Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

The relationship between morphological awareness and morphological decomposition among English language learners

  • 1022 Accesses

  • 4 Citations


Morphological awareness facilitates many reading processes. For this reason, L1 and L2 learners of English are often directly taught to use their knowledge of English morphology as a useful reading strategy for determining parts of speech and meaning of novel words. Over time, use of morphological awareness skills while reading develops into an automatic process for L1 readers called morphological decomposition. While the practice of explicitly teaching morphological awareness skills is prevalent in ESL classes, more research is needed to establish what is known about gains in L2 morphological awareness, and its relationship to the development of automatic morphological decomposition processes in English language learners. The present study seeks to shed light on the nature of this relationship across growth in L2 proficiency. Two experimental measures were used: a masked priming paradigm with a lexical decision task to explore priming evidence for morphological decomposition and a paper and pencil test of morphological awareness which required subjects to derive the base of a morphologically complex word. These tasks were administered to L1 (N = 43) and L2 groups (intermediate N = 16, advanced N = 16) of university-aged subjects. Results indicated that all subjects show repetition priming effects. However, despite a significant gain in explicit knowledge of English morphology across proficiency levels, L2 learners don’t develop an ability to morphologically decompose words in the unconscious, automatic way that native English speakers do, as evidenced by a lack of morphological priming. Implications for L2 pedagogy and L2 word storage in the mental lexicon are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Baayen, R. H. (2008). Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics using R. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Baayen, R. H., Davidson, D. J., & Bates, D. M. (2008). Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Language, 59, 390–412.

  3. Carlisle, J. (1988). Knowledge of derivational morphology and spelling ability in fourth, sixth, and eighth graders. Applied Psycholinguistics, 9, 247–266.

  4. Carlisle, J. (2000). Awareness of the structure and meaning of morphologically complex words: Impact on reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 12, 169–190.

  5. Clahsen, H., & Felser, C. (2006). Grammatical processing in language learners. Applied Psycholinguistics, 27(1), 3–42. doi:10.1017/S0142716406060024.

  6. Council of Europe. (2001). Common European framework of reference for languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  7. Diependaele, K., Duñabeitia, J. A., Morris, J., & Keuleers, E. (2011). Fast morphological effects in first and second language word recognition. Journal of Memory and Language, 64(4), 344358. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2011.01.003.

  8. Feldman, L. B., O’Connor, P. A., & del Moscoso del Prado Martín, F. (2009). Early morphological processing is morphosemantic and not simply morpho-orthographic: A violation of form-then-meaning accounts of word recognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16, 684–691.

  9. Goldfield, J. (2010). Comparison of the ACTFL proficiency guidelines and the common European framework of reference (CEFR). Dr. Joel Goldfield. Retrieved December 8, 2013, http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/jgoldfield/ACTFL-CEFRcomparisons09-10.pdf.

  10. Goodwin, A., Huggins, A., Carlo, M., August, D., & Calderon, M. (2013). Minding morphology: How morphological awareness relates to reading for English language learners. Reading and Writing, 26, 1387–1415.

  11. Gor, K., & Cook, S. (2010). Non-native processing of verbal morphology: In search of regularity. Language Learning, 60(1), 88–126. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9922.2009.00552.x.

  12. Gor, K., & Jackson, S. (2013). Morphological decomposition and lexical access in a native and second language: A nesting doll effect. Language and Cognitive Processes, 28(7), 1065–1091.

  13. Jiang, N. (2004). Morphological insensitivity in second language processing. Applied Psycholinguistics, 25, 603–634.

  14. Jiang, N., Novokshanova, E., Masuda, K., & Wang, X. (2011). Morphological congruency and the acquisition of L2 morphemes. Language Learning, 61(3), 940–967.

  15. Kempley, S., & Morton, J. (1982). The effects of irregularly related words in auditory word recognition. British Journal of Psychology, 73, 441–454.

  16. Kieffer, M., & Lesaux, N. (2008). The role of derivational morphology in the reading comprehension of Spanish-speaking English language learners. Reading and Writing, 21, 783–804.

