Is Morphology Training Better Than Phonics Instruction?

  • Phonemic segmentation
  • 10 September, 2017

Man, sometimes when you publish a blog entry you’d wish you stayed in bed.

You hope to write something that someone will find useful. But the responses might make you feel more like you’ve been dropped onto the set of Fox News or MSNBC.

Recently, I’ve experienced some interesting responses.

m For example:

Studies show that phonemic awareness (PA) training helps young kids learn to read (PreK through Grade 1). From those studies, I claimed we should teach PA to the point where kids can fully segment words into their individual phonemes. This conclusion was based both on the experimental impacts of training studies and on large-scale analyses of children’s development.

Before long I heard from David A. Kilpatrick, author of Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. He took exception with my claims about the importance of segmentation. He rightly pointed out that studies show that phoneme manipulation tasks are harder than segmentation tasks; that phoneme manipulation ability continues to develop through Grade 4; and, that PA continues to correlate with reading through Grade 6. Based on this, he believes we should continue to teach PA long beyond full segmentation.         

How can one disagree with such a thoughtful and reasonable argument?

My position, ultimately, is based on the fact that there are more than 100 studies showing the learning benefits of PA instruction—in PreK, K, and Grade 1.

And, how many studies show its benefits in Grades 2 and up?


David Kilpatrick may be right about the value of continuing the PA instructional regime into these upper grades. Perhaps there are achievement points to be found in continuing PA instruction to the point where kids can easily do mental manipulations of phonemes (e.g., adding, deleting, reversing). But you won’t see me touting that until someone actually proves a learning benefit for kids.

Hypothesizing a benefit and proving a benefit isn’t the same thing.

More recently, I’ve been smacked upside the head by several readers upset with me for not proposing more, and more thorough, spelling instruction and morphology instruction focused on spelling aimed at advancing students’ reading ability.

Some of those arguments have been enthusiastic.

Traditional phonics instruction emphasizes letters and sounds but ignores the morphological and etymological reasons for spelling, my critics have pointed out. Reading experts have long recognized the importance of the morphological aspects of word meanings, but there has been little pedagogy aimed at the morphological aspects of spelling.

I’ve been sent lots of linguistic evidence to convince me of the morphological nature of our spelling system—and most of that work cites Dick Venezky’s seminal work.

In the 1960s, when computers first allowed for the ambitious quantitative study of language, Dick revealed the surprising consistency inherent in the English spelling system. Contrary to what was long believed—that our spelling system was a confusing mess—Venezky argued that whatever was lost in ease of pronunciation, was more than regained in the consistency of meaning inherent in our spellings. Hence, the endings of dogs and cats may be pronounced differently: /z/ and /s/, but their identical spelling consistently and helpfully signaled plurality.

I’m happy to see that Dick’s work continues to bear fruit in linguistics (he was one of my teachers—he even helped me to design morphology-oriented spelling measures for my doctoral dissertation). But I think he’d be surprised to hear his work used as an argument against phonics instruction – he was a big phonics proponent (though I’ve seen him offer the same kinds of linguistic critiques of phonics programs that have been sent to me recently).

Dick not only had expertise in linguistics but extensive knowledge of psychology and computer science. He knew that teaching kids to read was different than inputting a linguistic system to a computer. Despite the flaws and shallowness of many (most) phonics programs when it comes to features like morphological sophistication, such teaching still gives students a clear learning benefit.

What Dick Venezky came to believe was that phonics instruction gave students “clues” to the English spelling system. Students then use those clues to figure out how the system works. Phonics instruction does not teach everything one would need to “decode” text, but it provides useful pointers and puts kids into a mindset of trying to understand the system.

That doesn’t mean he would—or that we should—reject the idea of introducing morphological explanations and “clues” earlier, only that we shouldn’t be so sure that it would improve things as much as some morphology proponents assume.

For example, one colleague pointed out that in some phonics programs, kids are taught to divide the syllables of “action” in the following manner: ac/tion. He argued that this was a bad choice because it obscures that the root word is “act.” That’s correct linguistically, but does it matter when you’re 7?

Initially, we hope to teach kids enough to allow them to come up with an approximate pronunciation of a word that is in their mental lexicons (primary grade kids know 5,000-10,000 words). It is more likely they’ll come up with “action” by saying “ak/shun” then by saying “act/ion.”

Of course, if they don’t know the word action—don’t know what the word action means—then, breaking the word the second way (emphasizing “act”) may just get them to the meaning no matter what the pronunciation.

The issue here turns on what would be best for beginning readers… is it best to help them to figure out the meanings of unknown words or to help them to translate print to pronunciations of words already in the child’s oral language? I think it is the latter, so I don’t mind delaying most morphological work until phonics is mastered (e.g., Words Their Way).

However, there are arguments that we should teach morphology earlier and even in place of phonics instruction (one critic wrote that the National Reading Panel findings were out of date since we now know morphological training to be more beneficial than phonics). Eeks!

I looked at these critics’ evidence (Bowers & Bowers, 2017 provides a nice summary of this work). Specifically, they point to two studies of morphological training for young children. One especially weak study—impossible to tell if the outcomes were due to the training or to existing ability differences in the participants—claimed long-term benefits to preschool morphology training.

And, an experimental study that examined the impact of 10 hours of morphology teaching: This one claimed to enhance reading performance by more than a grade level! Not surprisingly, the outcome measures used were tightly aligned to the training and there were other design problems, too.

That’s the entire body of instructional research one could use to prescribe instruction for preschool and primary grade kids (and in both studies, everyone got lots of phonics instruction, too—not exactly proof of the inadequacy of phonics).

Again, I can’t really say these folks are wrong—we might be able to affect clear reading improvement by teaching the morphological aspects of spelling earlier and more thoroughly, instead of what we currently provide with phonics.

But I definitely won’t be prescribing reading instruction based on a single 10-hour study.

The reason why I insist that we teach phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary (word meanings including morphology), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension strategies, and writing is because there are dozens, even hundreds, of studies done by different researchers, with different kinds of kids, with different variations on the instructional routines, but with a consistent and substantial learning payoff. Why trust 100 such studies on phonics—some carried out for as long as 3-years—over a single small study of 10 hours of morphology instruction? I think you can probably answer that one for yourself.

I hope researchers will continue to propose provocative hypotheses about learning, and that they’ll continue to evaluate these ideas rigorously under a broad array of instructional conditions. And, if they find something that consistently helps kids, then I hope we’ll adopt their ideas. Until then, I won’t be recommending morphology over phonics or other terrific but unproven ideas—no matter how intelligently, reasonably, or vociferously those opinions may be stated. 


See what others have to say about this topic.

Debbie Hepplewhite
Sep 10, 2017 10:42 PM

Brilliant and much welcome post, Tim. Will repost via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction.

I've been rather worried about the growing call for 'advanced PA' (phoneme manipulation) for older learners and for the increasing number of suggestions that morphology is more useful than phonics.

You've addressed these points well both logically and based on the findings of a body of research.

Debbie Hepplewhite
Sep 10, 2017 11:27 PM

Re-posted here:

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 11, 2017 01:43 AM

Hi Tim,

It seems to me that if a 7-year-old person is trying to figure out how the language works, then yes, it matters that words like “action” are built from a base and an affix . In fact, it matters quite a lot. And if the child is a non-native speaker, or if the child comes from a home in which AAE (or any other English dialect) is what is primarily spoken, then it probably matters even more.

Also, it would matter to my grandson (who is 7). In fact, he would be insulted if I withheld the following facts from him:

Act + ion —> action
re + Act —> react
re - Act + ion —> reaction
Act + ive —> active
Act + ive + ly —> actively
re + Act + ive —> reactive
pro + Act + ive —> proactive
hyper + Act + ive —> hyperactive

Unless you are going to control what 7-year-olds try to read, why not help them see that most of the new words they will encounter in their reading (especially all the fun words, like math and science words) are made from meaningful units called bases and affixes? Why not help children see the interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology right from the get go? Aren’t most 7-year-olds capable of grasping such things? (Even as they work on mastering their phonics facts?) Of course! Do we really need researchers to give us permission to help learners understand how words work?

Finally, it matters that children not be taught wrong or misleading information (as is being done in the ac/tion example above). If the teacher doesn’t know something is wrong with what she is presenting, that’s one thing, but every child goes to school to be taught the truth about stuff, beginning with the truth about how the written language works. He can decide for himself if it matters.

Scott Mills
Sep 11, 2017 02:30 AM

Thanks for responding Dr. Shanahan. You can read more about how the <-tion> letter string isn't really a suffix at Both Dr. Pete Bowers (referred to above) and Dr. Shanahan have been kind enough to share their stories.

Lisa Barnett
Sep 11, 2017 02:47 AM

Thank you Stephanie Ruston, you took the words right out of my mouth.

Dr Shanahan-- I stopped giving your piece attention at the words "...but does it matter when you're 7?" Putting kids in a corner by deciding what matters to their intellect and interests is not your right nor is it any educators right. We have an obligation to show children the true structures of the English language. Phonics as it is defined and used does not do that. Phonology, however is a necessary component of understanding how words work.

To fully understand the impact of what I am talking about you must stop searching for more papers to read about it and come explore with children who are immersed in this work. I invite you to come my classroom to partake in real scholarship with little kids who are grateful to have the tools to access literacy that the phonics codes had previously locked them out of. I invite you to talk to my students who are quite capable of discussing the before/after learning experiences they've had because I used to teach them phonics but now teach them to analyze the structures, looking at morphology, etymology and the phonology. Not only are they reading and spelling better, they are confident thinkers as well. There are plenty of papers to read too... everything from informal to formal assessments to nationally normed cognitive and achievement tests that prove how much they've improved.

But more than any test or study will ever show is the light in their eyes that conveys interest, engagement, motivation, drive, energy, enthusiasm and confidence that comes with understanding.... that isn't found with memorization of phonics codes.

I'm just glad there was one courageous crew that was willing to sail to the edge of the earth when all the 'important' people sat back and listened to reports of sailors too afraid to sail beyond the edges.

Lisa Barnett,
SE Teacher, Elem

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 11, 2017 02:49 AM


Why not try it out and make sure it is beneficial rather than just deciding that it must be?

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 11, 2017 02:51 AM

I reall believe Laetrile saves people from cancer... I know there is no evidence that it works, but I really believe it so we should start prescribing it right because I really care about people and know they want a cure. right?

Lisa Barnett
Sep 11, 2017 03:09 AM

Hmmm.... evidence by way of multiple assessments including cognitive and achievement testing isn't worthy of being evidence??

Caring about kids is not a pre-requisite to making sound decisions that benefit their learning. Evidence is. Studies have flaws as you pointed out earlier when it was convenient to your argument. Studies do not always produce valuable evidence.

Your response is lacking... sense among other things.

Tim Shanahan
Sep 11, 2017 03:33 AM

No assessing a skill does not reveal the implications of teaching a is a completely different knowledge claim and requires different evidence.
Studies are often flawed, that's why having multiple replications is do important. Morphology spelling needs to meet the same evidentiary standards as all other claims about what works.
And all of us care about kids--it's just some of us trust our own beliefs over all other standards--just like we see in today's political arguments...high passions that the true believers are sure are correct, even without evidence.

Concerned Parent of kid who does care about his language
Sep 11, 2017 03:41 AM

Speaking strictly as the parent of an 8-year-old, I am deeply offended that you do not think he (and his classmates) need to know how their own language actually works. The underlying and unsaid sentiment you are conveying is that you don't think an accurate understanding of English is important or that they are not capable of understanding (how could 3rd graders possibly be interested?). You don't need research to know that teaching English as it actually is, versus how you have been doing it for years, would be beneficial. Do you need research to know that you have to make sure your students have accurate maps or globes? My 8-year-old (and all of his classmates) are more than capable, and worthy, of understanding why we have to teach action as act + ion versus ac + tion. I trust the education system (Ok, I don't, but most of my non-educator friends do) to teach the facts, not misinformation, which has been easily pointed out with the information Stephanie laid out in her post with one word. In fact, this has been brought your attention multiple times, in multiple posts, and you continue to ignore linguistic facts - linguists have already done the research - we have the information. Luckily my son will not be a victim of your, and the rest of the education industry, futile attempts to continue to pass on this misinformation in an effort to save face. Intellectual integrity is at risk here. Now speaking as a someone who, like you, has a doctorate in education, my intellectual integrity took me back to school to study linguistics because I know my students deserve the truth and I know I deserve that truth which I will get through the scientific study of language and which was severely lacking in an education course I took. Not everyone has to go to the extremes I have, but scholars like yourself do have the obligation to be honest with our kids even if it means you have to admit you might have also been mislead about the English writing system. It's never too late to learn.

Holly Shapiro, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Sep 11, 2017 04:07 AM

" it best to help them to figure out the meanings of unknown words or to help them to translate print to pronunciations of words already in the child’s oral language?"

This is a straw man argument. Who exactly has proposed that children should be taught to try to figure out the meanings of unknown words in lieu of phonics?

Kristin Clark, Tutor, DYScover Learning
Sep 11, 2017 04:16 AM

Your fundamental argument is flawed. You assume that the morphology first paradigm lacks phonological instruction. It doesn't. It just looks at phonology within the framework of morphology. It is not an either-or aituation.

In your "action" example, the phonology of the "t" can only be interpreted when you understand the parameters of how it fits within a complete word. The phonology of that "t"can only be understood within its morphological framework.

And how much understanding do we rob children of when we not only don't show them the connection between act, action, react, etc., but have them believe that there are only two "suffixes", "-tion" and "-sion." What about "million?" "Onion?" "Flexion?" Do we have them memorize these as "exceptions?" Teach them 3 more fake suffixes? Or do we simply teach them the truth?

Phonics is fake science.

And I know anecdotes are not evidence, but I wish you could hear my students decrying their teacher's instruction, wondering why they never explained to them how words really work after years of "sounding it out.".

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 11, 2017 04:22 AM

Hi Tim,

I'm no logician, but here's what I've learned: If Nazis come knocking on your door wanting to know if you are hiding Jews in the attic, don't tell the truth. It won't be beneficial. But in ordinary times, tell the truth. Truth is good. Telling the truth is beneficial to one's fellow human beings. And it is those who believe otherwise who have the burden of proof.

What evidence do you have for the superiority of teaching ac/tion (a lie) over act/ion (the truth)? And what evidence do you have for the notion that children shouldn't even be told that morphemes exist until after they have "mastered their phonics facts"?

Sep 11, 2017 04:43 AM

Debbie Hepplewhite,
Will you be posting the thread with all the comments as well? Your readers at the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instuction really need to hear the truth because the children deserve to learn about the meaning and structure of language.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 11, 2017 05:50 AM


Why choose phonics over morphology? Aren't you kicking science out of the classroom in the process? Why not expect bigger things from the children you work with? Can't you have them writing and reading graphemes so they can practice their penmanship skills and phonics facts during one part of the day and have them doing science to find out how written words are formed (and how that influences phonology) during another part of the day? Don’t your students like to investigate curious and interesting things? Most children do.

Sep 11, 2017 01:38 PM

It's critical to recognize that we are not talking about phonics versus morphology. We're talking about phonics versus the whole writing system. Morphology is the delimiting and organizing structure of the writing system, but it's not the only piece. We study meaning, structure, history and relatives, and the phonology of any word under study.

We do phonology. We just do it accurately as opposed to phonics.

Just the other night I taught a class online with Scholars Inn it from Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, and the US. We all have completely different accents, but we use a single writing system. Phonics can't explain that.

Shawna Pope CCC/SLP
Sep 11, 2017 02:21 PM

Tim, You point out that the phonics research has shown that teaching phonics, an overlay designed to attempt to make learning to read ( it does nothing for spelling) easier, is beneficial. My question is, "compared to what?" Nothing?

Some research I have read presents a battle between phonics and whole language. It is an easy case to make that teaching phonics leads to better outcomes than not teaching them anything and just presenting written material to be read aloud in groups. That's easy. Anything we practice we get better at doing.

The problem with teaching a synthetic version of phonology rather than teaching it within the framework of morphology and etymology, it's natural habitat, is that it then becomes synthetic, false, a lie if you will. It's a lie that hurts struggling readers and spellers. If it worked we would not have dyslexia.

The arguments to include morphology from the very beginning don't suggest that we replace phonology. We include it in every word study. We learn the grapheme-phoneme correspondence of the word and it's relatives that share a structure or sense of meaning. Drilling and memorizing grapheme-phoneme correspondence outside of the context of morphemes, graphemes, digraphs, and trigraphs is meaningless and senseless. One thing we know well in the field of speech-langauge pathology is that learning must take place within context. Drill kills. Drilling phonemic awareness with no linguistic context kills the understanding of the English writing system. Drill of unrelated skills does not lead to carryover. Meaningful learning within a natural context generalizes to skill areas.

I taught phonological awareness to my senior SLP students for years. I never really thought it made sense to teach those isolated skills that do not relate directly to reading or spelling, however, it was in the educational text books so I did it. Looking back, I see that students don't have to be able to perform any of those skills to learn how to read and spell. Rhyming is one of those skills and it is a much more difficult task for many with dyslexia. It's a metalinguistic skill that comes much later for them. Students do not need to be able to identify or name rhyming words before they learn to read. Blending is a false term and concept. No such word exists in linguistics, the science of language. We do not merely blend sounds together to read words. We recognize the phonological representations of single graphemes, digraphs , and trigraphs.

Natural readers pick it up magically, we don't really need to be too concerned about how they are doing that. The dyslexic brain doesn't. We can't make their brain like the brain of natural readers. They need to be actually taught the truth about how written language works to have access to learning through print. If all students were taught that information, I predict we would see our standardized test scores in the schools rise.

I hope to see more studies in the future comparing the benefits of teaching phonics and teaching morphology, phonology, and etymology from the the very beginning. If you really want to attempt to debunk the idea that is what you would need rather than the condescending remarks I read in your blog. Really, stop getting stuck on the old phonics canard that people have to be taught to pronounce a language they already speak.

Emily O'Connor
Sep 11, 2017 02:28 PM

"He knew that teaching kids to read was different than inputting a linguistic system to a computer. Despite the flaws and shallowness of many (most) phonics programs when it comes to features like morphological sophistication, such teaching still gives students a clear learning benefit."

LOL at this entire article, but the above paragraph is especially insane. Yes, children are not tiny computers. Which is why we should not treat them like tiny computers, and instead teach them that structure (unlike an utterance, which may have varying phonetic realizations) is etneral. The structure is governed by morphology.

Or we could continue to use phonics programs which are flawed and shallow. Hmmm. Real tough choice. While you wait on "the research" I'll be over here actually teaching how the language works, rather than a flawed and shallow approximation of how it works. I'm sure at some point the research will come limping along behind with a firm grasp of the obvious. It usually does.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 11, 2017 03:08 PM

This is a fascinating--and alarming--discussion. Shawna writes that "we do not merely blend sounds together to read words". Those of us who have taught kindergarten know that blending is EXACTLY what beginning readers do before they get to "orthographic mapping" in first and second grade where they learn to recognize the sounds that digraphs and trigraphs represent. I recommend neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene's book, Reading in the Brain (2009), for a discussion of how our brains work.

