Ganske, K. (2020). Mindful of words: Spelling and vocabulary explorations 4-8, (2nd edition.). New York: The Guilford Press. (upcoming)
Lately, there has been quite a bit of focus on morphology, or the way in which the language system conveys meaning by combining units of meaning like root words, suffixes, and prefixes. These units are combined in particular ways (beehive not hivebee) to express different meanings (distaste vs. tasty) and fit into certain syntactic structures (e.g., grammatical roles: tasteful, taste, tasty, taster). Putting these units together in correct ways often involves shifts in sound, spelling, grammatical role, and meaning (e.g., know, knowledge; benefit, beneficial), which can present challenges to students learning to read and write. For example, young spellers may spell magician “magition,” because they do not distinguish the suffixes tion and ian, which sound alike but have different meanings (Nunes & Bryant, 2006).
Morphological knowledge is important and links to spelling, reading, vocabulary, and even writing (see Nagy, Carlisle, & Goodwin, 2013 for overview). Students who have morphological knowledge can often figure out the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of unfamiliar words, such as nationalistic, through analysis of the morphemic units and their composite meanings (Anglin, 1993; Nagy & Anderson, 1984). As Nunes and Bryant (2006, p. 157) suggest, “Some of the most important correspondences between spoken and written language are at the level of the morpheme…The system of morphemes, therefore, is a powerful resource for those learning literacy.”
In this brief, we consider how to assess morphological knowledge in a way that provides deeper understandings and instructional insights. We take work suggesting there are different aspects of morphological knowledge that are important to literacy (Goodwin, Petscher, Carlisle, & Mitchell, 2017) one step further in an effort to identify assessable and teachable morphological skills. Importantly, we find that by assessing the four skills of morphological (described below), we were able to explain more than half the variance in standardized reading comprehension for our sample of students in grades 5-8, and some of the skills were uniquely related to reading comprehension after accounting for decoding and other language skills such as vocabulary and syntax. In other words, these skills of morphological knowledge are foundational to reading comprehension for upper elementary and middle school students. Therefore, knowing how our students are doing in these areas is important to informing our instruction.
Some figures have suggested that students in today’s schools spend more than a month in standardized testing. Yet the standardized tests assess performance on outcomes, like reading comprehension or skills within reading comprehension (like main idea or inferencing), but they do not assess underlying skills that students use to get to the outcome like morphological knowledge, which has been shown to be important.
With that said, we didn’t want to create just another test. We created a gamified, computer adaptive measure because reviews like that of Mitchell and Savill-Smith (2004) have highlighted the many positive outcomes of games, such as increases in motivation and self-esteem. Based on the gaming literature, we created a game, Monster, PI., where students take on the role of a detective who must hunt for clues to catch the monster who is wreaking havoc on various scenes in our city. The student solves puzzles which then earns them clues to the monster’s identity, who they ultimately must identify and catch to ‘win’ the game. Throughout the experience, the player gets to play small 30 second mini-games as brain breaks as well.
We focused on middle school students because research indicates knowledge of words, and of the units of meaning that make up words, is particularly critical for middle school readers (Beck & McKeown, 1991; Biemiller, 2001; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy & Scott, 2000). We have fully developed the assessment for middle school students, but pilot testing with 3rd and 4th graders has also shown promise. Although it is possible that variations exists for such students, overall, our work indicates these instructional guidelines can be applicable and important for both upper elementary and middle school teachers to consider. Below, we report on results from working with 3,000 middle schoolers (5th-8th graders) across 3 years of development. We describe the four morphological skills developed and share links to instruction. For instructional articles showing more ways to apply the assessment data, see Goodwin and Perkins (2015), Goodwin, Cho, & Nichols (2016), and Goodwin, Lipsy, and Ahn (2012). You can also visit our website for more information about the Monster, PI, including access and links to instruction.
Development of Monster, PI involved a rigorous process because morphological knowledge is a complex construct consisting of multiple skills. Across three years, we piloted 15 morphological measures and 491 items, assessing a wide range of skills and tasks that we thought might be applicable for determining the morphological skills that students use to support literacy. Some measures and items worked better than others, and ultimately, we used seven measures and 181 items delivered via computer adaptive testing, so that students take the sample of items that are most closely related to their performance (Mitchell, Truckenmiller, & Petscher, 2015). Student ratings of the assessment suggested that they liked the gamification with over 97% rating it as 3 stars or higher (out of 5), more than 75% rating it 4 stars or higher, and 35% rating it as 5 stars. We note that the larger Monster, PI system assesses morphological, vocabulary, and syntactical knowledge, but we focused here on morphological knowledge because it helps the ideas about morphology within this book come to life.
Our results emphasize that morphological knowledge is multidimensional: why students get items right or wrong is due in part to the structure of the task, but also due to their knowledge of each skill (described below) and their overall general morphological abilities. Skills assessed by Monster, PI include: 1) Students can identify units of meaning; 2) Students can use suffixes to gain syntactic information; 3) Students can use morphology for meaning; and 4) Students can read and spell morphologically complex words. Skill 1 focuses on students being aware of morphemes in general and Skills 2-4 focus on different properties of morphemes (i.e., Skill 2=syntactic, Skill 3=semantic, Skill 4= orthographic and phonological information conveyed by morphemes).
