Sunday, July 10, 2011

Making Words Stick: A Phonics-Plus Approach to Word Study

Unless they consider meaning, children are prone to forget the words they decoded last week--or indeed, only yesterday. As described further below, we must go beyond phonics to make words memorable. We might help children consider several aspects of a word:

Phonology: The sounds that make up the word. For example, cat has three sounds,  /k/  /a/  /t/ and catch has three sounds, /k/  /a/  /ch/, but brush has four sounds,  /b/  /r/  /u/  /sh/.

Orthography: The letters that represent the sounds and the word, how to spell it.

Morphology: The internal structure of words, including knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, roots and base words. This also includes knowledge of compound words like doghouse, swing set, and self-esteem and linguistic blends where words are smashed together, as in brunch and Vocabulogic.

Semantics: Word meaning, and meaning as a function of context, and also conveyed through a definition (a simple definition is best for children).

Syntax: The grammatical function of the word, how to use it in a sentence.

Berninger, Abbot, Nagy, and Carlisle (2010) argue that there are three types of linguistic insight at work in primary grades and that all three are essential for learning to read: phonological awareness (PA), morphological awareness (MA) and orthographic awareness (OA). In a longitudinal study that lasted several years, they measured growth in PA, OA, MA, and vocabulary knowledge across children in grades 1-6.  What did they discover? Their study showed that PA growth tends to taper off by the end of third grade for many children, OA continues to grow a bit beyond third grade, and MA grows rapidly from first grade through third grade, and then it continues to grow through sixth grade, at least. In measuring vocabulary growth, Berninger and her colleagues found that upper elementary students who have an understanding of derivational morphology are more likely to develop a larger vocabulary, compared to peers who do not, at least implicitly, understand how suffixes influence part of speech (e.g., words that end with the suffix -ness are usually abstract nouns, as in sadness, happiness, peacefulness).  Learn more about syntax at Derivations and Syntax.

Likewise, in their research with children in England, Bryant, Nunes, and Bindman (1997) determined that phonology is necessary but not sufficient for learning to read; morphology and orthography are also necessary. 

Along these lines, Wolf (2007) uses the acronym POSSM to suggest that if we help children integrate  phonology, orthography, semantics, syntax, and morphology, we make reading and writing more "possible" for students. We teach words in such a way that children integrate information from the various linguistic domains. Thus, the word is more likely to be established in memory.

Implications and Lesson Ideas for Teachers: 
What does this type of integrated word study look like? This blog is filled with ideas (especially see posts by Peter Bowers). Here are some brief examples:

If children try to decode tripod as trip + od, they could be prompted to look for a prefix. If the context includes a picture, the teacher could help the child see the three legs on the tripod. Children need to know the prefix tri- (and they eventually might learn that pod denotes 'foot', as in podiatrist).

If children spell the word dealt d-e-l-t, they may not explicitly realize that dealt "comes from" deal; it is the past tense of deal. This involves morphology and semantics, as well as syntax. Tell children that when they spell dealt, they should make sure it still contains the word deal, and the letters d-e-a-l, even though the vowel sound has shifted, from "long e" in deal to "short e" in dealt. (This within-word spelling applies also to heal--health and steal--stealth, BUT not to feel--felt or keep--kept.)

When teaching children to decode or "sound out" words that contain the er spelling pattern, as in sister and blister, also teach them that -er can be a suffix, and that it denotes 'one who' as in singer, or 'something that' as in toaster, or 'more'  as in faster.  Have children sort words, deciding whether a word contains the prefix -er or simply the meaningless spelling pattern er, as in sister, blister, her and butter. (For more ideas, see The Slippery Suffix -er.)

When teaching children to decode words that contain the "short u sound" as in fun, hug, puff, also teach them the prefix un-, and that it means 'not or opposite' as in unlock etc.  If they cannot read long words, such as unbreakable or unbelievable, deliver the lesson verbally. Also, teachers could read the picture book Fortunately, by Remy Charlip, to introduce the prefix un-. Here is an excerpt:
"Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, he borrowed an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded."

Help children form morphological families. For example, help them brainstorm words that "come from" sun, such as sunny, sunnier, sunshine, suntan, etc. (but NOT sunken). If children are not yet ready to read these words, the lesson is conveyed orally. (Click image to enlarge or download.)

Play "Will the Real Prefix Please Stand Up!" For example, after teaching children  the prefix re-, say a word in context. Students stand up and shout the word if it contains the prefix re-. If not, they remain seated. Then, depending on the grade level and/or the level of literacy, they write the word in the appropriate column of a two-column chart, as shown below. This game can be played with a variety of prefixes and suffixes (e.g., un-, pre-, tri-, -er, -ish, -est, etc.).

     Will the Real Prefix Please Stand Up!

(Teacher says) Prefix re- No prefix
Retell. I will retell the story. retell
Reheat. Did you reheat the soup? reheat
Read. Let's read a book!
Replay. Watch the football replay. replay
Rested. Six kittens rested on a rug.

Phonology and phonics are not enough to make words "stick" in the mental lexicon. Meaning is needed. Help children examine words in terms of morphology, orthography, and phonology, along with context and semantics. This is especially needful for students who experience reading difficulties.

  • Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010).Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39, 141–163.
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000).
    Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754).Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 
  • Nunes, T., Bryant, P., & Bindman, M. (1997). Morphological spelling strategies: Developmental stages and processes. Developmental Psychology, 33(4), 637-649.
  • Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper

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