Just the Wrong Facts: Morphological Awareness

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) just came out with a new, “Just the Facts” sheet on Morphological Awareness. It is a new branding to bring awareness to the forgotten piece of our language, morphology. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the term “morphological awareness,” but that is not the point of this article. My concerns today are that the IDA so badly wants to jump on the “morphology bandwagon” that they have not done their due diligence to provide accurate information to those they serve. They just released an article called, “Morphology 101,” along with the Just the Facts sheet.

So what is all the hub-ub on morphology? Why is it all the rage? Here’s the thing. Spelling is not “sound written down.” Spelling is an interwoven use of morphology, etymology and phonology. The morphemes are the structures that make up a word. Morphemes include bases, prefixes, and suffixes. One of the biggest misnomers in the field of education is the term, “root.” A root is connected to etymology – the story behind a word. Where did this word travel from? Is it from Latin “placere?” Or maybe it’s Old English. If you are lucky you’ve find a word that got its beginning in our language from the warrior Viking of Old Norse. These traveler stories are the roots. Calling a morpheme a “root” or a “root word” is inaccurate. It is also confusing.

To make things even more confusing is the nonsense word “bound root.” Are we talking about a head of garlic that’s roots got all tangled? There are definitely bound bases. A bound base is a base that is not independent word. It requires an affix in order to be a complete word. An example would be the bases <rupt> or <cept> that is seen in <corrupt> or <intercept>. The respective roots would be rumpere and capere.

Word is getting out that morphology is a huge piece of the pie that’s been missing in reading and spelling. When morphology is accurately represented, it provides huge break throughs for kids who have sadly been deemed “treatment resistors.” These are kids who have been marked as having some sort of defect, with the inability to absorb what is being taught. In the medical field, physicians and scientist would agree that perhaps the medicine (or treatment) is not the right choice for the student. A physician would choose another medicine (or treatment). The other treatment includes the use of morphology. This is why and how the focus on morphology has become to great. Students are shining and making great strides with morphological instruction that includes etymology (and phonology) through orthographic linguistics. Sometimes it is termed, “Structured Word Inquiry” or “Real Spelling.” It is studying the written structures of English that bring about a deeper understanding, that drives both reading and spelling.

Another concern I have about how the Just the Facts sheet was written is the term “morphological awareness” is used when sometimes the word “morphology” would be beneficial. Sometimes we need to bring awareness to something, which means to be vigilant and watchful, but sometimes we just need to learn and understand something. When do we ever refer to the process of photosynthesis as photosynthesis awareness? We either know how photosynthesis works or we don’t. If we don’t we learn and understand it, we don’t become “aware” of it to figure out how it works. When I read this article, I asked myself, would “morphology” or “morphological understanding” be a better fit here than “morphological awareness.” Most of the time, the answer was yes. My concern is that we are creating a new “buzz word” when really the problem is that morphology needs to be understood. The IDA is just becoming aware that morphology is important. They are the ones who are becoming morphologically aware. Again, I’m still undecided about the concept of morphological awareness as a whole that needs to “address.” What I do believe is that morphology is a missing component in education and that it needs to start at a much younger age.

I also wanted to share what my white board looks like when I left my office today. I did not write any of this in response to the IDA article. I created this yesterday with a student and thought it might be helpful to leave it up for the week. I teach kids, 2nd grade, 4th grade, 8th grade, the difference between a root and a base. They are active participants in finding both of these. My white board, in my highly biased opinion, explains more about morphology than these articles.

Attached you will find my comments about the IDA article on Morphology 101 and the Just the Facts: Morphological Awareness: One Piece of the Literacy Pie. I will also be sending these critiques to the IDA in hopes they will consider a revision to their (inaccurate) “facts.” I will add that the Spring edition of the IDA Perspectives Journal on morphology also include linguistically inaccurate information (aside from the excellent article by Marcia Henry).  Perhaps I will include my feedback on those in a future post.