I think cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, someone who knows a thing or two about linguistics, says it best in his preface to Why Our Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading (1997) by Diane McGuiness. He writes:

"Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on. This basic fact about human nature should be the starting point for any discussion of how to teach our children to read and write. We need to understand how the contraption called writing works, how the mind of the child works, how to get the two to mesh . . . It is a national tragedy that this commonsense understanding has been so uncommon. We are . . . the victims of misguided ideas about the nature of reading and how to teach it. All the familiar techniques were devised before we had a scientific understanding of reading, and they are based on theories that we know are wrong. Parents and policymakers are bewildered by contradictory advice from a slew of well-meaning but uninformed romantics, oversimplifiers, entrepreneurs, and quacks."

Dehaene goes to great lengths to show exactly how the brain is wired for sound and how helping children recognize sounds is the most brain-friendly path to follow.

Jeff Bowers
Sep 11, 2017 03:33 PM

Dear Tim, thanks for your positive comment regarding the Bowers and Bowers (2017) paper, but I think you somewhat misunderstand the point we are making and mischaracterize the evidence. For me the key passage from your post is:

“The issue here turns on what would be best for beginning readers… is it best to help them to figure out the meanings of unknown words or to help them to translate print to pronunciations of words already in the child’s oral language? I think it is the latter, so I don’t mind delaying most morphological work until phonics is mastered (e.g., Words Their Way).

However, there are arguments that we should teach morphology earlier and even in place of phonics instruction (one critic wrote that the National Reading Panel findings were out of date since we now know morphological training to be more beneficial than phonics). Eeks!”

However, no one is arguing that morphological training by itself should replace phonics, rather it is whether instruction should exclusively focus on phonological skills and grapheme-phoneme correspondences without references to other regularities in the English writing system (till later years of instruction). As you note, there are both orthographic-phonological and orthographic-semantic regularities, and phonics is committed to the claim that only the former sets of regularities should be targeted at the start. The alternative view is that both sets of regularities should be targeted from the start.

Regarding the evidence you note that there “are more than 100 studies showing the learning benefits of PA instruction” and criticize two of the studies used to argue that both morphology and phonology should be the target of instruction from the start.
But the key point is that there are *zero* studies that show that instruction should selectively target phonological skills at the start because none of the studies you are referring to included a control condition that targeted both the phonological and semantic regularities of English spellings. The only studies that have made this comparison suggest that you should target all regularities (although I take your point that more data is needed here).

So, we have two general views: 1) initial instruction should selectively target phonological and orthographic-phonological skills, and b) initial instruction should target all regularities. There is very little evidence comparing these two views, but the only studies to date support the latter. Given this, why do you prefer the view that morphological instruction should be introduced later? Seems to me the appropriate conclusion at present should be: I don’t know, and we should make it a priority to directly compare hypotheses 1) and 2).

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 11, 2017 10:00 PM

I thought the research said teach the phonemes and graphemes explicitly and systematically and synthetically?
I have also developed the lesson plans for the 6 kinds of syllables as Dr. Orton and Gillingham suggested to assist in reading multisyllabic words.
About /tion/there are three of them-/tion/./sion/,/cian/The /cian/is always an occupation.
If you hear short vowels in front of /sion/you double the/ s/.Passion,mission etc..,we have no syllable type for the /tion/gang.

Onion and million,you are not working phonemically when you mention million and onion,they are completely different sounds.
English is fully decodable using speech can use them all the way to high school if the kids are "clueless" and can`t read and spell.We only have 90 sight words and one and two and what are part of the list...
My colleagues love Kilpatrick,we all agree that perfect orthographic spelling(eg. f/ar/m,sh/ore/sh/arere/tail,etc..leads to orthographic mapping which greatly assists a struggling reader.
Some kids are instructional casualties and once they get the hang of it they fly,others are dyslexic and the info is a lifeline.

Sod the studies,we are delivering what they need.
The NICHD study is juicy and jam packed with great tips;my trips to IDA have also been rich with teaching tips.

I teach no morphology,just the phonemes ,graphemes and syllables.During the lessons rich with words and stories,we discuss vocabulary and shoot for the comprehension enhancements they need to succeed.
Things like action and react will come about naturally.

The one place I agree entirely with Dr. Shanahan, it is not fair to do what you are comfortable doing,embedded or sprinkle phonics in a story-that is of no use to getting them to learn to read.

Actually,the NICHD told us there are 44 speech sounds-eg,the sound e,long sound,has 8 grapheme representations.

I am so impressed that Dr. Shanahan talks to us and let`s us debate.
Thank You

Harriett Janetos
Sep 11, 2017 10:45 PM

I've just read Carol Chomsky's article, which does little to change my mind about what is best for BEGINNING readers. She writes:

"The mature reader does not proceed on the assumption that orthography is phonetically valid but rather interprets the written symbols according to lexical spellings . . . What he needs to identify are the lexical items, the MEANING-BEARING (emphasis added) items, and these are quite readily accessible to him from the lexically-based orthography."

This emphasis on "meaning-bearing" items reminds me of whole language--or perhaps half language. Of course, there is an important place for this as Words Their Way illustrates--but not as a replacement for teaching children to become quick and efficient decoders.

There was a reference to Stanislaus Dehaene as being a "neuro-apologist". Should we then refer to those who disagree with the brain science of how we process phonemes as "neuro-deniers"? Just wondering.

Kristin Clark
Sep 11, 2017 10:54 PM

Onion and million,you are not working phonemically when you mention million and onion,they are completely different sounds.
English is fully decodable using speech sounds." Holey Moley. Where to begin. The English writing system does not represent sounds. It is morphophonemic. It represents morphemes with graphemes. Those graphemes correspond to phonemes, NOT sounds! Yikes! Another misrepresentation by the pseudoscience of phonics.

There is NO -cian, -tion, -sion, in English! How much more confusing can you make it? And you of course would have to add -lion, -xion, -nion and more. How much simpler to teach a base with an -ion suffix. Only ONE suffix instead of many. How much better to know that "onion" is actually one + ion because of the singularity of the bulb. Good grief.

There IS NO double-s in passion or mission! There is a base of "pass" meaning "suffer" and a base of "miss" meaning "send" (I use quotes instead of appropriate brackets due to HTML constraints.)

And it doesn't matter how many speech sounds you think there are, because we are dealing with phonemes, not phones. And 44
"sounds" in whose English? A southerner? A Brit? An Australian? A Pacific Islander? An African American? A New Yorker? A Bostonian?

NO ONE is saying not to teach phonology just to teach it correctly and within the appropriate framework. And to have teachers who actually understand how English really works.

To be fair, I get it. I once taught all of these things. Until I found out how ignorant I was and began to learn how our language actually works. Then I could no longer teach lies to children.

Sep 12, 2017 01:53 AM

I have to push back a little. I think what David is arguing across his research is we need to recognize meaning making everywhere not just in print.

David shares his analysis of communities where literacy is sound over symbol. For many kids phonemic awareness isn't about achievement points. Its about culture and history.

Adding, deleting, and reversing phonemes means the ability to win a battle and to share in a centuries long literary tradition. Its more than skills when it comes to skills that matter.

Teaching these advanced phonemic awareness into later grades is about celebrating and developing the literary practices our students bring to the classroom.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 12, 2017 02:33 AM

Kristin Clark,
I take my advice from Moats,Lyon,Ehri, Foorman, Kilpatrick , name a few.

Shun is a sound represented by /tion,/sion,/cian,.
Segment lotion-l-o-tion
mission-m-i-sion-the rule is what allows us to know to double the "s".

Years ago,hanging out at IDA conference we learned of the importance of addition,substitution and deletion from Dr. Lyon.

Timothy Shanahan
Sep 12, 2017 05:55 AM

Hi everyone,
Too many comments here to respond to. Linguists over the years have put forth ideas about how to teach beginning reading since Leonard B

Tim Shanahan
Sep 12, 2017 06:02 AM

Since Leonard Bloomfield. Those have not done well. If you want to find out if these"true" linguistic ideas give kids an advantage I suggest we try it out first. No, this isn't medicine but it is still important enough to get it right (and that means it has to work in more than your mind). Some of you are saying morphology does not replace phonics, it adds to it, etc. however both in these comments and in the mail over the past two weeks, many of you want phonics dropped since morphology is the truth about language. It is important to note that only 2 studies have tried out even 10 hours of such training with kids under the age of both they provided 1 or more years of phonics teaching too.
For those who say they no longer teach phonics to beginners, I'd be curious what curriculum you use?

Harriett Janetos
Sep 12, 2017 06:15 AM

One thing's for certain: Our dueling testimonials ain't gonna get us nowhere.

Jeff bowers
Sep 12, 2017 09:24 AM

Dear Tim, I don’t think anyone rejects the claim that grapheme-phoneme correspondences should be taught explicitly (well, apart from whole language types). By rejecting phonics, I (and I expect others here) are rejecting the claim that instruction should selectively focus on grapheme-phoneme correspondences.


Peter Bowers
Sep 12, 2017 12:21 PM

Wow, as Tim points out, there is too much here to respond to, but I want to emphasize and build on the point Jeff makes above. I see nobody making the argument that instruction should avoid grapheme-phoneme correspondences. In fact, the position we propose in that Bowers & Bowers (2017) paper you cite (I'm the second Bowers) is that the research needs to investigate the straightforward hypothesis that literacy instruction will be more effective when it accurately reflects how the writing system actually works. It turns out English orthography evolved to have a specific interrelation between the influences of morphology, etymology and phonology. In the system we have, morphology provides the organizing structure in which graphemes (single letter or groups of two- or three-letters that represent phonemes) are found. Graphemes can only happen within morphemes, and the choice of grapheme is not determined just by the pronunciation of the individual word in which it is found, but by the pronunciation of the morpheme in all of the relatives -- and etymological influences. (For the moment, I'll leave the very important role of etymology to the side.) Now, to many that may sound super complicated and too much for young children. I understand that response. But such a response is a hypothesis that can be tested. As an example, it turns out that a word like "does" which is treated as an "irregular spelling" that has to be memorized because it doesn't have the expected grapheme-phoneme correspondences is completely understandable when we look at its morphological structure and relatives. The base is spelled "do" and it has a suffix "-es". So we can construct a word sum like this: do + es ? does. We can also take that base spelled "do" and add an "-ing" suffix and get this word sum: do + ing ? doing. Within this morphological family, we can explicitly address the grapheme-phoneme correspondences and see that this "o" grapheme is very useful because it can represent the phoneme we here when we say the word "do" and the different vowel phoneme we perceive when English speakers say the word "does". We can look at the parallel structure of a different family built on the base "go" with these word sums: go + es ? goes; go + going ? going. It is worth noting that phonics instruction decides that "goes" is a "regular" spelling but "does" is irregular. And yet these two words clearly use exactly the same structure. The only difference is that it turns out that the pronunciation of the base spelled "go" doesn't shift between these words. It's not "irregular" for the pronunciation of morphemes to shift among different members of a morphological family -- that is an inherent characteristic of English that instruction CAN specifically address. Notice also, that if a child successfully applied the typical grapheme-phoneme correspondences, they would likely end up with the misspelling *"duz". Why should they expect the "z"? That is a very odd "best choice" for the /z/ phoneme when it turns out that the "s" grapheme is by far the more common way to write the /z/ phoneme. What I want to highlight here is that instruction of how the the orthography system works includes explicit instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences that is misrepresented by phonics instruction. This is one of the problems of this discussion that is also implied by the title of this blog post. I know nobody who is suggesting teaching morphology instead of teaching phonics. In fact, I argue that how grapheme-phoneme correspondences work in English is so important to teach from the beginning, that it is important that we get that instruction right! It turns out that this is only possible in English when phonological influences are taught in the presence of morphological constraints. Unfortunately, all of this is not what we are used to seeing in classrooms and it is very hard to articulate in text in a comment in a blog. Tim asked about what this kind of instruction looks like. There are actually lots of videos and accounts out there for people to explore. But let me point to just one of a pre-school class investigating the morphological family of the word "rain". The kids get exposed to a word they know and many of its relatives. They get introduced to various structures and how they fit together to make words. And if you watch closely, you'll see that when a child brings up the word "rains" that they know in their oral vocabulary, the teacher highlights the fact that this suffix is pronounced /z/ but written with an "s" grapheme. She also points out that the "s" grapheme can be write a 'z' phoneme -- and isn't that interesting. This is a group of children who are being introduced to the interrelation of morphology and phonology from the start and they are having a great time. A student who keeps learning like this will have no reason to thing that the word "does" is irregular and should be spelled *"duz". Sorry for the long comment, but reframing our understanding can take some time. But it's worth the effort. Here is the link to the video of the video I mentioned:

Tim Shanahan
Sep 12, 2017 02:49 PM

Jeff and a Peter--

Okay, we agree phonics needs to be taught (though as various comments here illustrate, many folks are using morphology as a reason to oppose it). We also agree that morphology should be taught, including some of the morpheme count connections to spelling (in the upper grades).

The difference: I believe that before someone goes forward with a full bore morphemes spelling program (integrated with phonics) for grades K-2, someone should test its effect for at least one school year--comparing the outcomes with typical state of the art phonics (preferably against a popular phonics program that anyone can buy). And I definitely don't think anyone should tout such instruction as research proven until that kind of evidence exists. The two proof of concept studies for primary grade morphology teaching are not adequate for this (there are dozens--perhaps hundreds--of such studies on phonics, but ultimately the test of its effectiveness had to be demonstrated in more ambitious and extensive studies). We're just not there yet.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 14, 2017 03:06 AM

Stephanie, it's been three years since I taught kindergarten, and I can still read those words because for the most part they are "phonetically appropriate" (see my Adams quote below). I particularly like "mayk" since we had explored "ay" in the words "play" and "day" but had not covered "a_e", and I also like "enee" since we regularly wrote the word "see" but hadn't discussed words ending in "y" with the /ee/ sound. Marilyn Adams (Beginning to Read, 1990), wrote in the National Research Council's Report, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children:

"The process of inventing spellings is essentially a process of phonics. Not surprisingly, then, the phonetic appropriateness of prereaders' invented spellings is found to be predicted by their level of phonemic awareness and to predict their later success in learning to read words. The evidence that invented spelling activity simultaneously develops phonemic awareness and promotes understanding of the alphabetic principle is extremely promising, especially in view of the difficulty with which children are found to acquire these insights through other methods of teaching.

As Tim outlines above, if there is a morphological method that is empirically evaluated and proven to be effective, "it should become the new state of the art in the field". Until then . . .

Harriett Janetos
Sep 14, 2017 04:47 AM

Peter, I very much appreciated watching the videos you sent. You are a charismatic teacher--an asset in any classroom. And these videos certainly helped clarify the discussion for me. First, I would call Skot's lesson a phonics lesson. This is what I do with one big exception. Because my struggling readers take longer to recognize digraphs and trigraphs, instead of spelling out words using letter names, they "map" the sounds (say the sounds as they write them) on their white boards: /h/ /igh/ /l/ /igh/ /t/ in order to help them retain in memory the sound/spelling connection. Although you say you presented "does" to a "young classroom" the level of interaction and discussion regarding do and its relatives sounded like something better suited to third grade than first grade, so the question remains regarding the extent of morphological instruction that would benefit the beginning reader. Thanks again for sending these links.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 12, 2017 04:52 PM

But that`s the problem Lex,the graphemes and phonemes and linguistic gymnastics for spelling then reading must occur before the rich vocabulary authentic text,they need decodable text for a very short while prior to getting to partake in that`s like learning the scales of music.

On the other hand,in a totally different stream,read stories,talk about vocabulary etc...that is not what I am talking about and I resonate with a few others here...
During the explicit systematic orthography lessons a lot of vocab comes up and we discuss it all,you don`t want a kid to read a word and not know what it means.
Believe it or not,we are not that dumb:)

Tim,I thought the NICHD study and NRP put a lot of this stuff to bed?

It`s just not happening,push back extraordinaire since 2001 NRP.

We are stuck in the debate.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 12, 2017 05:32 PM

Thank you for the reminder, LEX. This is correct: "It's critical to recognize that we are not talking about phonics versus morphology. We're talking about phonics versus the whole writing system. Morphology is the delimiting and organizing structure of the writing system, but it's not the only piece."

This is critical indeed!

Tim Shanahan has been suggesting that his debate opponents want to make morphology the only thing they teach.

Why, Tim? Why?

Why misrepresent your opponent's position, for starters? And why tilt at windmills in the first place, robbing yourself of a golden opportunity to learn from your "enemies"? Hmm?

Who benefits?

Why not actually listen to the NEWS that these good teachers are trying to share with you?

Why not consider the possibility that something new and wondrous has been discovered about the way the English writing system works? And why not consider the possibility that this new thing is extremely important and powerful? Heck, why not even consider the possibility that it is something that you don't yet understand about our writing system (although you've been getting glimmers of it)? That won't kill you, will it? Finally, why not consider the fact that this new discovery--this new truth--has not yet been falsified, although you and your students are welcome to join the rest of us in our attempts to falsify it.

Right now, we are working on trying to falsify the propositions that "the English writing system makes sense" and "morphology is the delimiting and organizing structure of the English writing system." We will happily show you how we're using systematic investigations and linguistic tools (like the four questions and and word sums and matrices) to help us do that--to help us better understand the nature and structure of written English (beginning with its words). We will show you how we do real science in our classrooms, Tim. Real research. Every day. And then you and your students will be able to do this kind of real science as well. And all of you will become students of the language.

Doesn't this sound fun?

You do remember how to be a student, don't ya Tim?

You do remember the joy of being a learner, don't ya?

You haven't completely forgotten, have ya?

Because here's the thing: language scientists have discovered that "morphology is the delimiting and organizing structure of the English writing system."

May I respectfully suggest that you read that last sentence very closely?

Harriett Janetos
Sep 12, 2017 06:59 PM

Thank you, Peter, for recommending the video on "rain". I'm stopping it halfway through to share what's helpful and what's problematic. First, the struggling first grade readers that come to see me (the reading specialist) don't recognize that "ai" represents the sound /ae/. One thing I do is help students recognize the grapheme-phoneme connections, "what sounds look like". They can't decode until their brains (yes, this is what the neuroscientists confirm) attach print to sound. We are wired for sound, not print.

Yes, this was an excellent exercise in word families, as she calls them. And it certainly builds vocabulary. But it is not the best way to actually teach non-readers to read. In fact, when I taught kindergarten, I never referred to letter names "r" "a" "i" "n" the way this teacher does, because I know that our brains process phonemes and that letter names often confuse the struggling readers. So I would spell rain by saying /r/ /ae/ /n/ while writing "r" "ai" "n" and when I added sounds like /ng/ in "ing" (that's two sounds), I would say each sound.

Phonics taught properly works with children's brains (not against them) so that they can crack our alphabetic code. Understanding our entire writing system serves a different function once children can decode quickly and efficiently.

Jeff Bowers
Sep 12, 2017 07:56 PM

Dear Stephanie, I think you are missing the nature of the debate here. The issue is not whether English is a morphemic system (most everyone seems to agree), it is whether it matters for early instruction. According to phonics it does not (at least the start of instruction), and according to SWI it does. I agree, most proponents of phonics have a false understanding of the writing system (e.g., the view that English spelling system is poorly designed with lots of exceptions), but it is clear from above that Tim does not share that view.

Now why Tim argues that current evidence supports the conclusion that early instruction should target phonological regularities and ignore meaningful ones is unclear to me. We know that learning and memory is best when information can be organized in meaning ways. It is also the case, as Pete notes above, that grapheme-phoneme correspondences can be taught more accurately when morphology is put in the mix. There is also no evidence that restricting instruction to a subset of regularities is better than teaching all the regularities. It seems to me that the default assumption should be to teach children the system with all its structure. But at the end of the day more studies are needed.

