Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes (Improving Learning)

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  • Improving Literacy byTeaching Morphemes

    Words consist of units of meaning, called morphemes. These morphemeshave a striking effect on spelling that has been largely neglected untilnow. For example, nouns that end in -ian are words that refer topeople, and so when this ending is attached to magic we can tell thatthe resulting word means someone who produces magic. Knowledge ofthis rule, therefore, helps us with spelling: it tells us that this word isspelled as magician and not magicion.

    This book by Terezinha Nunes, Peter Bryant and their colleaguesshows how important and necessary it is for children to find out aboutmorphemes when they are learning to read and to spell. The bookconcentrates on how to teach children about the morphemic structureof words and on the beneficial effects of this teaching for childrensspelling and for the breadth of their vocabulary. It reports the results ofseveral studies in the laboratory and in school classrooms of the effectsof teaching children about a wide variety of morphemes. These projectsshowed that schoolchildren enjoy learning about morphemes and thatthis learning improves their spelling and their vocabulary as well. Thebook, therefore, suggests new directions in the teaching of literacy. Itshould be read by everyone concerned with helping children to learn toread and to write.

    Terezinha Nunes is Professor of Educational Studies at the Universityof Oxford and Fellow of Harris-Manchester College, Oxford.

    Peter Bryant is Visiting Professor of Psychology at Oxford BrookesUniversity and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

  • Improving Learning TLRP

    Series Editor: Andrew Pollard, Director of the ESRC Teaching andLearning Programme

    Improving Learning How to Learn: Classrooms, schoolsand networksMary James, Paul Black, Patrick Carmichael, Mary-Jane Drummond,Alison Fox, Leslie Honour, John MacBeath, Robert McCormick, Bethan Marshall, David Pedder, Richard Procter, Sue Swaffield, Joanna Swann and Dylan Wiliam

    Improving Literacy by Teaching MorphemesTerezinha Nunes and Peter Bryant

    Improving Schools, Developing InclusionMel Ainscow, Alan Dyson and Tony Booth

    Improving Subject Teaching: Lessons from research inscience educationJohn Leach, Robin Millar, Jonathan Osborne and Mary Radcliffe

    Improving Workplace LearningKaren Evans, Phil Hodkinson, Helen Rainbird and Lorna Unwin

  • Improving Literacy byTeaching Morphemes

    Edited by Terezinha Nunes and Peter Bryantwith Ursula Pretzlik and Jane Hurry

  • First published 2006by Routledge2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN

    Simultaneously published in the USA and Canadaby Routledge270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016

    Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor and Francis Group, an informa business

    2006 editorial matter and selection, Terezinha Nunes and Peter Bryant; individual chapters, the contributors

    All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

    British Library Cataloguing in Publication DataA catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

    Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication DataA catalog record for this book has been requested

    ISBN10: 0415383129 (hbk)ISBN10: 0415383137 (pbk)

    ISBN13: 9780415383127 (hbk)ISBN13: 9780415383134 (pbk)

    This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2006.

    To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledgescollection of thousands of eBooks please go to

  • We dedicate our book to Nick Pretzlik whose kindnessand cheerful support we remember with greatpleasure

  • Contents

    List of illustrations ixSeries editors preface xiiiAcknowledgements xv

    Part IWhat is the issue? 1

    1 Morphemes and literacy: A starting point 3PETER BRYANT AND TEREZINHA NUNES

    2 What knowledge of morphemes do children and adults show in the way that they spell words? 35TEREZINHA NUNES, PETER BRYANT, URSULA PRETZLIK,


    PART IIWhat does the research tell us? 63

    3 From the laboratory to the classroom 65PETER BRYANT, TEREZINHA NUNES, URSULA PRETZLIK,


    4 An intervention program for teaching children about morphemes in the classroom: Effects on spelling 104FREYJA BIRGISDOTTIR, TEREZINHA NUNES, URSULA PRETZLIK,


  • 5 An intervention program for classroom teaching about morphemes: Effects on the childrens vocabulary 121TEREZINHA NUNES, PETER BRYANT, URSULA PRETZLIK,


    6 Can we increase teachers awareness of morphology and have an impact on their pupils spelling? 134JANE HURRY, TAMSIN CURNO, MARY PARKER, AND


    PART IIIWhat are the overall implications? 155

    7 Morphemes and literacy: Context and conclusions 157TEREZINHA NUNES AND PETER BRYANT

    Appendix 183The four research strategies in this research programPETER BRYANT AND TEREZINHA NUNES

