My Brother is Very Success: Teaching Morphology

My Brother is Very Success
Teaching Morphology

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 49,615 views

Sometime during the semester, having read too many sentences in ESL student compositions like “My brother is very success,” it occurs to the ESL instructor that banging her head against the wall over issues of verb tense and sentence structure may be of limited value compared to other writing problems.

ESL writing, particularly at lower levels, tends to be permeated with errors of word form (or parts of speech or morphology). This is something unique to ESL writing: native speaker writers, even weak ones, generally don’t write sentences like “My brother is very success” because their native speaker “intuition” “hears” the wrongness of that sentence.

So if word form is such a big issue, why then do we spend so little time on it? The problem is multifaceted. One concern is tradition: in a grammar class, we focus on verb tense and sentence structure and articles. That is how our textbooks are written, and that’s what we teach. Another issue is that the kinds of word form errors and their causes are multi-faceted and difficult to address: for example, dropping off the ending, and using the noun instead of the adjective, as in “My brother is very success,” is just one type of problem in word form, while verb tense errors tend to be much more uniform and easily identifiable, such as switching to the present when telling a story that happened in the past. A final part of the problem is there is no real established methodology for teaching word forms, as there is with teaching correct verb tense.

So what are some things that teachers can teach with word forms?

  1. 1

    Introduce the concept. Teach parts of speech and places in a sentence: nouns function as subjects and objects; verbs generally follow subjects in statements; adjectives typically precede nouns.

  2. 2

    Teach common word endings and relationship to parts of speech: for example, words that end in “-ment” are generally nouns; “-ly” adverbs, “-ful” or “-full” adjectives.

  3. 3

    Also teach the common beginnings of words: learning prefixes like “pre-,” “un-,” and “non-,” for example, helps students expand their vocabulary.

  4. 4

    Teach when to use the gerund (e.g. writing stories) and the infinitive (to write stories). Discuss when to use each—for example, the gerund is used as the subject of a sentence:

    Writing stories is my hobby.” This gets students focused on the issue of word form. In the same way, you can teach when to use the present and past participles: “Her stories are interesting; I am interested in them.”

  5. 5

    For more advanced learners, do some further study of morphology and typical root words as well as prefixes and suffixes and their meaning in English. For example, just taking the word “morphology” and understanding that “morph” means “form” and “ology” is “study of” helps expand vocabulary and to learn words like “metamorphosis” (change form) and “psychology” (study of the mind).

What are the methods for teaching word forms?

  1. 1

    It’s a good start for many students to learn there is such a thing as word form and that they can’t take a familiar word like “freedom” and use it wholesale anywhere in a sentence, as the many ESL teachers who have read the sentence “America is a freedom country” thousands of times over the years can testify.

  2. 2

    Introduce words with various forms. After students have some understanding of the concept, take a word with a number of permeations such as “succeed” and show how it can change form according to function in the sentence: “My brother succeeds at most at what he does”; “I have a successful brother”; “I think my brother’s efforts at his new job will be a success.” When introducing new vocabulary, introduce other forms of the word.

  3. 3

    Edit a piece with mistakes in word form. Once students have had some exposure to the concept and some examples, it’s time for them to practice on their own. Give out a paragraph you wrote yourself, or take a paragraph from a well-known work, and create errors in word form—the ones you see most in your students’ papers: “success” for “successful,” “freedom” for “free.”

  4. 4

    Practice the habit of reading aloud. Do native speakers of English think about the parts of speech of the words they choose as they are writing? Of course not — they wouldn’t be able to write fluently if they did. They have “native speaker intuition” of what “sounds right.” Students can draw on what they have of this already and further develop it by reading aloud.

  5. 5

    Introduce common parts of words and their meanings: prefixes such as “trans-” (between); suffixes, such as “-able” for adjectives and “-ed” for past tense verbs, and roots, “-port-” (to carry). See if students can then determine the meaning of words from these parts: e.g., “transported” carried between (in the past). Finally have students see how many other words they can come up with, using the word parts: portable, transferred, etc.

  6. 6

    At this point, students are ready to apply word forms and write their own paragraphs on such topics such as favorite hobbies; this is likely to call on a variety of word forms of the same base word: reading, to read, have read, etc . Have them read their papers aloud to check the word forms. Trade papers with a peer. and edit each other’s work, focusing on the word forms.

Word form/parts of speech is often neglected because it’s an area of language learning that is difficult to define and teach.

It is, however, an area where students often make the most mistakes. Teaching word parts can help develop students’ fluency, editing skills, as well as expand vocabulary.

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