Skill 1: Students can identify units of meaning. We used two measures to assess whether students could identify units of meaning, both in terms of breaking words down and also in terms of connecting to larger words. We used a task titled Odd Man Out, where students were given three words and had to identify the word that did not belong. For example, when looking at estimate, classmate, and roommate, the morpheme mate in classmate and roommate represents the meaning of ‘a person’. Estimate is the odd man out: it is the example where the morphemes do not overlap in terms of meaning. This task forces students to think about how the written language conveys meaning. Our second measure, which we call Meaning Puzzles, asks students to identify the word part that is most helpful in determining the meaning of that word, which in this case can be a morpheme or a morphologically related word that is contained in the larger word. Here, students need to look beyond overlap in spelling to figure out the link to meaning. For example, accusatory has spelling overlap with accurate, accuse, cushion, and custom, but only accuse overlaps in terms of meaning. Hence, a student who knows they can use accuse to figure out accusatory rather than using accurate is more likely to figure out the word’s meaning and apply that meaning to their literacy endeavors. It is important to note that while we had developed other tasks to identify units of meaning in words, these tasks worked best.
In terms of instruction, this skill highlights that we need to help our students think about morphological overlap between words. We need to constantly challenge students to think about how the word’s form and sound conveys links to other words in their morphological family. For example, thinking about astronomy’s relationship to astronaut, and then about the units like astr=star, will build a strong foundation of understanding how units of meaning are put together to convey meaning or even broken down to figure out meaning. We have observed instructional work where students eagerly look up word origins to find overlap, create word webs to identify morphological word families, and find imposters where tricky spellings look like morphemes but are not (see Goodwin & Perkins, 2015 for examples).
Skill 2: Students can use suffixes for syntactic information. While we tend to think about the semantic roles of morphemes, morphemes also play an important role in conveying syntactic information. In other words, knowing how to adapt or interpret the form of detect to fit the phrase ‘the detection of evidence’ is important for helping students deal with the complex syntactical structures involved in text, particularly related to academic language. Two measures assessed this skill. The Real Word Suffix tasks gave students a sentence like ‘The countries benefited _______from their membership in the European Union.’ Students need to identify the correct form of the missing word given four options (financial, financially, finance, financier.) This measure requires students to think about the information the suffix is conveying within a morphologically complex word. Similarly, our Making it Fit task asked students to complete a sentence with the appropriate derivation of a word. For example, students were given the statement Amphibians are _____[create] that live on both land and sea. They had to adjust the root word create to contain the correct suffix for the context: hence creatures. Again, we attempted multiple measures to assess this skill, including a nonword suffix task, but ultimately, these two tasks worked best.
In terms of instruction, this skill highlights the ability to use the syntactic information in a suffix as another clue to a word’s meaning within a larger phrase. Here, we have seen instruction that provides many different phrases and then asks students to adjust the form of the word to fit the phrases. We have also seen students encouraged to play with words like this in their own writing, which draws attention to the syntactical role of the suffixes. One key here is that Goodwin and Perkins (2015) suggest this as one of many strategies students can use to figure out the meaning of unknown words within phrases. So if students read complex texts and show confusion, teachers may draw attention to the syntactic role of suffixes as a way to scaffold meaning making.
Skill 3: Students can use morphology for meaning. This skill is perhaps the one that most often comes to mind when we think about uses of morphological knowledge in supporting literacy: the ability to use the semantic information in morphemes to figure out meanings of related words. Students completed a task titled Word Detectives where they read sentences and then used units of meaning to figure out the meaning of the morphologically complex word. For example, students read, The experiment required materials to be equidistant. The materials are a) equal in size and weight; b) spaced out evenly from each other; c) from far away locations; d) ordered spatially. Students had to identify the two units equi and distant and connect those to the meanings provided. The skill represented here is what Anglin (1993) would call word-solving, which our research team built upon and describe further in Pacheco and Goodwin (2013).
In terms of instruction, this skill highlights the importance of getting students to use units of meaning to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word. We have seen students reading texts and marking unknown words with flags, then writing those words on sticky notes so that they (alone or with a partner) can box units like root words that they know. They can then add up the meanings of the separate units to estimate a meaning and then reread the text with that meaning to determine whether their hypothesis makes sense. See Goodwin and Perkins (2015) for more examples.
Skill 4: Students can read and spell morphologically complex words. The final skill identified from our work is the ability to read and spell morphologically complex words. This skill connects to the orthographic and phonological information conveyed via morphemes. For example, knowing the spelling of the word know can help a student to spell knowledge (not nolidj). Similarly, knowing how to read finance can support reading financially. Much work has shown these relationships (see Goodwin, Gilbert, & Cho, 2013), and the reason is that students’ experience building and applying knowledge of these patterns in reading and spelling builds higher quality lexical representations, which they are able to use in their literacy endeavors (Goodwin, Gilbert, Cho, & Kearns, 2014). Our two measures ask students to spell a morphologically complex word they hear and also to choose between three pronunciations of a morphologically complex word they see.
Instructionally, this indicates the importance of highlighting the overlap between morphological patterns and spelling and phonological patterns. In other words, if a student doesn’t know how to spell a word, they may support sounding out the spelling with consideration of the units of meaning being conveyed by that word. Similarly, if faced with an unknown word, a student may be able to find a part of the word that they know how to read and use that unit to support reading of the larger word.
So, why does it matter that we now have this assessment that teachers can use to identify their students’ morphological strengths and weaknesses related to these four morphological skills? First, we think considering morphological knowledge as more than a single skill is important in highlighting why study after study shows the important role of morphological knowledge in literacy outcomes. Second, we think these skills provide us with an instructional view and plan. As a teacher, I can attune my students to the multiple roles of morphemes by drawing their attention to the different ways morphemes convey semantic, syntactic, orthographic, and phonological information. In doing this, I can give students the key to the code of print which they can then use to support their literacy endeavors.
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