Both "top-down" and "bottom-up" theorists place important emphasis on the role of decoding print as one of the fundamental skills for developing reading comprehension. In the process of constructing meaning from print, word knowledge plays a central role. Trying to identify and report on the exact role of each of the skill areas needed for deaf students to become fluent users of English is an intricate and time-consuming task that has yet to be accomplished by reading researchers. What has already been documented has yet to be put into a definitive format for the everyday classroom teacher to use.

However, a useful discussion of the development of word knowledge in deaf learners could focus on the mastery of a number of word-based variables. "Morphology" is one such critical variable. Knowledge of the basic constituent of words, the "morpheme," should be a major focus in many classrooms for deaf students. Morpheme knowledge is a building block in the development of word knowledge.

Morpheme analysis may be a viable approach for improving deaf students' word knowledge because the morphological structure of English is more apparent to deaf readers in its "orthographic" (written or printed) representation. Morphological structure can be accessed visually by deaf students in their reading and appears more regular and stabile once the rules governing English morphology are learned.

What follows is a brief description of basic reading models and their indirect reliance on morphological structures as a core component to increasing word knowledge. Then a brief review of some of the relevant morphological research studies of deaf students will set the framework for suggestions to teachers on how to provide classroom practice for "morphographic" development. This module also contains Guided Practice exercises that allow site visitors to identify and combine English morphemes to create words.

Major Considerations

1. Increasing word knowledge is a complex, on-going process for all users of English, no matter what their fluency level.

2. Because much of the nuance and repetition that is required for increasing word knowledge takes place in a phonological (auditory) environment, deaf people cannot fully benefit from everyday exposure to the word-learning environment.

3. Various reading models are in effect to a greater or lesser degree in most English language learning programs for deaf students, but there is no conclusive evidence as to which of the models would produce the most successful development of word knowledge in deaf students.

4. Two basic models are considered to explain the extent of the relationship between word knowledge and reading ability. Among others, the "instrumentalist (bottom-up) model" and the "knowledge (interactive) model" are employed to some extent in contemporary classrooms for deaf students.

5. Instrumentalist models applied to word knowledge schema in many classrooms for deaf students have not significantly improved the vocabulary levels of a great majority of the deaf population.

6. The two (instrumentalist and knowledge) models are applicable across broad areas of lexical development, and each necessarily, but indirectly, deals with morphemes and the meanings of common morphographic changes within words, for example, word inflections and the changes that inflectional and derivational endings produce in assigning new word meaning. Likewise, these models can be useful in suggesting practice scenarios for morpheme skill development.

7. Using morphographic anyalsis may improve the word knowledge skills of deaf students by providing techniques that they can apply in a consistent, sensible manner to improve their English word knowledge.

Grammatical Summary


A "morpheme" is a short segment of language that meets three basic criteria:

1. It is a word or a part of a word that has meaning.

2. It cannot be divided into smaller meaningful segments without changing its meaning or leaving a meaningless remainder.

3. It has relatively the same stable meaning in different verbal environments.

Free and Bound Morphemes

There are two types of morphemes-free morphemes and bound morphemes. "Free morphemes" can stand alone with a specific meaning, for example, eat, date, weak. "Bound morphemes" cannot stand alone with meaning. Morphemes are comprised of two separate classes called (a) bases (or roots) and (b) affixes.

A "base," or "root" is a morpheme in a word that gives the word its principle meaning. An example of a "free base" morpheme is woman in the word womanly. An example of a "bound base" morpheme is -sent in the word dissent.


An "affix" is a bound morpheme that occurs before or after a base. An affix that comes before a base is called a "prefix." Some examples of prefixes are ante-, pre-, un-, and dis-, as in the following words:


An affix that comes after a base is called a "suffix." Some examples of suffixes are -ly, -er, -ism, and -ness, as in the following words:


Derivational Affixes

An affix can be either derivational or inflectional. "Derivational affixes" serve to alter the meaning of a word by building on a base. In the examples of words with prefixes and suffixes above, the addition of the prefix un- to healthy alters the meaning of healthy. The resulting word means "not healthy." The addition of the suffix -er to garden changes the meaning of garden, which is a place where plants, flowers, etc., grow, to a word that refers to 'a person who tends a garden.' It should be noted that all prefixes in English are derivational. However, suffixes may be either derivational or inflectional.

Inflectional Affixes

There are a large number of derivational affixes in English. In contrast, there are only eight "inflectional affixes" in English, and these are all suffixes. English has the following inflectional suffixes, which serve a variety of grammatical functions when added to specific types of words. These grammatical functions are shown to the right of each suffix.

