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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of a young boy reading a book.

Sight words. Demon words. Red words. Irregular words. Maverick words. There is a lot of instructional time spent teaching students to memorize words that do not seem to "play fair" or are just plain crazy. What would you think if I told you there was a way to teach the sense for what has been long taught as nonsensical? Would you read on?

For the purposes of this post, I'll define a sight word as a word that does not have a readily obvious sound-to-symbol correlation. The fact is that our written language is morphophonemic, which means we cannot pronounce a word until we know what phonemes the graphemes are representing within a morpheme, and we must consider the history (etymology) of the word. So if you look deeper, you will see that these words are perfectly sensible. You just have to know how to find the sense.

Miraculous Morphemes

It will take only two words to demonstrate this concept. Think about the words does and goes. We can all agree that these words are taught as irregular words which need to be memorized for reading and spelling. But if we look for their morphemes, something remarkable happens. Does and goes reveal themselves as regular after all, presenting the perfect opportunity to explain that the way we pronounce words changes over time, but the spelling does not.

A table of the morphological matrix of the words "do" and "go."

Linguistics is a science, and orthography should be taught that way. Our students should be taught to seek evidence for particular spellings and pronunciations. Let's investigate the word two. The first thing a student should do is come up with a scientific hypothesis about why this word contains the letter w and then go in search of the evidence. Sooner or later, they come up with this evidence: the w is there to mark the relationship of the word two with twice, twin, between, twenty, twilight, and so many more. Here is a graphic of the investigative process:

A graphic of the investigative process of the letter "w" in the word "two."

Teaching Words That Defy Logic

First, there must be a conversation about what the word means. We have to instill in our students that our written language is based on meaning in addition to phonology. So having a student "sound out" a word will not work in many instances, and we brand those as sight words. Let’s use the word people to illustrate how to teach sight words.

After reaching a consensus about the meaning of the word, it's time to check out its history or etymology at Etymonline. There you will learn that people is derived from the Latin populous. This is a great opportunity to talk about how many English words started as Latin words. Invite the students to pose a hypothesis (with some guidance, of course). "Is it possible that the o in people is there to mark its connection to populous or population?" It's certainly plausible since they share meaning. Lo and behold, a quick trip to Etymonline confirms that population is related to people. Aha! That's why that pesky o is in people. It's not crazy at all. That letter is called an etymological marker, and yes, our students do understand this terminology when we use it often.

Now that the students understand the spelling of this word, they are more likely to spell it correctly and also be able to read it aloud. Now they can invoke what they know about phonology and pronounce it /pe pəl/.

Lastly, when students come across a sight word, or a word that they cannot remember how to spell or read, they now know how to investigate that particular word while learning a little more about English orthography.

Entering the Matrix

Let’s end with the word sign and use visual representation to teach about true word families and how the pronunciation of a word can shift based on its morphological parts. Can you come up with a hypothesis about the job of the letter g in sign? It's important to let the students notice the phonological shifts and announce them to you. This matrix was created for free at the Mini Matrix Maker Home Page:

A morphological matrix of the word "sign."

The students can also build word sums with the word sign. As they create these word sums, they announce each letter (not the word as a whole) and when they get to the arrow, they announce that the word is "rewritten as" and write the word as a whole.

Below are three sample word sums derived from the matrix above:

sign + al ⇒ signal
sign + ate + ure ⇒ signature
de + sign + ate ⇒ designate

Students find it so refreshing when they learn that English is not crazy, and when they have the tools they need to do word investigations. They light up when they finally understand that English is an evolutionary language that has evolved over time, but they have to investigate to understand how a word came to be spelled in its current iteration. This is just the tip of the iceberg -- there is so much more that we can share with our students. Here is a great video to kick off Structured Word Inquiry (the official name for this type of instruction) and help you and your students enjoy the journey you're about to take together:

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Linda Pieterse's picture
Linda Pieterse
Teach Syllables for Better Reading

Teaching morphological relations of not-so-easy-to-spell words is certainly a good idea - and yes, children usually do understand the concept (and are usually amazed that language does make sense.)
However, I'm not sure that all teachers are aware of morphological and etymological concepts - or know how to explain them to their students.

Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D.'s picture
Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D.
Dyslexia Expert and Advocate

Thank you for reading the article. I do agree that most teachers are not aware of these concepts - and that should be a tragedy. I am only proposing that we teach the actuality of our language. Incidentally, I teach teachers this stuff all the time and they LOVE it, so if we made it compulsory it would be well-received. In the mean time, I'll keep sharing what I learn. Thank you again for agreeing that this is a good strategy! Here is another article you might find interesting: http://www.reading.org/reading-today/classroom/post/engage/2014/10/14/dy...

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Experimental evidence has converged on the point that morphological structure is represented in the mental lexicon. Though, different models have been proposed on the role that morphological decomposition plays in reading complex words. Clear research evidence explains that word identification in learning to read requires a phonological mechanism that generates phonological word forms. A phonological constituent applies as soon as the kid begins to treat the letters of a word as having speech associated with them. However, the role of morphology in learning to read is less well understood. How children learn to recognize more complex words on the basis of their constituent parts remains to be established. Carlisle and Fleming investigated the role of morphological awareness in learning to read English. Their study explores emerging lexical processes that may be the foundation for early elementary children's attainment of morphological knowledge and the relation of these processes to the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Samantha Scimeca's picture

Gina Cooke was my instructor for my linguistics course. She is fantastic. I recognized "the onion" immediately!

H Bullock's picture

Love the idea of adding a matrix graphic to "collect" and organize related words/roots. Can't wait to share this by rt on Twitter now and using it in my classroom in the fall. Thank you!

educ8ter1's picture

Using the morphological relations is eye opening and using the matrix is a fantastic visual. My experience when working with children struggling to learn to read is that they need to make that letter-sound relationship in the beginning (many of these students need to improve phonemic awareness as well). The words like "does" or "signal" change in pronunciation from their "root" words and may confuse children that need that initial consistency with sounds, which is why the "sight words" are generally taught separately. At what point would you recommend using this linguistic strategy? Would it be for older children?

Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D.'s picture
Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D.
Dyslexia Expert and Advocate

I would submit that morphology needs to be taught early because our language is morphemic, which means that the reader/speller needs to understand the morphological boundaries in order to under the phonology. Take the words and . The changes its phoneme based on the morphological boundaries, and yes, very young and struggling kids get this. Here is some research for you (and there is more): Bowers, P.N., Cooke, G. (2012, Fall). Morphology and the Common Core: Building students' understanding of the Written Word. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 31-35
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.
Bowers, P.N. & Kirby, J.R. (2010) Effects of Morphological instruction on Vocabulary Acquisition, Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23, 515-537.
Kirby, J.R. & Bowers, P.N. (2012). Morphology Works. What Works? Research into Practice, Ontario Ministry of Education Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.
Kirby, J.R., Deacon, S.H., Bowers, P.N., Izenberg, L. Wade-Wooley, L., Parrila, R. (2012) Morphological awareness and reading ability, Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 25, 389-410.

Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D.'s picture
Kelli Sandman-Hurley, Ed.D.
Dyslexia Expert and Advocate

Nope, not for older kids at all. In fact, this should begin in kindergarten before they develop the bad habit of believing that our written language is based on phonology first, when in fact it is morphology. Showing them the reasoning for the g in sign doesn't confuse them, it excites them when they realize that English isn't crazy. They want to know more and they start to investigate. Showing a struggling reader a matrix with sign in the middle and having them notice the pronunciation shift based on the morphology is enlightening and exciting. They never look at words the same way, in fact they finally realize that there is sense to the language. Also, it is important for educators to realize that terms like 'phonemic awareness' have been lifted from linguistics and is often used incorrectly. Phonemic awareness is a psychological construct. When a student spells try as *triy they are often said to have poor phonemic awareness, but in reality that is stellar awareness to the fact that there are four phones in the word try but three phonemes. We can't keep teaching kids that our written language is based on sound first, which is far more confusing then the truth, because that is factually incorrect, it is based on meaning first and then phonology. There is no such thing as a sight words (that's what people call words they can't explain) because every letter has a reason for being in every word and it is our job as educators to help students investigate those reasons - starting in kindergarten. Here is a good resource to help with the younger kids: http://wordsinbogor.blogspot.ca and check this out as well: www.linguisteducatorexchange.com.

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