More Research on Why Phonics Needs Morphology

The more I read, the more research I find to add to the piles of studies supporting the need to rethink phonics as inseparable from and governed by morphology and etymology. Here are a couple of single studies to mention that are of interest to me:


  • In their study, Devonshire, Morris, and Fluck (2013), teaching 5 to 7 year old students, compared a traditional phonics condition (the U.K. National curriculum) with intervention that integrated etymology, morphology, orthography and phonology. Their novel intervention focused on “making children aware of the way the English writing system works, in terms of all levels of representation.” I was particularly excited to see they instructed the children in “form rules.” The children were shown, for example, that certain letter combinations are not permitted in English, along with a bit of alphabet history so they could understand why. The investigators found the more integrative intervention to improve reading skills over and above the phonics condition and concluded that “early teaching of English literacy should include instruction in morphology.”

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  • In another study, Halaas Lyster, Levag and Holme (2016), looked at the long term effects of morphological awareness training in preschoolers. One group of children received morphological awareness training, while a second group received phonological awareness training. A control group followed the ordinary preschool curriculum. Children were tested on reading ability at the end of first grade and five years later in sixth grade. It’s important to note that all of the children were taught with a phonics, a program with “a strong focus on the alphabetic principle and grapheme–phoneme correspondences.” The investigators found a positive effect of morpheme training in preschool on reading comprehension in sixth grade. The students who had the morphological awareness training, as sixth graders, “brought with them additional knowledge about word meaning and form that they might have applied when learning to read, especially when reading more demanding texts.”

The evidence base is compelling indeed.

The Jury is In: Phonics Needs Morphology

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.
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These newer studies told me there cound 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 lead 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.

Piles of Exceptions

I started to think about word frequency. I began the mammoth project of collecting the 20,000 most common words. Armed with my corpus, I placed as many as I could into the extensive phonics scope and sequence I had been using for many years. I was going to fix this.

A year and a half later (that’s how long it took), my new practice materials were stocked with words that my students would be most likely to encounter in the real world. In short, I made the language of books the target of reading instruction. Chippendale begone!

This was phonics, so there was still an exception pile. A big exception pile. An exception pile that was getting too large to be ignored! There were literally thousands of words that, according to phonics, were exceptions.

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Teaching through the lens of phonics was unwieldy and frankly getting ridiculous. It’s not that the students weren’t improving. They were. But could they get more? Could it be better?

Word By Word

It was time to pay attention to the words I was teaching. I was carefully curating lists of words so students could practice the phonics rules I was teaching them. I was getting tired of dredging up the same words over and over: cactus, picnic, dentist, locate, remote, Chippendale, badminton and fig.

In 2003, Sally Shaywitz’s book Overcoming Dyslexia came out. I got my hands on it as soon as I could and read it right away. The book covered a lot of ground, but what I couldn’t get out of my head was one of her conclusions regarding fluency. Students acquire fluency “word by word,” she said. There were a lot of words I was sweeping under the carpet.

screenshot-37About a year later, I read a study published in Annals of Dyslexia entitled, “Training reading fluency in dysfluent readers with high reading accuracy: Word specific effects but low transfer to untrained words.”

The investigators found that “remarkable” amount of repetitions on trained words with certain consonant clusters did not generalize to untrained words with the same consonant clusters.

I had to liberate myself.

Phonics, Systems, and More Systems

The OED defines phonics as a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system. And therein lies the problem but I didn’t know it yet. For several years I continued to search within phonics, immersing myself in all kinds of  workshops and professional development offerings.

The one that resonated with me most was the pure Orton-Gillingham approach having spent an intensive three weeks at The Reading Center in Rochester, Minnesota studying with Jean Osman and the late Paula Rome who actually knew Dr. Orton. Years later, I was grandfathered in as a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, and a Fellow I remain today.

Still, the knowledge I gained from O-G training didn’t feel complete. One thing I remember is poring over word lists for weeks at a time trying to figure out how to teach students when to use “tion” and when to use “sion.” Nothing I tried actually worked. There was still so much I couldn’t explain. I invested in more trainings, workshops, workbooks, and materials.  If it existed at the time, there was a pretty good chance I bought it, tried it, or trained in it.

Here’s the short list:

Discover Intensive Phonics, Auditory Discrimination in Depth, How to Teach Spelling, Spellbound, Phono-Graphix, Recipe for Reading, Project Read, Alphabetic Phonics, Spaulding, Slingerland, Hooked on Phonics, Jolly Phonics, Letterland, Language!, Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum, Road to the Code, Read Naturally, Great Leaps, Morgan Dynamic Phonics, Wilson, SLANT System, Sonday System, Starting Over, S.P.I.R.E, Fun Phonics, Megawords, Solving Language Difficulties, Explode the Code, Lexia, Sounds Abound, Angling for Words, Fast Track Reading Program, REWARDS, Language Tool Kit, Advanced Language Tool Kit, The Alphabet Series, WORDS, Primary Phonics, Touchphonics, Right into Reading, Preventing Academic Failure, RAVE-O.

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There’s more where that came from.

For so long, I thought the problem was me not understanding the systems I was gathering–not the other way around.

When Phonics Made Me a Problem Child

But not me, never one to be too sure. When Kim, David, Brad and Kevin turned into Caty, Blake, Jessie, and many more, I turned my focus away from Whole Language and taught them using phonics. It wasn’t like today. Phonics, in fact, was highly out of favor. I attended a meeting at the same junior high school that I had once attended in support of Billy, a sixth grade struggling reader who I thought deserved a chance.