Despite disagreements, I think Tim is doing a great job hosting a debate like this. Just wish the debate was more polite.

Scott Mills
Sep 12, 2017 08:29 PM

Harriett Janetos curious how you teach homophones like one and won? Can you explain these spellings?

Harriett Janetos
Sep 12, 2017 09:52 PM

Good question, Scott. So keep in mind that as a reading specialist, my focus is on teaching beginning readers to become quick and efficient decoders and to accomplish this I simplify the task for them, especially for those who struggle. There are a few words (like one and two) that need to be presented as a "whole". David Share has written a lot about the "self-teaching hypothesis"--how with each successive encounter with a word, the experience "teaches" the reader to recognize that word (or spelling) in a subsequent encounter. This is how orthographic mapping is reinforced and eventually mastered.

As for "won", I would be thrilled if my kindergarteners wrote it as "wun". In fact, a perk of not teaching letter names was that my students cut out the middle-man (letter names) and wrote words like "when" as "wen" rather than "YN" like many do. But suppose a first grader is reading a book that says "He won the game" and pronounced "won" as "wawn", having learned in kindergarten the common representation of the letter "o" as /o/ . My students know that one letter can represent many sounds and if there's any confusion, they have learned to simply try a different sound. In English, the letter "o" often represents the sound /u/. Because my goal is to help first graders achieve accuracy and fluency (to aid in comprehension), I find it's simpler to teach them to "try a different sound" when they encounter a word that doesn't sound right rather than trying to explain to them the innerworkings of our written language.

My focus in this discussion is on whether morphological training can help kids become better readers when they are six and seven or even eight. Once they are good readers, introducing morphology makes sense. Before then, I'd love to see how it either supplants or supplements phonics at the EARLIEST phase of teaching reading.

Thanks for asking!

Harriett Janetos
Sep 12, 2017 10:38 PM

I've just finished Peter's video. Excellent vocabulary discussion with these pre-school kids. But when the teacher introduced "raincoat" at the end, it's clear what's problematic for many of my struggling first graders--"What do I say when I see the two letters "oa"?" The sound /oe/ can be represented by oe, o_e, oa, ow, ough and o. Beginning readers need lots of exposure to and practice with these representations so that they can quickly and efficiently decode words when they encounter this spelling. For these young readers, it's important to teach three things: 1) Letters are pictures of sounds; 2) there is variation (one sound can be represented in many ways) and 3) there is overlap (one letter can represent different sounds)--hence the need to "try a different sound". Just because a child has mastered (memorized?) "rain" doesn't mean they can automatically read "coat" in the word raincoat.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 12, 2017 10:39 PM

Hi Jo-Anne,

If you must use a phonics-first approach, may I respectfully suggest that you choose one that allows you to eliminate the need for those soul-destroying, coma-inducing texts that have been written not to inform or to delight children but to help children "practice their phonics facts"?

For example, when I taught reading in the classroom, I used a program that enabled children to use their own written sentences for their first reading-in-context practice. Our students always began to write such sentences in week 8 of instruction back then, right after they had learned to spell, write, and read about 100 common English words.

How was this possible? I'll tell you. (But you might not believe me.) Back then the program that I was using had students spelling and reading 30 new words per week beginning in week 4 of instruction, immediately after they had learned to write and read 54 Orton phonograms.

True story.

Also, since we were teaching multiple phonemes (simultaneously) for many of the above-mentioned phonograms, and since many of the Orton phonograms were two- and three-letter graphemes, our students were able to decode thousands of additional words within just a few months.

If you will raise your expectations, your students will be able to do the same thing. Their first written sentences will be both correctly spelled and completely decodable (by them), and they will be able to use these sentences for their first in-context reading practice. (I had my kiddos read them to their fellow students.)

Imagine how this could look in your classroom.

Also, imagine how much time and money you (or your school) might be able to save.

I mean, you could toss ALL of your phonics worksheets in the trash, for starters. (Even my youngest students used only paper, pencil, and their very fine minds during all phonics activities.) And you could eliminate the need for those expensive, time-consuming, and mind-numbing decodable texts, too. (You wouldn't need any leveled readers, either.)

Imagine it.

You too, Tim.

I dare you.

Note: I recently noticed that the Spalding Institute has apparently now rejected part of Romalda Spalding's teaching philosophy; that foundation is now promoting--and selling--decodable texts. Thankfully, the Riggs Institute continues to refuse to succumb to that siren song, and it is still encouraging all teachers to avoid such artificial texts whenever possible. (Some classroom teachers are given no choice and must use them.)

I know, I know: Who do those Riggs guys think children are, right?

Intelligent and competent beings, perhaps? Beings who are capable of working with virtually ALL of the phoneme-grapheme correspondences of English during year 1 of instruction?


Such high expectations!

What is wrong with those guys?


Why aren't they jumping on the latest educational gravy train? Why aren't they dragging out their instruction and delaying the introduction of real reading so they can make heaps of money from the sale of unnecessary but consumable worksheets and phonics texts? Are they communists?

Kristin Clark
Sep 12, 2017 10:41 PM

I'm glad you would be happy if your students spell words incorrectly. I prefer mine to understand the connections between the spelling and the meaning of a word, its history, and its phonology. I prefer that my students understand that it is related in meaning to "win". I prefer that my students understand that "o" often spells the same phoneme as in "come" or "of" or "love." But if you prefer "wun" because it phonics says so, then go four it. If yu ar that pashunit abowt foniks, enjoy. Two bad yer studints will mis awl uv thuh uther intresting fax and will think speling is awl abowt sownding out werds.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 12, 2017 10:58 PM

Thanks, Jeff, for reminding us to keep the debate polite.

Yes, I don't mind if a kindergarten who is writing a story independently spells "won" as "wun". I don't mind in the least. In fact, I am thrilled that that child can say a word, segment its sounds and represent those sounds in writing. I am interested to know how explaining to that five year-old that "won" comes from "win" will help that child's composition. Or should we spell out every word for every child and deprive them of the practice of segmenting sounds?

And I believe I did say that the letter "o" can represent the sound /u/. So, yes, that would include words like come, of and love--and when we talk about that spelling for that sound, those are excellent words to choose for the beginning reader.

Or have I misunderstood the point that was being made? Once again, my emphasis is on the best way to teach children to read quickly and efficiently.

Scott Mills
Sep 13, 2017 12:00 AM

Dr. Shanahan, do you have any responses for LEX? Would either of you be interested in having a live debate via zoom? I would be happy to host and moderate the discussion as well as sending each of you questions in advance to allow you both to prepare.

Sep 13, 2017 12:13 AM

My objective is not only to "get kids reading and spelling quickly and efficiently" -- it is to do so without misrepresenting the language, without nonsense, and to lay a foundation for a lifetime of literacy and critical thinking.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 14, 2017 01:10 PM

Dear Harriet,

Please delete the word "not" from the following sentence in my last response to you:

And I noticed that they were more than willing to do that, using words from the "written-vocabulary" list that they were compiling (words like "run," and "hop" and "sing," which they could not spell).

I wouldn't mention it, but that little word changes the entire meaning of the sentence, as you can see, leaving it as a complete misrepresentation of what actually happened.

The sentence should read:

And I noticed that they were more than willing to do that, using words from the "written-vocabulary" list that they were compiling (words like "run," and "hop" and "sing," which they could spell).

The children used words that they *could* spell, not words that they could *not* spell.

I apologize for any confusion that my sloppy editing may have caused you.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 13, 2017 05:25 AM

I appreciated the video link that Peter sent. Are there any other recommendations? I would love to see what the teaching of reading to beginning readers using the methods outlined above actually looks like. Not a discussion of vocabulary or word meanings/relationships. But teaching little kids to read. Thank you!

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 13, 2017 11:08 AM

Dear Stephanie,are you a Lucy Caulkins protege?
There has not been a shred of evidence that this stuff works,the buzz out there by many teachers is that it leaves many kids behind.

The kids in explicit systematic synthetic phonics learn to read spell and write cognitively.There are 44 speech sounds,that`s proven,some speech sounds have several grapheme representations,others have only one or two.I have 6 rules in the sequence and 6 lessons on syllables as well.
It is very important that children learn English syntax along the way.
That LC stuff is manufactured,marketed and put out by a sales force.
Does it work on kids?
The teachers that are forced to use it don`t think so.
A teacher from the Bronx wrote about it,I have heard many others as well.

I want kids to receive what works,it`s extremely hard on them to be stuck,we need to keep that in mind.
I recommend reading Dr. Mark Seidenberg`s new book,
it`s illuminating.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 14, 2017 11:52 AM

Wouldn`t it be great if there was a way to get this research funded,in my product gold standard study,the comparison group was Fountas and Pinell and we equaled their comprehension gains but did it faster in grade 1-3 pull out intervention model.

I would love to do more research,that`s an area that should support product developers.

Sep 13, 2017 01:48 PM

If any of you are interested in how to turn classroom teachers off of furthering their own knowledge of this topic you only need take a look at the comments above. So many people on both sides of this issue are unfairly characterizing the stance of another or selectively choosing phrasing (in a purposefully entertaining blog) to define intent. Others are turning simple responses into sexism and/or elitism. This is shocking behavior. There is so much good learning that can be found both in this entry and the comments and it will sadly be ignored for the drama created by intelligent, well-meaning adults acting like petulant children goading each other into escalating personal attacks.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 13, 2017 02:11 PM

I spent the summer reading research by Jamie Metsala (Lexical Restructuring Model) and Anne Fernald. Both have chapters in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research (2011). They have clarified for me the importance of receptive vocabulary, ages 0-5 and how a child's language exposure impacts reading development. I teach in a school where most of our kids come to us with few literacy experiences in the home and no pre-school experience, which makes every decision I make in the classroom all the more important.

I taught "was" to my kindergarteners by confirming that they were right, it looks like it should rhyme with "gas" but in fact, it's pronounced "wuz". And then we move on.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 13, 2017 03:05 PM


I'm not sure how many more ways I can say that what I care about is helping little kids to read--NOT to understand the structure of the written word.

I'm thinking about all of my struggling K-2 kids. If I thought that explaining to them the "structure, meaning, and historical connections" would help them read better--you bet I'd do it.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 13, 2017 03:20 PM

Ryan, you've got far better things to do with your time than reread our comments and give us each a grade on the extent to which we have acted like "petulant children goading each other into escalating personal attacks." I have tried to maintain a civil, professional tone, and if anyone feels I have failed, then I apologize.

Peter Bowers
Sep 13, 2017 03:31 PM

Harriett asked for more videos of reading instruction in an SWI frame. I'm pretty sure that we differ in our ideas of what constitutes "reading instruction" and what does not. I would argue that diving into an investigation of the morphological structure and graphemic structure of words in a morphological word family like those that can be found by using "does" as a starting point is not only spelling instruction -- it is also reading instruction because it deepens children's understanding of how the structures of our writing system work, and thus set the stage for children to be able to recognize those structures during the act of reading.

My guess, however, is that what you are looking for is an example of a lesson in which the teacher and student engage in the reading of connected text together. I do this all the time in teaching and tutoring contexts. I have captured some examples over time that I can share that I think might be closer to what you are looking for.

I will paste in a link to a video of teacher Skot Caldwell in a Grade 1 class (public school in a class of kids of all abilities / backgrounds / special needs etc.) that you may find useful. While the target Skot chose for this lesson happened to be looking for graphemes, you'll see that he does that within the context of morphological structure. I'll also highlight that this video is from some time ago. Today, Skot would have used the words "digraph" and "trigraph". At the time, however, Skot was still using the term "letter team". We can see that the terms "digraph" and "trigraph" add more specificity about the number of letters -- and two prefixes that are good to know and the base "graph" which would be great to investigate as well.

Another old video that may touch on what you were asking for is of a lesson I taught via video conference to a kindergarten class in Beijing. This class had zero history of working with SWI, and I was asked to introduce the word sum and the matrix. I asked for them to send me images of a book they were reading so that I could use familiar text as the jumping off point.

You can see a short version of the video at this link:

A longer version that includes what is in the short one is here:

While my guess is that you do not see this next video as an example of "reading instruction," Harriett, I'm also going to paste in the link of me teaching the spelling of 'does' to a young classroom while I introduce them to the matrix and word sum -- and the morphophonemic nature of their language, and how our spelling system has evolved to represent morphemes consistently despite pronunciation shifts.

Here is that video:

The reason I claim that this is also reading instruction is that without making the interrelationship of morphology and phonology children's ability to read will be hindered by less skill at recognizing meaning cues in morphological structures and assumptions of "letter-sound" correspondences that are developed without reference to morphology reduce their ability to identify grapheme-phoneme correspondences. This is one of the key messages that I think has been lost throughout this discussion. One key reason that morphology instruction is so important from the beginning is that without it, we end up misrepresenting how grapheme-phoneme correspondences work. SWI thinks the role of phonology is so important in learning to read and write that we need to make sure that we teach how they actually work.

What I sense from the title of this blog post and from much of the discussion is that there is a fear that teaching about morphology is going to somehow harm what kids learn about the links between letters and sounds that they get from phonics. I argue that everything that is to be gained about the relationships between graphemes and phonemes through phonics instruction is gained (and much more) by teaching orthographic phonology in the context of morphological and etymological constraints that is what happens in SWI. In fact I would argue that the instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondence is deficient if it fails to address the interrelation with morphology. Phonics may teach more about letter-sound correspondence than whole language, but that doesn't meant that SWI can't teach more about grapheme-phoneme correspondences than phonics.

People may well disagree with this position, but I want it to be clear that those teaching SWI are not in anyway dismissing the role of phonology in learning to read. There is also empirical evidence for the view that morphological instruction supports phonological learning. I'm going to point to just one example by pasting in the abstract of the meta-analysis of morphological instruction for children with literacy difficulties by Goodwin & Awn (2012). I encourage the reader to note that the effects for phonological outcomes showed the strongest outcomes of all -- even stronger than morphological awareness. Also note that those with the greatest challenges gained the most from morphological instruction. Might this be an indication that those who are struggling in the current content of instruction which teaches about letter-sound correspondences without reference to morphology are demonstrating that they can't make sense of print as well as when the cues to morphology are offered?

Here is the abstract for Goodwin and Ahn's 2012 study:

Abstract This study synthesizes 79 standardized mean-change differences between control
and treatment groups from 17 independent studies, investigating the effect of morphological
interventions on literacy outcomes for students with literacy difficulties. Average total
sample size ranged from 15 to 261 from a wide range of grade levels. Overall,
morphological instruction showed a significant improvement on literacy achievement
(d=0.33). Specifically, its effect was significant on several literacy outcomes such as
phonological awareness (d=0.49), morphological awareness (d=0.40), vocabulary
(d=0.40), reading comprehension (d=0.24), and spelling (d=0.20). Morphological
instruction was particularly effective for children with reading, learning, or speech and
language disabilities, English language learners, and struggling readers, suggesting the
possibility that morphological instruction can remediate phonological processing challenges.
Other moderators were also explored to explain differences in morphological
intervention effects. These findings suggest students with literacy difficulties would benefit
from morphological instruction.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 13, 2017 03:58 PM

Thank you very much, Peter. I look forward to viewing your links.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 13, 2017 04:56 PM

Hi Harriet Janetos,

I’m no reading specialist, so can you please help me see why a pupil should be asked to write a “composition” before he has been taught to write and read common graphemes like “ai” and “oa”?

I mean, can’t the writing of compositions wait for a bit?

It seems to me that that early “writing time” could be better spent:

Conducting scientific word investigations (on words like "one," "won," “rain,” “coat”)
Writing and reading graphemes like “ai” and “oa”? (While practicing penmanship skills.)
Spelling, writing, and reading words like “rain” and “coat” (Why not help students talk about why we could underline the “ai” and “oa” in such words?)

It seems to me that there is plenty of time in the school day for doing those things that truly matter, but not enough time for doing those things that don’t need doing.

But I’m no reading specialist, so I’m probably mistaken. Also, I’m sure there is something I’m not understanding about why it is appropriate for a five-year-old person to be asked to write a composition before he has been taught to write paragraphs, sentences, and words.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 13, 2017 05:09 PM

Sorry for the confusion. By "composition" I simply meant a writing effort, in this case, by my kindergarteners. Here are some examples. Children love to write, draw and read their "compositions" to the class.

I play with my Dad. we play bascetbol. my dad HAD 11. I HAD 15. it wuz fun.

A baby cat is coot.

Flufe can mayk a shot in the bascit.

Then it Bekum Krismis But we dinit giv enee pesit.

me mi mom go to the zo en us god to makdonl

These are kindergarteners who are learning their sounds--learning to blend them to read and segment them to write "compositions".

Does that help?

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 13, 2017 07:24 PM


You say you won't be "recommending morphology over phonics" until it's been proven to be more effective for children. I can respect that position.

What is your stand on recommending morphology ALONG WITH phonics?

Given that vocabulary instruction is one of the key components of effective reading instruction (according to the NRP), would you feel comfortable saying that such a combination could be said to "follow the research"?

Finally, what do you think of Seidenberg's claim that most of America's teachers are not adequately prepared to teach children?
For example, in Language at The Speed of Sight, Seidenberg writes:

"An introductory course in linguistics should be a permanent requirement for teaching children. Educators need to know how language works. Basic introductory courses in linguistics cover concepts I’ve mentioned repeatedly: morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantics; relations between spoken, signed, and written language; how language is acquired and the nature of language impairments; whether language shapes how we think; and much else. They also address issues about variability, across languages, cultures, and individuals, that are of overriding interest in schools of education. This is essential, foundational stuff for teaching."

Do you agree or disagree with Seidenberg's points here?

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 13, 2017 11:44 PM


Thank you for clarifying. Your classroom examples helped, yes: they gave me a better picture of what you meant by "composition," for starters, and they gave me a better picture of what goes on during your "composition time."

Again though, I am lost and confused. I'm wondering if it is appropriate to have children writing "words" that they cannot spell and that nobody else can read--including themselves a few weeks later. I mean, what goal are you trying to reach here, exactly? And aren't you just pretending that these are words and sentences? (That's how it seems to me right now.) Also, are you sure that this is the best use of a learner's time?

When I taught kindergarten, my mentor (the late Myrna McCulloch of the Riggs Institute) never allowed me to teach K kids differently than older learners, so "guess and go" was not a spelling strategy that I could use with them. (Not that I wanted to.) "Guessing destroys self-confidence," said McCulloch, insisting that children be taught to spell and read in an intelligent and orderly way. So I did my best to do that.

For example, when my students started writing sentences (Lesson 37 in the Riggs Institute's program), McCulloch had me remind them that it doesn't do any good to write words that nobody else can read. So I told them that. And it seemed to make sense to them. And we moved on.

We talked about sentences and capital letters and periods and stuff, and I dictated a model sentence using words that they had recently learned to spell. ("I can do it.") We took our time with all of this, talking about interesting things along the way. And then it was their turn to write a sentence. So I asked them to write one that would answer the question, "What can you do?" And I noticed that they were more than willing to do that, using words from the "written-vocabulary" list that they were compiling (words like "run," and "hop" and "sing," which they could not spell)

I noticed this same willingness the very next day. And the day after that. And guess what, Harriet? Since we were adding three new words to our list every day (it was only a half-day kindergarten), having to spell words correctly did not ever become a problem.

