Working with ‘do’

Learning about a simple word like <do> and its various derivatives can teach us a lot about the importance of morphology in reading, spelling, and vocabulary development. The concept of morphemes is not something you wait until children are in junior high or upper elementary before you introduce. You cannot successfully analyze the phonemes (sounds) in a word until you have established its morpheme boundaries. The pronunciation of the morphemes may be different but the spelling of the morphemes stay the same.

For example, the base <do> is pronounced as /du/ in <do> and <doing>, but it is pronounced as /dʌ/ in <does> and <done> – like how the vowel letter <u> is pronounced in the word ‘up’. The base has two different pronunciations, but only one spelling. Understanding this fact about English spelling helps children stop writing words according to how they pronounce them. The more they struggle, the more important it becomes for them to learn the Morphemic constituents in words. By spelling the morphemes, they avoid spelling letter by letter or ‘sound by sound’. Spelling the morphemes allows them to chunk meaningful units together and thus reduce cognitive load on the working memory.

prefixes base suffixes
do     es

English is a morphological language: its vocabulary is developed from different morphological processes such as affixing and compounding. Using the lexical matrix of <do> above, see how many words you can form. Combine the different elements to form derivatives of the base <do> using word sums. In word sums, a plus sign + goes between morphemic elements. Here is an example:

do + es –> does .

Every word written from a base must include that base. The –> sign is read as ‘rewritten as’ . So, d.o plus e.s is rewritten as d.o-e.s: that is how you read it. You announce the morphemes using letter names. You announce the letters in a morpheme rather quickly as a single unit and with a little pause between the different morphemic elements. This enables the constituent morphemes to be anchored in the brain. In addition to helping to develop vocabulary, it ensures that the elements in words are memorized in chunks rather that one letter at a time.

Let us take a look at the pronunciation of the grapheme <o> in the base <do>. Did you notice that the <o> is pronounced like the grapheme <u> in all its derivations? It represents both the ‘short’ and ‘long’ phonemes of the grapheme <u> : /ʌ/ and /u/. This phenomenon is very common in English: the letter <o> often represents the grapheme <u> in spelling in different circumstances. Children are aware of this fact and so tend to misspell <does> as *<duz> and <done> as *<dun>. This is one of the reasons why it is not always helpful to insist that children sound out words they write. Children tend to be more phonetically aware than we give them credit for and their misspellings often show this awareness.

Taking the time and the trouble to understand the spelling system for ourselves is the best thing we can do help improve the literacy outcomes for children we work with. Children’s misspellings often reveal what they understand about words and points us in the direction of the concepts of the spelling system that we have to teach them.

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