Sunday, March 7, 2010

Phonemes & Morphemes for ALL (Filippini)

Dr. Alexis Filippini contributed the following post. Alexis is assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at San Francisco State University.

Dyslexia, the most prevalent specific learning disability, is typically characterized by phonological processing deficits that contribute to difficulty decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling), and slow, inaccurate reading (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003). In particular, matching printed letters to their sounds and vice-versa may be inconsistent, difficult, and frustrating – leaving rich, robust thoughts trapped on a page or stuck in a mind. 

Typically, these difficulties are “unexpected” relative to other cognitive abilities (Lyon et al.).  Many individuals with dyslexia also have strengths in listening comprehension and vocabulary knowledge, although these strengths may be underdeveloped due to limitations in reading and therefore limited exposure to reading age-appropriate material.

Most individuals with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, benefit from high-quality instruction in cognitive strategies, such as comprehension monitoring (e.g., Baker, Gersten, & Scanlon, 2002). For students with dyslexia in particular, high quality instruction focuses on remediating phonological awareness and print-speech mapping (e.g., Vadasay, Sanders, & Peyton, 2006). The focus on cognitive strategies is broadly applicable across the K-12 span and beyond as individuals move into the workplace and college. The systematic, explicit instruction on phonological awareness and cracking the speech-print code is highly effective at remediation for most children. For example, Torgeson’s 2000 review of early interventions reported that the incidence of reading failure was reduced from 18% to 1.4-5.4%. However, for students beyond the primary grades, instructional emphasis on skills that typically develop by eight years old can be tedious, inefficient, and perceived as “baby stuff.”

How do we provide explicit instruction to support phonological processing weaknesses for students who read well below grade level while also supporting them in age-appropriate content knowledge, described in an earlier post as essential to comprehension?

The kind of vocabulary instruction highlighted throughout Vocabulogic, I argue, provides an efficient solution to this challenge. Vocabulary instruction that targets development of word consciousness and generative word knowledge makes use of activities for a wide range of ages that support content-area knowledge (see David Pearson’s post). Simultaneously, we sneak in explicit instruction in word structure. How?

In general, many of the same instructional methods that have proven effective for “good” readers have also proven effective for “poor” readers (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000). We know that effective vocabulary instruction provides multiple exposures to words in multiple contexts, with multiple opportunities to respond, applicable also to students learning English as a second language (e.g., Carlo, August, & Snow, 2005; McLaughlin et al., 2000). Interestingly, these three angles are effective for supporting learning in general for students with LD!

We also know that structural analysis that attends to morphemes is effective in learning new vocabulary, deciphering novel vocabulary, and in making connections among novel and exciting words (see Reed, 2008 for a review). Taking apart and examining “big” words, those fun multisyllabic science words, such as pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, is absolutely age-appropriate for adolescents, supports access to content area knowledge, and …. drum roll please … gives students opportunities to use phonological awareness and to practice decoding in an authentic, useful way. In fact, these kinds of metalinguistic skills are also great candidates for explicit strategy instruction. 

For example, using morphological analysis plus context clues to make strategies for deciphering unknown word meanings transparent, or using semantic maps and semantic feature analysis to make relationships among words explicit have been very effective for learners with LD (see Bos & Anders, 1990; Carnine & Carnine, 2004; Lubliner & Smetana, 2005). See prior post describing morphemic analysis in context.

Plus, there are some bonuses to rich and robust vocabulary instruction. Depending on the nature of the disability and many contextual factors, these learners may arrive in your classroom with a vocabulary that far exceeds their reading and writing skills or one that is impoverished from years of limited access to sophisticated texts. The first case provides a strong foundation to build on, and the second presents a significant need that is often ignored in our enthusiasm for remediating decoding and fluency skills.    

Finally, instructional research in the area of learning disabilities suggests some additional strategies that would enrich vocabulary learning for typical readers as well. Encouraging oral vocabulary and listening comprehension development through teacher read-alouds and books on tape, and providing more opportunities for bypassing encoding and decoding difficulties such as text-speech software and speech-text software can make vocabulary instruction and development even more robust. Look for future blog posts on these topics!