Not being able to just invent their own spelling system did not seem to bother these beginning writers and readers, either, and neither did the writing of second drafts (during a separate "editing and illustrating" time). They never complained, anyway. Perhaps they were too busy thinking about the upcoming reward of having an "excellent" sentence to illustrate with drawings or paintings. It's hard to say, really. But I can say that we did this kind of real writing for the rest of the year. (I would dictate models; they would write original sentences based on that model, using new and old spelling words.) And I can say that we did this kind of work day after day, over and over again. And it seemed to keep them focused and busy and satisfied. (They were probably too involved in their work to notice that they were being denied the right to invent their own written language.)

What can I say? We spelled words. We wrote words. We studied words. We read words. And we used our new words in original, correctly-spelled sentences. And then we started reading other people's words and sentences.

That's how we did things back then. (And that's how Riggs teachers still do them.) We didn't just pretend to spell; we spelled. We didn't just pretend to write words and sentences; we wrote words and sentences. We worked hard at worthwhile tasks. We had fun. It was good.

Like I said though, I'm no reading specialist.

Tim Shanahan
Sep 14, 2017 12:55 AM


I have no problem with supplementing phonics instruction with morphology instruction as long as it doesn't reduce the amount of phonics appreciably. I think there are many ways that teachers can and do "sweeten" the instruction. Certainly, the empirical research studies that have been done in this area with primary and preschool children acknowledged that and provided the morphology instruction in the context of lots of phonics. (Unfortunately, as you can see in some of the comments here--and in what I was getting a couple of weeks ago on Twitter--are statements that seemingly don't recognize that or don't want to recognize it). I think that is fine.

I also have no problem with somebody developing a program of morphology instruction with the appropriate phonological/orthographic teaching embedded within that. As long as the creators of that are willing to evaluate its actual effectiveness before telling everyone that is how you need to teach those skills. There are three possibilties for that kind of evaluation: (1) we might find that this early morphological approach performs better than traditional phonics instruction, in which case, it should become the new state of the art in the field; (2) it could turn out to be as good as phonics, but no better-- because the current system while imperfect may be as good as it needs to be to accomplish our learning goals--or perhaps that new scheme will turn out to be more flawed than assumed and may need to be improved upon to make it work better; or (3) it may be surprising, but it could even work less well than what we have--not the first time that has happened with instructional approaches created by linguists. I'm open to any of those outcomes. I'm surprised that so many folks who have written in here are not.

Sep 15, 2017 02:15 PM

Bravo Stephanie Rouston. You hit the nail on the head. Phonics teaches kids how to pretend to spell. Teaching actual phonology along with morphology teaches actual spelling. Real Spelling, if you will. We don't need research to see the evidence of that.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 15, 2017 02:41 PM

Stephanie, it's been three years since I taught kindergarten, and I can still read those words because for the most part they are "phonetically appropriate" (see my Adams quote below). I particularly like "mayk" since we had explored "ay" in the words "play" and "day" but had not covered "a_e", and I also like "enee" since we regularly wrote the word "see" but hadn't discussed words ending in "y" with the /ee/ sound. Marilyn Adams (Beginning to Read, 1990), wrote in the National Research Council's Report, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children:

"The process of inventing spellings is essentially a process of phonics. Not surprisingly, then, the phonetic appropriateness of prereaders' invented spellings is found to be predicted by their level of phonemic awareness and to predict their later success in learning to read words. The evidence that invented spelling activity simultaneously develops phonemic awareness and promotes understanding of the alphabetic principle is extremely promising, especially in view of the difficulty with which children are found to acquire these insights through other methods of teaching.

As Tim outlines above, if there is a morphological method that is empirically evaluated and proven to be effective, "it should become the new state of the art in the field". Until then . . .

Harriett Janetos
Sep 15, 2017 02:45 PM

Peter, I very much appreciated watching the videos you sent. You are a charismatic teacher--an asset in any classroom. And these videos certainly helped clarify the discussion for me. First, I would call Skot's lesson a phonics lesson. This is what I do with one big exception. Because my struggling readers take longer to recognize digraphs and trigraphs, instead of spelling out words using letter names, they "map" the sounds (say the sounds as they write them) on their white boards: /h/ /igh/ /l/ /igh/ /t/ in order to help them retain in memory the sound/spelling connection. Although you say you presented "does" to a "young classroom" the level of interaction and discussion regarding "do" and its relatives sounded like something better suited to third grade than first grade, so the question remains regarding the extent of morphological instruction that would benefit the beginning reader. Thanks again for sending these links.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 15, 2017 08:36 PM

Hi Tim,

Thank you for taking the time to correct my mistake. Now that I know I was wrong about your position on morphology instruction in the primary classroom, I will stop thinking that you are opposed to it no matter what. Hooray.

It’s good to know that you don’t have a problem with those of us who choose to help learners see that “CAT represents both phonology and semantics” and “CAT is both a word and a morpheme” (as Seidenberg noted). I’m glad you can see a legitimate place for working with such elementary principles.

“Morphemes such as CAT or -LY make similar phonological and semantic contributions to the words in which they occur,” says Seidenberg. And he insists that it is important for children to know such things. How can we argue, right? Who could be AGAINST teaching such truths to beginning readers? And how can one say that children should NOT learn that morphemes are the building blocks of words? Surely it is helpful to know that CATS is not a whole new item in the universe but simply CAT + S.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for correcting my error, and I wanted to say that I’m glad to know that you actually DO see a place for this kind of elementary vocabulary work in the primary classroom. Won’t it be a great day in America when our colleges of education are consistently providing us with the content knowledge to do it?

Right now most of us are pretty ignorant about such things, as you know. And not knowing much about the structure of written English means that we can’t really help our students as much as we’d like to. Shoot, Tim, many of us can’t even tell a morpheme from a grapheme, a phoneme from a phone, or a base from a root. But what if we could?

I mean, what if our colleges of education began to follow Seidenberg’s recommendations for teacher preparation by providing us with required course in linguistics? What if we entered the profession equipped to answer children’s questions about written English?

Wouldn’t it be a great day in America if we didn’t have to respond to children’s inquiries by saying “English makes no sense” (a falsifiable and soul-numbing assertion)? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could respond with either “____” (a true and useful thing about written English) or “let’s find out” (a gracious invitation to inquire, to investigate, to quest)?

Right now though, most of us can’t do that. Not even close. Right now we don’t have enough knowledge about the English writing system to make it happen. We’re not regularly taking linguistic courses before entering our profession, for starters. We’re basically working in the dark.

It’s unfortunate, isn’t it? I think so. And it seems to me that we need to fix it by reforming our colleges of education so that they regularly provide us with high-quality instruction, giving us the linguistic tools and information that we need to take into our classrooms.

But enough of all this. Phonics and morphology instruction don’t have to be mutually exclusive in a primary classroom, as Seidenberg noted, and I’m relieved to find out that you technically agree with this.

We can teach both. We can teach children about phonemes, graphemes, AND morphemes (AND we can tell them the truth about the relationship between these things). We can help learners practice grapheme-phoneme correspondences AND help them study morphemes. Those us of us who wish to empower students can even help them engage in the scientific investigation of their own language, showing them how to dive deeply into word structures so they can inquire into such things on their own.

As intelligent human beings, we can organize our work day to make sure that all of these things happen in a way that allows us to follow the research, too. We can “teach phonics skills” to beginners AND give them the vocabulary-building skills and learning tools that will enable them to understand the structure of written words. Some say we should.

Thank you for the conversation.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 16, 2017 02:17 PM

Stephanie Ruston,
I see you as insisting that your view is correct-it isn`t.It`s totally wrong.
Read all of Dr. Lyon`s stuff on line-it`s still ALL there...
How many sounds do you hear in the word /c/a/t/?
Let me show you what those sounds look like-
put them on top of the segments,use tiles...or I use magnets...I use post it notes after with the sounds printed on them.
Read the word..explain it to him of he doesn`t know it..
Take away the /c/put in the sound/p/read the about the word...pat
take away /a/put in the sound/e/,read the word-talk about the

I wrote this quickly as I am in a rush,please excuse my typos and lack of proper grammatical structure.

I like to be blunt for the sake of kids and their dear teachers who are completely on the whole untrained!

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 16, 2017 09:55 PM

Hi Jo-Anne,

Thank you for trying to help me fix my erroneous view. Will you please tell me what it is? What are you seeing here? What view are we talking? I have many. What is the error? You don't say.

I have no problem with your bluntness (or business) but what are you trying to tell me? That's what I don't get. Your example is . . . interesting, but can you tell me how it addresses my alleged mistake? You finished by saying you were being blunt "for the sake of kids and their dear teachers who are completely untrained." That sounds ominous. Is their well-being somehow being threatened by my view? If so, let us make haste to correct it. Details, please. Tell me about my erroneous view and the totality of its wrongness and harmfulness. Also, can you please tell me what I should be looking for as I reread all of Reid Lyon's work? That's a big assignment, as you know. How will it help me fix my error?

Peter Bowers
Sep 17, 2017 03:47 AM


Thanks for following up by watching the the videos I linked, and commenting on them.

Just a couple of quick responses on some of your comments.

You wrote, "First, I would call Skot's lesson a phonics lesson. This is what I do with one big exception."

(For those who didn't see the discussion Harriett and I have been having, or have yet to watch this video, you can see it at this link:

I totally understand why people look at this lesson and see it as a phonics lesson. There is are a number of reasons, however, why I make a clear distinction between what Skot did in that lesson and what a teacher would do based on any phonics research or resources I have every seen. I will get to the big exception you see in a moment, but I will focus on another first.

Scott is directing children attention explicitly to grapheme-phoneme correspondences. In that regard, it can appear like "phonics instruction" because phonics certainly does that too. This is one of the points that I think that has been missed in some the wider discussion in this thread. There should be no surprise that teachers working with structured word inquiry (SWI) treat explicit instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences as a NECESSARY component of SWI. Orthographic phonology (the system by which phonology is represented in the orthography system) is an essential feature of how English spelling works. SWI is the application of scientific inquiry in the classroom to help make sense of how spelling works. Therefore -- accurate, explicit instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences is a essential to any instruction that could claim to be SWI.

But there is something that Scott does that makes this "phonological instruction" not "phonics instruction". All of the grapheme-phoneme correspondences he teachers are addressed within the context of morphological structure. His grade one students identify grapheme within the written morphological structure of the words they study with the help of word sums.

This is essential to any instruction that claims to teach how grapheme-phoneme correspondences work because a non-negotiable fact about grapheme-phoneme correspondences in English is that they ONLY occur within morphemes. Digraphs and trigraphs never cross morphemic boundaries. Thus to teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences in an SWI context, the teacher at least, needs to be aware of the morphological context of any word they are addressing, and usually that context will be made explicit to the student. Imagine that the word "react" or "hothouse" happened to be in the story the kids were studying. It would be totally logical for the student to think they saw an "ea" digraph in "react" or a "th" digraph in "hothouse". And that initial hypothesis would be a perfect opportunity to help the student start to see the interrelation of phonology and morphology. With the word sum expectation in place, the structure "re + act" and "hot + house" would help the student understand why they had to reject their hypothesis and realize that just because the see a sequence of letters that can be used for a grapheme doesn't mean that they represent a grapheme in that word. And without that morphological structure, the mistaking of those graphemes would facilitate misreading. It doesn't actually matter if such a case occurred in this particular lesson. The point is these students are establishing the understanding of morphological structure with word sums, and how graphemes occur within written morphemes (between the plus signs in a word sum). By making this standard practice, when such cases arise (and I often plant such words on purpose) they already have the concept of morphological structure with vocabulary like "base" "prefix" "suffix" "word sums" etc. well in mind. With that background established the ability for kids to make sense of the subtle difference between the surface similarity of a pair of words like "react" and "reach" but the utter lack totally different structure of these words a rich opportunity for systemic understanding of the system.

I know that's a lot of information. But this is one of the reasons that it is difficult for those who have not spent time with SWI in classrooms to see the crucial differences between phonics instruction and the phonological instruction that is inherent to SWI.

On the other hand, perhaps those who have been concerned that those teaching SWI may be causing harm by not teaching enough phonics may feel less concern by seeing how explicit phonological instruction is in SWI -- and that it kind of looks like phonics at times. However, until one understands that phonological instruction in SWI and phonics instruction may have some surface similarities, but that they are actually quite different, it is clear that they have not yet had enough time with SWI to understand what it is. I'm hoping our dialogue here is helping clarify that point. (And by the way -- I've only addressed one difference that comes from studying graphemes within the context of morphological word sums here. There is much more!)

Continued in next comment...

Peter Bowers
Sep 17, 2017 03:50 AM

Part 2 (continued from previous comment)

The exception that you saw between how you teach phonics and what you saw Scott do was this...

Because my struggling readers take longer to recognize digraphs and trigraphs, instead of spelling out words using letter names, they "map" the sounds (say the sounds as they write them) on their white boards: /h/ /igh/ /l/ /igh/ /t/ in order to help them retain in memory the sound/spelling connection.

You are absolutely right that this practice is completely different from SWI instruction. With the emphasis on keeping to a research-base for instructional decisions in this discussion thread, I'd like to start by pointing out that I know of zero research evidence that compares your announcing of phonemes while writing graphemes, to the way I have kids name the graphemes (announce the letter names that comprise graphemes in groups) as they write them. Thus neither approach can claim to have more direct research basis. Thus, the argument for using one approach or the other can only be based on theory and potentially related research. I'm totally fine with that! When we don't yet have explicit research to support an instructional idea we should base decisions on well-thought out theory.

For me the process of spelling out graphemes and orthographic markers in the base either while looking at a word, or in conjunction with "writing-out-loud" has become an absolutely essential aspect of my instruction. Let me lay out some of my reasoning. You say that "my struggling readers take longer to recognize digraphs and trigraphs". My experience is that the process of recognizing digraphs and trigraphs is greatly supported by the practice of naming them by their letter names in groups by "spelling out graphemes" and even more my integrating that naming of graphemes combined with the motor memory of writing them. I call that second process "writing-out loud". We do this all over the place. In lessons on script, we don't just practice letter formation, we practice the mortor-memory of the pathways of writing letters combined with naming those letter sequences in graphemes (and also morphemes). So in a script lesson, young children would practice the letter pathways for digraphs such as "ch" "th" "ck" " kn" "ea" "ee" and trigraphs such as "igh" "ugh" and "tch". But these would not just be randomly chosen. They would come out of words children encounter like we see in Skot's lesson. (They would also practice script in morphemes such as "ing" "ly" "ure" "ment" "pre" "un" -- whatever morphemes have been recently encountered in meaningful contexts). We do know that motor memory is a very strong memory root. If children are constantly encountering teachers spelling out graphemes (and morphemes) in letter groups when the spell words, we are planting seeds for mental representations for those structures. When the kids then do that same thing themselves and combine it with the motor memory of writing out those letters in groups, I argue that I am facilitating their ability to recognize those structures during the process of reading (and writing). Further, I see no reduction in the "mapping" of these written units to the phonemes. When a teacher or student works to identify the graphemes in a base, the only way to do that is through phonemic analysis. So if I'm addressing the spelling of the word "heal" -- and I can do this with the kids looking directly at the spelling of the word. I might start by spelling it out-loud "h ea l" while giving one tap for each grapheme. I get the kids to announce and tap it like me. I could say something like "What do you feel at the beginning of "heal". To "have that feeling" we have to announce that /h/ phoneme. Once the student (or class) does that, we can say, and how to we write the /h/ in "heal"? And then we write and/or announce the grapheme "h". I can then ask what they feel at the end of saying "heal" and now we feel that /l phoneme, and say how do we write that phoneme in the word "heal"? and now we write and announce "l". I might ask students to "say 'heal' with out the /h/, and then what sounds like "eel" without the /l/ until we get to that vowel phoneme that sounds like the letter "e". Now I can say, "how do we write that phoneme in the word "heal"? Since the kids can only see the "ea" left they see that we must write that /i?/ with an "ea".

Peter Bowers
Sep 17, 2017 03:51 AM

Part 3 and final part of this long comment to Harriett!

I would argue that this process (and there are a million variations) is a great way to help students have quick access to graphemes when they read and write. And It is done by linking any grapheme to a phoneme in a specific word. A very likely next step if I were working on the word "heal" would be to construct a word sum on the board and ask, and what word would I get if I added a "-th" suffix to the base "h ea l" (I only spell morphemes in isolation, never pronounce them)? The result would look like this:

heal + th ? health

And now we see the word "health" and maybe use both in a sentence, like "If I am in good health, that cut should heal quickly."

Now we get to notice the way that "ea" digraph can represent the /i?/ and the /?/ phoneme. I could make a grapheme-phoneme diagram and show why it is useful that the "ea" can write both phonemes so that the meaning connections in these words can be marked by the same spelling. It's fun to put the word "heel" next to "heal" and see that we couldn't use the "double e digraph" for "I want to 'heal' quickly" because that spelling could not represent the pronunciation of the base in "health". I can also see that we need more than one way to write phonemes, otherwise it would be confusing to have homophones like "heal" and "heel" would be written the same. We can use the "double e" in "heel" because no word built on that base uses any different pronunciation.

Again - phonology within a morphological context.

I know these are very long comments. The thing is understanding the details of what is involved in this kind of instruction is not something that is easily picked up in a short comment. Even writing this much in a comment is dangerous because I am missing so much. If you want to look more at this process of "spelling-out loud" you can see a good deal about it at this link:

In terms of some of the research basis that provides a basis for the theory behind this practice, I highly recommend looking into cognitive load theory. I have posted a paper I wrote during my PhD (I've never tried to publish it) that I think does a good job of describing what cognitive load theory is, and how many aspects of SWI instruction -- and very specifically this "writing out loud" of graphemes and morphemes" is completely in-line with the recommendations from this very well-established and non-controversial theory of learning. You can find that paper here:

Finally (for now!) there is another theoretical basis that ties all of these things together that is in a chapter that I wrote with my supervisor John Kirby (Kirby & Bowers, 2017). In the most recent WordWorks Newsletter I described this chapter. I'll just paste what I wrote in that Newsletter here as it helps share a theoretical basis for this central idea of SWI that instruction should address not just the individual aspects of orthography, but their interrelation.

Here is the title of the chapter and book information:

“Morphological instruction and literacy: Binding phonological, orthographic, and semantic features of words” in a new book Theories of Reading Development edited by Kate Cain, Donald Compton and Rauno Parrila.

Here is a description of that chapter relevant to this discussion.

Our chapter is in the final section on instruction and intervention. The chapter fits within the research on morphological instruction. However, we put forward our “binding agent theory of morphology” that grows from the fact that morphology is unique in how it links semantics, orthography, and phonology to each other. This binding agent theory is exactly in line with SWI’s emphasis on the interrelations of morphology, phonology, orthography and meaning. SWI which is not morphological instruction; it instruction about how our orthography works. We explain how our theory builds on Perfetti’s “lexical quality
hypothesis” (2007), Cognitive Load Theory (Schnotz, & Kürschner, 2007)2 and the concept of a “lexical spelling (Carol Chomsky, 1970). We show how matrices and word sums help teachers and learners understand the interrelation of these linguistic features of words. For those interested in the research basis for SWI, these articles in top research sources offer a place to start looking.

I really appreciate this dialogue with you Harriett. It is helping me articulate many of the subtle features of SWI that are not easy to uncover in a blog comment string like this. I hope you and others are finding it useful too.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 17, 2017 06:22 AM

Peter, there is a lot to read and digest--which will take time. But I did want to give you a few sources for why I have kids say the phoneme while writing the grapheme.

Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene states in Reading in the Brain that "letter names cannot be assembled during reading--the hookup only concerns phonemes. But phonemes are rather abstract and covert speech units. A true mental revolution will have to take place before the child finds out that speech can be broken down into phonemes." He states that reading instruction "must aim to lay down an efficient neuronal hierarchy so that a child can recognize letters and graphemes and easily turn them into speech sounds . . . Considerable research . . . converges on the fact that grapheme-phoneme conversion radically transforms the child's brain and the way in which it processes speech sounds. This process whereby written words are converted into strings of phonemes must be taught explicitly."

And Linea Ehri in her Scientific Studies in Reading article "Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning" says that "once students become literate, superior ability to connect spellings to pronunciations in memory explains why good readers build larger vocabularies than poor readers." I have my students say the sound as they write the sound in order to "connect spellings to pronunciations in memory" without having the sounds in the letter names interfere with that process.

Lastly, I don't have the citation at hand, but Diane McGuinness in Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading discourages the voicing of letter names. I was trained in her program, Phono-Graphix, and I do find that avoiding letter names helps my struggling readers to focus on phonemes and what they look like.

I look forward to reading the rest of your posts.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 17, 2017 01:42 PM

Speech sounds-graphemes and phonemes and articulation give us the deep orthography we need to teach kids to read and spell.They start reading ,spelling and writing.They then get to enjoy"whole language".

Just google Reid Lyon-phonemic awareness
I was at the IDA 50th anniversary-Reid spoke of the importance of linguistic gymnastics and phonemic awareness as the greatest breakthrough in reading of the 21st century.
Dr. David Kilpatrick has some important work and advice on orthographic mapping,I learned a lot from his book and agree with his view.
I`m Orton G trained and have added the new research on PA &Phonological awareness training to the language triangle delivery framework.
In my reading clinic where I developed the teacher training system,I saw that teachers are unprepared,hell,we had been to several and had a suitcase of assessments with my own child,then bang-the Gow School did it after 7 years and dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars,we had our breakthrough.Once you learn to read,spell and write your whole world changes.It`s unnecessary to put kids through this hell but we do it daily and those who try to contribute are turnedinto victims of competing research.
I was fully unprepared for the verocity of the competing opinions.
Wow,what a disgusting scene!

Harriett Janetos
Sep 17, 2017 03:40 PM

In addition to Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading (2004), Diane McGuinness has written Language Development and Learning to Read: The Scientific Study of How Language Development Affects Reading Skill (2005), and she writes: "No reading method should ever teach children to read whole words, syllables, or syllable parts like 'rimes'. These are the wrong sensory units for our writing system."

Once again, my interest in this discussion is determining the best "reading method" for teaching K-2 readers, not children who can already read.

Sep 17, 2017 08:51 PM

Jo-Anne Gross 'verocity' is not a word.

I suspect you meant 'ferocity' but 'veracity' would probably be more accurate when referring to my comments and those of my colleagues.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 17, 2017 09:56 PM

Lex,I did mean veracity-Ferocity is certainly true as well.

Skot Caldwell
Sep 18, 2017 12:28 AM

Part 1
Wow. I am very late to this discussion, though I’ve been following with appreciative interest. Dr. Shanahan, I appreciate you providing this forum and very much appreciate you seeming to adjust/clarify your position along the way.

I feel that the misapprehension from the get-go here is that proponents of Structured Word Inquiry--who ARE very much saying that morphology is vital in even the earliest grades—are somehow against teaching phonology. Dr. Shanahan, you say you “have no problem with supplementing phonics instruction with morphology instruction as long as it doesn't reduce the amount of phonics appreciably.” I hope you can see that nobody is proposing avoiding “phonology” or any other aspect of the language system that is TRUE. But can we see that “Phonics™” is different from actual “phonology”? People, if we don’t understand that, we’re very much stuck standing on opposite sides of an abyss (that a lot of kids are falling in). The fact is, phonology, morphology and etymology are interwoven aspects of our writing system and they cannot be separated in our instruction. (Or, they can, but a whole lot gets missed).

So, I've been teaching for 20 years, and have been working with Structured Word Inquiry for more than 10. The bulk of my teaching has been with Junior students--ages 10-12--but I also spent several years teaching children from ages 5 to 8—including a year teaching in England, where Phonics Rules (pun intended). I mention this because, though it doesn’t count as empirical research, it does give my perspective a span of about 500 children.

What I have consistently seen at the Junior level is that introducing morphology and etymology is like giving them a glass of water after they've been wandering the desert for years. Even those children who are competent readers and writers are thrilled and relieved by the introduction of morphology, etymology and thorough phonology, for even these children have had to rely on memorization to spell many words. (Even the children who are competent believe the system is crazy—I was no different, as a student and later as a teacher--and herein is the fundamental criticism of Phonics). And for those who by Grade 5 still struggle with reading and writing, it has been clear that Phonics has failed them. I've seen them being given the same old flash cards for years--YEARS!--I've heard them try to “sound out” words that WILL NOT be sounded out! Why leave them in the dark for so long? Last year, I worked with a Grade 5 student who couldn’t read much, and believed he was stupid, which he most certainly was not! Because he was so smart, gaining an understanding of how to analyze words at a morphological level was an incredibly effective tool for him and helped his reading make leaps! Why had we been hiding this from him?

Skot Caldwell
Sep 18, 2017 12:30 AM

Part 2

When I was transferred to Grade One, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work from the beginning, to not have to spend a bunch of the year having to un-teach a bunch of falsehoods. Having been handed a big list of “Grade One Sight Words” that the children were going to need to gain early fluency in reading, Phonics then told me that a lot of them were “tricky” or “misbehaving”: “have”, “does”, “was”, “one”, “two” and so on. The Internet and our schools are crowded with resources from the Phonics Industry that espouse such a view.

Phonics wants children to have an understanding of sound representation in English, and this is an admirable and appropriate goal. Teaching grapheme/phoneme correspondence is vital! But Phonics works from the Alphabetic Principle of “letter/sound” correspondence and THAT ISN’T HOW ENGLISH WORKS.

And because this quickly falls apart when “sound it out” is the goal, Phonics begins to present The Tricky Words. The notion that so many words are somehow irregular or out to trick us makes the system seem at best mystifying and at worst malevolent. For children like I was, who are able to navigate this bewildering non-system by simply memorizing lists of words, they get by—though they have not much faith in the language they are working with. For others, reading and writing become a source of mystery, shame and often anger. Of course they avoid it!

But I never said it: I never said to these dear, little trusting faces that their Language was full of tricks and traps and inexplicabilities. Instead, I presented the Language as COMPLEX but UNDERSTANDABLE and said that we were going to discover its order together, as detectives, as Scientists. And the Sight Word list became our platform for learning linguistically-accurate concepts of Morphology, Etymology and Phonology. And as Scientists, we used inquiry to form hypotheses, gather data, test our ideas, make discoveries, use appropriate terminology (Pete was correct above when he said I quickly moved from “letter team” to “grapheme”, “digraph” and so on, to everyone’s benefit) and utter scientific rigour. The Unexplained would never be deemed The Inexplicable, but was in fact seen as an opportunity to learn further.

And it worked, I swear it worked! We studied REAL phonology—yes, based upon real linguistic principles—and we studied morphology and we studied etymology. In context, from the words we encountered in our reading (with some particular emphasis given to those high frequency words).

Skot Caldwell
Sep 18, 2017 12:31 AM

Teaching from complexity is not frightening to students because the concepts we explore are constantly reinforced in subsequent experience. When we tell them a letter “says” this one thing so as not to overwhelm them, we leave them instead confused by what they can clearly see. Phonics lets these be called “tricky” or tells students “you’re not ready.” My eight-year-old strugglers in the UK didn’t even know the names in the letters! They’d been limited to learning them by “sound”!!! So when I wrote the word up on the board and asked a child what I thought would be the easy task of spelling out the word that was in front of her, she said “b- ?- ?”. (Did that work? Not sure if the IPA symbols will work here. She identified the letter “e” as the sound for “short e”—get it?) Someone had decided she “wasn’t ready” for long vowels and had so hammered the short vowel sound that she was baffled by my asking her to name the letters. This was NOT an anomaly. (The UK “Phonics Inspectors”—yes, they exist--would have been thrilled, I guess). Instead of telling students “S says /s/” the subtle shift to “One of the phonemes that S can represent is…” opens the door to possibility instead of closing that grapheme off for some artificial notion that students “aren’t ready yet”. (Phonics proponents use that term over and over—no long vowels until they “master” their short vowels; no morphology until…when? Grade Three? Grade Four? Until they have mastered all their long vowels?).

Let’s take the word “give”. Let’s imagine it is the very first word we begin the Grade One year with. Well, there is a lot to discuss there! It is evidence that “i” can represent the phoneme /I/. We can see that there is a “v” and explore the phoneme it represents, as well as exploring the physical relationship between the formation of that voiced phoneme and the unvoiced /f/, which is going to be really handy in seeing the regular relationship between the “f” and “v” graphemes. Hmmm, there is an “e” there—why? Phonics responds with silence or admonishing fear. Real phonology can introduce the pattern that complete English words don’t end in “v” and the concept of a marker letter in that a final non-syllabic “e”. (Instead of crying out that the word is misbehaving). This will soon be both reinforced and very handy in grasping another word on the list--“have”—and later “love” when we are writing Valentines cards. We can then (or might have already done) explore all the morphological relatives of “give”, introducing suffixing and their patterns—“give + ing”, “give + en”, etc. Now we are into patterns of suffixing that will be very useful when we explore “be + en”, “have + ing” and others. What about “even”? Is that an “-en” suffix too? Both morphology and etymology will help us here, as well as our understanding of that relationship between “f” and “v”. It’s all completely accessible and connected.
Ask little ones to spell “going” by sounding it out and you will get the very common spelling error “gowin”. Ask them to work it out morphologically—“What is the base? What is the suffix?”—and presto. I swear.

Here’s something that occurred to me like a brick to the head in my first year teaching Grade One: STUDENTS ALREADY HAVE A GRASP OF MORPHOLOGY before they even arrive at school! They use it pretty effectively in their oral language! Even their mistakes—“runned”—are evidence that they understand the system. So they are both comfortable and appreciative when we spend time showing them how this is represented in writing. Why pretend they aren’t ready for it? Yet after three years in Grade One, my phonics-driven administrators were still telling me, “what you are doing is great [though they’d never bothered to see it] but it really belongs in Grade Four.” Grade Four!!!

Of course some students from my Grade One classes went further and some were more challenged by all of it. But I never told any of them something that wasn’t true, and instead of only having the arrow of “sound” in their quiver they also had morphology and etymology.

One of my Grade Ones was removed from my class three times a week for reading remediation. Three years later, I heard our Phonics-committed reading support teacher shout "NO!" when the child responded with a soft instead of hard sound to the “G” flashcard he’d held up. Then he caught himself (I can’t be sure that it was because I was nearby, wincing). “Well, yes, it can say that, but we’re not doing that sound today.” Good grief. Three years of flashcards and he was still being told HE wasn’t ready instead of somebody thinking maybe he deserves something else because sound-letter correspondence still isn’t working. Why is this kid STILL waiting?

Instead, let’s teach ALL of it! Morphology, etymology AND (real) phonology. Correctly, fully, with confidence and faith that there is an understanding to be had; confidence and faith that our students are smart enough to handle and deserve the full truth.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 18, 2017 01:01 AM

Not ONE person here has even mentioned Phonics only!
We have all discussed the need for speech sounds-different than phonics.
I`ve tested many kids who have had phonics for years and can`t read by grade 3.

Phoneme grapheme and grapheme phoneme has fixed all that as has the orthographic mapping and spelling ideas to anchor the sounds in long term memory.

Let`s look at simple examples-
"ple" is the L syllable in the 6 kinds of syllables-once read-discuss, discuss etc..
Graph/eme-graph-the ph =f and eme-a syllable type-the e makes the vowel say it`s name.
Once read,discuss.

Chairman-ch+air=chair(r controlled syll/man,a Closed syllable-together chairman,then discuss.
Photography-pho-open syllable-tog-closed syllable-raph-closed syllable-when y=long vowel e-the long vowel sound the syllable is Open
Once he reads the word,we discuss meaning and derivatives,make sentences etc..

Repeated orthographic reading-leads to fluency.
Discussion,& main idea questioning leads to increased comprehension.

The research has led us to these ideas.
The 44 speech sounds-different than phonics only.

Everyone here has discussed that.

Skot Caldwell
Sep 18, 2017 01:02 AM

Sorry, that was long. In the little story from the UK, I must have used angle brackets--the word was "bee".

Sep 18, 2017 02:47 AM

Phonics by definition misrepresents the writing system to children by assuming phonological primacy.

Jo-Anne, what are the "44 phonemes" of English? Whose English?

You keep assuming that none of us knows how phonics works. Yes, actually, we do. And we reject it because it obscures the facts of the writing system.

I've read all your heroes. Reid Lyon. Louisa Moats. I have called out the errors in their work time and again.

For example, Louisa thinks there is an 'ie digraph' in conscience. There isn't. She write that engender and enchant are "Anglo-Saxon," but they're French.

Ken Pugh thinks "pint" is tricky because he can't explain it in phonics. I can explain it: there's no other coherent spelling for that word. Phonics can't explain that.

But really, please quit trying to explain phonics to all of us. We already get it. We get it so well we can see exactly why it's so wrong.

Tim Shanahan
Sep 18, 2017 03:28 AM

I still don't understand why the morphology proponents don't think their ideas should undergo the same empirical test that other components of reading have undergone--that is trying their ideas out under controlled conditions to see if there is a clear learning payoff from their ideas. It's good to believe in your ideas, but if it continues to just be beliefs (admittedly strongly believed beliefs), they belong in church rather than schools. The two studies that have been done so far with primary kids are very weak evidence of the effectiveness of these insights.

Sep 18, 2017 03:50 AM

No one is talking about beliefs. The language works a certain way and there's ample evidence for that. It's not the job of linguists and parents and teachers to test morphological instruction. It's the job of researchers, but most researchers are still clinging to phonics and standing around looking at linguists and teachers asking them where the research is.

If teaching seven-year-olds that the Earth is flat would somehow improve their performance on science tests, it would still be wrong to teach them that lie.

No one is saying not to teach phonology. We're just pointing out that phonics teaches phonology wrong.

Skot Caldwell
Sep 18, 2017 11:15 AM

Tim, I'm all for somebody doing empirical tests. I very much hope that you or your colleagues will do them! I have to be honest though: the number of things that have come my way in language instruction or math instruction that are supposedly backed by scholarly research but are either conflicting or still don't seem effective in practice makes me worry some about the nature of the research. But sure, bring it on.

To be clear: I'm not saying that Phonics hasn't benefitted some students immensely. I spoke to a friend last week who was deeply thankful for how a Phonics-based (O-G—kind of modified Phonics, right?) tutor had helped her awesome kid work through severe challenges with reading and writing. I'm just saying that: I know there are many struggling kids it hasn't benefitted at all and they are not offered anything else (and told there’s something wrong with them); that even if it is a superior system of instruction than what it replaced, it remains flawed; that these flaws are based on a fundamental misrepresentation of how the writing system works; and that adding elements of morphology and etymology in early instruction seems to make sense to students.

You talk about Church. As far as I can tell, Phonics asks kids to simply accept what it tells them: these words are spelled according to The Rules of Sound; these words Don't Fit, and are simply part of The Mystery. I'm sorry if I sound cheeky; I really don't mean to be rude. I just don’t know how Phonics proponents can continue to be satisfied with asking kids to believe that a whole swath of words simply don’t make sense.

What SWI offered was a means to dig deeper and to say, “Yes, this can be explained, let’s go and find out.” In the end, that has let us not only understand our written system better, it has made us fundamentally better learners. (I keep telling people that all my teaching has improved as a result of studying spelling). My students ask questions, probe deeply, do not accept hypotheses without scrutiny. I respect that you are skeptical; like my students, I invite you to dig deeper, to question, to see what where this can go.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 18, 2017 08:10 PM

I like the way Peter states the common ground we stand on: "There should be no surprise that teachers working with structured word inquiry (SWI) treat explicit instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences as a NECESSARY component of SWI. Orthographic phonology (the system by which phonology is represented in the orthography system) is an essential feature of how English spelling works. SWI is the application of scientific inquiry in the classroom to help make sense of how spelling works. Therefore -- accurate, explicit instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences is as essential to any instruction that could claim to be SWI."

Sep 19, 2017 12:12 AM

Yes, Harriet, and "accurate, explicit instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences is as essential to any instruction" -- which rules out phonics. Because phonics is broadly inaccurate about grapheme-phoneme correspondence, which is what we have been saying all along.

Jo-Anne offers "/c/ /a/ /t/" but there is no */c/ phoneme in English. There's a /k/. Also, there's no [t] pronounced in the word 'catty' -- there's a flap, which might make some child spell it *caddy or *cady. This is just one example of how grossly phonics misapprehends how phonology does and does not work.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 19, 2017 12:55 AM

Lex,you are so wrong,but you don`t realize it.
All the /c/ sound.

Scott Mills
Sep 19, 2017 01:31 AM

Dr. Shanahan, do you think it is important for teachers to know fact from fiction? Should a teacher be required to know that there is no */c/ phoneme? You wrote, "Does it matter when you're 7?" Does it matter for those instructing those 7 year olds?

Sep 19, 2017 02:10 AM

Oh, Dr. Shanahan if you let this */c/ malarkey fly then we will all know who you really are.

Jo-Anne, bless your heart. In reality, the graphemes c, k, ck, ch, and qu(e) spell /k/. So does cch, as in zucchini and saccharin.

A /c/ phoneme is what is pronounced at the end of 'ich' and 'dich' in German. But not in English.

Jo-Anne, one of us has published the most comprehensive analysis of graphemes in English words in print. And it wasn't you. If you'd like to get a copy, just ask and I'll send you a link.

But really, Dr. Shanahan, you will delete my factual comments because they hurt your feelings, but you will let these kinds of totally object falsehoods stay on your blog? Really? Whom does that help?

What service is Jo-Anne doing, and for whom, by misteaching children English phonology? Jo-Anne clearly does not understand the difference between a grapheme and a phoneme: such is the ignorance ripple of phonics.

Sep 19, 2017 02:12 AM

Also I'm still waiting for someone to tell me WHAT the "44 phonemes" of English are so I can poke holes in that nonsense too.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 19, 2017 02:39 AM

That info came from the the NICHD,Torgesen study lab,we all use it and our kids are thriving.Naturally,we check to see if they have the deficit.
Or take it up with Fletcher or Foorman,I can hardly believe your audacity.

Sep 19, 2017 02:52 AM

Since audacity means "courage" or "boldness," I'll take that as a compliment.

I'd rather be brave than grossly misinformed. I don't care if God himself said that /c/ is a phoneme in English. He'd still be wrong.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 19, 2017 02:53 AM

I am extremely aware of grapheme phoneme correspondence-the grapheme is the picture of the phoneme-what you are not aware of with your examples are the 6 syllable rules and the way a short vowel in the word tennis and muffin requires the doubling-those are rules predicated on surrounding sounds-poodle-puddle-apple-rifle,they are not "sound" driven.
We all know that 90 percent of the English language fits perfectly and English is more decodable than we ever thought.
Why don`t you read Reid`s comments on /c/a/t/?"I consider him the authority on the phoneme /c/ and what about short vowels?
Do you believe in those?

Sep 19, 2017 03:02 AM

Oh Jo-Anne bless your heart. Reid Lyon is not a phoneme expert. ????

