The Jury is In: More Morphology

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By Holly A. Shapiro, Ph.D., CCC-SLP


For a long time, I stayed with the program and taught common words like often, been, come, move, really, and two as irregular. I got to the point where I couldn’t stand doing it for one more minute. So I got rid of the irregular pile and shifted towards synthetic phonics in the style of the U.K. National curriculum along with a handful of programs here in the U.S.


Often wasn’t irregular anymore. It simply has an ft spelling for /f/.


Two stepped out of the irregular pile as well. It has a tw spelling for /t/, that’s all.


Come has split digraph o-e spelling /ʌ/.


Move has a split digraph o-e spelling /u/.


Horse? No worries, as we can add se as one of the ways to spell /s/. I was pretty satisfied.


The literature, however, kept poking me in the shoulder.


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Everyone points to the evidence base supporting phonics instruction and the five pillars of literacy promoted by the National Reading Panel. But the NRP findings were published over fifteen years ago. Even though I was happy with where I was, it wasn’t like I was going to stop reading papers and learning about newer findings.


As the years went by, I couldn’t help but notice a trend. The tide was shifting, and I was not going to be left out. One study, then another, then another was demonstrating the greater benefits of morphological awareness instruction, especially for younger and less able readers. It was in my face, it was telling me I wasn’t good enough, and it was right.


These newer studies told me there could be a better way.


Here are some highlights from the literature:


• Reed (2008) reviewed seven intervention studies and provided a narrative description of effect sizes on word identification, spelling, and vocabulary. She found positive effects for morphological awareness instruction, with the strongest effects for students with literacy difficulties.


• Wolter (2009) conducted a systematic review designed to help speech-language pathologists make evidence-based decisions regarding literacy instruction. Wolter looked at 13 studies and concluded that morphological awareness benefits literacy development in children with and without LD as young as second grade and as advanced as seventh grade. The evidence further supported giving students opportunities to practice new skills in the context of actual reading and writing.


• Bowers, Kirby, and Deacon (2010) included 22 studies in their review, obtaining simple averages of effect sizes and standard deviations. They found that morphological instruction contributed to improvement in phonological awareness, morphological awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and spelling. Again, morphology was especially beneficial to the youngest and lowest-achieving children.


• Carlisle’s (2010) integrative review includes 16 studies in her analysis. She concluded that morphological intervention had a positive effect on phonology, orthography, and vocabulary development. Note, again, that instruction in morphological awareness leads to gains in phonological awareness. Carlisle noted in her review that “even kindergartners can acquire morphological awareness if this is what they are taught.”


What I really couldn’t ignore: teaching morphology can remediate difficulties with phonemic awareness and younger and lower-achieving children benefited the most.


I went from piles of words to piles of studies.

Read Part 10 Here