Baker, S., Gersten, R., & Scanlon, D. (2002). Procedural Facilitators and Cognitive Strategies: Tools for Unraveling the Mysteries of Comprehension and the Writing Process, and for Providing Meaningful Access to the General Curriculum. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 17(1), 65-77. 
Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Fisher, P. (2000). Vocabulary Instruction. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research (Vol. 3, pp. 503-524). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bos, C. S., & Anders, P. L. (1990). Effects of interactive vocabulary instruction on the vocabulary learning and reading comprehension of junior-high learning disabled students. Learning Disability Quarterly, 13, 31-42.

Carlo, M., August, D., & Snow, C. E. (2005). Sustained vocabulary-learning strategy instruction for English-language learners. In E. H. Hiebert & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (pp. 115-136).

Carnine, L., & Carnine, D. (2004). The interaction of reading skills and science content knowledge when teaching struggling secondary students. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 20, 203-218.

Lubliner, S., & Smetana, L. (2005). The effects of comprehensive vocabulary instruction on Title I students' metacognitive word-learning skills and reading comprehension. Journal of Literacy Research, 37(2), 163-200.

Lyon, G. R., Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B. A. (2003). Defining dyslexia, comorbidity, teachers' knowledge of language and reading: A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53.

McLaughlin, B., August, D., Snow, C., Carlo, M., Dressler, C., White, C., Lively, T. J., & Lippman, D. N. (2000). Vocabulary improvement and reading in English language learners: An intervention study. In A Research Symposium on High Standards in Reading for Students from Diverse Language Groups: Research, Practice, & Policy (pp. 129-143). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Reed, D. K. (2008). A synthesis of morphology interventions and effects on reading outcomes for students in grades K-12. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 23(1), 36-49.

Torgesen, J. K. (2000). Individual differences in response to early interventions in reading: The lingering problem of treatment resisters. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 15(1), 55-64.

Vadasay, P. F., Sanders, E. A., & Peyton, J. A. (2006). Code-oriented instruction for kindergarten students at risk for reading difficulties: A randomized field trial with paraeducator implementers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 508-528.


  1. Great stuff Alexis!

    I want to highlight this very important point of yours...

    "However, for students beyond the primary grades, instructional emphasis on skills that typically develop by eight years old can be tedious, inefficient, and perceived as “baby stuff.”

    My experience is that you are exactly right and that that morphological problem-solving is a particularly motivating for struggling older readers precisely because it brings no association of "baby stuff" kind of work.

    We can present words older struggling readers have in their oral vocabulary (e.g., SCIENCE, CONSCIENCE, and UNCONSCIOUS) along with some that they may not (e.g. OMNISCIENCE, PRESCIENCE) and challenge them to discover an underlying written morpheme that links all these words and carries a related underlying meaning. With word sums and dictionaries and some guidance they can find the bound base SCI from the Latin root ‘scire’ for ‘know.’

    When I did this activity with one group of Grade 8 students who tested at a reading level of Grade 4 or below they had no sense of being treated like a baby. Their motivation to solve the puzzle forced them to engage deeply with the structure and meaning of words at their intellectual level.

    I'm also glad you pointed to Reed's (2008) review about morphological instruction. I’d like to point a new meta-analysis of morphological interventions I've been working on (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, in press) that will come out in the June Review of Educational Research. Our findings corroborate and expand on Reed's important work. Two findings of relevance to this discussion are that (a) the strongest effects were found for less able readers, and (b) compared to interventions with students in Grade 3 and above, morphological instruction was at least as effective for students in pre-school to Grade 2.

    There is no implication in Alexis' post that we should hold off on morphological instruction until upper elementary grades, but when to start teaching morphology has been a topic of debate in the literature. Early on, Adams (1990) recommended avoiding morphological instruction until upper-elementary, but more recently this view has been challenged by others (e.g., Carlisle & Stone, 2005; Henry, 2003; Nunes & Bryant, 2006). The new evidence brought by this meta-analysis (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, in press) is that children gain from morphological instruction right from the start.

    Those interested can download a poster of the Bowers, Kirby, and Deacon meta-analysis that was presented at SSSR in Boston in 2009 at this link:

    Thanks to Alexis and Susan for helping teachers learn about this aspect of literacy instruction!

    Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & S. H. Deacon. (in press). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80(2).

    Carlisle, J. F., & Stone, C. A. (2005). Exploring the role of morphemes in word reading.
    Reading Research Quarterly, 40, 428–449.

