GUEST POST: My Journey from Mayhem to Morphology

GUEST POST: My Journey from Mayhem to Morphology

By Holly Shapiro

Holly Shapiro PH.D., CCC-SLP is the Founder and Director of Ravinia Reading Center, the only reading clinic on Earth owned and staffed entirely by speech-language pathologists. For 30 years, Holly has honed her practice as uncompromisingly pro-science and pioneering in its approach to linguistics-based instruction. Holly has had sustained success leveraging expertise of speech pathologists' training to teach children customized instruction that harmonizes phonology, morphology and etymology. Holly has previously contributed a guest digest to our blog, and is our our reading expert.

I became a high school speech pathologist after earning a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology. When I was in school, Speech and Language Pathologists (SLPs) didn't learn a whole lot about orthography. We learned many things, but not much about how words are written. I realized pretty quickly that I needed to go back to school, so I did just that. I earned a Doctorate, became a learning disability specialist, rented an office, bought a suit and set up a private practice.

Today, I am able to see how much of what I use now is what I actually did learn during my SLP preservice training, even though I initially didn’t make that connection.

I remember this mantra from my Doctoral program:

Goodman and Smith Top-Down, Perfetti and Stanovich Bottom-Up.

The Top-Down theorists believed that readers are the source of meaning (1), (2). A skilled reader samples the text, but the print itself takes a lesser role in comparison to how the reader interacts with it. Bottom-Up theorists, on the other hand, believed that skilled readers look at the writing itself, and pretty thoroughly at that (3), (4). While I was working on my doctorate, I remember wondering, like it was yesterday, which theory our professors believed had merit. I asked a classmate; she didn't know either. I never did figure that out.

So, when someone recommended that I check out a Teachers Applying Whole Language Conference in order to help myself as a newly minted specialist teach a new round of students, I did know something about what I was getting into. At this conference, I was told that the best way to help students read was to encourage them to predict words using pictures, surrounding context, and their own prior knowledge.

It's the reader who constructs meaning, they said. I wanted to believe this was my answer. But the doubts were there too and I hadn't even left the venue.

I handed in a question for Q and A time:

But don't we read, at times, to learn something new?”

They didn't pick that question.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

They said we should teach students to read the same way they learned to speak, which is to say they will learn if they grow up in a literature-rich environment, with exposure to predictable books. I wanted so much to help my students, but those doubts kept nagging me. As a speech pathologist, I knew full well that oral language doesn’t always come along easily.

Many colleagues in education remain certain*. But I was never one to be too sure. As time went on, I turned my focus away from Whole Language and taught my students using phonics. It wasn't like today. Phonics, in fact, was highly out of favor. My one-time home room teacher, the principal and the school psychologist (who knew me well, by the way) laughed at and belittled me for using phonics to help a student we shared.

By the end of the day, this twenty-four year old, not-so-newly- minted Ph.D. was sobbing on the steering wheel.

Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

About 10 years after I started using phonics, it earned an endorsement from the National Reading Panel: Children taught with phonics generally experience better outcomes than children taught with whole language (see this report).

In other words, I was right all along.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

The OED defines phonics as “a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system”. And therein lies the problem – but I didn't know it yet. For several years I continued to search within phonics, immersing myself in all kinds of workshops and professional development offerings.

One thing I remember is poring over word lists for weeks at a time trying to figure out how to teach students when to use "tion" and when to use "sion." Nothing I tried actually worked. There was still so much I couldn't explain. I invested in more trainings, workshops, workbooks, and materials.  If it existed at the time, there was a pretty good chance I bought it, tried it, or trained in it**.

For so long, I thought the problem was me not understanding the systems I was gathering--not the other way around.

It was time to pay attention to the words I was teaching. I was carefully curating lists of words so students could practice the phonics rules I was teaching them. I was getting tired of dredging up the same words over and over: cactus, picnic, dentist, locate, remote, Chippendale, badminton and fig.

