Apr 10, 2012 by Carrie Gajowski, MA

Morphemes and memory

In the recent Scientific Learning webinar "Language and the Reading Puzzle Part 2:  Morpheme Awareness and Working Memory," cognitive scientist Dr. Virginia Mann continues the conversation she began in Part 1, this time focusing on the importance of developing working memoryand morpheme awareness skills in order to attain the goal of fluent reading(the ability to read at the right speed with no mistakes and good expression). 

Morpheme awareness is the ability to recognize and contextualize the basic semantic building blocks of the English language.  Here’s an example of how it works:

Can you fill in the blank with the most appropriate fictional word from the multiple-choice list below?

She is very __________.
a) lorialize
b) lorial 
c) lorify
d) lorialism

Most experienced English speakers will be able to select the nonsense word "lorial" (choice b) to complete the sentence above, as it is the only adjective on the list. Completing this exercise also requires working memory, the ability to temporarily retain information long enough to complete a new task.


In her presentation, Dr. Mann compares morphemes to Legos, the interlocking toy building-block system, describing morphemes as vocabulary-building roots for language. One example she gives of a morpheme is the root word “play,” which can morph into the words “plays”, “played,” “playpen,”  “replay,” and “unplayfully,” (to name a few) with the help of prefixes and suffixes.

In the webinar, Dr. Mann refers to a study which showed that normally developing children between the ages of 4 and 5 already understand this kind of morphological activity and are able to build new words in this manner. Research has also shown that young readers who do not develop strong morpheme awareness skills can sometimes end up with "frozen" reading skills, typically around the 3rd grade, just before morpheme awareness become central to a student's journey towards fluent reading.


Working memory is also explored in-depth in this webinar. Dr. Mann connects the dots between the importance of working memory and oral comprehension difficulties in school, and clearly identifies the kinds of classroom challenges (e.g., difficulty following directions, problems with multiple choice tests) students with poor working memory skills eventually face.

“If you can’t retain what is said, you can’t comprehend it,” Dr. Mann succinctly states, demonstrating the very real connection between poor working memory skills and diminished comprehension, which are common barriers to fluent reading.

All parents and educators can benefit from a deeper knowledge of morphemes and working memory (even if you selected the correct word in our little pop quiz above). Click here to view the full webinar.


Dr. Mann has collaborated with Scientific Learning on our learning acceleration products since the year 2000, playing a crucial role in the development of the Fast ForWord READING series .

Related Reading:

Language and the Reading Puzzle: 5 Steps Toward Fluent Reading

Why You Should Read With Your Child