Thursday, January 24, 2013

The phono-morph war

A report about research from Portsmouth University in the Southern Daily Echo suggests that a new approach to literacy teaching, which involves teaching about the structures and meanings of words (morphology) is more effective than the sound system based teaching of phonics that has been promoted over the last decade.

With a morphological approach, children are taught about the units that make up words (like we've been doing in Child Language recently with morphemes like -s, -ed, -ing , -er, -ist and -est):

Dr Victoria Devonshire, of the Department of Psychology, trialled 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.'' 

Phonics has been promoted by successive governments as a  means of rapidly improving children's ability to decode the sounds of English, but it's come in for some stick because - as we can all see with words like plough, through and cough - the spelling system in English isn't regular or even very logical. The introduction of phonics testing at Key Stage 1, where nonsense words like wib or vog (or even our old favourite, wug) are given to children to read has provoked yet more concern among many literacy experts, because - they argue - it's articifial and pointless to give children made-up words out of context when readign is not just about individual sounds or words, but about making sense of words and sounds in their specific contexts.

The fact that some people who are quite close to government advisors are set to make a few quid out of phonics schemes is also a cause for scepticism among critics of the phonics-or-bust approach, but plenty of research suggests that phonics can help some children; the argument is not really about if it does but how and why and also in which contexts.

So, what about teaching morphology as this research suggests? It's not necessarily a new approach; back in 2006, Terezinha Nunes and Peter Bryant published Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes, which looked at work done in schools to promote the study of morphology as a means of improving spelling and reading. What Victoria Devonshire is doing sounds really interesting and it sounds like it will add another dimension to literacy teaching. Hopefully, there'll be more information about this approach to come out.

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