In 2003, Sally Shaywitz's book Overcoming Dyslexia came out. I got my hands on it as soon as I could and read it right away. The book covered a lot of ground, but what I couldn't get out of my head was one of her conclusions regarding fluency. Students acquire fluency "word by word," she said. There were a lot of words I was sweeping under the carpet.

image from Wikimedia

image from Wikimedia

About a year later, I read a study published in Annals of Dyslexia entitled, “Training reading fluency in dysfluent readers with high reading accuracy: word specific effects but low transfer to untrained words” (5).

The investigators found that "remarkable" amount of repetitions on trained words with certain consonant clusters did not generalize to untrained words with the same consonant clusters.

I had to liberate myself.

I started to think about word frequency. I began the mammoth project of collecting the 20,000 most common words. Armed with my corpus, I placed as many as I could into the extensive phonics scope and sequence I had been using for many years. I was going to fix this.

A year and a half later (that's how long it took), my new practice materials were stocked with words that my students would be most likely to encounter in the real world. In short, I made the language of books the target of reading instruction. Chippendale be gone!

This was phonics, so there was still an exception pile. There were literally thousands of words that, according to phonics, were exceptions.

Teaching through the lens of phonics was unwieldy and frankly getting ridiculous. It's not that the students weren't improving; they were. But could they get more? Could it be better?

For a long time, I stayed with the program and taught common words like often, been, come, move, really, and two as irregular. I got to the point where I couldn't stand doing it for one more minute. So I got rid of the irregular pile and shifted towards synthetic phonics in the style of the U.K. National curriculum (see here) along with a handful of programs here in the U.S. Everyone points to the evidence base supporting phonics instruction and the five pillars of literacy promoted by the National Reading Panel (NRP). But the NRP findings were published over fifteen years ago. Even though I was happy with where I was, it wasn't like I was going to stop reading papers and learning about newer findings.

As the years went by, I couldn't help but notice a trend. The tide was shifting, and I was not going to be left out. One study, then another, then another was demonstrating the greater benefits of morphological awareness instruction especially for younger and less able readers. It was in my face, it was telling me I wasn't good enough, and it was right.

These newer studies told me there could be a better way. Here are some highlights from the literature:

•     Reed (2008) reviewed seven intervention studies and provided a narrative description of effect sizes on word identification, spelling and vocabulary. She found positive effects for morphological awareness instruction, with the strongest effects for students with literacy difficulties (6).

•     Wolter (2009) conducted a systematic review designed to help speech-language pathologists make evidence-based decisions regarding literacy instruction. Wolter looked at 13 studies and concluded that morphological awareness benefits literacy development in children with and without LD as young as second grade and as advanced as seventh grade. The evidence further supported giving students opportunities to practice new skills in the context of actual reading and writing (7).

•     Bowers, Kirby, and Deacon (2010) included 22 studies in their review, obtaining simple averages of effect sizes and standard deviations. They found that morphological instruction contributed to improvement in phonological awareness, morphological awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and spelling. Again, morphology was especially beneficial to the youngest and lowest achieving children (8).

•     Carlisle's (2010) integrative review includes 16 studies in her analysis. She concluded that morphological intervention had a positive effect on phonology, orthography and vocabulary development. Note, again, that instruction in morphological awareness lead to gains in phonological awareness. Carlisle noted in her review that “even kindergartners can acquire morphological awareness, if this is what they are taught.” (9).

What I really couldn't ignore: teaching morphology can remediate difficulties with phonemic awareness and younger and lower achieving children benefited the most.

I went from piles of words to piles of studies.

Image from

Image from

The more I read, the more research I find to add to the piles of studies supporting the need to rethink phonics as inseparable from and governed by morphology and etymology. Here are a couple of single studies to mention that are of interest to me:

•     One study from 2013 looked at teaching 5 to 7 year old students and compared a traditional phonics condition (the U.K. National curriculum) with an intervention that integrated etymology, morphology, orthography and phonology. Their novel intervention focused on "making children aware of the way the English writing system works, in terms of all levels of representation." I was particularly excited to see they instructed the children in "form rules." The children were shown, for example, that certain letter combinations are not permitted in English, along with a bit of alphabet history so they could understand why. The investigators found the more integrative intervention to improve reading skills over and above the phonics condition and concluded that “early teaching of English literacy should include instruction in morphology.”(10).

