A Morphophonemic Approach to Decoding and Vocabulary

by Meghan Sebens

December 8, 2023

What do the words pleasure, benefit, and photography have in common? I may get a skeptical stare when I say that these are all predictably spelled words. English is often maligned as unpredictable, unfair, or just plain “weird”. While English may be more complex than other languages that are more purely phonetic, the majority of its words follow a set of predictable rules.

So, why does it seem so hard? English is a deep orthography, meaning that it is a morphophonemic language, not solely a phonetic one. A phonetic language, such as Italian, has a near one-to-one correspondence between sounds and their spellings. In Italian, there are 21 graphemes (spellings) that correspond to 28 sounds. While some Italian spellings may be pronounced multiple ways, this pales in comparison to English. In English, there are roughly 44 sounds, which are represented by over 300 spellings. 

These stats are not meant to suggest that we should throw up our hands at teaching students to read and spell in English. Instead, we just need to better understand the depth of the English language. Let’s go back to the term morphophonemic. The second part of this term, phonemic, suggests that there is a system of sounds in our words. In fact, almost 90% of English words adhere to predictable sound-symbol correspondences with 0-1 exceptions (Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, & Rudorf, 1966). 

Words that are less readily predictable based on sound are often predictable based on the first part of the term – morpho. Morphology is the study of meaningful parts of words: prefixes, suffixes, and roots or base words. While morphology doesn’t always have a perfect sound-symbol correspondence, the spelling is often stable. For instance, the word pleasure has a few lower frequency spellings (i.e., ea representing the short e sound, s representing the zh sound); however, the spelling of this word is logical if a student understands that the suffix -ure is added to the base word, please. 

While there have been movements to change the English language to a shallow orthography, the morphemic language structure has been maintained. Beyond preserving the richness of our language, the morphemic aspects allow us to further understand the spelling and, even more importantly, the meaning of words. When students can harness the power of breaking words into phonemes and morphemes, decoding and reading comprehension improve (Perfetti, 2011).


Moats, L.C., and Tolman, C.A. (2019).  Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.  Voyager Sopris.

Hanna, P.R., Hanna, J.S., Hodges, R.e., & Rudorf, E.H. (1966). Phoneme-grapheme correspondences as cues to spelling improvement. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare/National Institute of Education.

Perfetti, C.A. (2011). Reading ability: Lexical quality to comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11(4), 357-383.

Meghan brings a passion for literacy and diagnostic teaching to her role as Academic Dean at the Elementary•Middle School campus. Since joining Landmark in 2006, she has served in various roles, including reading supervisor, testing coordinator, academic advisor, teacher, and tutor. Meghan has also taught courses and consulted through Landmark’s Outreach program. She graduated from Macalester College with a bachelor’s in psychology and earned her masters in moderate disabilities from Simmons University.

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