  17. Kieffer, M., & Lesaux, N. (2012). Direct and indirect roles of morphological awareness in the English reading comprehension of native English, Spanish, Filipino, and Vietnamese speakers. Language Learning, 62(4), 1170–1204.

  18. Marinova-Todd, S., Siegel, L., & Mazabel, S. (2013). The association between morphological awareness and literacy in English language learners from different language backgrounds. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(1), 93–107.

  19. Murrell, G., & Morton, A. (1974). Word recognition and morphemic structures. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 102, 963–968.

  20. Ramirez, G., Esther Geva, X., & Luo, Y. (2011). Morphological awareness and word reading in English language learners: Evidence from Spanish- and Chinese-speaking children. Applied Psycholinguistics, 32, 601–618.

  21. Rastle, K., Davis, M. H., & New, B. (2004). The broth in my brother’s brothel: Morpho-orthographic segmentation in visual word recognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11, 1090–1098.

  22. Silva, R., & Clahsen, H. (2008). Morphologically complex words in L1 and L2 processing: Evidence from masked priming experiments in English. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11(2), 245–260.

  23. Stanners, R. F., Neiser, J. J., Hernon, W. P., & Hall, R. (1979). Memory representation for morphologically related words. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 399–412.

  24. Taft, M. (1979). Recognition of affixed words and the word frequency effect. Memory & Cognition, 7, 263–272.

  25. Taft, M. (2004). Morphological decomposition and the reverse base frequency effect. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 57A(4), 745–765.

  26. Taft, M., & Forster, K. (1975). Lexical storage and retrieval of prefixed words. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 14, 638–647.

  27. Ullman, M. T. (2012). The declarative/procedural model. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Routledge encyclopedia of second language acquisition (pp. 160–164). New York: Routledge.

Download references


I would like to thank Dr. Kenneth Forster for all of his assistance and council in the development of the masked priming experiment.

Author information

Correspondence to Rachel Kraut.