    References 191Index 195

    viii Contents

  • Illustrations


    1.1 The first two pages of a 712-year-old girls story 261.2 Overgeneralizations of the -ed ending by a 712-year-old

    boy 282.1 Percentage of children who spelled each suffix (-ion,

    -ness, and -ed) correctly, by age level 392.2 Percentage of children who spelled each suffix (-ion

    and -ian) in words and pseudowords correctly, by age level 41

    2.3 On the left: Number of correct spellings of regular and irregular verbs in the past and nonverbs ending in /t/ or /d/. On the right: Generalization of -ed to the wrong words 45

    2.4 Proportion of past regular verb endings spelled correctly and produced correctly for pseudowords in an oral task 49

    2.5 Pictures of dinosaurs with their names, which the children were asked to spell 52

    2.6 Proportion of word and pseudoword pairs whose stems were spelled in the same way at each age level 53

    2.7 Proportion of real verb endings spelled correctly with -ed and proportion of stems spelled consistently across two words 55

    2.8 Percentage of correct pseudowords with -ion and -ian spelled correctly and percentage of correct explanations, by age level 57

    2.9 Percentage of correct spellings of one-morpheme and two-morpheme words, by age level 60

    3.1 Design of the first teaching study 68

  • 3.2 The mean number (out of 16) of correctly spelled -ion and -ian endings in real words in Study 1 79

    3.3 The mean number (out of 8) of correctly spelled -ion and -ian endings in pseudowords in Study 1 80

    3.4 The mean number (out of 16) of correctly spelled -ion and -ian endings in real words in Study 2 84

    3.5 The mean number (out of 8) of correctly spelled -ion and -ian endings in pseudowords in Study 2 85

    3.6 Items from a task used to make children aware of how places in a sentence frame define grammatical categories 89

    3.7 Examples of items used to teach the category of prefixes that refer to number 91

    3.8 Focusing on verbs 923.9 Examples of items used to practice identification of

    stems and creation of person words. Playing with pseudowords was fun 93

    3.10 Adjusted means at pretest and for both posttests by group for the correctness of spelling suffixes in Study 3 100

    3.11 Adjusted means at pretest and for both posttests by group for the spelling of suffixes in pseudowords in Study 3 101

    4.1 The adjusted mean scores on the test of spelling suffixes in words (out of a maximum of 26) on each testing occasion for each group 111

    4.2 The adjusted mean scores on the test of spelling polymorphemic words (out of a maximum of 61) on each testing occasion for each group 112

    4.3 The adjusted mean scores on the spelling of suffixes in pseudowords (out of a maximum of 12) on each testing occasion for each group 116

    4.4 The adjusted mean scores on the test of spelling suffixes in words (out of a maximum of 26) on each testing occasion for each intervention group by achievement group in the pretest 118

    5.1 A description and two sample items from the vocabulary test 125

    5.2 Mean scores (adjusted for pretest differences) in the vocabulary test for each testing occasion and group (maximum score = 40) 129

    x Illustrations

  • 5.3 Mean scores by testing occasion and group (adjusted for pretest differences) in the vocabulary test for children who scored up to the median (left) or above (right) in the pretest 130

    5.4 Percentage of correct pseudoword definitions (adjusted for pretest differences) by group and testing occasion 131

    5.5 Percentage correct in the pseudoword-definition test (adjusted for pretest differences) by group and testing occasion 132

    6.1 One-year teacher follow-up 1486.2 Childrens scores on spelling test: A comparison of

    morphology, National Literacy Strategy, and standard conditions 149

    7.1 Writing of a 6-year-old boy who seems to attribute to the digraph ck the function of the split digraph V+C+e 171


    2.1 Number of children in each year group and their mean age 39

    2.2 Proportion of use of -ion and -ian spellings for each of the types of word and pseudoword 42

    3.1 Mean age and standard deviation for the intervention and control groups in Study 1 68

    4.1 Mean age in years (and standard deviation) by type of group 106

    5.1 Number of children, mean age in years (and standard deviation) by year group in school and type of group in the project 124

    6.1 Number of children in each teaching condition, by year group 146

    6.2 Childrens average scores before the course, by teaching condition and year group 147

    6.3 Average percentage increase in the childrens scores by the end of the course, by teaching condition and year group 147


