Traditional wisdom with respect the teaching of reading would have you believe that there is an inherent sequence to be followed in language acquisition based on student age and maturity - first learn the letters, then the phonemes and decoding skills, and then eventually branch out into the morphology and etymology of words to enrich your basic vocabulary. However, a recent study in Great Britain has turned some of this thinking on its head. The study Spelling and reading development: The effect of teaching children multiple levels of representation in their orthography appeared in a 2013 edition of the journal Learning and Instruction. It states:
The transparency of a language refers to the mapping of letters and sounds (phonology). In highly transparent languages such as Finnish, Italian and Spanish, there is almost one-to-one mapping between letters and sounds, and such languages are said to have a shallow orthography. In contrast, English has a deep or opaque orthography since only 56% of its words can be predicted by phonological rules.
The result is that literacy acquisition takes place at a much fast rate in societies with transparent languages due to the one to one correspondence between spoken and written units words. The study notes, for example, that Finnish children read with 90% accuracy after only about 10 weeks of instruction whereas English speaking children take four or five years to reach the same level of proficiency. Part of the problem lies with the breadth of root languages that have evolved into English - for example, Italian, the child of Latin, has 25 phonemes and only 33 possible spellings to represent them. English, by contrast has 44 phonemes and at least 1120 different possible spellings for them! It is amazing that any of us can read!!
Written English is known as morphophonemic, that is, it is a combination of morphemes (the smallest part of a word that conveys meaning - what we might call base words) and phonemes. Morphemes (based words) form more complex words through the addition of prefixes, suffixes, or additional base words (for example: school; preschool; schooling; schoolhouse). With a solid foundation of morphemes, most people can puzzle out the meaning of more challenging vocabulary.
The study itself took groups of children aged 5-7 and taught them some basic vocabulary. The control group followed a traditional phonics-only approach. The first experimental group used a phonics-based approach, were tested, and then received instruction on morphology and the etymology of words; the second group followed the same process in reverse order and then there was a final assessment. The results were interesting. Both experimental groups outperformed the phonics-only norm. The second experimental group (morphemes first) outperformed the first (phonics first) on the first test but after the second test both groups performed the same. The conclusion being that a combined approach was more effective in teaching students to read but the order of introduction was not as important to the final outcome.
So what does all of this mean for teaching reading? Past research has typically indicated that morphology and etymology improve literacy acquisition in older readers. The assumption has been that once the phonemic base has been established, schools should then move on to these "higher level" skills in decoding and comprehension. However, from this study, it would appear that a blended approach using morphology, phonology, and etymology may be more effective for building both fluency and comprehension in early readers. Over the next few months we are going to continue to explore the benefits and impact of a more blended approach to literacy through working with our literacy teams and tutors to introduce a great emphasis on morphology and etymology at a younger level.
We will keep you posted!
In the meantime, when you think about the challenge for children in learning English you would do well to remember Bill Bryson's observation in his excellent (and very entertaining!) book: The mother tongue: English and how it got that way:
…the single and most notable characteristic of English - for better and worse - is its deceptive complexity. Nothing in English is ever quite what it seems.