Morpheme Order Studies

Brief Overview

This is a brief overview of morpheme order studies  for the reader to understand the main points. Readers are encouraged to study more in-depth to gain a full appreciation of the history, development, and implementation. At the end are guiding questions for the educator to contemplate instruction and morpheme order studies.

Morpheme order studies questioned if there was a natural order to L2 (second language) acquisition like that of L1 (native language) acquisition. The interest in a natural order was boosted by the acknowledgement of interlanguage theory that states students are in a dynamic state of language that is somewhere between L1 and L2. The 70’s saw a boom with research into natural order that still continues to this day; although emphasis has changed from a linguistic structure standpoint to incorporate more cognition because of  increases in technology.

Morpheme order studies can be quite complicated looking at all the studies, dissecting information, and matching it to one another. Morpheme order studies are a whole study within itself and not suitable for an article of this nature. Therefore, Tesol Class will list some of the key information and discuss how it can fit within the classroom and instruction.

Early Key Studies

Brown (1973)
Dulay and Burt (1974)
Bailey, Madden, and Krashen (1974)
Larsen-Freeman (1976)
Hakuta (1976)
Anderson (1978)
Krashen, Butler, Birnbaum, and Robertson (1978)

These early studies influenced morpheme order studies, so they are good to examine to understand how it has evloved.

Various Results

  • Studies have shown there is a general order of grammatical acquisition regardless of L1
  • Freeman found that results in oral production coincided with other studies, but order did not mimic the perceived order of acquisition in the other three skills.
  • Language learners do not go from blank knowledge of a grammatical rule to perfect understanding after instruction. This is in bold because many educators believe if a grammatical rule is explained the student should know it. There is a developmental sequence students normally go through to attain grammatical rules and may vary in length depending upon the student.
  • There seems to be a “non-communicative” stage where students do not produce, but are constructing rules mentally.
  • Instruction can influence morpheme order, but students only benefit minimally and the benefits tend to be short-lived. On the other hand, spontaneous use maintained levels of grammatical usage and were not short-lived like classroom instruction.
  • Morpheme order studies have more to do with accuracy than with how students acquire the grammatical information.


  • Some argue results are consistent and show a natural order because of testing instruments. Most SLA books will suggest there is an order, but some studies have shown that different tasks have yielded different results. Hakuta (1976) and others have shown a different order, but have been largely overlooked.
  • The statement that there is a general order of grammatical acquisition regardless of L1 is totally supported. Some studies have shown L1 does influence grammar acquisition/usage. For example, students who learn English where their native language lacks articles (Russian, Japanese, Korean, etc…) have difficulty mastering articles.
  • Morpheme order studies did not penalize for overuse. For example, if a student said, “I am going to the Philippines to swim in the ocean,” the student was not penalized for putting “the” before a proper noun.
  • Results from students in an ESL context (Korean learning English while living in America) are difficult to determine if it was the classroom or society that helped the student with grammar acquisition and use. 


Morpheme order studies have been a great assistance in understanding how students acquire and use the different aspects of grammar; however, research has show varying results and there is no clear cut order of acquisition as researchers hoped. On the other hand, there has been valuable information discovered along the way that is of great use to the educator and instruction. View below to how this information can assist an educator in the classroom.

How Not to Use

  • The average educator needs not to concern himself with dissecting all the studies and using this information to build a course or guide instruction. The natural order lists are great for researchers peering deeply into the subject, but the common educator needs not peer that deeply. Actually, it is difficult to  find an order that is agreed upon for all language learners. The most common lists found are comparing various studies.
  • Results are a great source of information, but building courses or constructing lessons in the order of a list is not practical. Since grammatical elements develop at varies rates and L1 features can influence acquisition and use, better strategies can be used to develop courses or lessons.

How to Use

  • Morpheme order studies showed without a doubt that students do not go from zero knowledge to fully understanding grammatical rules/usage. There is a development stage that every student goes through to acquire grammar structures. In addition to this, this development stage is not the same for every student. One student may develop over two weeks, whereas another student may take six months. The key here: students need more than rule explanation to acquire and use grammatical structures. Provide students with explanations, but then follow that up with activities that allow interaction or natural use of the structures.
  • This goes with the point above. Classroom instruction is a great to introduce the grammar rule, but if it is just instruction based then results can quickly be short-lived; therefore, provide students with authentic opportunities to spontaneously use the grammar. Examples:

Speaking- free talking, open discussions, debates
Listening- active listening and recasting
Writing- free writing, brainstorming
Reading- read a passage and summarize in own language

  • Understand that younger learners may be quiet because they are formalizing constructs mentally, so do not assume inability.
  • Students’ L1 may factor in with the development of certain grammatical structures, especially if they are absent in the native language. Acknowledge this and provide time for these structures to develop and watch out for avoidance. Sometimes students will avoid certain structures that are not in their L1 because it is too difficult for them. Provide opportunities for the students to practice and become somewhat comfortable using said structures.
  • Morpheme order studies are a great research tool for educators to utilize when teaching students of a common language group. For example, an educator is teaching in Japan, then morpheme order studies pertaining to Japanese learners will be valuable. If the educator is in a context with a variety of students from different language backgrounds, it may benefit the educator to group the languages together and find problem areas for each group.

Final Thoughts

Morpheme order studies can be great assistance if viewed from a holistic point of view and not in detail. Understanding that students need time to develop grammatical structures can really assist in lesson planning and instruction. Also, regardless if the class is multi-national or homogenous, students may progress at various rates be and educators should prepare for this aspect. What an educator can take away from morpheme order studies may not seem earth shattering, but some of the results can assist the educator greatly in understanding students and preparing lessons to assist in learning.

Students develop, spontaneous interaction builds and maintains, and L1 can influence acquisition. Acknowledge it and use it wisely.