    1.1 A crash course in roots and stems (and bases) 51.2 A crash course in affixes 5

    Illustrations xi

  • 1.3 How psychologists measure morphological awareness 111.4 A collision course with schwa vowels 172.1 Childrens spellings of -ness and -ion by year group in

    school 383.1 The word- and pseudoword-spelling tasks used in

    Studies 1 and 2 693.2 The analogy game 713.3 The correction game 743.4 The items used for the word- and pseudoword-spelling

    tests in Study 3 953.5 Sample of items from the spelling test showing one

    childs answers 974.1 Examples of suggestions for discussion used to focus on

    spelling used with the morphemes-plus-spelling group, which were added to the basic activities in the morphemes-only group 108

    4.2 Examples of the segmentation used in scoring the word- and pseudoword-spelling tests 113

    4.3 A sample of the same boys spelling in the pretest and posttest 114

    5.1 The instructions and the items in the pseudoword-definition task 127

    6.1 Teachers talking about -ed endings 1366.2 Lack of awareness of -ed rule 1376.3 Teachers thinking about morphemes with connection to

    meaning 1386.4 Teachers thinking about morphemes without connection

    to meaning 1396.5 Teachers talking about -ion 1416.6 Theories about morphology and spelling 143

    xii Illustrations

  • Series editors preface

    The Improving Learning series showcases findings from projects withinthe Economic and Social Research Councils Teaching and LearningResearch Programme (TLRP), the UKs largest ever coordinated edu-cational research initiative.

    Books in the Improving Learning series are explicitly designed tosupport evidence-informed decisions in educational practice andpolicymaking. In particular, they combine rigorous social and edu-cational science with high awareness of the significance of the issuesbeing researched.

    Working closely with practitioners, organizations, and agenciescovering all educational sectors, the program has supported many of theUKs best researchers to work on the direct improvement of policy andpractice to support learning. Over sixty projects have been supported,covering many issues across the life course. We are proud to present theresults of this work through books in the Improving Learning series.

    Each book provides a concise, accessible, and definitive overview of innovative findings from a TLRP investment. If more advanced infor-mation is required, the books may be used as a gateway to academicjournals, monographs, websites, etc. On the other hand, shortersummaries and research briefings on key findings are also available via the programs website at

    We hope that you will find the analysis and findings presented inthis book are helpful to you in your work on improving outcomes forlearners.

    Andrew PollardDirector, TLRP

    Institute of Education, University of London

  • Acknowledgements

    As we wrote this book, we became steadily more aware of the hugeeffort by very many colleaguesresearchers, teachers, and illustra-torsand many institutions that made this publication possible. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) was the majorsupporter of the intervention studies through the Teaching and LearningResearch Programme (Grant #L139251015). A previous ESRC grant(#R000237752) and two others by the Medical Research Council(MRC) (G9214719 and G9900004/ID 47376) also gave us essentialsupport for the investigations that made it possible for us to develop theinterventions. We are very grateful for the support of these researchcouncils, without which the research reported here would not have beenpossible.

    Many teachers and children in different schools participated in thelongitudinal phases of this work. In Oxford: Wolvercote First School,Botley Primary School, Cassington Primary School, Kennington PrimarySchool. In London: William Tyndale Primary School, Honeywell Infantsand Junior School, Ravenstone Primary School, and Trinity St. MarysChurch of England School. Miriam Bindman and Gill Surman workedin this initial project and were excellent collaborators.

    The early stages of the development of interventions received theinestimable cooperation of teachers and children in eight schools inLondon and thirteen schools in the Oxford area. In London: BessemerGrange Primary School, Dulwich Hamlet Primary School, Hargrave ParkPrimary School, Brecknock Primary School, Honeywell Primary School,Lauriston Primary School, St. Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School,and St. Michael Church of England Primary School. In Oxfordshire: St. Nicholas Primary School in Abingdon and Wheatley Primary Schoolin Wheatley; and in Oxford: St. Nicholas, Marston, Bayswater MiddleSchool, Larkrise Primary School, Marston Middle School, SS Philip and

  • James Primary School, East Oxford Primary School, Frideswide MiddleSchool, St. Andrews Primary School, Cutteslowe Primary School, NewHinksey Primary School, and Woodfarm Primary School.

    The Directors of the Hillingdon Cluster of Excellence, Rodney Staffordand Peter Shawley, as well as the teachers and children in the schoolsthat participated in the collaboration with Oxford Brookes Universitysupported the largest part of the intervention studies carried out in theclassroom. These were Brookside Primary School, Charville P...


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