The Spotlight - Phonics and Morphology: A Love Story  - SPELD NSW

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The Spotlight – Phonics and Morphology: A Love Story 

Phonics and Morphology: A Love Story 

This is the love story of Phonics and Morphology.  

We might think of these two as opposing forces and that have little in common let alone something to offer us together. Phonics is all about sounds and letters while Morphology focuses its energy on meaning and grammar. We often teach them separately and rarely link the two. But what if we were to tell you that these two were inseparable? A bond that has lasted through the ages that we should celebrate and cherish? 

You might not be into romance stories, but this is a goodie.  

Let’s consider the plural ‘s’ suffix. It can sound different (dogs vs cats) but no matter the sound, the spelling stays the same because of Morphology. So, here we are using both our morphological skills and our phonics skills to read and spell the word. Romantic, right?  

Try ‘ed’ past tense. Same thing. Morphology is keeping Phonics grounded here otherwise they would have a field-day spelling past tense in 3 different ways (ed can sound like a ‘d’, a ‘t’ or ‘id’). This way we have consistency in spelling. Good teamwork! 

Let’s go a bit deeper with this relationship. One of Morphology’s favourite Valentine’s Day tricks is adding the suffix ‘ion’ to base words. And this is where we really start to see their deep bond and amazing camaraderie.  

Let’s take the base word ‘motivate’. Which is built of ‘motive + ate’. The first time Morphology brought home an ‘ion’ suffix as a gift for Phonics to add to the word ‘motivate’, the question was ‘how will they pronounce this word?’. Morphology had an idea! They suggested to Phonics, ‘you know how you have that really cool trick where e and i make the sound before them a soft sound? I love it when you do that… Could we do that with motivate + ion?’.  Phonics was delighted that their talents were acknowledged and proclaimed, ‘Yes Morphology, my dear, we definitely can do that… let’s make that a /sh/ phoneme’. And thus, the birth of ‘motivation’, as opposed to ‘motivashun’ if Phonics had been left solely in charge. Of course, emotion and devotion soon followed.  

You see, in every relationship there are compromises. Phonics, at time, can be a bit erratic. A bit unpredictable. They like to change things up, keep things interesting and throw caution to the wind. Morphology is the sensible one. Consider words like ‘please’ turning into ‘pleasure’ when Morphology wants to add the ‘ure’ suffix. When Phonics starts to play around with the sounds in the word and makes that ‘ea’ the short /e/ sound or that ‘s’ a hard /zh/, Morphology agrees, ‘on the condition that we keep the spelling consistent so people will know what we mean’. Phonics reluctantly agrees.  So, no spelling pleasure as plesure or pleshu 

When we have words built off the same bound base like nature, naturally, nation (all sharing the bound base NATE), Phonics loves to play around with the sound of that ‘a’ but Morphology insists, ‘keep the spelling consistent please’. Phonics reluctantly agrees. So, nature doesn’t become nachu or naicher  and nation isn’t nashun 

One of the great things about this romantic coupling is that they love to minimize stress in their relationship.  When Morphology starts building on Phonics’ base word, the words can get long and full of stress. But their secret weapon is a sprinkling of schwa. Like a good date night, schwa is the magic ingredient that takes the stress out of the words so Morphology and Phonics can live in harmony together. Without it words would be very difficult to pronounce and, well, we’d sound less Aussie.  

Sometimes, with English spelling, we throw our hands up in confusion. But just like when Harry met Sally, when Patrick serenaded David with ‘Simply the Best’, when Mr Darcy put aside his pride and Lizzie cast off her prejudice, Phonics and Morphology is that couple that just makes sense. Alone they only tell half a story, but once you put them together, English words start to make sense. When they don’t, it might be that their fairy godmother, Etymology, is there in the background causing mischief. But that is a story for another day! 


We hope you enjoyed this love story from the word-nerds in our professional learning team! If you want to learn more about what morphology means for teaching spelling check out our Mastering Morphology professional learning course. 


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