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.)