•     In a 2016 study, Lyster and colleagues looked at the long term effects of morphological awareness training in preschoolers. One group of children received morphological awareness training, while a second group received phonological awareness training. A control group followed the ordinary preschool curriculum. Children were tested on reading ability at the end of first grade and five years later in sixth grade. It's important to note that all of the children were taught with a phonics, a program with "a strong focus on the alphabetic principle and grapheme–phoneme correspondences." The investigators found a positive effect of morpheme training in preschool on reading comprehension in sixth grade. The students who had the morphological awareness training, as sixth graders, “brought with them additional knowledge about word meaning and form that they might have applied when learning to read, especially when reading more demanding texts.”(11).

The evidence base is compelling indeed.

I've been talking a lot about research lately, and how it's helped me understand my teaching practice in a bigger context. But as Dylan William says - and I agree - teachers should “be seeking to improve their practice through a process of ‘disciplined inquiry’”.


"Educational research can only tell us what was, not what might be."

This post is an abridged version of Holly’s series on her blog.


(1) Goodman, K.S. (1986). What's whole in whole language: A parent-teacher guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

(2) Smith, F. (1988). Understanding reading (4th ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

(3) Perfetti, C.A. (1980). Verbal coding efficienty, conceptually guided reading, and reading failure. Bulletin of the Orton Society, 30, 197-208.

(4) Stanovich, K.E. (1980). Toward an interactive-compensatory model of individual differences in the development of reading fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 32-71.

(5) Thaler, V., Ebner, E.M., Wimmer, H., & Landeri, K., (2004). Training reading fluency in dysfluent readers with high reading accuracy: Word specific effects but low transfer to untrained words. Annals of Dyslexia, 54, 89-111.

(6) Reed, D. K. (2008). A synthesis of morphology interventions and effects on reading outcomes for students in grades K-12. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 23, 36–49.

(7) Wolter, J.A. (2009). A systematic research review of word study treatment practices for the speech-language pathologist. Evidence-Based Practice Briefs, 3, 43-58.

(8) Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & Deacon, S. H. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80, 144-179.

(9) Carlisle, J. F. (2010). Effects of instruction in morphological awareness on literacy achievement: An integrative review. Reading Research Quarterly45, 464-487.

(10) Devonshire, V., Morris, P., & Fluck, M. (2013). Spelling and reading development: The effect of teaching children multiple levels of representation in their orthography. Learning and Instruction25, 85-94.

(11) Lyster, Solveig-Alma Halaas; Lervåg, Arne & Hulme, Charles (2016). Preschool morphological training produces long-term improvements in reading comprehension. Reading and Writing, 29, 1269-1288.


*If you hear something about Guided Reading, Reading Recovery, Balanced Literacy, Leveled Literacy, Fountas and Pinnell reading levels, RAZ Kids, miscue analysis, running records, word walls, and probably more that I'm unaware of you, might be looking at a similar premise with a new name.

**Discover Intensive Phonics, Auditory Discrimination in Depth, How to Teach Spelling, Spellbound, Phono-Graphix, Recipe for Reading, Project Read, Alphabetic Phonics, Spaulding, Slingerland, Hooked on Phonics, Jolly Phonics, Letterland, Language!, Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum, Road to the Code, Read Naturally, Great Leaps, Morgan Dynamic Phonics, Wilson, SLANT System, Sonday System, Starting Over, S.P.I.R.E, Fun Phonics, Megawords, Solving Language Difficulties, Explode the Code, Lexia, Sounds Abound, Angling for Words, Fast Track Reading Program, REWARDS, Language Tool Kit, Advanced Language Tool Kit, The Alphabet Series, WORDS, Primary Phonics, Touchphonics, Right into Reading, Preventing Academic Failure, RAVE-O.

There's more where that came from.