So I take it you don't know what the 44 "phonemes" are. Again, one of us has published a comprehensive grapho-phonemic analysis. Hint: it was meeeee.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 19, 2017 03:10 AM

I'm intrigued by the "catty/caddy" example, which has clarified a lot for me. I continue to make a distinction between teaching reading and teaching spelling to beginning readers. If my first graders decoded the word "kitty" by voicing the sounds /k/ /i/ /t/ /ee/ and then blended them together to reveal a word known to them, I would be thrilled. Whether they commonly pronounce or write the word as "kiddy" does not concern me at this beginning phase of reading where I want them to look at graphemes and attach sounds to them in order to read words. They blend these sounds when they read and segment them when they write. And yes, words often reflect local dialects, like the London boy who wrote "hedgehog" as "egog", though that doesn't mean he can't read it. The question remains as to what is best for teaching 5-7 year olds?

Sep 19, 2017 03:18 AM

Jo-Anne I teach a class on syllables. You're welcome to take it free of charge, anytime, so I can help you

Say, what type of syllable is 'pear'? Is it a "vowel team" or an "r-control"? How about "noir" or "flour"?

Asking for a friend.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 19, 2017 03:52 AM

r controlled of course

Sep 19, 2017 04:21 AM

Harriet: "The question remains as to what is best for teaching 5-7 year olds?" My foundational suggestion is that we start by telling them the truth.

I understand that Harriet wants to make a point of what she does as a kindergarten teacher. But I take a long-range view, having taught readers and writers of all ages, literally from birth through octogenarians. When kindergarten teachers misrepresent the language to kindergarteners? I see the effects of that on 4th graders, and 7th graders, and adults who think English is baffling and they have failed at memorizing it. I respect and appreciate that long-time kindergarten teachers really know kindergarteners very well with regard to literacy. I know humans really well with regard to literacy. Just a different perspective, I suppose: are we looking to just survive kindergarten, or are we looking lay a factual, accurate, rational foundation for a lifetime of deep engagement with text, not only as consumers (readers) but as active participants in the cultural dialogue (writers)?

Jo-Anne: Reid Lyon is as wrong as you are when he says that */c/ is a phoneme in English. It'd be /k/. A 'c' is a letter in the alphabet and a grapheme that can spell several different pronunciations in English (cat, cent, cello, ocean...and indict). What makes things factual is not who says them, but rather, whether they're true. And it is just false that English has a */c/ phoneme. I'd refer you, for simplicity's sake, to the Wikipedia page on English phonology, which lists 24 consonants and 24 vowel phonemes in standard American English, and, of course, different vocalic inventories for British RP and for standard Australian pronunciations. I'm no math expert, but I'm pretty sure that's 48. Some linguists have analyses in the low 50s. Others say "40-some." If you want an easy-to-understand resource, I recommend Language Files. But this super-imposed phonics artifice of 44-phonemes-period-end-of-story is just total nonsense.

To wit: how do you pronounce cot and caught? Do they have the same vowel phoneme, or different ones? Not the spelling -- the pronunciation. Same or different? Depends on where you're from. Some people have an /?/ and some people don't. How about whet and wet? For some, those are homophonic; for others, the initial consonant is distinctive. For a Brit, the words 'fort' and 'fought' rhyme. Is that the same phoneme, or different? How do you know? How about "higher" and "hire" -- what are the phonemes in those words, and why are they spelled differently? A phonology is not an exact inventory of phonemes, and that is an example of another big falsehood that phonics relies upon, and shouts repeatedly with such bold confidence and religiosity.

Never ever would I consider that what is "best for teaching" anyone of any age about anything should include falsehoods or misrepresentations, however convenient or expedient for teachers. 5-7 year olds love stories, right? What could be better than the true story of their own writing system? I studied with 7-year-olds just recently the reason that no English word ends in 'j' or 'v', and why there is a relationship between 'y' and 'I'. And they also have improved their reading. So. What is best indeed?

I don't reject phonics because I'm unfamiliar with it. It's not the case that I just haven't met the right phonics explainer yet. On the contrary, most of us working in SWI -- not all, but most -- already understand phonics very, very well. I've studied its claims very, very closely for close to 20 years. I used to believe them too. Until I saw evidence to the contrary.

I have said nothing offensive here, and anyhow, offendedness is neither a virtue nor evidence of anything. Dr. Shanahan, please do not delete my comments. I've heard privately from a lot of people who are upset about the earlier deletions, and people have started screen-shotting them to preserve the information I'm offering, to share elsewhere. Instead of people continuing to monitor my 'tone' and sending me private emails assuming my age and experience and scolding me, how about instead addressing the actual arguments I'm offering?

I didn't say anyone was a horrible person. I just said people are wrong, which is the same thing Jo-Anne is trying to say about me. Unfortunately, Jo-Anne can only quote other wrong people; she can't offer any actual evidence to back up what she's claiming about language. Phonics not only misrepresents the language to teachers and children; it does so with the conviction that it's 100% right. The audacity of nope.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 19, 2017 06:45 AM

I haven't taught octogenarians but I've taught every grade level from kindergarten to AP 12th grade--that's play-dough to Plato--and I've also worked with hundreds of struggling readers in elementary school. I begin the wordwork that's been described in SWI with older children who aren't learning to read but reading to learn. I eagerly await the research that recommends I do otherwise.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 19, 2017 11:43 AM

Like all people who are injurious to proper instruction Lex,you stand alone pretty well on all your theories.
The NICHD was a concerted half a billion dollar multi site study-what I see is you don`t see the difference between a speech sound and phonics so you process the ideas wrongly-look up phoneme and then give it a picture.
"Even sight words are partially decodable"Liinnea Ehri

And,struggling readers don`t know their sounds-90% of the time.

We`ve all taught Lex but it`s important to use tested and proven methods,not insist you`re right.

Sep 19, 2017 02:01 PM

Jo-Anne, I'm not having any methodological arguments. And yes I do insist that I am correct when I say children should not be lied to. Phonics lies to children.

Harriet has made an arbitrary decision to wait until children are older to teach them morphology.

Both of you persist in believing that I'm saying not to teach phonology according to the research. I'm saying Teach phonology but teach it correctly. Phonics teaches it wrong.

Pedagogical research is only one kind of research and its social science, not science. Linguistics is science. Hard science. And it shows us exactly how the writing system works.

You can argue that your methodology has research behind it, but the fact is that the language structure that phonics teaches is false.

I'm not having a methodological argument. I know that dr. Shanahan framed it that way in his blog post, but that's inaccurate. No one instruction word inquiry is arguing about teaching morphology instead of teaching phonology. That is a specious frame for the argument.

We're saying study the language accurately from the beginning, which includes phonology in its proper morphological framework. That's all. You want kids to memorize things. I want them to understand them.

I know which classroom I would want my child in.

Jo-Anne has not offered a single shred of evidence. Quoting what other wrong people have said wrongly isn't evidence of anything.

Jo-Anne haven't answered any of my questions about phonology, like about what the 44 phonemes are or whether caught and cot are homophones. All she does is repeat the party line and scream at me that I'm wrong. I noticed that no one is telling her she's rude or deleting her comments however. So, Tim, I guess it's okay to be "rude" in your blog comments as long as you're rude in favor of phonics.

Also, joann, it's LEX, not Lex. Spelling matters. I wonder if you misspelled your students' names out of carelessness too.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 19, 2017 02:16 PM

Linguistics shows us how the writing system works but neuroscience shows how our reading brains work, and that needs to be taken into consideration.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 19, 2017 04:54 PM

I think Tim's conclusion to his original post is a good one. He writes:

"I hope researchers will continue to propose provocative hypotheses about learning, and that they’ll continue to evaluate these ideas rigorously under a broad array of instructional conditions. And, if they find something that consistently helps kids, then I hope we’ll adopt their ideas. Until then, I won’t be recommending morphology over phonics or other terrific but unproven ideas—no matter how intelligently, reasonably, or vociferously those opinions may be stated."

The Intelligent, reasonable and vociferous opinions expressed over the course of 100 comments have certainly given me a lot to think about, which is always a good thing, but based on all of my previously stated reasons, my emphasis with beginning readers will continue to be to help them recognize grapheme-phoneme relationships. LEX says this decision is arbitrary. I say it's research-based. We'll have to agree to differ.

Sep 19, 2017 09:34 PM

What does neuroscience have to say about morphology in the brain, Harriet?

Not much, because neuroscience has not researched that. Please. It's like losing your keys outside but looking for them inside because the light is better.

Harriet, I will thank you NOT to put words in my mouth. I NEVER said that studying graphemes and phonemes is ARBITRARY. I said that phonics does it wrong by assuming its primacy.

The only way people can respond to my arguments is to (a) delete them, (b) police my 'tone' (though no one does this to Jo-Anne or to Tim) or other ad-hominem attacks (cough cough cult), or (c) put words in my mouth and totally misrepresent what I say.

Harriet and Jo-Anne are welcome to continue to mislead their students and clients about how English works while they wait for the researchers to catch up.

All "sight" words make perfect sense. I offered a beautiful explanation to Tim for 'of' and he responded by telling me that I 'lack chops.'

The student I just studied with this afternoon is in 6th grade and profoundly dyslexic. She understands that there's no *tion suffix, and that a single grapheme can spell multiple phonemes. When our session ended today, she said, "Thanks a lot! I had a great time!"

Of course you can keep doing what you're doing, which is fine. It's not like I'm 3 recruits from a toaster oven. I just like facts and studying real things. I understand that's not for everyone.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 19, 2017 10:44 PM

Dear Harriet,

Please accept my apology for being unclear. I’m not challenging the assertion that invented spelling activity “develops phonemic awareness and promotes understanding of the alphabetic principle in preschool children.” (I’m sure it does.) I’m simply questioning the wisdom of encouraging that kind of writing play in the K-1 phonics classroom. Here’s why I don’t recommend it:

1. I don’t know where you live, but in many of the K-1 classrooms I spend time in one or more of the students live in homes in which Mama and Papa don’t read English. If Johnny goes home and forgets what he pretended to write, what happens next? Or what happens when Johnny, who thinks he spelled the word correctly, tries to help Mama and Papa by teaching them to read his invented words? I wonder about such scenarios. Committed to not fostering circles of ignorance, I work hard to send home only real spellings along with a student who can explain them.

2. Since Johnny may live with or near folks who don’t express themselves without teasing, I’m not comfortable with the idea of sending home “babyish” or “invented” or “creative” or “developmental” spellings. I don’t want Johnny to feel ashamed about his work. I’m committed to helping him do well with it, and I’m committed to protecting his dignity.

3. Encouraging learners to spell words “as they sound” may lead some of my students to conclude that English is like Spanish or Italian in that it has what is known as a shallow orthography. Since this is not true, I’m committed to making such things clear from the beginning of our work together. I don’t encourage learners to “guess and go” or “sound and go” when spelling English words. English doesn’t work that way. Children must learn to “think before they spell.”

4. Agreeing with children when they tell you that MAYK spells “make” is called “playing in The Land of Make Believe” (at best). I’m committed to not doing that. I’m committed to working in the real world using real words. And I’m committed to teaching the truth about English words. MAYK spells MAYK. It is not an English word. And it does not spell “make.”

5. I don’t need to encourage invented spelling activity because I know how to develop phonemic awareness and an understanding of the alphabetic principle without it. I can do it by building precept upon precept and line upon line. I am able to do so. I know how to do it during spelling and writing lessons, and I know how to do it using direct, explicit, systematic phonics and spelling instruction that uses only real words (and no sight words). I’ve done it for years. And I can do it again. (I’m most familiar with the lessons outlined in the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking.) Since the lessons I use prevent misspellings and reinforce correct spellings while giving children repeated opportunities to spell, write and read correctly spelled English words, and since these lessons develop not just phonemic awareness but graphophonemic awareness (see Ehri), I don’t see the need to work with imaginary words in any K-1 classroom. Allergic to inventive spelling in the classroom, I’m committed to helping students do real work with real words.

Left to their own devices, children have wonderful imaginations and love to play “Let’s Pretend.” Depending on their unique interests, you’ll see them pretending to build castles, pretending to fight battles, pretending to ride horses, to bake cakes, to write words, to read books, and so on. And on and on and on. Children love to play. (Me too.) Children love to pretend. (Me too.) Children love to spend time in “The Land of Make Believe.” (I love to join them.) It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s good. And it’s educational, granted. Preschool children who choose to engage in such play seem to learn from it, as Adams noted. That’s great. But why should we make such play a part of what we are doing with children who come to us for formal teaching? That’s what I want to know. Why should we force any kind of play on them at all, even when we are convinced that we are doing it “for their own good”?

I’m questioning the wisdom of forcing students to play in a way that encourages them to create misspellings for display in the public square. (And for repeated mis-practice.) I’m not convinced that such teaching practices are appropriate (or healthy). Given that methods exist by which children may be helped to develop phonemic awareness and an understanding of the alphabetic principle without simultaneously encouraging them to commit spelling and reading errors, why not choose one?

I’m glad you can still read what your K students wrote. But not everyone has your secret decoder ring. What happens when Johnny and Manuel and Akeem take their imaginary spellings into the real world and can’t remember what they were trying to write in this morning’s lesson? That’s what I want to know. And what happens when Mama and Papa, who can’t read English, try to help? And what happens when Johnny and Manuel and Akeem try to share their “wonderful work” (sic) with the big kids in the neighborhood gang? That’s the kind of thing I wonder about.

Assuming that children come to school to be taught true things, I don’t think we should actively encourage or reinforce fake facts. Nor should we add to their many mistaken notions about written English. (Not on purpose anyway.) Believing that practice makes permanent, I don’t give students erroneous information to practice with. And knowing that my little learners are persons, I don’t set them up to experience failure, humiliation, or despair. (Not on purpose anyway.)

Why not teach spelling and reading in a way that fosters initial competence and confidence? That’s all I’m asking. Since it can be done, why not do it? And why not do it by building success on success? And why not do it by calling it work and not play? (I will happily show you how to do all of this, if you wish.)

Here’s a little poem that my students always start memorizing during our initial days together. We start working with its written words during the first few weeks of spelling and reading lessons, and my K-1 students are generally able to write the entire poem from dictation a few weeks later (using correctly spelled words). They know what the words mean and can talk about their grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

Work while you work.
Play while you play.
One thing each time,
That is the way.

All that you do,
Do with your might.
Things done by half,
Are not done right.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 19, 2017 11:17 PM

LEX, here's what you said: "Harriet has made an arbitrary decision to wait until children are older to teach them morphology."

And here's what I said in response: ". . . based on all of my previously stated reasons, my emphasis with beginning readers will continue to be to help them recognize grapheme-phoneme relationships. LEX says this decision is arbitrary."

Sorry for the confusion. I should have added "and not emphasize morphology until they are older" after "grapheme-phoneme relationships".

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 20, 2017 04:17 PM


When I looked again at the samples of your students’ writing, the last two stood out starkly:

Then it Bekum Krismis But we dinit giv enee pesit.

me mi mom go to the zo en us god to makdonl

These invented sentences may be especially troublesome for students because they not only contain many misspelled words to be practiced to mastery but also include spelling errors that may be highly offensive to readers at home. I can see little kids being ridiculed or beaten (or both) for having not spelled Christmas in a way that honors Christ and for having misused the name of God. Spelling matters. Words matter. Truth matters.

Misty Adoniou
Sep 22, 2017 12:57 PM

LEX, who are you? Agree with everything you've had to say and would love to read your work. Sorry, maybe I've read your work already but I don't recognise your handle.
Misty Adoniou

Sep 22, 2017 04:20 PM

Hi Misty!

I'm a linguist who understands and studies the writing system with other people. There's always room for another curious, motivated scholar! My website and professional profile are under LEX: Linguist~Educator Exchange. You can google it and find my website. I also have 3 short TED talks you'd enjoy, which you can find under Gina Cooke. I will be in Australia in 2019, but I also teach a lot of classes online. My email is ginarama dot lex at gmail dot com.

The facts are here for anyone who wants them.

Sep 22, 2017 07:12 PM

Jo-Anne offers: "a short vowel in the word tennis and muffin requires the doubling-those are rules predicated on surrounding sounds-poodle-puddle-apple-rifle,they are not "sound" driven."

So how does phonics explain such contrasts as tennis-menace, bobbin-robin, rabbit-habit, hammer-camel, finish-Finnish, polish-Polish, and the like?

I just studied finish-Finnish and polish-Polish with a 6th grader. I also studied why 'love' isn't spelled with a 'u' with her 2nd grade sister. Same with do, to, and who. They're both dyslexic. Tell me again about beginning readers?

Tell me again about the "six syllable rules." Do you mean like how you have children "count back 3" for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the 'le' is often a suffix -- spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) -- but not always. Sometimes it's a vestigial suffix, something I've been known to call a 'footprint' with my students. The 'le' in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What's really interesting about an 'le' suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that 'l' is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn't it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It's adults that struggle with it.

Those are just true things. No one has to like them. But kids really do like them, especially the dyslexic ones who have had so many prevarications from phonics pushed at them.

How, in your syllable artifice (with which I am 100% intimate -- I taught that stuff for years) would you explain the difference between puzzle and pizza, phonologically speaking? Because no one could claim in seriousness that kindergarteners don't know anything about puzzles or pizzas. What is the phonology of the second syllable of castle, wrestle, and jostle? Why is the 't' there? All phonics can do is teach 'stle' as though it was a thing (it's not), and ignore the pattern of the 't' in listen, often, soften, and even 'prints.'

Why is there a 'c' in muscle? Or a 'b' about 'subtle'? Man, whoever stuck a 'b' in that word deserves a prize.

What of aisle and isle? How about in prin/ci/ple -- why isn't that 'i' long if it's in an 'open syllable'?

What about treble and pebble? Yikes.

Why is there an 'o' in people? Or is that word off-limits for very young people too?

Why do double and couple and trouble have an 'ou' but octuple has just a 'u'? Why isn't oc/tu/ple pronounced 'octooople'? Why isn't multiple spelled *multipple? In real life, there are answers for these questions. In phonics, there are shrugs.

Why circle and sparkle but not *cirkle or *sparcle? Phonics doesn't answer that. Do beginning readers understand words like sparkle and circle in real life? Why is needle needle and not *neadle? Why isn't poodle *pudle or noodle *nudle?

There are reasons for these captivating patterns and cues in the language. They are not exceptions or irregular. They are not oddballs or outlaws or demons, and no one has to just memorize them.

Anyone who would like to see the understanding that can explain these inquiries can find it on my website. The title of the post is "Fickle Syllable Boondoggle."

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 22, 2017 08:30 PM

You are just taking out exceptions to cause confusion-we can decode 90% of the English language,no one said that it worked 100%
of the time.
The kids are taught an orthographic concept auditorily(phoneme) and we offer the visual representation(grapheme) and have them spell with it then read.
All graphemes and phonemes are stable-some have a few exceptions but 90% of the time it`s pretty amazing.
Once they read to fluency,the comprehension bulb goes on if they have heard the word before,if not we make sure to explain it..

I fit with the research,I am a listener,you are devising your own path.

By the way about your /c/we have kids hear it,make them aware it is one of the unvoiced consonants and we represent it with a tile and then have them put the visual on it.
I jive very well with speech paths,linguists not so much.