-s     noun plural
-'s     noun possessive
-s     verb present tense third person singular
-ing     verb present participle/gerund
-ed     verb simple past tense
-en     verb past perfect participle
-er     adjective comparative
-est     adjective superlative

Models that have been developed for explaining the relationship between word knowledge and reading ability include instrumentalist (bottom-up) models and knowledge (interactive) models. Both these models are employed to some extent in contemporary classrooms for deaf students.

Instrumentalist Models

"Instrumentalist models" place emphasis on direct instruction of words and exposure to as many words as possible. These models are most useful to the practitioners of traditional approaches to language teaching such as the audio-lingual approach and the oral/aural method, which are influenced by the "natural order" of language acquisition. Often these bottom-up models advocate development of drills and practice of target words that essentially present word lists first, then provide practice reading the words in context, and finally have the students write down the meanings of the words in their individual contexts.

Knowledge Models

"Knowledge models" place emphasis on presenting words in conceptual and integrated schemas that help bridge the new word information with more familiar word associations. These interactive models emphasize "the integration of conceptual or interrelated associations" of a particular word (Paul, 1996). The various knowledge models give practice by describing the different meanings of words and by showing examples of the words in differing contexts to give a total picture of the word and its various uses in English (see "Vocabulary Building Ideas" in the SEA Site module, Reading and Writing in Content Areas).

Three Stages of Reading Development

Derived in part from the instrumentalist model, Frith (1985) proposed three stages in relation to learning decoding strategies in the reading development of normally hearing children. Each of the three stages included the development of word identification skills that led to enhanced word knowledge, thereby furthering reading development.

The first stage, "logographic," was deeply visually oriented but not very analytical. Words were learned by rote memory and any visually graphic link to a word was exploited so that its recall would be automatically bound up with the graphic (i.e. logographic) representation of the word (for example, the golden arches M for McDonald's). Ehri (1992),working more from the knowledge model, also proposed similar stages that had more meaningful names for teaching professionals. Ehri called this first stage "visual cue reading" in her developmental model.

The second stage in Frith's model was called "alphabetic" and was much more analytical. During this stage, the English alphabet system was identified in a word element by element so that sounding out words became paramount and the rules for representing spoken English were most important. Some visual representation was also present to augment the learning of segmentation skills. Ehri (1992) called this "phonetic cue reading."

The third and final stage in Firth's model was the "orthographic" stage, where readers were skilled enough to analyze words from much larger units. Letter groupings and word structure become critical here for processing word knowledge. Ehri (1992) called this "cipher sight word reading."

Taken together, these three stages could provide a reasonable framework for application to deaf readers if the alphabetic stage was stripped of its phonemic segment, as is normally the case for deaf readers who do not normally benefit from the phonemic presentation of a word.

Morphographic Analysis

Gaustad (2000) argues that deaf readers can "circumvent both the necessity of acquiring mastery of the phonemic system of English and the later difficulties…in learning to apply graphophonemic correspondence to read English" by learning directly a "morphographic" representation of the English word system. For Gaustad, morphographic analysis could be a productive strategy for improving word knowledge in deaf readers in that the phonemes that rely so heavily on spoken representation to be mastered could be readily replaced by learning morphemes, already inherently larger units with a much more regular application that deaf readers already know.

The morpheme rules that deaf readers come to notice in a regular pattern in many different words could be taken advantage of as an opportunity to teach word attack skills that do not depend on sound and hearing to become meaningful. For the purposes of teaching morphemic analysis, deaf readers could easily learn what a "morphograph" is: a group of letters (aside from whole words) that carries unique meaning. That is, a morphograph represents a specific letter-meaning relationship.

Morphographs include common bound inflectional suffixes like -ing and -ly and derivational affixes like pre- and -ment. Included also are word roots and segments of words that always demonstrate the same meaning-print association when they are combined with other morphemes into more complex words. Examples are struct = 'to build' or geo = 'earth' (Gaustad & Paul, 1998).

For example, teaching the words anarchy and monarchy to students could start with a discussion of the similarities in each word. Students will easily point out that both words contain the morpheme or morphograph /arch/, the root meaning of which is from the Greek word archos meaning 'ruler,' 'leader,' 'king,' or 'sovereign.'

Students would then be asked to break apart each word into its constituent parts and then write the meaning for each of the parts, before finally writing the meaning of the word. Look at the following example:

Target words: anarchy, monarchy

anarchy (noun) - Break this word into three morphographic parts:
an- = not or against
-arch = ruler
-y = a noun ending

Meaning: the state of not having a ruling or effective government

monarchy (noun) - Break this word into three morphographic parts:
mono- =mono
-arch = ruler
-y = a noun ending

Meaning: the state of having one ruler, a king or a queen

Having analyzed the words in this way, students would then be able to select the correct word in order to correctly complete a sentence such as the following:

The Queen of England has been the matriarch of the royal family since the middle of the 20th century. The queen's mother was also part of the {anarchy, monarchy} for many years before she died.