IDA Morphology 101 markup 

IDA Just the Facts: Morphological Awareness: One Piece of the Literacy Pie

While I would like to end the post here, I must leave you with the study of <pie>, since we are talking about “one pice of the literacy pie.” It turns out that <pie> has several definitions. Most people associate <pie> with the pastry, like apple pie, pumpkin pie. Yum, it’s getting to pie season. When we think of a piece of the pie, we usually associate it with a circle that has been cut in half, or quarter, or sixteenths. When we study fractions, pie shapes are often used. <Pie> is also a shortening of the bird, “magpie”. The names Margaret and Mag are derived from this bird’s name due to its “idle chatter.” In the 16th century, a phrase arose the “wily magpie” which referenced a sly rogue. Perhaps that is how I feel I will be looked at for writing this post. The last definition is the one that seems to fit the IDA’s literacy pie the best. Pie is also a mishap of typesetting. When a typesetter drops his tray of characters they would get all  jumbled up. If printed in this manner, this is called pie type (or pi type). Similarly, modern day “symbols” were referred to as “pi characters” by typesetters. When we type #(%&@^ , most consider this to be gibberish which is what pi type referenced. This, my friends, is how I think the morphological information provided about the literacy pie today by the IDA reads, in pi type.

References

Morphological Awareness: One Piece of the Literacy Pie. International Dyslexia Association, 11 Oct. 2017.

Hessler, Terri. Morphology 101. International Dyslexia Association, 11 Oct. 2017.

“Pi Type.” Pi Type – PrintWiki, printwiki.org/Pi_Type.

“Pie .” Etymonline, www.etymonline.com/word/pie.

“Pie.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pie.

Thornhill, Howard. “Pi the Type.” Pain in the English, 11 May 2008, painintheenglish.com/case/2585.

How to Respond to “Your Child Just Needs to Read More”

Stack of books

Stack of books

One of the most common recommendations that families with struggling readers get is “your child just needs to read more”. Let me analyze why this phrase is not helpful and in some cases might be hurtful.

There is an implication in this statement that a child is not spending time reading. At the International Dyslexia Association conference, it was stated that a fluent reader reads in two days what a struggling reader reads in one whole year. This is jaw dropping for parents and teachers. The thought might be, lets have those struggling readers read more. One of the flaws in that statement is that a struggling reader is expending a lot of energy when they read. That student is often exhausted when they read for the same amount of time as a fluent reader. A struggling reader is decoding every syllable in every word. That last sentence has 20 syllables and 10 words. So instead of quickly recognizing the 10 words, they are stopping to process each 20 syllables, deciphering the vowels, determining schwas, and that’s not to mention the dropped schwas. As far as time goes, a struggling reader would need to increase their reading time by 182. That is logistically impossible.

There is another implication of “your child just needs to read more” is that the practice of reading leads to improved reading. It has been found that guided reading does not improve decoding skills. It increases compensatory skills which mask decoding difficulties. Asking someone who wears glasses to take of their glasses, look at an object and “see better” would be a ridiculous request. That is how someone who is struggling in decoding feels when they are told to “read more”. The skill that will help them read better relates to explicit, direct multi sensory instruction, or an Orton-Gillingham based approach. Another common approach in schools is for kids to take home a passage and read it 5 times for the week to increase fluency. This task teaches a dyslexic student to memorize the passage, because that is a compensatory skill they learn when they aren’t allotted the skill of decoding.

So I am asked, “how do I respond to that request?” Education is the answer. Sometimes it needs to be put into perspective. This may be different if it comes from a teacher verses a friend. Teaching others about the multitude of processes your child endures while reading helps them to understand it is not about “more time” reading. It also helps them to see that reading doesn’t click for everyone the same. Educate people about the skill of decoding and what works. Explain to them that reading is not accessible unless the skills of decoding is present. The time focus for a struggling reader should be on instruction and not leisure reading, until the student masters ALL the tasks of decoding. Once a student has mastered decoding then reading more will be a decision between the student and the child, but until a student is decoding, it’s best to spend that time in a more fruitful way.