Using Morphemes to Help Dyslexic Children Improve Their Reading

In collaboration with the University of Aix-Marseille and the French National Center for Scientific
Research (CNRS), Mobidys is developing new reading aids using morphological analysis.

For children and adolescents with dyslexia, learning to read can be a real challenge. But there are strategies that help, and new ones are continually being developed. At Mobidys, we’ve partnered with a research lab to come up with innovative solutions for dyslexic students. In a recent project, in collaboration with Pascale Colé—a professor of cognitive psychology and the head of the language team at the Cognitive Psychology Laboratory/Lab at the University of Aix-Marseille (& CNRS researcher)—we’ve developed reading aids using morphological analysis. So how exactly can morphemes help dyslexic children improve their reading ? Here’s a preview of the results of our work.

Research-based innovation

Phonological deficits and dyslexia

Advances in speech therapy and research carried out in the field of cognitive science have improved our understanding of the root causes of dyslexia. We now know, for instance, that decoding (the ability to sound out words)—essential in literacy—is one of the main challenges for dyslexic children, teens, and adults. Various tools and reading aids have been developed to help compensate for such phonological disorders. These strategies have helped many children and teens with dyslexia overcome their difficulties and discover the joy of reading.

Another key to reading: the morpheme

Given that decoding is one of the main skills dyslexic readers struggle with, most support tools to date have focused on stimulating and developing this ability. In recent years, however, various international studies have shown that learning to read also requires a complementary reading skill: morphological awareness. This entails the ability to identify the morphemes that make up the words in a text, which correspond to the smallest units of meaning conveyed. Morphemes are generally divided into the following two categories : 

  • Lexical morphemes have meanings by themselves. This includes words that can stand alone, including common nouns, adjectives, verbs, conjunctions, and pronouns.
  • Grammatical (or functional) morphemes indicate grammatical categories such as verb tense, number (singular/plural), and aspect (continuous/habitual, etc.).

By combining lexical and grammatical morphemes, it is possible to create more complex lexical units (words).

The diagram below classifies morphemes by type.

Classification of morphemes by type in the French language
(Adapted and translated from Enseigner la lecture au cycle 2, Ed. Nathan Pédagogie, 2000)

Several studies have shown that morphological awareness plays an early role in learning to read and that this skill is not entirely dependent on phonological awareness. In other words, a child can learn to recognize each lexical unit in a text as a whole, despite limited phonological skills.

How does morphological awareness facilitate reading? Let’s take the English word “worker” as an example.

  • To read and understand the meaning of this word, children will first identify the frequently-occurring word stems they know: “work” “dent” (tooth), which is the common stem in its word family, and –“er”—a frequent suffix in English designating one who makes or does.
  • Children will then put their semantic knowledge of these two morphemes together, which enables them to understand the word they are reading: “worker”—one who works.

Morphological awareness can thus bypass the decoding process by enabling children to identify short high-frequency morphemes stored in their memory.

Morphological awareness and dyslexia

Studying the implication of these results in the field of dyslexia remediation, P. Colé and her team were able to demonstrate that university students with dyslexia were also able to read using morphological knowledge, despite their limited phonological abilities. “Adults with dyslexia at the university level are particularly interesting to study because they’ve managed to pursue higher education despite poor decoding and word reading skills,” explains P. Colé. “We were able to demonstrate that they are in fact able to understand texts like their peers who do not have reading difficulties by using a very elaborate compensation strategy that draws heavily on their general knowledge. We also observed a specific brain circuit for word reading in brain images [of dyslexic individuals], which was different from that observed in their peers.


Based on this observation, researchers made the following hypothesis : by acquiring morphological awareness and applying it as they read, dyslexic children should be able to more quickly develop compensatory strategies for reading. This would enable them to read with more fluency. “We believe that the morphological knowledge dyslexic adults develop during their education could potentially be practiced and acquired by children earlier in their schooling.” 

This hypothesis was later confirmed in several studies conducted with dyslexic children (see bibliography). So although developing phonological awareness and using it to decode words remains essential to reading acquisition, morphological analysis is a viable compensatory strategy for children with dyslexia. “The challenge is both scientific and social. We have observed that although phonological remediation remains essential, it often produces limited results, considering the time, effort, and energy invested by children struggling with dyslexic disorders. We believe that developing morphological awareness as a support strategy can greatly increase children’s’ access to reading.”


Using Morphemes to Help Dyslexic Children Improve Their Reading with the Interactive Book Basaffix

The Morphorem software adapted in interactive book format

Based on their research, Pascale Colé, Séverine Casalis and Cécile Dufayard developed the Morphorem software in 2012. Designed for professional use by speech therapists, the tool presented a program of oral and written morphological analysis exercises for dyslexic children and adolescents.

Convinced by Morphorem’s potential to facilitate reading for dyslexic children, the Mobidys team wanted to make the program more accessible. Drawing on P. Colé’s expertise, the company offered to develop a digital epub3 version of the software, which had only been available on CD-ROMs published by Ortho Edition.