Holly Shapiro, Ph,D., CCC-SLP
Sep 22, 2017 09:49 PM

Speech-language pathologist here and I have to say the first phoneme if you will of a word like cat, chord and king is properly depicted as /k/. Also, as an SLP, I'd be concerned about teaching something that I know is not going to hold up one out of ten times. And not on obscure terms but on such common, useful and interesting words like people and pizza. If there was no coherent understanding to be had, I'd say that the best we can do and so be it.

But there is.

Skot Caldwell
Sep 22, 2017 09:51 PM

Jo-Anne, your math worries me! 90%?! If Oxford has 171 476 words, that makes 17 147 exceptions! That seems an awful lot! I feel like you are not giving English enough credit.

Give me an "exception" and I will find you a pathway to inquiry and understanding. But please make sure that it is an exception to an actual rule.

For example, my students had a fine time with "have" today (though it didn't take them long) as well as "two" earlier in the week and "who" last week. "Exceptions?" "Tricky words?" What do we call them? I call them opportunities.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 22, 2017 09:54 PM

LEX says: "Why isn't multiple spelled *multipple? In real life, there are answers for these questions. In phonics, there are shrugs."

I would be thrilled if any of my current first-graders could read either "multiple" or "multipple", and explaining the reason why there's a single or double "p" wouldn't get them any closer to reading the three syllables in that word. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for how morphological knowledge helps the k-1 student learn to decode.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 23, 2017 12:51 AM

Well Holly,the sound unvoiced /c/ unvoiced is represented by c,k,que(plaque) and ch,(school),chemistry etc.
There are many listings on IDA`S website to get O.G. trained.Many speech paths are not reading specialists,their training is in articulation.

mul/tiple(cle) syllable at the end,closed at the beginning,the /t/ sound closes in the vowel and makes it short.
I teach teachers how to teach dyslexic kids to read,spell and write.
I train Tier 1 , 2 &3 teachers and have trained many speech paths.
I have a gold standard comparison study-F& P as comparison group and we equaled their results re reading comp but 8 weeks faster.
The reading war,alive and well,I am used to it.
Harriet is an incredible teacher,she has studied and advanced her skill set in her classroom by honoring research.
I agree that invented spelling is bad but it is developmental to a degree while they learn grapheme phoneme correspondence-that`s all she is trying to show you.
When I train I see this constantly-adults are very much like children,trying to find the error versus trying to learn what matters.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 23, 2017 01:15 AM

Forgot /ck/ before you all write to me-as in rock,black,deck,brick...

O.G. teaches kids to link what they hear to what they see-
Yes,it`s true that we need to apply new research too-PA training to the O.G. method but wow,I have seen miracles in kids in a few weeks while previously they were sitting on the side of the road unable to read,spell and write .

My own child who is in his 30`s was very much one of those kids so I`m deaf to your criticism.

Sep 23, 2017 01:23 AM

There IS NO "/c/ sound."

It's a /k/.

Seriously, do you even know what the / / mean?

Please go read my blog, Jo-Anne and Harriet. Just get a single clue.

"I'm deaf to your criticism" said no scientist ever.

Sep 23, 2017 01:31 AM

Harriet, go reread what Pete Bowers posted.

You want to know how morphological instruction (and AGAIN, we're not just talking about MORPHOLOGY, so please quit MISREPRESENTING what we are actually saying. Please) can help young readers "decode"?

Here's from Pete:

As an example, it turns out that a word like "does" which is treated as an "irregular spelling" that has to be memorized because it doesn't have the expected grapheme-phoneme correspondences is completely understandable when we look at its morphological structure and relatives. The base is spelled "do" and it has a suffix "-es". So we can construct a word sum like this: do + es ? does.

See? Like that.

It's not just morphology. It's also etymology.

Also, Jo-Anne said that the 't' in 'multiple' "closes in the syllable" -- now truly, that is just nuts. Jo-Anne doesn't even understand how the syllable artifice is **supposed** to work in that word. How can a 't' "close in" an 'i' that comes *after* it?

Lies and more lies. Harriet, I don't care what would thrill you. You feeling thrilled about your kindergartener's errors is evidence of nothing. I would be thrilled, if I had a kindergartener, for her to be in a classroom with a teacher who could actually explain things, not just be thrilled about them. I asked you to explain something, and you said "I'd be thrilled if they got it wrong." That helps no one.

You guys should really check out my investigations of the questions I posed. You might learn something. Lots of other people already have.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 23, 2017 01:55 AM

I just read you were O.G. trained...
The/l/ closes in the /u/.
You may wish to read the review I received from Dr. Judith Birsch on my program.I`m sure you`ve heard of her.
Sadly,you could have been much more respectful,you chose to attack and now that I see you are O.G. trained I`m absolutely miffed-
miff-FFSSZZLL rule-ed,makes 3 sounds,as we both know,in this case /t/.
Should the child spell "cat"KAT?

Ridiculous posturing,for what?

Sep 23, 2017 02:54 AM

Why would I care what Judy Birsh says about your program when I've already had a look at what you do for myself? Why would I care what anyone says about your program when you don't even know the difference between a letter and a phoneme, or between a /c/ and a /k/ -- they're not the same.

I'm accurate because I offer evidence, not because of who trained me or complimented me -- even tough it was Marcia Henry, since we're doing the silly name-dropping thing. But really, I don't care who told you the wrong things you're saying; they're still wrong. I have also, for the record, pointed out to Marcia Henry where her published work was in error as well. She took it like a scholar once she saw the evidence.

"Should the child spell "cat"KAT?" Uh, no. The child should be taught that c, k, ck, ch, and qu(e) are all ways to spell /k/, not */c/. Are you telling me that cat and kitten start with two different phonemes, a */c/ and a /k/? Bekause that's just inkoherent.

Jo-Anne, what I asked was why the 'i' in 'multiple' is short, if it's in an open syllable. I didn't ask about the u. Please stop trying to explain phonics / OG to me. It's a mistake to assume that I don't know what phonics is or does just because I show how it's wrong. It's a mistake to believe that I reject phonics because I don't understand it.

I understand it very well, and you and Harriet are living proof of how confused phonics people are about language, when you don't know the difference between a grapheme and a phoneme, between a /c/ and a /k/. What you're saying about */c/ is just totally false, and the now silent Dr. Shanahan knows it too.

Quit lecturing me about my tone; it's not your job to monitor me. I wasn't disrespectful: no cursing, name-calling, or aspersion-casting. All I did was point out the errors that people are publishing, including you, and offer evidence for my claims. You know, like in scientific research-based fields.

Come on, Phonics. You can do better than this.

My offer of a free online class for Jo-Anne and for Harriet (that got deleted) still stands.

Peter Bowers
Sep 23, 2017 03:23 AM

Response to Tim’s analysis of the evidence of morphological instruction in primary grades: Part 1

Note: I appologize that I seem incapable of providing short responses to this comment string. But to offer a comprehensible analysis of research that challenges some common assumptions requires detailed explanations and evidence. Whether or not you agree with my analysis, I want to make sure that my argument and evidence is clearly understood.

Hello Tim (and all),

I read the following comment of yours the last time I visited this string:

“I still don't understand why the morphology proponents don't think their ideas should undergo the same empirical test that other components of reading have undergone--that is trying their ideas out under controlled conditions to see if there is a clear learning payoff from their ideas. It's good to believe in your ideas, but if it continues to just be beliefs (admittedly strongly believed beliefs), they belong in church rather than schools. The two studies that have been done so far with primary kids are very weak evidence of the effectiveness of these insights.”

I have been wanting to respond ever since, but this is the first chance I’ve had at the end of an intensive week of workshops with students and teachers.

I am confused by two key points you make.

Firstly, I don’t understand where you have gained the sense that the “morphology proponents” in this string (of which I include myself) have suggested that morphological instruction should not undergo empirical testing. I have not read every comment in this string, but from what I have seen, no-one is implying that morphological instruction should not be tested empirically.

Secondly, and far more importantly, I am completely confused by this assertion, “The two studies that have been done so far with primary kids are very weak evidence of the effectiveness of these insights.”

Anyone basing their opinion about the research on this assertion could only conclude that there have been two studies addressing morphological instruction with primary kids. This is simply not the case.

In the 2010 meta-analysis (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010) in Review of Educational Research (a top educational journal as I’m sure you know), not only did we look at the effect of morphological instruction overall, we compared the effect of outcomes for studies in pre-school to Grade 2 to the outcomes for Grade 3- 8. We compared the effects of SIX studies that addressed morphological instruction compared to studies that addressed morphological instruction in older grades. The two studies to which I presume you are referring (Devonshire & Fluck, 2010; Devonshire, Morris & Fluck, 2013) were not published in time for that meta-analysis. Thus at the very least we now have eight studies that have assessed the effects of morphological instruction in the primary grades. Clearly this is still a modest number of studies. As we warned in our study, any conclusions need to be taken cautiously. But this is a very different state of the research than suggested by your assertion that there have been two studies on morphological instruction in primary.

And what did we find in the comparison of outcomes in the pre-school to Grade 2 studies to those in Grades 3 and up? Compared to typical instruction, effects of morphological instruction for the younger children was greater for sub-lexical outcomes (e.g. phonological awareness, decoding and morphological awareness measures) and lexical outcomes (word reading, spelling, vocabulary). Effects were essentially equal for supra-lexical outcomes (reading comprehension). In fact, the effects on sub-lexical phonological outcomes was better for the morphological instruction than typical instruction.

The meta-analysis of morphological instruction by Goodwin and Ahn (2013) corroborated this finding. Quoting from their study:

“We also examined who benefits most from instruction. Results suggest statistically significant larger effects for preschool and early elementary students through second grade followed by middle school and upper elementary students. Similar to Bowers et al. (2010), results suggest that early morphological instruction may be particularly helpful perhaps because of the synergistic relationship between phonology and morphology and the larger repertoire of root and affix meanings available for use”(Goodwin & Ahn, 2013, p. 23).

Neither our study nor that Goodwin and Ahn’s found effects at the level of comprehension.

It is also important for your readers to know that both of these meta-analyses about morphological instruction -- and the one by Goodwin and Ahn (2010) that only looked at less able readers -- all found benefits for those struggling with literacy. In fact in our study, the less able gained the most.

Peter Bowers
Sep 23, 2017 03:24 AM

Part 2: The question of inhibiting phonological learning by introducing morphology instruction -- and what about for struggling readers and writers?

A common concern expressed in your comments (and others) is that adding morphological instruction may be problematic if it reduces the opportunities for phonological learning. As you wrote in an earlier post,

“I have no problem with supplementing phonics instruction with morphology instruction as long as it doesn't reduce the amount of phonics appreciably.”

As I, LEX, Jeff, Skot and others have attempted to clarify repeatedly, phonics instruction is not equal to teaching about how phonology is represented by orthography, because phonics teaches about “letter-sound” or grapheme-phoneme correspondences without reference to morphological and etymological constraints. Teaching phonics and then also teaching about morphology is not the same as teaching how phonology actually works. The irony is that phonics misrepresents how phonology works.

But putting that point aside for the moment, the clear implication of your comment is that morphology instruction is ok as long as it doesn’t inhibit the learning about the links between phonology and the written word (the target of phonics instruction). Given that concern, you and your readers should be interested in this finding from Goodwin and Ahn’s (2013) morphological instruction meta-analysis.

“Moderator analyses suggest morphological instruction supported proximal outcomes, but effects did not transfer to supralexical processing (i.e., reading comprehension and fluency). The largest effects were for decoding, phonological awareness, and morphological knowledge, probably because of the synergistic relationship between morphology and phonology. As Seymour (1997) advocated, reading and spelling morphologically complex words involves “a phonological influence at the level of syllabic structure and a morphemic influence in establishing the status of segments as word stems or affixes” (p. 331). Therefore, morphological instruction, which involves analysis of form and meaning, includes thoughtful analysis of morphology and phonology (e.g., heal and health) and links to learning in each” (Goodwin & Ahn, 2013, p. 21).

To be even more specific, here are the effects for morphological instruction as quoted from their abstract, “intervention effect varied depending on the literacy outcome. There were significant and moderate intervention effects on morphological knowledge (d = 0.44), phonological awareness (d = 0.48), vocabulary (d = 0.34), decoding (d = 0.59), and spelling (d = 0.30)”

Note that the STRONGEST effects they found from morphological instruction were for decoding and phonological awareness. I understand why many may fear that attention to morphology may reduce phonological learning -- especially when these are treated as though they are discrete aspects of our language. But again and again, the research evidence shows this to be an unwarranted fear. Morphological instruction supports understanding about how phonology is represented by our writing system.

All of these findings directly contradict the long and widely held assumption in the research that morphological instruction was something that might be relevant for older students, but is something to be wary of in younger and less able readers. This common untested assumption was reflected in Marilyn Adams’s hugely influential book, “Beginning to Read” (Adams, 1990) when she wrote “teaching beginning or less skilled readers about them [roots and suffixes of morphologically complex words] may be a mistake” (p. 152). Adam’s was not claiming evidence for this suggestion, she was just presenting her hypothesis. What I find troubling is that this assumption was left untested for so long. This is why it is worth noting that the major research document a decade later -- National Reading Panel (2000) -- did not point to morphological research as an area needing more study. They did point to the paucity of vocabulary instruction research -- and that resulted in a great increase in that area of research. Drawing attention to the lack of morphological instruction could have pushed up the timeline on morphological research as well.

All of this research was summarized quite clearly in the Bowers and Bowers (2017) paper that you cited early in this string.

In our meta-analysis (Bowers, et al., 2010), we concluded that we now have enough empirical evidence to recommend morphological instruction as a feature of literacy instruction from the beginning of schooling, and that it appears to be particularly important for less able readers. (That conclusion was corroborated by Goodwin and Ahn’s two meta-analyses -- and also the reviews by Reed (2007) and Carlisle (2010)). However, we also cautioned that we still had no research that could be used to conclude HOW to teach morphology most effectively. We also pointed to what we saw as clear weaknesses in the morphological interventions we studied. In particular, we pointed out that of the 22 morphological interventions, only 5 even pointed to the interrelation of morphology and phonology.

Peter Bowers
Sep 23, 2017 03:25 AM

Part 3: Summing up where we are in the research

As the review of the instructional research in Part 2 shows, the debate is not whether to teach morphology from the start, the question is about how to teach it most effectively.

Structured word inquiry is a promising approach that draws on a very common sense idea that instruction should reflect how our morphophonemic language works, and how that language is represented by our writing system. When we reach the end of what empirical research can tell us, what else should we draw on but theory?

To be clear -- because the research finds that we should teach morphology from the start -- there is a research basis to recommend structured word inquiry given that it includes explicit instruction of morphology and phonology from the beginning of school. As yet, however, we do not have empirical evidence that it is more effective than other forms of addressing morphology in instruction.

When writing about the proponents of morphological instruction, you argue that “The two studies that have been done so far with primary kids are very weak evidence of the effectiveness of these insights.”

I presume the studies you referred to as the two morphological interventions in primary years were those by Devonshire and Fluck (2010) and Devonshire, Morris and Fluck (2013). As I showed, there are many more than two such studies, but these are the only two I know of that assessed the effect of teaching the interrelation of morphology, phonology and etymology (structured word inquiry) compared to phonics instruction. In both cases the structured word inquiry instruction showed significant effects on standardized literacy outcomes over the phonics condition.

Thus we find ourselves in a situation in which the best evidence from multiple meta-analyses directly contradicted decades of the untested assumption that literacy instruction should establish understanding about phonology BEFORE it addresses morphology -- and that it may be inappropriate for those struggling with literacy. The research shows that these two groups gain the most.

Further, the two studies that have assessed the effect of teaching the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology have been found to have significant literacy effects for young children compared to phonics instruction.

The common assumption that research has found that we must teach phonology first -- and then maybe teach morphology later is a recommendation for which I can find no research basis.

I also find no support for your suggestion that proponents of morphological instruction “don't think their ideas should undergo the same empirical test that other components of reading have undergone”.

You wrote: “I have no problem with supplementing phonics instruction with morphology instruction as long as it doesn't reduce the amount of phonics appreciably.”

I think this is a very good reflection of the current wide-spread recommendation of researchers. But it has clear implications that I would argue are not supported by the research.

The suggestion that we can supplement phonics instruction with morphology is clearly a recommendation that phonology has to be taught first, and that morphological concepts can be added later.

The mountains of research that phonics instruction is more effective than whole language does not offer evidence that “letter-sound correspondences” must be taught before morphology is introduced.

It is a hypothesis to argue that we must teaching about how our writing system represents phonology before we address how it represents morphology -- and it is a hypothesis for which we have no empirical evidence. (And as as been explained, phonics instruction actually misrepresents how phonology is represented by our writing system because it ignores its inherent interrelation with morphology and etymology.)

We also do not have sufficient direct empirical instructional research evidence that it is important to teach the interrelation of morphology and phonology (and etymology) from the beginning of schooling.

However, all of the empirical evidence we do have consistently points to the fact that introducing morphological instruction from the beginning of schooling is beneficial -- in direct contrast to decades of assumptions. Also in direct contrast to decades of assumptions, it turns out that struggling students (primary to upper elementary) gain the most from morphological instruction.

My reading of this comment string is that there are two competing hypotheses on the table:

Teach phonics first, then add some aspects of morphology later.
Teach how our writing system works as an interrelation between morphology, etymology, and phonology from the start.

There is only a small amount direct empirical evidence testing these hypotheses. I am working very hard to submit these hypotheses to rigorous empirical study.

However, the most direct evidence we have from Devonshire et al.’s studies both support hypothesis 2. All of the meta-analytic research we have about morphological instruction also points to hypothesis 2. I have yet to find any empirical evidence that raises any concern about hypothesis 2.

As I see it, hypothesis 1 is far more widely held, but all the relevant evidence and theory points to hypothesis 2.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 23, 2017 03:51 AM

LEX says: I asked you to explain something, and you said "I'd be thrilled if they got it wrong."

What I actually said was: I would be thrilled if any of my current first-graders could read either "multiple" or "multipple", and explaining the reason why there's a single or double "p" wouldn't get them any closer to reading the three syllables in that word.

Question: If a 6-year-old can correctly READ the words "multiple" and "multipple", what exactly have they gotten "wrong"?

Harriett Janetos
Sep 23, 2017 04:24 AM

Thanks for the citations, Peter. I look forward to reading Goodwin & Ahn

Sep 23, 2017 04:37 AM

Pete Bowers, I am not a."morphology proponent" and I don't understand why you are capitulating to Shanahan's mischaracterizations over and over.

It's not "morphology," for the fiftieth time it's the whole system. You of all people should know that.

Harriet, I'm not concerned with what kindergartners get "right" or "wrong" -- I care what adult teachers get right and wrong. And you are getting the writing system wrong.

Jo-Anne you can decide you don't like linguists; who cares? As for me, I don't care what someone's profession is. I just don't like when professionals tell kids false things and then try to defend it.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 23, 2017 05:26 AM

There is lots in the Goodwin & Ahn article to pursue, but I have a quick question. They write: "Limitations of the study primarily involve averaging very different studies, which needs to be done with caution. Any difference in one area (e.g., age of participants) may be due to other confounds (e.g., type of intervention) and distinctions related to a single study might be overlooked in the process. Also, to examine variability related to a feature, such as grade level, one must have enough studies. Findings related to effectiveness in high school should be interpreted with caution, as only three studies involved this population.

