Interview with John Walker of Sounds-Write on the teaching of morphology

1. Can you briefly describe Sounds-Write and its relationship to the evidence reported by the US National Reading Panel 2000.

Sounds-Write is a linguistic phonics program for educational professionals teaching reading and spelling all the way through from the first moment children enter school until the secondary years.

The program gives primacy to the speech sounds speakers of English use to communicate, which is why, although it is a genuinely systematic, synthetic phonics approach, it is grounded in speech sounds. Humans everywhere in the world learn to speak their own language without having to be taught. Speaking and listening is biologically primary and so grounding a phonics program in the sounds that children hear and understand makes the approach a perfect starting point.

What is not biologically primary is learning a writing script. Writing has only been around for the past five thousand years: it is a human invention and human inventions need to be taught explicitly, one step at a time. As one expert on the world’s writing systems explains, ‘no infant illiterate absorbs its own script along with its language: writing must be studied’ (Peter T. Daniels, ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ in Daniels, P.T. and Bright, W. (1996), The World’s Writing Systems, CUP, p.2)

Although the US National Reading Panel Report (NRP) doesn’t specify the detail of a high-quality phonics program, it does make no bones about the central ingredients, all of which are contained in the Sounds-Write program.

Sounds-Write begins by teaching single syllable CVC words through the medium of word building, word reading and phoneme manipulation, all of which are privileged in the NRP. As the single letter spellings of all the common speech sounds are taught, complexity is introduced a bit at a time, and from CVC words, children are taught how to segment, blend and manipulate phonemes in structurally more complex words at the level of CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC, before moving on to the basic consonant digraphs. At the heart of this is the explicit teaching of phoneme awareness (PA), always in the context of words and spelling. As the NRP states, ‘PA instruction does not qualify as phonics instruction when it teaches children to manipulate sounds in speech, but it does qualify when it teaches children to segment or blend phonemes with letters’.

At this point, all children are also beginning to understand clearly and in the concrete context of real words the concept that sounds can be spelt with one or two letters. We also strongly recommend that children are given huge amounts of practice through activities such as word building and reading, dictation and reading decodable books that conform to the order in which sound-spelling correspondences are taught in the program.

From there, Sounds-Write takes children in Years 1 and 2 systematically through the remaining 140 or so common spellings. Having thoroughly absorbed the idea that sounds can be spelt in more than one way, our program teaches children how to read and write polysyllabic words, once again with the orientation of simple to more complex.

2. How and when does sounds-write teaches morphology and etymology.

As I have explained in a recent blog post, it is very easy indeed to teach inflections, such as -s, -ing, and -ed. It’s easy because children come into school using these grammatical forms naturally in their spoken language and many simple combining, inflectional morphemes are spelt with one or two-letter spelling.

There needs to be a clear scope and sequence for teaching phonics, developing vocabulary and for teaching morphology and etymology. What this implies is that teachers need to have very good subject knowledge and to have a clear idea of how all of these areas of the curriculum are inter-meshed and the order in which they are best taught.

Thus, once the teacher is satisfied that it is appropriate to introduce the idea of bound morphemes to young children and that this introduction won’t overload them with too much information, simple inflections can be discussed.

Derivational morphemes are a slightly different kettle of fish in that they alter meaning. Simple derivational morphemes, like un-, dis-, anti- and suffixes such as -or, -al, can be introduced quite quickly once the teaching of polysyllabic words has begun. Afterwards, greater complexity can be added and more complex prefixes and suffixes, such as the different ways of spelling the suffix ‘-shun’, can be discussed along with their meanings and, if teachers have the subject knowledge, the linguistic derivations of the affixes.

3. I have recently been investigating structured word inquiry (SWI). Proponents of SWI seem to be of the view that phonics programmes completely ignore morphology and etymology and point to a lack of research into morphology and etymology by reading researchers as evidence. How do you respond?

Although it may be the case that some phonics programs don’t go as far as teaching morphology and etymology, both aspects are carefully sequenced within Sounds-Write from K to Y6. Both have an important place within a literacy program but the idea of introducing prefixes and suffixes, never mind talking about etymology, before children can decode is absurd. [As Friedrich Engels never said, ‘Have these gentlemen every taught a class of young children?’] Once children have been given a basic grounding in their knowledge of the code, are building ever more fluent skills (to automaticity), and have acquired a better conceptual understanding of how the code works in order to read, write and understand with greater accuracy what they are reading and writing, the teaching of morphology and etymology can run seamlessly in parallel.

4. SWI apparently teaches morphology and etymology from the very start of reading instruction. Can you expand a little more on why you find this ‘absurd’ and why you chose a different approach?

The English alphabet code was written to represent the individual sounds in the language, one at a time from left to right across the page and from simple to more complex over time. The English writing system is, arguably, the most complex alphabetical writing system in existence and it takes at least three years to learn if it taught systematically. It was not written to represent multi-sound units, such as, for instance, onsets and rimes. Teaching morphemes from the start is no different from teaching a part-word or whole language strategy and will result in large numbers of children failing to learn to read. In fact, it is putting the morphological cart before the syllabic horse.

Even later when children’s knowledge and skills are much greater, it makes no sense to introduce a word like ‘orthodontist’ by teaching it first as ‘ortho-’ ‘don’ ‘-tist’. What young children are able to do is to separate syllables in words, very often before they even start school. Without knowing the meaning of the word, young children can clap the syllables in ‘orthodontist’ as or | tho | don | tist. This ability comes naturally because first language speakers of English are able to identify syllables in polysyllabic words without having to be taught.

In fact, I often find that children are better at syllabifying polysyllabic words than some teachers, precisely because the teachers are over-influenced by spelling, whereas children are listening for what they hear in speech. Ask a class of children to clap the syllables in ‘orthodontist’ and they’ll almost certainly give you ‘or’ ‘tho’ ‘don’ ‘tist’. Once that’s done and any problems with spellings in the word have been ironed out, attention can be turned to the morphology of the word. Elements of morphology can quickly be related to other words, such as ‘orthography’, ‘orthodoxy’, and ‘orthopaedics’.

If, as they claim, SWI advocates also teach phonics, what they are reduced to is a version of analytic phonics – teaching sound-spelling correspondences only in the context of teaching the morphemes they deem worthy of introducing, which is likely to be random and extremely unsystematic.

5. How do you respond to the claim made by proponents of SWI that the primary function of the English spelling system is to represent meaning?

The answer to this is straightforward. Of course, the aim of teaching phonics is to enable children to establish meaning. If the word or words they are reading are established in their spoken repertoires, they should have no difficulty reading provided they are able to decode. If children are unable to decode, they won’t get out of the traps in the first place and the emphasis should always be on this as a first step.

The truth is that no successful writing system has ever been based on meaning. Where they have, they have quickly been abandoned as unworkable and unlearnable. What has replaced earlier attempts has been writing systems based on the sound structure of the particular language. In the case of English and because of the complexity of the syllable structure of the language – it has been estimated that there sixteen syllable types, not counting plurals, and that there are 55,000 legal syllables and this is to say nothing of the 70+ combinations of legal adjacent consonants – the writing system is an alphabetic one based on the individual sounds of the language, of which there are forty-four. It is these forty-four or so sounds in English which provide us with a firm basis from which to teach.

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