Appendix 1: Primes across three conditions for word and non-word targets

Morphological Repetition Control TARGET
contractor contract picture CONTRACT
amazing amaze television AMAZE
equally equal sleep EQUAL
creation create eat CREATE
excited excite floor EXCITE
meaningful meaning cup MEANING
patience patient husband PATIENT
retirer retire painting RETIRE
happiness happy window HAPPY
rider ride desk RIDE
studier study dog STUDY
attraction attract game ATTRACT
surprising surprise fruit SURPRISE
gladly glad shop GLAD
believer believe stereo BELIEVE
sleepily sleepy agent SLEEPY
horrific horror update HORROR
argument argue sweater ARGUE
chemistry chemist cabinet CHEMIST
winner win buy WIN
hiker hike chair HIKE
successful success imagine SUCCESS
separation separate inside SEPARATE
resistance resist beautiful RESIST
freedom free wood FREE
wrongly wrong double WRONG
graduation graduate kitchen GRADUATE
continuity continue dinner CONTINUE
dreamer dream forest DREAM
beautiful beauty sky BEAUTY
privacy private tree PRIVATE
drawing draw son DRAW
relaxer relax mouth RELAX
prettiness pretty career PRETTY
smartness smart glasses SMART
boredom bored paste BORED
assistant assist pillow ASSIST
realism real surface RELAX
director direct remote DIRECT
original origin hammer ORIGIN
toucher touch fire TOUCH
storage store kill STORE
musical music grass MUSIC
approval approve river APPROVE
magical magic hill MAGIC
historian history sun HISTORY
swimmer swim peace SWIM
curiosity curious story CURIOUS
exhaustion exhaust count EXHAUST
medication medicate vote MEDICATE
hopeful hope sick HOPE
engager engage original ENGAGE
wealthy wealth paper WEALTH
frightened frighten everyone FRIGHTEN
removal remove secret REMOVE
endless end fish END
terrify terror lotion TERROR
regional region progress REGION
stressor stress drive STRESS
brightly bright search BRIGHT
cantraptual cantrapt donsible CANTRAPT
abamely abame zelchent ABAME
eheality eheal lonplute EHEAL
greamer greame bertrate GREAME
obcitiful obcite gembling OBCITE
bealing bealing trutican BEAL
katiancy katiant documert KATIANT
gotirical gotire embation GOTIRE
bampy bamp biblital BAMP
cadish cade cluthong CADE
stidest stide aoboromy STIDE
altranty altrant athretic ALTRANT
staprisen staprise neribate STAPRISE
platty plat emoterate PLAT
paliever palieve granmit PALIEVE
sloapiness sloapy palisher SLOAPY
moaroric moaror cubardy MOAROR
platted plat nelth PLAT
nirly nir hoest NIR
tiper tipe fruze TIPE
knoper knope fluik KNOPE
croser crose crube CROSE
anoker anoke sreem ANOKE
filttest filtt tunt FILTT
reackly reack zlot REACK
morgiven morgave betrak MORGAVE
leamt leam pruvit LEAM
sackessful sackess progstil SACKESS
regarater regarate sleaprom REGARATE
repustful repust thoraph REPUST
fleppy flep haftange FLEP
wrinky wrink edinmar WRINK
galkish galk rusliz GALK
tukely tuke cublire TUKE
pimer pime strin PIME
bramly bram splondet BRAM
rolagish rolag proctian ROLAG
pralty pralt lespasal PRALT
skarmy skarm tenasive SKARM
toathed toath debolten TOATH
choocker choock sormuten CHOOCK
blapped blap etan BLAP
leaty leat vitropen LEAT
measer mease mertagot MEASE
continery continer wokindy CONTINER
greemy greem mahoufet GREEM
seartiness searty largiard SEARTY
krimater krimate scotfry KRIMATE
bramful bram homdram BRAM
alked alk jelopran ALK
srammy sram crolotan SRAM
gupiousity gupious noritarn GUPIOUS
echarstful echarst mibasior ECHARST
merigated merigate singulat MERIGATE
rokeish roke borriton ROKE
enraked enrake wanifold ENRAKE
weelchy weelch sclupant WEELCH
strags strag urkle STRAG
klights klight spail KLIGHT
ramival ramive chekiny RAMIVE

Appendix 2: Test of Morphological Awareness


How many years have you studied English (in the U.S. + in your country)?:

What is your native language?:

Complete the following sentences with the correct form of the word:

  1. 1.

    You should ______________ (continuous) to study hard to enter graduate school.

  2. 2.

    He has a neat and clean _____________________ (appear).

  3. 3.

    There are __________________ (extremely) changes in temperature from morning to night in the desert.

  4. 4.

    My sister is an excellent _____________________ (swim).

  5. 5.

    Americans across the _______________ (national) will vote in the election next year.

  6. 6.

    Because of our love for technology, it would be difficult to live without ____________________ (electric).

  7. 7.

    In my free time, I like to listen to __________________ (musician).

  8. 8.

    The two teachers ___________________ (difference) greatly in their teaching styles.

  9. 9.

    Where would you like to eat dinner? Please make a ____________________ (decide).

  10. 10.

    The company is working to ________________ (reduction) the amount of waste it produces.

  11. 11.

    You should be ______________ (care) when you go to that city; it’s dangerous.

  12. 12.

    Please ______________________ (description) your plan to finish the research project.

  13. 13.

    Iman has never studied English before, he’s a ________________________ (begin).

  14. 14.

    The ________________ (major) of students at the university want to have a longer vacation.

  15. 15.

    She’s a great teacher because she gives very clear _______________________ (explain).

  16. 16.

    Wow! The movie theater is totally ___________________ (emptiness)! We can sit anywhere!

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Kraut, R. The relationship between morphological awareness and morphological decomposition among English language learners. Read Writ 28, 873–890 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-015-9553-4

Download citation


  • Morphological awareness
  • Morphological decomposition
  • English learners
  • Reading