A reader asked how to make morphemes interesting. Interesting is my favorite goal! And “interesting” comes from the thinking in a lesson, not the content. Back in my classroom days, I’d teach a topic and my students would fall asleep. Next door, Ms. Chan taught the same topic, but her kids asked to give up recess so they could keep learning!
What was the difference?
I aimed for merely memorizing while she got students actually thinking. So, I’ve learned that, if I want a topic to become “interesting,” I have to structure a climb up Bloom’s Taxonomy. I have to get students’ brains sweating.
So, what’s a morpheme? (I had to ask!) A morpheme is the smallest word part with meaning; think prefixes, suffixes, and roots.
Aha! Ok. I immediately knew how to analyze these word parts. I want to ask, “How do other languages handle morphemes compared to English? Almost any grammar task becomes interesting once you ask, “How does this work in German/Spanish/Thai/Japanese/Dothraki?”
Notice that it’s interesting because we’re moving up to Analyze on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead of just memorizing what a bunch of morphemes mean, we’re looking broadly, exploring patterns, finding unexpected similarities and weird differences.
This is going to give me a super high ceiling since there are so many languages to explore. Students who are interested can keep going and going. No one’s going to say, “Mr. Byrd! I finished my worksheet, what do I do now?”
Plus, the floor is low. So students can learn that un- means “the opposite” in English if that’s all they can handle.
Pick Three Languages to Analyze
You’ll want to pick three non-English languages to investigate. Do include languages your kids are already familiar with so that they can add to the conversation.
- At my school, most students came from Vietnamese-speaking homes.
- I always had a good chunk of Spanish speakers.
- I have a Japanese granny and took Japanese in college.
Now, you do not need to speak any of these languages. In fact, you don’t need any familiarity with them at all. We can Google “Spanish prefixes,” but Google Translate is really going to be our friend here.
Model A Morpheme
First, I make a table. Students make their own as groups or individuals.
(Note how easy it will be for kids to expand by adding more morphemes or more languages. Just add another column or row! We’re planning in advance for a high ceiling.)
Now, I fully model the process in order to lower the floor. I’ll be showing students how we can use Google Translate to infer how other languages make words into opposites, as English does with -un. I’d probably want to look up at least four pairs of un- words.
I think out loud. I note that Spanish uses des-, in-, and im- to make opposites. I might note that, oh yeah, English uses in- and im- to make opposites also!
I update my table:
|English||un-, in-, im-|
|Spanish||des-, in-, im-|
If I want, we can all look up German together or kids can look up languages of their choosing. Eventually, I’ll have 3 or 4 or 5 (or more!) languages, like so:
|English||un-, in-, im-|
|Spanish||des-, in-, im|
|Italian||s-, in-, im|
|Japanese||不 (sounds like hu)|
Class, what do you notice so far? What do you think is interesting?
Students will discover that all languages solve the problem of making something the opposite. And all of our languages use a prefix-like-thing (the Japanese character 不 isn’t a prefix per se, but it is a morpheme that comes first in a word). Gosh, Italian and French and Spanish all have very similar prefixes while English sort of mashes everything up!
I think this is fascinating, so I make sure to model my fascination. I want to show kids how to be interested in something!
Gently Hand Over Responsibility
Ok, class, now you’ll do this same thing for our next morpheme, -er, as in teacher or dancer. How do the other languages make a word into a person-who-does-something word?”
You take a step back and facilitate, solving problems as needed, helping kids who struggle, pushing kids who need to be pushed.
Eventually, you get something like this:
|English||un-, in-, im-||-er|
|Spanish||des-, in-, im||-dor(a), -ante|
|Italian||s-, in-, im||-dore, -ante|
|Japanese||不||者 (sounds like sha)|
Again, ask students what they notice. What is interesting to them? In fact, I’d add a row below everything as a place for students to jot down interesting patterns (and broken patterns!) that they spot.
Then, continue with the next morpheme…
Note: Yes, there’s additional complexity in each language, but our point here is just to swim at the surface, allowing kids to notice interesting patterns. We’re not learning the actual languages.
And So On
So far, I’ve spotted two interesting patterns:
- With un-, all languages used prefixes. With -er, they all use suffixes. Interesting and weird! Some students might want to add another language and see if that language also has a prefix equivalent to un- and a suffix for -er. Can we break the pattern?
- German has had the same morpheme as English both times (un- and -er). Students can start to see how closely English is related to German. Some kids might want to dig deeper into German.
As you explore, students might notice that prefixes like in- and im- are used across many languages. This would make a study of Greek and Latin word parts even more powerful.
Continue with your table, adding as many morphemes as you (or your students) would like. Some will go deeper and deeper. Some will not be interested. You’ll probably be surprised by which kids get really into it and want to spend recess in class looking up German morphemes.
At some point, they’ll pass my ability to keep up. No problem! I’ll find YouTube videos or check out books from the library or just ask a German-speaking friend for more help.
By aiming high, we have all of this beautiful headroom for students to keep going and going. I don’t need to create seven different leveled worksheets. But, kids who are totally uninterested are still getting the absolute basics they need.
This is why I always aim for a high ceiling and then build a low floor.
Synthesis: Create A Language
Now, someone in your class may get really, really interested in how languages work. They’ll be tickled that these very different languages all deal with “un-” and “-er” in their own ways.
|Language||“Opposite”||“Person Who…”||“Related To “|
|Japanese||不||者||的 (sounds like techy)|
The next step is to make a new row on the table and let that student make their own morphemes for their own language! And, luckily, my childhood friend David creates languages for a living and wrote a book about it.
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