Excerpts from exercises in the Basaffix interactive book

Slated for release in the first trimester of 2023, Basaffix will take the form of an interactive FROG book that integrates Mobidys’s expertise in digital accessibility. It will include fifteen work sessions with oral and written exercises developed specially by P. Colé, S. Casalis, and C. Dufayard.

This innovative new format is designed for independent use by students in fifth, sixth, and seventh grade, or as part of a follow up or treatment program. Basaffix is also designed for teachers, particularly those working in special education.

Progressive and supported rollout

To help future users become familiar with Basaffix, an initial rollout is planned with six classes of sixth and seventh graders.
This seven-week experiment will follow a specific protocol : 

  • to measure the effects of practicing morphological analysis on students’ reading ability and comprehension ;
  • to observe how the tool is used by teachers and students.

This data will be used to expand and approve the user guide that will accompany the larger-scale rollout of Basaffix.

This experiment will be coordinated by :

  • Eddy Cavalli, lecturer in psychology and cognitive sciences, and head of the Cognition des Apprentissages et du Langage (Cognition of Learning and Language) (CAL) team at Lumière University Lyon 2;
  • Pauline Quémart, lecturer in psychology at the University of Nantes.


FROG books soon to include new reading tools that support morphological analysis

In addition to the Basaffix interactive book for training in morphological analysis, MOBIDYS is developing a new feature within its FROG format. Based on research by Pascale Colé’s team, it will automatically break up and color-code complex words into morphemes to facilitate comprehension, and to help children develop morphological awareness as they read. This new feature will be integrated into other existing reading support tools and could be applied to the entire SONDO collection of adapted books for the middle grades.

Excerpt from the new FROG morpheme coding tool

The development of reading support tools based on morphological analysis of words is an important step forward in the development of this remediation method. While the acquisition of phonological knowledge and the use of decoding remain essential to literacy, it is also possible to improve reading ability in dyslexic children using morphemes. Mobidys believes that each child is different and has specific needs, and hopes to enrich the range of reading aid solutions offered to children with language disorders through Basaffix and its new FROG tool.

This article was co-authored by professor Pascale Colé, Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive (Cognitive Psychology Laboratory), University of Aix-Marseille.


Morphology and adult dyslexia

1. Cavalli, E., Colé, P., Pattamadilok, C., Badier, J. M., Zielinski, C., Chanoine, V., & Ziegler, J. C. (2017). Spatiotemporal reorganization of the reading network in adult dyslexia. Cortex. 92, 204-221.

2. Cavalli, E., Duncan, L. G., Elbro, C., El Ahmadi, A., & Colé, P. (2017). Phonemic-Morphemic dissociation in dyslexic university students: An index of reading compensation? Annals of Dyslexia. 67, 63-84.

3. Martin, J., Frauenfelder, U.  & Colé, P. (2013). Morphological awareness in dyslexic students. Applied Psycholinguistics, 1-21, doi: 10.1017/S0142716413000167.

Morphology and dyslexic child/adolescents

4. Casalis, S., Colé, P. & Sopo, D. (2004). Morphological awareness in developmental dyslexia, Annals of Dyslexia, 54(1), 114-138.

Morphology practice and dyslexia

5. Goodwin, A. P., & Ahn, S. (2010). A meta-analysis of morphological interventions: effects on literacy achievement of children with literacy difficulties. Annals of Dyslexia, 60(2), 183-208.

6. Casalis, S., & Colé, P. (2005). L’entraînement à l’analyse morphologique chez des collégiens dyslexiques. Les Entretiens d’Orthophonie, Entretiens Bichat, Paris: l’Expansion Scientifique Française.

Reading acquisition and morphological knowledge

7. Colé, P., Cavalli, E., Duncan, L.G., Theurel, A., Gentaz, E., Sprenger-Charolles, L. & El Ahmadi, A. (2018). What is the influence of morphological knowledge in the early stages of reading acquisition among low SES children? A Graphical modeling approach. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00547.

8. Colé, P., Bouton, S., Leuwers, C., Casalis, S., & Sprenger-Charolles, L. (2012). Stem and Derivational-Suffix Processing During Reading by French Second and Third Graders. Applied Psycholinguistics, 33, 97-120.

9. Quémard, P., Casalis, S., & Colé, P. (2011). The role of form and meaning in the processing of written morphology: A priming study in French developing readers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109, 478-496.

10. Casalis, S., Dusautoir, M., Colé, P. & Ducrot, S. (2009). Morphological relationship to children word reading: a priming study in fourth graders. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27, 761-766.

11. Casalis, S. & Colé, P. (2009). On the relationship between morphological and phonological awareness: Effects of training in kindergarten and in first-grade reading. First Language, 29(1), 113-145.

Evaluating reading fluency: a new tool available in SONDO and SONDIDO

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious!”...

Digital Textbooks adapted for readers with learning disabilities : A first set of accessible books just released

Mobidys has partnered with French publishers Nathan and Bordas to adapt nineteen digital textbooks...

MOBiDYS Rolls Out Its Digital Library BibliOdyssée Across the Atlantic

The MOBiDYS team is proud to announce that BibliOdyssée, its collection of digital books, is now...