Research Findings

Many studies have expounded on the complexity of word knowledge and the amalgam of vocabulary development skills that are critically important in developing literacy skills. Research by Furth (1966), Walter (1978), Hanson (1982), Quigley and Paul (1984), King and Quigley (1985), Moores (1987), Marschark and Harris (1996), and countless others has shown a significant lag in reading development and word knowledge of deaf readers, attributable to a wide variety of causes.

More recently, a number of studies, such as Davey and King (1990) and Kelly (1993, 1996), have directly targeted the importance of morphemes and inflections in increasing word knowledge skills with deaf readers. Gaustad and Paul (1998) have further emphasized morpheme skill development and have proposed that teaching specific strategies to help analyze morphemes may greatly enhance deaf readers' general word knowledge of English (Paul, 1998).

These researchers have not overlooked the many other skills involved in developing word knowledge, but rather have recognized the importance of morphological awareness in developing word knowledge. Gaustad (2000) and Gaustad, Kelly, Payne, and Lylak (2002) have documented the performance level of deaf subjects in tasks of morphographic analysis in word knowledge tests.

Within the framework of the aforementioned research, this module is designed to help ameliorate the more generalized word knowledge problems of deaf readers by providing specific practice within a documented problem area. Morphographic analysis is just one word attack skill that can help a great number of deaf students strengthen their own word knowledge and reading comprehension.

Action Steps

1. Give students a daily notebook assignment in which they write out a grid like the one used in this module's Guided Practice exercise "Word Families," as illustrated below. In this way, students can build their own records of Noun/Verb changes, Noun/Adjective changes, and Adjective/Adverb changes associated with word roots such as path, ann, dict, etc., and thereby learn from morphographic representations of whole classes of interconnected words and meanings.

Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb
sym…..y, sym…..ize, sym…..etic, sym…..etically
…..uity, …..ualize, …..ual, …..ually
pre…..ion, pre….., pre…..able, pre…..ably

2. The type of handout shown below is useful for homework practice for morphographic analysis and also serves as a handy, organized reference sheet for future study. Students can use the format to keep their own reference sheet for word study. They can indicate which words they know or don't know; they can analyze the words into morphographs, identifying prefixes, roots, and suffixes; and they can record the meanings of words. All vocabulary words in the sample list are taken from the text Word Roots (Glazier, 1993).

Vocabulary Word, Morphographic Analysis/Meaning
1. atheist, a=not /THE=God /-ist=person "someone who does not believe in God"
2. amoral
3. anomalous
4. anemia
5. anecdote
6. anomaly
7. anonymous
8. apathy
9. ambiguous
10. ambivalent
11. biannual
12. centennial
13. antagonism
14. ambidextrous
15. anonymous
16. atypical
17. anarchy
18. superannuated
19. antedates
20. ambivalent

 3. Spend part of each class day (only up to five minutes or so) pointing out common word roots that occur in the natural course of events in class. (See Paul, 1998.)

4. Be aware that even college-level deaf students may not have completely mastered the common inflectional suffixes. Ideally, students should regularly review one of the following suffixes in a meaningful context (see Gaustad, Kelly, Payne, & Lylak, in press).

Inflectional Suffixes
-s, noun plural
-'s, noun possessive
-s, verb present 3rd person singular
-ing, verb present participle/gerund
-ed, verb simple past tense<
-en, verb past perfect participle
-er, comparative
-est, superlative

5. At each opportunity, point out the visual regularity of morphemic changes in words and the meanings these common changes have within words. Regularly have students point them out to one another (Kelly, 1993, 1996).

6. In class, encourage students to discuss words and their etymologies (origins) in context at least once a week, so students can learn the discourse of word knowledge acquisition (see Davey & King, 1990).

7. Try to label "parts of speech" (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) for target words so students become familiar with the differences in meaning when words change from one part of speech to another. When time allows, ask students to provide sentence-length examples of these words and have them label the words appropriately.

8. Spend class time teaching students to break words into their immediate constituents and ask them to pay attention to the root or base of target words so that they can learn to recognize these roots in other words and in other contexts. It is useful to have students bring in examples from other situations, be it classwork or readings outside of class (Marschark & Harris, 1996).

9. Do not be afraid to analyze words in a regular, methodical way as an example for students to practice developing their own skills. Then follow up by getting students to share their own analyses.