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Making and Sorting Words


In this activity, students examine meaningful word parts (morphemes), and practice combining the morphemes to make both real and nonsense words. Then, students use their understanding of the morphemes to generate plausible definitions for two of their nonsense words.  This activity helps students to appreciate the morphological construction of words, and to use morphology to help them to spell, read, and understand unfamiliar words.

Learning Strategies 

  • Connecting
  • Inferring
  • Synthesizing
Word Study

Lesson Plan Stages 

  • Investigation

Content Areas 

  • ELA

Learning Strands 

  • Reading

Common Core Instructional Shifts 

  • Academic Vocabulary


  • Identify a set of roots and affixes with which students are familiar.  The set of roots and affixes should be large enough so that students can make five to ten real words, plus a comparable number of nonsense words.  For more advanced students, you can include both prefixes and suffixes, and you can include affixes that can be “stacked,” with more than one on the same word (for example, un+hap+y+ly=unhappily).  It is a good idea to color code the cards (prefixes one color, roots another, suffixes another).
  • Prepare a set of physical or virtual index cards, each printed with one of the identified morphemes.  You may want to include multiple copies of some of the more generative morphemes.  Prepare a set for each student or each group of students.
  • Prepare to review the spelling rules associated with affixing (the y/i rule, the doubling rule, and the e-drop rule are the most important). 
Activity Steps 
  1. The teacher reviews what a morpheme is, and the basic types of morphemes (prefixes, roots, suffixes). The teacher leads a discussion about the value of morphological analysis.
    A morpheme is the smallest meaningful part of a word.  Of course, you can also do this activity before students learn prefixes, just studying roots and suffixes. 
    Morphological analysis is important because English spelling is morphophonemic, meaning it encodes both sound (phonemes) and meaning and history of words (morphemes).  Learners cannot really understand the spelling system without understanding both phonics (patterns of sound/letter correspondence) and morphology (the way meaningful units are combined to form words). 
    Also, morphological analysis helps enormously with identifying and pronouncing new words, with spelling, and with predicting and remembering the meaning of words. 
  2. Teacher distributes sets of morpheme cards to each student, or each small group of students. Students review the meaning of each morpheme.

    You can review the meaning of the morphemes with the students, you can provide them with a glossary, and/or you can refer them to the website Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) to research them.

  3. Teacher reviews the three suffixing spelling rules.
    The three most important rules are:
    • the doubling rule
    • the e-drop rule
    • the y/i change rule
    There are many handouts and posters available online that summarize these accessibly for students, or you may want to pre-teach them in separate lessons. 
    You can also choose to skip these rules if you are not focusing on spelling in this lesson—doing so may result in some misspelled words (“runing” instead of “running,” “happyness” instead of “happiness”), but will still be valuable.
    Depending on the students’ level of sophistication, you may also want to include alternate spellings of prefixes (like in/im/il).
  4. Students set up a page of note paper as two-column notes. They label the columns “real words” and “nonsense words.”

    You may want to model this on chart paper or a projection.

  5. Working independently or in small groups, students move the cards around on the desk to form words. They record the real words in the “real words” column, and the nonsense words in the “nonsense words” column.
    Circulate as students are working, suggesting combinations they may not have thought of, and asking them to explain their thinking. 
    Look out for students who are confused because they don’t remember the spelling rules—help them to recognize how minor changes to the morphemes result in real words. 
  6. Each student or group picks two nonsense words that seem most like real words. Using their knowledge of the component morphemes, students write definitions of each nonsense word, and a sentence using each nonsense word.
    Encourage students to refer to Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) or a dictionary as a reference.
    As you circulate among the groups, ask them to explain how they are generating the definitions.  They should come directly from the morphemes. 
  7. Teacher invites each group to share one made-up word and its definition.

    If you have time, you can ask the class to generate alternate (but equally plausible) definitions and/or sentences.

  8. Alone or in groups, in conversation or in writing, students reflect on their learning process.

    Students respond to questions including:

    • How did this activity contribute to your understanding of how words are put together?
    • How can morphology help you to spell words? 
    • How can it help you to read words?
    • How can it help you to figure out what a word means? 
    • How can it help you to remember the difference between words?
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