Showing Students The Beauty And Order Of The English Language

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Children would find it easier to learn to read and write if they were first taught how the English language works and what words mean rather than trying to sound out words, according to new research reported in the UK newspaper The Daily Star:

“Victoria Devonshire, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, tested a new method of teaching reading and writing with 120 children aged five to seven and found the average reading age increased by 14 months after just six months.

She said: ‘We were surprised at how compelling the results were. When children were taught to understand why English works the way it does, we saw a leap in their ability to learn to read and write. The written word is about conveying meaning, not the sound of speech. Expecting children to just figure out the rules of our language is worryingly common and it isn’t helping them become as proficient and confident as young children in many other languages.’

Devonshire said teaching how the language was structured helped with children’s understanding and gave them a ‘huge boost’ in terms of their reading, writing and spelling abilities. She said the technique, called morphology, teaches children about the meaning and sources of words, which is more consistent than phonics, which focuses on pronunciation.

Devonshire, whose research is published in the journal Learning And Instruction, said the problem for those learning English was that it had many rules and exceptions, with many letters not always being pronounced in the same way. She said: ‘English spelling has consistent rules but the way we pronounce words is inconsistent. That makes it hard for children taught using phonics.’” (Read more here.)

There’s no way we should stop teaching kids phonics—the research shows conclusively that it’s effective. But I’m intrigued by the notion of adding morphology to children’s reading instruction.

I think children—and adults!—too often do see the English language as a bewildering and inconsistent mess. Showing students the roots of words and explaining the rules by which the language works seems like a good way to give them access to its beauty and order. (I wrote about teaching kids word roots in this Time.com column.)

Teachers, parents, former pupils—what do you think?

Addendum, 2/12/13: Some readers have asked for more information about the study itself. Here’s the abstract, below.—Annie

“A novel intervention was developed to teach reading and spelling literacy to 5 to 7 year-old students using explicit instruction of morphology, etymology, phonology, and form rules. We examined the effects of the intervention compared to a phonics-based condition using a cross-over design with a baseline measure.

One hundred and twenty children attending an English state funded primary school were randomly allocated either to a traditional phonics condition followed by the novel intervention, or to the novel intervention followed by the phonics condition.

The novel intervention significantly improved the literacy skills of the children including both word reading and spelling compared with the phonics condition.

We conclude that early teaching of English literacy should include instruction in morphology, etymology and rules about form in addition to traditional phonics. We suggest that the results of the study could inform future policy on the teaching of English literacy skills.”

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4 Responses to “Showing Students The Beauty And Order Of The English Language”

  1. Courtney Ostaff says:

    Isn’t that why the now abandoned, classical curriculum taught Latin and Greek to students? As better than 50% of all our words come directly from Latin, and Latin structure is identical to English, as far as I know, wouldn’t it make sense to teach that as a method for learning our own language?

    • LEX says:

      Whoops! Latin has indeed informed the English lexicon, but Latin structure is anything but “identical to English.” Indeed, if two languages had identical structures, they’d be identical languages. Like morphology, Latin is not a “method” or a “technique.” What we’re talking about is a knowledge base, not an approach or a pedagogy.

  2. LEX says:

    Very interesting indeed. Morphology, however, is not a “technique” — it is a structural fact of English. How one teaches it may be a technique, but the morphology itself is simply how English works. Also, the morphology itself is not about the “sources” of words — that’s etymology.

  3. Perry Clark says:

    Language is made of words hung in a particular pattern on a structure prescribed by rules determined by culture. Those words are themselves constructed of smaller bits. Whether those pieces are phonemes, morphs, roots, prefixes, etc., is as much a matter of context and method of interaction as anything else. Like many other complex entities, language, and words, can be broken down in different ways by altering the criteria used and the sequences of criteria applications. The components of words, and words, too, at another level, have features that we might call sounds, shapes, or, more generally perhaps , morphs. Since language is first an aural phenomenon, it’s hardly surprising that phonics is effective. But language is also written, and it is written both in sending and in receipt. Thus, recognition and mastery of visual forms is important. Learning language in these two very different contexts should increase mastery, and we of course see that it does; this very notion is itself an important feature of classical education, which is seeing a resurgence due to its effectiveness in these areas, especially with regard to language arts.

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