Differences between good and poor readers and spellers are associated with significant differences in sensitivity to word structure at the morphological level. Insensitivity to morphological aspects of word structure also characterizes adults who spell poorly [Carlisle, Moats].
Explicit instruction in both orthography and morphology is effective for teaching word identification, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and spelling [Abbott, Berninger, Carlisle, Nagy]. English spelling problems that arise at a phonological level can often be solved with instruction in use of morphology [Bourassa, Treiman, Kessler]. While basic knowledge of grapheme-phoneme relationships may be sufficient for students to read and spell one-syllable words, analysis of word structure, made possible by knowledge of morphology, is needed to learn to read and spell multi-syllable words.
Problems that poor readers have with applying morphological rules to identification of unfamiliar words are due primarily to more basic weaknesses in phonological processing. Because morphemes are units of both sound and meaning, deficits in phonological processing contribute to confusion of similar-sounding words and word parts, failure to recognize similarities of structure, and failure to either store or retrieve words with precision [Carlisle].
Virginia Berninger noted that three different codes are involved in spelling — phonology, morphology, and orthography. These three codes activate common and unique brain regions, but the specific activated brain regions associated with each word code may change during the course of a child’s development in learning how to spell. For example, beginning readers create orthographic codes from the relationship of letters and phonology. Morphology plays a greater role in the longer, more complex words in middle school and high school curriculum. Berninger wrote, “Our research is telling us good spellers are taught, not born, as is often assumed. Unfortunately, what happens in most schools is dyslexic children learn how to read and then get dismissed from special education classes even though they still need specialized instruction until they learn to spell.” Spelling is not systematically and explicitly taught in many classrooms in the United States [Berninger, Moats]. Too often, spelling is taught as a visual rote memory activity that resists “reasoned sequenced instruction” [Moats]. Awareness of morphology makes unique contributions to reading comprehension and to spelling [Nagy, Berninger, Moats]. Researchers agree on several recommendations for informed instruction of reading and spelling that include knowledge of morphology:
- Foster word consciousness by integrating the teaching of word identification, vocabulary and spelling [Berninger, Carlisle, Moats, Nagy].
- Focus on spelling [orthography]-meaning relationships through exploration and direct teaching of derivational morphological features and processes [Silliman].
- Use word study to promote curiosity and interest in how spelling represents meaning and to support the development of strategies for solving problems regarding word meanings [Berninger, Moats, Nagy].
Good readers attend to the parts of words, both spoken and written. The meaning of a word is the sum of its parts. 80% of derived words mean what their parts suggest, as long as multiple meanings of the base elements are taken into account [Nagy]. English orthography often delineates the meaningful parts of words, preserving them in spelling even when the pronunciation of the morphemes may vary:
- define → definition
- wild → wilderness
Related words are activated in memory when they have meaningful connections and when they share structural elements at the morpheme level, especially when spelling reveals those connections [Nagy]:
- relate → relative → relation → relationship → interrelate
Morphological awareness helps understanding and memory of differences between homophones:
- site → situation
- cite → citation
People with awareness of morphology can organize their mental dictionaries so that related words are associated and are more readily retrieved. Adults who read accurately and fluently have accumulated wide networks of word families for ready access and cross-referencing in the lexicon [Nagy]. Pattern recognition reduces the load on memory and facilitates retrieval of linguistic information [Berninger, Carlisle, Moats, Nagy]:
- scribble → inscribe → subscription → scribe → describe → script
Author: Nancy Cushen White, Ed.D. Prof. Cushen White has been awarded for her significant contributions to the field of literacy education by a number of internationally recognized organizations such as the International Dyslexia Association. She holds various degrees and credentials in the field of literacy education. Besides her work as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco, Professor Cushen White has been specialising in the area of gifted children with learning differences for several decades.