My one time home room teacher, the principal and the school psychologist (who knew me well, by the way) laughed at and belittled me for using phonics. I felt like I was twelve again, failing to win my mother’s approval.

By the end of the day, this twenty-four year old, not-so-newly- minted Ph.D. was sobbing on the steering wheel.

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About 10 years after my initial foray into phonics, it earned an endorsement from the National Reading Panel. Children taught with phonics generally experience better outcomes than children taught with whole language.

In other words, I was right all along.

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Don’t Feed Flippy!

Many colleagues in education remain certain. If you hear something about Guided Reading, Reading Recovery, Balanced Literacy, Leveled Literacy, Fountas and Pinnell reading levels, RAZ Kids, miscue analysis, running records, word walls, and probably more that I’m unaware of you might be looking at a similar premise with a new name.


Just last week this came home in one of my student’s backpacks, on a worksheet called “Reading Strategy Friends”:

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Flippy is not your friend.


Questioning the Authority of Whole Language

I remember this mantra from my Doctoral program: Goodman and Smith Top-Down, Perfetti and Stanovich Bottom-Up.

The Top-Down theorists believed that readers are the source of meaning. A skilled reader samples the text, but the print itself takes a lesser role in comparison to how the reader interacts with it. Bottom-Up theorists, on the other hand, believed that skilled readers look at the writing itself, and pretty thoroughly at that. While I was working on my doctorate, I remember wondering, like it was yesterday, which theory our professors believed had merit. I asked a classmate; she didn’t know either. I never did figure that out.

So when someone recommended that I check out a Teachers Applying Whole Language Conference in order to help this newly minted specialist teach a new round of students, I did know something about what I was getting into. At this conference I was told that the best way to help students read was to encourage them to predict words using pictures, surrounding context, and their own prior knowledge.

It’s the reader who constructs meaning, they said. I wanted to believe this was my answer. But the doubts were there too and I hadn’t even left the venue.

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I handed in a question for Q and A time, “But don’t we read, at times, to learn something new?”

They didn’t pick that question.

Oral language is learned naturally, so written language is best learned naturally, too. They said we should teach students to read the same way they learned to speak, which is to say they will learn if they grow up in a literature-rich environment, with exposure to predictable books. I wanted so much to help my students, but those doubts kept nagging me. As a speech pathologist, I knew full well that oral language doesn’t always come along easily.

I jotted down another question.“Will children with language learning impairment learn best this way too?”

That question didn’t get picked either.

As I was driving home after the conference, I got to thinking. Writers select words for a reason. Don’t they? If readers create meaning, why can’t we just read a blank page? Along with little pesky details like, “How would this work if you’re a pharmacist?” I ignored myself for a time, followed the advice, and watched for results. I wrote about it in a few reports. I remember a sixth grade boy Adam. Listening to him read was like watching someone walk through sludge. It was halting, effortful. I wrote it all down on new letterhead printed on the finest paper. “Adam isn’t using all of the cues that facilitate reading. He needs to think more about what would make sense to make reading flow with ease.” I recall wishing it were true as I wrote it.

One kid, Kevin, actually learned to read. I could have interpreted this as the whole language approach working. It’s those other kids who are not reading enough at home/unmotivated/not picking the right books/just a puzzle (insert excuse here that would do everything but focus the blame on me). Instead, I was skeptical that I myself actually made the difference for Kevin. The rest of those students just slipped through my fingers.

Richard Slipped Through My Fingers

I became a high school speech pathologist after earning a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology. I noticed students on my caseload who couldn’t read very well. One student in particular named Richard, a freshman, was unable to read anything at all. I so wish I could share with him what I know now. I did the best my twenty-something-year-old self could, but it’s safe to say I couldn’t and didn’t help him learn the one thing he really needed to be able to do: read.

When I was in school, SLP’s didn’t learn a whole lot about orthography. We learned many things, but not much about how words are written. I taught Richard using an inherited IEP as my only guide. I remember thinking I was teaching him things he already knew. Never one to overlook my own shortcomings, it felt really uncomfortable. I realized pretty quickly that I needed to go back to school, so I did just that. I earned a Doctorate, became a learning disability specialist, rented an office, bought a suit and set up a private practice.

Today, I am able to see how much of what I use now is what I actually did learn during my speech and language pathology preservice training, even though I initially didn’t make that connection. So I earned some new letters. And Richard turned into Brad, David, Kim and Kevin, new kids who couldn’t read and who had fallen into my hands.


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How Holly Learned: Doubts, Doubts, and More Doubts

In this series, I tell the story behind why I do what I do.

Each of us was once a baby, a child. I hope we were all fortunate enough to have at least one parent who loved us beyond measure and saw us through the good, bad, and ugly of childhood so that we could thrive as confident, self-possessed adults. As much as I know I’ve got a lot of say and a lot of evidence that I am one such adult, I must admit the truth: I often see myself as a damaged person.

From the time I was very young I was always willing to believe that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Anyone who doubted me was absolutely right to do so. The seeds of my self-doubt were planted when I was very young, as is the case with many people. It took me several decades to realize that even though my mother gave me as much love as a parent could give, it was the kind that demanded I give her all the power to tell me how much I was worth. Her demands meant that I needed to prove over and over again that she was right, I was wrong. Anything I did that wasn’t her idea or met her approval was fit for rejection. Like a good daughter, I took to heart all values and beliefs about how to live and how to think and made them my own—until the time finally came when I realized I was profoundly suffering under the weight of her love, which was anything but unconditional.

I tell this story to say that my willingness to doubt what I know and what I do is actually one of the biggest assets I have.

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