This reference to interpreting the three studies in high school with caution struck me because if I counted correctly, there were only four studies under second grade, and that's the age-group I am most interested in.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 23, 2017 06:05 AM

Orthographic processing is more important than morphology.
I and many others here are interventionists and what do we see,all the way to high school students or adults,we see people who did not learn how to read and spell and can`t function because of it.
They are completely stuck,they have not progressed.They guess,they do not comprehend because they cannot decode the words to get to fluency in order to have a chance at understanding what the words mean; learning and enjoying stories and feeling competent are not experiences they can access,they are replaced with low self esteem and anxiety.

Quoting Adams Peter when she has advocated for the above and warns of the dangers of teaching morphology at the expense of orthography seems very peculiar to me.

You must meet more of the students left behind,they will present with the same deficits over and over again give or take a few.
If they can orthographically process the language then we can think of what else to do for them,that`s not the profile of child I serve but certainly the most common problem is weak phonemic awareness and lack of grapheme phoneme correspondence and vice versa.
Our dyslexic students frequently don`t even have the association between the sound and the shape of the letter,all those connections need to occur to get them to literacy.
There has been a tsunami of morphology before orthography instruction only to deliver an abundance of failure.
Time to listen to the research,we`ve not really gone into that " teaching fad".
On another note, why don`t the universities train the teachers in explicit instruction?

Peter Bowers
Sep 23, 2017 08:38 AM

LEX, you have mistaken my intended meaning by accepting that the descriptor of a "proponent" of morphological instruction can reasonably be applied to me. What I intended to convey (clumsily or not) is that because I propose teaching how the writing system works as an interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology -- I must by definition "put forward" the idea that morphological instruction is essential. This also means I'm a proponent of teaching about role that phonology and etymology play in English orthography. Because these features of our language are interrelated, instruction cannot reflect how our writing system works unless it addresses each of these domains AND their interrelationship. Even if that particular statement caused confusion, I hope that the full context of my comments make that foundational point clear. If not, it's important to clarify that here.

I was also trying to make this point in terms of what can be concluded based on the existing instructional research. I tried to explain my view that the findings from morphological intervention studies has shed light on not only the need for morphological instruction but also the interrelation of morphology and the other aspects of how our writing system works. That's why my own intervention (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) addressed that interrelation (which introduced the term structured word inquiry). It's also why I emphasized the evidence of phonological gains from morphological instruction. I tried to highlight why this finding is particularly striking given that the bulk of the morphological instruction did not even explicitly address the interrelation of morphology and phonology. The implication being that we should expect even better effects when instruction explicitly addresses these interrelations.

If you mistook my intended meaning, obviously others could have too. I'm glad I got a chance to clarify.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 23, 2017 08:40 PM

Thanks again, Peter, for recommending the Goodwin article. The citations allow me to pursue studies that work specifically with beginning readers and to see the types of morphological instruction that is given in these studies. I work in a high poverty school where many of our students lack both literacy experiences in the home and no pre-school experience, so I was particularly interested in this finding from this 2002 study.

The effects of morphological versus phonological awareness
training in kindergarten on reading development - Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 15: 261–294, 2002.
© 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands. 261

One of the most interesting results from the study is that different kinds of
training seem to have different effects depending on the children’s linguistic
abilities and their mother’s educational level. The interaction effects that
were found between training and mother’s educational level for some reading
tasks makes the interpretations of the main effects of groups complicated.
Significant interactions were found for Phonological Coding, Orthographic
Coding and Sentence reading. There was a clear tendency for children of
poorly educated mothers who entered the training with poorly developed
phonological awareness to profit the most from phonological awareness
training. Children of poorly educated mothers did not benefit from morphological
awareness training in terms of their reading development in grade 1.
Children of highly educated mothers, on the other hand, clearly benefited the
most from morphological awareness training. This group of children, who
entered the study with relatively well developed phonological awareness, did
not seem to benefit much from phonological awareness training in terms
of their reading development. The results and the conclusions drawn from
them seem to be at odds with some previous findings. According to Byrne
(1998, see also Byrne et al. 1997), children seem to develop awareness of
the morphemes in written words more easily than the alphabetic structure.
The children in Byrne’s experiments, however, were quite young and the
results from the present study converge with claims put forward by Tunmer
& Rohl (1991) that training effects cannot be considered independently of
the cognitive level when children are older than 6 years. Cary & Verhaeghe
(1994) have also suggested that children from poor social backgrounds may
gain particular advantage from phoneme analysis training (which was part of
the phonological training given in this study).

Peter Bowers
Sep 24, 2017 12:24 AM


Glad you are digging in. I do recommend caution on a number of levels of analysis.

First just on the analysis of the research -- once you get down to not only morphological interventions in young grades and then you also separate by SES, there must be very small numbers of studies.

I would also emphasize, like we did in our meta-analysis, that in terms of morphological interventions, we are talking about the effects of very first early attempts of teaching about morphology. As I pointed out earlier of the 22 morphological interventions our study looked at only 5 even addressed the interrelation of morphology and phonology. Further, if you look back at the videos that I shared before of teaching young children with the matrix and the word sum, I think you will get the sense that these are extremely powerful tools to make the written morphological structure concrete and to reveal the interrelation of words related in meaning and structure -- but not necessarily pronunciation.

For anyone happening along this comment who didn't see those -- here are the links...

Teaching morphological family of "do" and "go" here

Introducing the matrix and word sum to kindergarten students here

I can see no reason why one would teach morphology and not take advantage of these tools other than the fact most have not seen them.

And now I sense the need to clarify the basis of my instructional choices. I got into this work because I was an elementary teacher for 9 years (and a terrible speller who is surely dyslexic) when I encountered the matrix and word sum in a workshop that made sense of countless words all of my previous experience had presented as irregular. I learned about the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology as I taught my Grade 4 students for a year and I had never seen anything like it. Kids who struggled were excited and engaged about investigating words. Kids who never struggled were engaged in ways that were not possible before. My Grade 1 teaching colleague has a similar story and is not the world expert at working with students and teachers in young grades.

See her blog here:

When I returned to Canada I tried to get local schools interested and when I showed what I had learned to administrators they were very interested as I used these tools to explain the spellings of words to them that they could not previously explain. And then they asked me "What does the research say?" I had no idea -- but frankly, it struck me as an odd question. If I have the option of helping a child understand the spelling or telling them that they just have to memorize it, I do not need to wait for the research to tell me which is the appropriate instruction. If I have a young child from any background struggling and frustrated with reading or spelling a word that is "irregular" from the perspective of phonics (e.g. have, give, of, two, one, their, does, rough, sign, or countless others) of course I will not wait until someone does the research to tell me I can use any of these words as a launching pad to help them understand the ordered way their spelling system works. For a teacher to be able to explain those words, however, he or she has to begin the process of understanding the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology.

In the above videos I help kids (and teachers) understand the spelling "does" "done" and "gone" or why the word "eggs" uses and "s" for "more than one" -- and it's pronunciation. Teaching letter-sound correspondences without reference to morphology and etymology (phonics) results in countless words being taught as "irregular". I can think of no justification for instruction misrepresenting the writing system such that countless everyday words are treated as frustrating and irregular. It is a fair question to ask, "Is that linguistic instruction too hard for kids?" There is now ample evidence to be found with teachers and tutors around the world showing that this is not the case. Those two videos offer enough of a window for people who wonder to try. One possible response to that video explaining “does” with a matrix and word sum is to get very excited at the prospect that spelling just might make much more sense than they thought -- and to get on with the process of doing linguistic research to understand these tools and other linguistic evidence presented by these sources. My own website points to tons of free resources with this work

It was my frustration at that question that pushed me to do research. What I found was a widely-held untested assumption that instruction had to teach "phonology first". One can’t claim that the research finds phonology has to be taught before morphology and etymology until there are studies that have tested that hypothesis.

What the meta-analyses show is that the very first attempts at introducing morphology instruction was beneficial to the general population, and particularly to the less able and younger students -- in direct contrast to decades of untested assumptions. And this is true -- even without teaching how orthography really works as an interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology with the help of the matrix and word sum.

Perhaps LEX has a point that my earlier comment confused my intended meaning. My argument is NOT that we have to teach morphology. My argument is that we have to teach how the writing system works. The part of the research that has the best ability to provide evidence for that argument is found in what is referred to as morphological research. Morphology is a great place to start looking because it provides the organizing framework which constrains phonology and etymology. There are many potential grapheme-phoneme correspondences that could write the phonology of the word "does," but it is the morphological constraints that tell us why it must be spelled as it is.

What is striking to me about the results of the meta-analyses is that even though the vast majority of them do not actually teach how the writing system works -- just adding some focus to the meaning-structure cues even without the matrix and the word sum or attention to the interrelation with phonology -- the effects are so positive.

Those who are identified as having a phonological deficit are found to frequently struggle in the context of typical instruction are struggling in the context of being taught as though spelling is essentially a sound-representation system with tons of irregularities. It makes total sense to me that instruction that offers meaning-based structural cues that offer leverage for learning on aspects of language for which they do not have some identified issue.

My point is not to convince you to agree with my argument -- but I am doing my best to make sure that my argument is understood.

I’m not sure how much longer I can be useful commenting on this string. If you interested in contacting me directly Harriett (or anyone) my email is

Harriett Janetos
Sep 25, 2017 07:13 PM

I highly recommend Peter's video Introducing the matrix and word sum to kindergarten students It clarified for me what morphological instruction (SWI) can look like in the kindergarten class and confirmed that it performs an important function separate from phonological instruction, which helps kids to recognize sounds in order to segment words when writing and blend them when reading. This explicit and systematic phonological instruction is essential for my students, who come to kindergarten with few literacy experiences in the home and no pre-school experiences, though clearly a student who knows how to blend sounds can read "cat + s" as easily as "cat", and noting the plural form can dovetail nicely with reading the word.

I also looked up the following reference cited in the meta-analysis Peter sent, and the results noted in the abstract also point to the distinction between morphological and phonological instruction. Note the final sentence: Even though morphological awareness training was found to be efficient at the kindergarten level, no clear impact on reading was found at the first-grade level, while phonological training displayed a clear positive effect on reading.

Casalis, S., & Cole, P. (2009). On the relationship between morphological and phonological awareness: Effects of training
in kindergarten and in first grade reading. First Language, 29, 113–142.


This study examined the relationship between phonological and morpho-
logical awareness in kindergarten, and their respective influence on learn-
ing to read in first grade, through an experimental training design with
three groups of children. One experimental group received phonological
awareness training while the other received morphological awareness train-
ing. The control group did not receive any training. Both training sessions
were efficient since the largest pre- and post-test improvements were
observed in the trained domains. Reciprocal influence analysis indicated that
morphological awareness improved phonological sensitivity, but not the
explicit manipulation of phonemes. In addition, phonological awareness
training helped children to segment morphemes, but not to derive complex
words. Thus, while some processes are shared by both metalinguistic
domains, each domain appears to have its own specificity and may develop
independently, at least partly. Even though morphological awareness train-
ing was found to be efficient at the kindergarten level, no clear impact on
reading was found at the first-grade level, while phonological training displayed a
clear positive effect on reading.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 26, 2017 10:44 PM

Dear Jo-Anne and Harriett,

I am a phonics teacher. I use a finely-sequenced language-arts program born out of Dr. Samuel Orton’s final recommendations for preventing spelling and reading disorders. This method shows learners how to write and read all of the phoneme-grapheme correspondences that are listed in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts during the first nine weeks of school, giving them a “working set” for use with real words. I have no intention of tossing it out.

Since this Orton-based method doesn’t use sight words, worksheets, manipulatives (other than writing itself), or “phonics texts,” I’m pretty fond of it. Since it also includes early work with English morphemes and regularly has 7-year-olds studying Greek and Latin roots, I’m far from inclined to reject it. It has an excellent track record of helping children who struggle. (See Ivan’s Story for a snapshot of what he learned and accomplished after 50 hours of remedial instruction--I was there: So I like to talk about Riggs when I’m talking with anyone who is looking for a solid program for the prevention and correction of reading failure.

Nevertheless, Riggs is not perfect. For example, while it can answer more spelling and pronunciation questions that most phonics programs can, it cannot answer every child’s questions about the spelling system--nor every teacher’s. Gina Cooke is right that no phonics program will ever be able to do that, and that’s unfortunate. For this reason, I recommend structured word inquiries (aka scientific word investigations, or SWI) as well as Riggs, urging teachers to make a regular space for them in their own studies and in their classrooms (I’d do SWI during science time). I encourage teachers to choose the best of both worlds. The wonderfully rigorous investigations of SWI are a perfect fit for classical schools in general and for Riggs schools in particular, giving kids the tools for independent word study.

What I’ve learned from linguists like Gina Cooke and my work with SWIs has dramatically deepened my understanding of “phonics” and of the English spelling system, enabling me to begin eliminating the errors I’ve been unknowingly making. It’s improved my own teaching practice, and it has empowered me to answer longstanding questions. That’s why I recommend it. I’ve come to see that the English spelling system is completely (not just partly) orderly, trustworthy, and approachable, and now that I understand that morphology governs grapheme choice (a recent linguistic discovery), I’m able to share this knowledge with children, using kid-friendly tools like matrices, word sums, and the four questions that scientists ask.
Now that I’ve found these powerful new learning tools, there’s pretty much zero chance that I will be giving them up and I wouldn’t dream of not sharing them with children, nor do I see any reason not to do just that. These tools are perfect for them, enabling them to do the kind of work that fosters deep engagement and cultivates learning that lasts. This is a GREAT way to work with kids, and these are extremely powerful instruments for the independent study of written English. I highly recommend adding scientific word investigations to elementary classrooms.

Contrary to popular belief, we who are called “phonics teachers” do not need to “drop phonics” in order to use these scientific tools to conduct our own investigations into the language system. Unless we are knowingly teaching falsehoods, why should we? We can simply begin to conduct word investigations as well, can’t we? (I’d do them at home alone and during science time with kids.) We can put on our science hats and do science, applying scientific principles to the formal study of some of the words in our spelling and reading lessons (whichever words the kids are wondering about--I’d use a “wonder wall” to keep track of such words). We can do research with children, allowing the four questions to guide us and using dictionaries, word sums and matrices to help us find truth and display evidence. If nothing else comes from it, the kiddos will be learning how to do real science. They’ll be learning how to ask for evidence, how to recognize it, how to organize it, how to present it to others, etc., and they will be practicing their spelling, reading, and research skills along the way. Win-win.

So I disagree with those who say that we should not do this kind of work with children. It seems to me that regardless of what else we choose to do with young learners (I recommend Riggs), we can--and should--do this kind of scientific work with them as well. This has been my point from the beginning. In addition to our regularly scheduled phonics lessons, why can’t we help kids study true things by teaching them how to ask good questions about the written words in their language? Why can’t we study them together, giving ourselves permission to be students of the language and letting the results flow over us like water over rock, deepening our current understanding of the spelling system and all other subjects. We can let the actual truth of things refine our teaching practices as needed--if needed. There is no need to make drastic changes. There is no reason to “throw out phonics” before we add structured word inquiries to our day. (Though some may wish to upgrade to a far stronger phonics program, and none should teach those things that they know to be false.) Let’s teach the best of both worlds and see what happens next. We don’t need authorities to tell us that’s okay.

As teachers, we should reject as absurd any assertion that we have no business bringing scientific word investigations into our primary classrooms before they’ve been approved by researchers and so-called experts. Teachers do not need experts to give them permission to do science with children, to seek truth with students, to study true things with children. Whether or not it ultimately improves their spelling and reading ability, the search for truth, in and of itself, is worthwhile. And it’s really okay to ask questions and form hypotheses and look for evidence--even when we’re at school. And it’s okay to think rigorously and systematically about the things in our world. It’s okay to do science. It’s safe.

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 27, 2017 03:56 PM

Hi Stephanie,
I am O.G. trained too but it became clear in my reading clinic that certain kids needed more-I added the phonological awareness training I was hearing about from the researchers to improve the orthographic processing of my students,I see it as the key-O.G. plus phonological awareness training,it produces unparalleled success.
The spelling is tremendously improved,I agree with you 100 percent,spelling is so important,graphemic and oral articulation leads to sustained orthographic mapping that secures reading success in dyslexic kids.
Dr. David Kilpatrick`s book,2015,Wiley
It is so helpful to reading teachers like us.

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 27, 2017 09:06 PM

After reading my last comment, a few teachers privately asked if my reasons for suggesting science time for structured word inquiries came from a belief that they did not belong in the language-arts block. Nope. They belong there too. Morphology work like that done by SWI and Riggs students develops comprehension by increasing vocabulary knowledge, word knowledge. It helps learners meet or exceed the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in Vocabulary Acquisition and Use.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:
Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 1 reading and content, choosing flexibly from an array of strategies.
Use frequently occurring affixes as a clue to the meaning of a word.
Identify frequently occurring root words (e.g., look) and their inflectional forms (e.g., looks, looked, looking).

Stephanie Ruston
Sep 27, 2017 11:17 PM

Hi Jo-Anne,

Sorry for the confusion. The Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking is not an O.G. method. Instead, it is a method based on Dr. Orton’s final conclusions for how to eliminate the need for most O.G. teachers. It shows parents and teachers how to prevent beginning reading failure in the first place.

This Orton-based teaching method develops not just phonemic awareness, which solves only part of the problem, as Ehri noted, but grapho-phonemic awareness. It does this during daily lessons in which Grade 1 students practice encoding, recoding, decoding, blending, and analyzing six new words per day (K kids do three).

Have you read Ehri’s paper on the importance of teaching children grapho-phonemic awareness, rather than phonemic awareness? “This is the real problem that learners face once they move beyond an initial recognition that words have constituent sounds,” notes Ehri. “The big chore is grappling with the correct spellings of individual words and figuring out how the graphemes and the phonemes come together in a systematic way.”

You can read the whole things here:

Jo-Anne Gross
Sep 28, 2017 01:49 AM

Shall I give you my website as well-I won`t,I`ll be more polite-I am very aware of Linnea and her work.

Harriett Janetos
Sep 29, 2017 07:17 PM

I've been taking advantage of my lunch breaks to read up on SWI, and I've just read this piece, "Structured Word Inquiry and OG," written by LEX and posted by the Dyslexia Training Institute. It cleared up many points for me, and gave me avenues to pursue. I appreciated the distinction between "reading" and "spelling" in the first paragraph below (a particular interest of mine since I work with struggling readers), and I noted in the second paragraph that one of the goals of SWI is to help children become "better equipped to read for meaning", though the meta-analysis by Goodwin that Peter posted did not find that morphological instruction improved comprehension. I do understand that there's a difference between "morphological instruction" in general and "SWI" in particular, so this is a distinction I will continue to bear in mind as I read up on the subject.

"Teaching English phonology goes a long way toward helping children become better readers, and the field of dyslexia remediation prides itself on its research foundation that highlights phonological awareness as a core factor in successful reading instruction. However, things aren’t so clear when it comes to spelling; being able to read a word is no guarantee of being able to spell it, and spelling words based on the way they are pronounced can be disastrous for English. Over the years of working with dyslexic children, I noticed that their reading generally improved significantly, but their spelling continued to lag behind."

"Whereas most OG practitioners have a bank of words for memorization — often called sight words, learned words, red words, or non-phonetic words — the teachers and students I work with investigate the internal structures of words to find an understanding and an explanation for the ways words are spelled. They look for the meaningful structures in words — the bases, the prefixes, and the suffixes — and for meaningful connections between words that share historical (or etymological) relationships. Not only does their spelling improve, but they are also better equipped to read for meaning, not just for pronunciation".

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Is Morphology Training Better Than Phonics Instruction?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.