When people encounter real spelling and scientific word investigation (structured word inquiry), a huge concern arises: is this just somebody’s “bright idea” about instruction? Is it yet another method or program that will leave kids struggling and confused?
Those of us who advocate for children have learned that we must trust and rely on research-based approaches with children, especially for students with dyslexia, and we distrust anything that doesn’t include a list of research references. And even then we check the research itself because we know that there is “research” to support just about every method, program, and shiny new idea in the education world.
We make a distinction between research-based and evidence-based, and we scrutinize the research and check and double-check what’s being reported. We insist on systematic instruction and get very uneasy when we see the word “inquiry.”
And there is a very important reason for this — legions of children have been taught, often by very committed and dedicated teachers, using programs and methods that leave children lost and confused about language. Sometimes those students appear to be doing reasonably well on the surface because determined students taught by skilled teachers may learn to read (often with hidden struggle and difficulty), yet those students may still be confused about spelling and may avoid reading whenever possible.
Literacy includes two things: the ability to read with enjoyment and good comprehension and the ability to spell and write with ease. A person who reads reluctantly, or can read but not write, is not fully literate and many of our instructional approaches are leaving students half-literate.
Some of the most problematic instructional approaches teach words as whole units and treat systematic instruction in grapheme-phoneme relationships as a last resort (for some valid reasons, if we are being fair.) These problematic methods encourage children to use the context of a sentence to figure out what word might make sense there, rather than teach them how to look at the morphemes and graphemes in the word and determine what the word actually is.
Context can be a very important clue for determining meaning in a particular sentence. (A mouse under my bed might be nibbling on cookie crumbs or it might be the one missing from my computer table.) But if instruction leans on context as the primary tool for making sense of a word and is satisfied when a student reads the word <pony> as <horse> because they mean roughly the same thing, we’ve got a problem.
So insisting on research-based approaches is understandable and, in many cases, is helping to improve instruction for students.
But here are some issues to consider:
First, when you look at research on reading, ask yourself what the purpose of that research is. Almost all of the research being published is focused on one of two things: testing the best methods for teaching reading (not spelling), or determining what happens in the brain of students as they read or learn to read using various approaches.
But it’s really critical to note that almost ALL of this research is based on an assumption that the primary purpose of the spelling system is to represent pronunciation, and then it investigates the best way to teach that or tries to identify what is happening in the brains of students when we teach that.
It’s true that systematic instruction in phonics and other aspects of reading instruction (sometimes called multisensory structured language instruction or structured literacy) is a far better way to teach grapheme-phoneme relationships and “decoding” than less structured approaches. And in a world where the only choice is between “structured literacy” and “balanced literacy,” I’ll advocate for structured literacy every time.
But almost no one is asking whether grapheme-phoneme relationships are the foundation for literacy in the first place! No one is examining the central premise in all this “research-based reading instruction.” Imagine if we were doing research to find the best way to convince everyone that the Sun revolves around the Earth. If we’ve got the best methods to teach something that’s not accurate, we still have a problem!
For a long time, there hasn’t been much research comparing traditional or systematic phonics to instruction built on a more accurate understanding of the system for spelling words in the English language. Again, unquestioned assumptions have driven the choices about what to research in the first place.
But here’s the point you should note: the growing body of research on morphology shows that teaching students about morphology benefits all students and provides the most benefits to the youngest and most struggling students. Pete Bowers, who — along with John Kirby — coined the term “structured word inquiry” in his Ph.D. work, conducted several meta-analyses that revealed this. The studies that they were able to find demonstrated that teaching students about morphology resulted in greater improvement in student learning.
Here are journal articles, meta-analyses, and research studies that demonstrate and discuss the positive effects of morphological instruction (and in a few cases, etymological instruction) on student learning:
Bowers, J.S., Bowers, P.N. “Beyond Phonics: The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System.” Educational Psychologist 2 (2017): 124-141.
Devonshire, V., Morris, P. , Fluck, M. “Spelling and reading development: The effect of teaching children multiple levels of representation in their orthography.” Learning and Instruction 25 (2013): 85-94.
Bowers, P.N., Cooke, G. “Morphology and the Common Core: Building students’ understanding of the Written Word.” Perspectives on Language and Literacy 38.4 (2012): 31-35.
Kirby, J.R. & Bowers, P.N. “Morphology Works.” Ontario Ministry of Education Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, What Works? Research into Practice 41 (2012).
Kirby, J.R., Deacon, S.H., Bowers, P.N., Izenberg, L. Wade-Woolley, L., Parrila, R. “Children’s morphological awareness and reading ability.” Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 25 (2012): 389-410.
Bowers, P.N., Kirby, J.R., & Deacon, S.H. “The Effects of Morphological Instruction on Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Review of Educational Research 80 (2010): 144–179.
Bowers, P.N. & Kirby, J.R. “Effects of morphological instruction on vocabulary acquisition.” Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 23 (2010): 515–537.