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Grammatical Morphemes: Precious, Fleeting, and Oh-So-Important

February 8th, 2011 by | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Morphemes are the smallest units of speech capable of conveying meaning.  Words like “dog” and “bark” are “free” morphemes, because they stand alone and have meaning.  Grammatical morphemes are tiny markers that can be added to these words to add to or change their meaning.  They are “bound” morphemes because they don’t work on their own, they must be connected to a “free” morpheme.  From 1-morpheme “dog” and “bark” we can make “dogs” and “barked.”  By adding the grammatical morphemes of plural “-s” and past tense “-ed,” we change the meanings of the words.

These markers are crucial to speaking — and writing — standard English.

In American Sign Language, grammar is conveyed through spatial orientation and expressions (facial grammar).  American Sign Language is language distinct from English, so grammatical morphemes  rules of English grammar must be taught explicitly in a remedial manner.

Children raised in a listening and spoken language model have constant auditory and linguistic exposure to the grammatical morphemes of spoken English, giving them more opportunities to pick up on this important skill.   However, the morphemes still pass by at the speed of light and are usually quiet, high-frequency sounds, making them more difficult to hear.  First and foremost, aggressive audiological management is needed to ensure that the child has the best possible access to all sounds in the speech spectrum.  But how else can we help children master the morphemes?

Traditional acoustic highlighting tips, like increasing intensity or stress, backfire because they distort the sound of these unvoiced phonemes (speech sounds).  (See this post, “Get Off the Stage!” for more information on how this happens.)  Instead, try this:  Whisper!

Child: He walk home.

Adult: (normal tone of voice) walked

Child: He walk home.

Adult: (whispers close and quiet) walked

First, give the child a chance to fix his own error by providing a model in a normal tone, volume, and rate.  Don’t give too much support until you know it’s necessary — maybe just a repetition will be enough.  Repeat only what was mistaken and give your child a chance to exercise his auditory memory by filling in the rest of the sentence (“He — home”).  If the child still doesn’t get it, try whispering the “walked” to acoustically highlight the missed grammatical morpheme, the past tense -ed.  Providing clear and consistent language models for your children will help them gain exposure to, and mastery of, the grammatical morphemes of English.

Reading is another great way to encourage proper use of English grammar.  Reading is essentially an auditory process (speech) made visible (print).  When a child is read to, and then becomes an independent reader, he has a visual representation of the language he hears and knows.  While -ed might not get the same “air time” and emphasis in spoken English, its letters have equal weight on the page.  Alerting a child to these markers in books can help him carry over their use into his written and spoken language.

While it’s nice to have a few tricks up your sleeve for “teaching” these concepts, it’s important to remember that the goal is always for children to learn language in a natural, developmentally-appropriate progression.  If children have early access to sound and a rich language environment, many of these back-up strategies may not be necessary, as children can pick up these nuances of language naturally through listening.  Don’t push a concept or language structure before it is appropriate for the child’s chronological and/or hearing age.  (You can read more about Brown’s Stages of Morphological Development, with plenty of examples in plain English, HERE.)

That’s all for now!  I’ve talked enough!

Written by

Elizabeth Rosenzweig MS CCC-SLP LSLS Cert. AVT is a Listening and Spoken Language Specialist Certified Auditory Verbal Therapist. She provides auditory verbal therapy, aural rehabilitation, IEP advocacy, consultation, and LSLS mentoring for clients around the world via teletherapy. You can learn more about Elizabeth's services on her Website or Facebook.


February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm

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February 13, 2011 at 1:02 am

[...] « Grammatical Morphemes: Precious, Fleeting, and Oh-So-Important [...]


September 14, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Hi Elizabeth,

No idea if you’ll ever see this post, but for the record, grammatical morphemes can be bound, as you state, but can also be free. “A,” “and” and “from” are all grammatical morphemes that are not really necessary to convey particular meaning on their own (which is what bound grammatical morphemes also do, but the latter are connected to free morphemes).

This is a fine post; I thinking how /s/ and “ed” are not great choices for regular plural and past acoustically for those with diminished hearing.

Thanks for your post,



September 15, 2011 at 3:28 am

Thank you for the comment, Ron. If you’ll look at the first paragraph of this post, there is a short discussion of bound vs. free morphemes. Thank you for the kind words!