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:

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  • 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.

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7 Comments on “More Research on Why Phonics Needs Morphology

  1. Holly, thanks for continuing to post the evidence (and only the evidence). It means I sit up and take notice when you have something to say – and you say it in a way that makes it easy to understand.

  2. I have enjoyed reading the flow of your journey from phonics to morphology through this series of posts. It is the mark of a true scholar that one continually questions and develops one’s practice and understanding—even to the point of reinvention if warranted. I hope you will indulge me in what I now see is a long reply, inspired by the spirit of scholarship I see in your writing. For the last decade of my 20 years of teaching, I have brought morphology, etymology and phonology to my students–ages 5 through 12, in Canada and the UK–through Real Spelling and Structured Word Inquiry. (If those sound like “products” or “programs”, they are neither; they are a resource and a methodology). The research and work of Pete Bowers and Gina Cooke and a growing community of scholarly educators has lifted my students’ and my own learning to heights I had never imagined.

    I was particularly struck by your “piles of exceptions” post, so familiar to us all. Thus Phonics fails: what it cannot explain it dismisses as unexplainable. I often share the analogy of standing in front of my students with a cello. “I am here to teach you how to play this instrument. Alas, nobody–least of all me–fully understands how this instrument is played, so we will just have to muddle through. Being wooden and hollow, we know that this is a drum. Those strings? They don’t really belong on a drum, they are an exception. These keys up here? Purely ornamental.” This is how I felt for years trying to teach spelling. And we are surprised when students have no faith in the system, or us? For our dyslexic students in particular, who know how smart they are and resent things that don’t make sense and make them look or feel stupid, this is the checking-out point.

    This muddle has been turned on its head for me and my students. We now work as Scientists from the perspective that the English writing system is highly ordered and contains almost no “exceptions”–that all is explainable. When we find something we can’t account for, we dig and find the answer: Every. Time. And you are quite right: morphology is key. However, it is not just that “Phonics needs Morphology”, if I may quibble. It is that Morphology is central. The first purpose of the system is to represent meaning. Thus, “does” is a representation of the base “do” + the suffix “es”. We don’t change the spelling to “duz”, as some would have, because this would be inconsistent with the spelling of “do”. Nor do we condemn the word “does” and banish it to some list of “misbehaving” words. We simply see the sense. Spelling in English is designed to represent the meaning and relationship between words. And this will always trump phonology.

    Not that phonology is not important; it most certainly is. But it is important that we understand the complexity and truth of English phonology. Understanding that shifts in pronunciation such as occur between “do” and “does” are normal features of the language is truth. In its admirable endeavour to help students understand the sound structures of English, Phonics has made two fundamental errors. First, it proposes that English is an alphabetic language with one-to-one letter sound correspondence, which is simply not true. Thus, words like “two” or “move” or “stopped” are rendered as problem words. Second, Phonics has tried and tried to present the system as simpler than it is. But the complex etymology of English necessitates a complex phonology. Understanding, for instance, that “s” and most other graphemes in English can represent more than one phoneme is vital—from the beginning—as is the truth about digraphs and so on. “Oh, look: the ‘th’ in ‘the’ is pronounced differently than the the ‘th’ in ‘with’. Let’s look for other examples of each of these.” And we’re off, no worries, into a world of discovery. My experience is that the youngest of children are eminently able to learn this complexity from the beginning through real inquiry. Because what we discover is true, it is also self-reinforcing: it just keeps being true. And I can tell you the result is students who have faith in both the system and us.

    I look forward to following your journey.

  3. Hi Skot, Thanks for your thoughts. I know of your work and I am honored that you’re interested in my journey. I think you’ve got my number. In fact, I’d say you just gave away the end of my story. But I can’t really say that because there’s no end, right?

    I really enjoyed your music analogy. I have one of my own and the plan is to unveil it in the next installment. You’ll probably like it.

    About the “Phonics needs Morphology” title, I hear you. I had similar reservations, but decided to give it a try in hopes that it would get more ears open to my unfolding argument.

    I’m not sure if I’m glad I worded it this way or not. It prompted this beautiful reply from you, and for that I am grateful.

  4. Well, Holly, I am a little embarrassed to look back at my long, long reply and realize you were of course well far down this path and didn’t need a lecture from me. You are of course part of this “community of scholarly educators”. Sorry if I usurped (or gave away your ending!) I am very curious about the path of folks who–like you?–have had to work their way from a deep involvement with Phonics. I had no such commitment to any previous methodology before I stumbled into SWI; I only knew that “sound it out” wasn’t working. So this made it easier for me.

    You are a lovely writer, and I (Mr. Verbosity) appreciate the brevity of your installments that leave such space for reflection. Instead of putting it all in one big tome, your “unfolding” is quite compelling. As you say, your “ending”–however trampled upon by me–will be your own, and I look forward to its expression. Cheers.

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