    Henry, M. K. (2003). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding & spelling instruction. Baltimore: Brookes.

    Nunes, T., & Bryant, P. (2006). Improving literacy by teaching morphemes. London: Routledge.

  2. Thank you, Alexis. Your title says it all...Phonemes and Morphemes for All. It's good to know that there is something that has the potential to augment less-than-robust PA...MA!

    As you say, it makes sense, because English words are morphophonemic.

    MPA for MorphoPhonemic Awareness (I have never seen this phrase used in research; I am making a play on MBA).

    Ha! Let's offer an MPA in English orthography!!

  3. Thanks for this!

  4. Anonymous7/30/2011

    Thank you Dr. Filippini,
    I had stumbled upon your post in search of morpheme strategies, and I fell in love with Phonemes & Morphemes for All. I was a struggling reader all through my life especially in elementary. I knew exactly how to avoid being the person one would call on to read. However, when I reached my eighth grade year, there was a teacher that saw right through me and knew what I was doing. He convinced me to “Join his club” and I fell for it. I thank God everyday for that teacher, even though I cannot remember his name. Nonetheless, in his “club”, he showed me how to dissect words to understand the full meaning of the word. My point is that your post explains what that AWESOME teacher has done for me, and my plans to do for other struggling readers. Although I am working on becoming a math teacher, I still intend to use the knowledge I have and continue to obtain through your blogs and many other sources to help students like me to understand and not be afraid of words especial big ones. Thank you again for your post it was very enlightening for me.

    Lorena Ford

  5. Lorena, thank you for your comment! It's lovely to read about the inspiration your teacher provided to you, and that you are now becoming a teacher yourself. I agree - you can definitely use that knowledge you have about dissecting words when you're teaching. Math is full of interesting, morphologically rich words (e.g., evaluate, multiply, division, subtraction...).

    At a more basic level, I see two core principles come up again and again on Vocabulogic that are valuable in any classroom. 1) Developing a sense of curiosity, rather than fear, about learning. For a “words person” like me, it's easy to be curious about language, but much scarier to be curious about mathematics. When I consciously apply the wonder I have about words to numbers, my confidence soars, I make mistakes and I get thing “right”, and I learn! That experience is what we are all trying to create for our students.

    2) The second principle I see is that we call attention to the patterns and structure of language so that students can independently unlock more language, whether spelling, writing, or understanding a new word. Language, even English which gets a bad rap in this regard, is not an impenetrable thicket of ancient spelling rules. Rather, its structure (phonological, morphological, semantic, all the way up to the structure of a novel or textbook) follows reasonably predictable patterns. With some understanding of patterns, and a healthy dose of the curiosity I mentioned above, learners are empowered to unlock meaning and communicate. All disciplines have structures that can be used in this way, and I am sure your future math students will be cheerfully unafraid of the unknown, and dissect those structures like champs. Keep us posted on how you teach math vocabulary!

  6. Hi Alexis and Lorena,

    I echo your two core principles--and do you see them as somewhat entwined? I suspect that too much fear regarding language and/or literacy inhibits our ability to see the patterns in the structures of language.

    Lorena, I loved your reflection. Clearly you learned not only word structure from the eighth grade teacher, but also a passion for teaching!

  7. Anonymous8/03/2011

    Hello Dr. Filippini and Susan Ebbers,
    I want to thank you for your response, Dr. Filippini, I now have a mission to implement your two principles when creating the curriculum for my future class, as well as using them to demonstrate some of the rules applied to math techniques. In other words, you say that English has a certain pattern and structure, which I agree, math also has its own patterns and structures that are consistent. For those “words people” this information would help me give a clearer picture for them to understand what I would be teaching in that particular subject, whether it be algebra, or geometry, etc. My goal is to research more on those principles and understand the connection in learning words with learning math techniques. Additionally, trying to relate my difficulty in learning to read with those students that have difficulty learning math. Once again I am truly thankful for your insight.

    Susan, you are right. I have a true passion for teaching because of my eighth grade teacher. The funny thing is he was only my teacher for at least two months because I had arrived at that school two months before the summer break. I know God has placed that man in my life so I can be there for those children that had slipped through the system like I have.

    Amiably thankful,
    Lorena Ford


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