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IES Grant

Title: Making Meaning: Morphological Processing and Its Contribution to Adolescent and Pre-Adolescent Literacy
Center: NCER Year: 2006
Principal Investigator: McCutchen, Deborah Awardee: University of Washington
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $834,155
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305H060073

Purpose: Research has begun to document relationships between children's literacy achievement (both reading and writing) and their morphological awareness-that is, the ability to recognize, reflect on, and manipulate meaningful word parts such as roots and suffixes. Much of this work has been correlational, allowing for few causal arguments regarding underlying mechanisms. The goal of the proposed project is to understand further the mechanisms by which morphological insights are used by children to increase their vocabulary and comprehension.

Project Activities: This project examines processes supporting reading comprehension in students in the upper elementary and middle school grades, with primary attention to morphological awareness, and its contribution to comprehension, vocabulary, and spelling. The project involves three specific aims: (1) identify, through controlled experiments, possible mechanisms by which students in grades 5 and 8 use the morphological structure of words during reading to decode unfamiliar words and access their meanings; (2) examine the extent to which the use of semantic decomposition and ortho-phonemic mapping is related to skill level, or whether these are alternative strategies determined by factors other than skill; and (3) conduct an instructional experiment on alternative approaches to increasing morphological awareness and comprehension, in order to test competing theoretical mechanisms: (a) semantic decomposition (i.e., analyzing the semantic information in novel words and inducing word meaning by combining subword meanings), and (b) ortho-phonemic mapping (recognizing phonemic patterns within novel words, combining the patterns into a pronounceable longer string, and scanning the lexicon for a related meaning). The experimenters will also examine the feasibility of specific instruction in each of these two approaches.

Products: The products from this study include a clearer understanding of the mechanisms underlying the function of morphological knowledge during reading by older elementary and middle school students; data on the impact of two approaches to teaching morphological awareness; and published reports.

Structured Abstract

Purpose: Despite increased recognition of the need to improve adolescent literacy, recent national results indicate that since 1992 there has been no increase in the percentage of 8th grade students scoring at or above the level of proficiency. Much of the variation in vocabulary in later elementary school and beyond involves morphologically related words, and may depend on students' ability to recognize and take advantage of morphological relationships among words during reading. Although many vocabulary researchers theorize that morphological awareness is involved in the observed explosion of children's reading vocabulary over the elementary years, competing explanations exist. Even among researchers who argue for the importance of morphological awareness in vocabulary and comprehension, the specific mechanisms underlying morphology's role in comprehension have not been specified.

Setting: The schools are located in the state of Washington.

Population: Fifth and eighth grade students from private and public elementary and middle schools will participate, including both skilled and less-skilled readers.

Intervention: The researchers will compare two intervention conditions with a treated control condition. The intervention conditions are designed to explore the specific nature of the lexical components children use as they attempt to comprehend complex, multi-morphemic words in connected text. One intervention, the semantic decomposition condition, is designed to help children develop skills in morphological decomposition, that is, to strategically segment and semantically analyze the morphological units within words (e.g., "Remember, what does -less on the end of word usually mean? Do you see a familiar root word inside this word? What could this longer word mean?"). The second condition, the ortho-phonemic condition, provides instruction and activities to help children fluently decode recognizable orthographic units within words, without stressing semantic analysis (e.g., "Does anyone see a familiar pattern of letters in this word? How do we usually pronounce them? How would we pronounce this longer word?").

Research Design and Methods: Studies 1 and 2 employ experimental designs in which 5th and 8th grade students make lexical decisions to words with various morphological characteristics. Study 3 is also an experimental design, requiring 5th and 8th grade students to infer the meanings of single-morpheme or multi-morpheme words within a discourse context. Studies 1-3 will employ a repeated-measures design in which each child will serve as his or her own control across conditions. Study 4 is an experimental design with fifth graders that involves a comparison of two intervention conditions with a treated control condition. For Study 4, students within each participating classroom will be randomly assigned to one of the three conditions.

Control Condition: In Study 4, students in the control condition will read and discuss grade-appropriate texts.

Key Measures: Students will complete a battery of standardized tests to generate a profile of reading skill for each participant. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-3 (PPVT-3, Dunn & Dunn, 1997) will be administered as a measure of receptive vocabulary. Reading comprehension will be assessed through standard group administration of the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test 3rd Edition (MacGinitie & MacGinitie, 1989). Spelling skills will be assessed using a group-administered adaptation of the spelling test developed by Nagy et al., 2003), which contains multi-morpheme words. In addition, students will complete the Word Attack and Word Identification subtests from the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised (WRMT-R, Woodcock, 1987) and the Phoneme Elision subtest from the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP, Wagner, Torgesen & Rashotte, 1999). In each study, students will also complete study-specific measures of reading comprehension.

Data Analytic Strategy: For Studies 1-2, reaction times and accuracies will be analyzed using repeated measures ANOVAs. For Study 3, comprehension measures and definition accuracies will be submitted to repeated measures ANOVAs. In Study 4, ANCOVAs and growth modeling will be used to examine differences among the three treatment groups.


Book chapter

McCutchen, D. (2012). Phonological, Orthographic, and Morphological Word-Level Skills Supporting Multiple Levels of the Writing Process. In V. Berninger (Ed.), Past, Present, and Future Contributions of Cognitive Writing Research to Cognitive Psychology (pp. 197–216). New York: Psychology Press.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

McCutchen, D., and Logan, B. (2011). Inside Incidental Word Learning: Children's Strategic Use of Morphological Information to Infer Word Meanings. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(4): 334–349.

McCutchen, D., and Stull, S. (2015). Morphological Awareness and Children's Writing: Accuracy, Error, and Invention. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28(2): 271–289.

McCutchen, D., Green, L., Abbott, R.D., and Sanders, E. (2009). Further Evidence for Teacher Knowledge: Supporting Struggling Readers in Grades Three Through Five. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 22(4): 401–423.

McCutchen, D., Green, L., and Abbott, R.D. (2008). Children's Morphological Knowledge: Links to Literacy. Reading Psychology, 29(4): 289–314.

McCutchen, D., Logan, B., and Biangardi-Orpe, U. (2009). Making Meaning: Children's Sensitivity to Morphological Information During Word Reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(1): 360–376.

McCutchen, D., Stull, S., Herrera, B.L., Lotas, S., and Evans, S. (2014). Putting Words to Work Effects of Morphological Instruction on Children's Writing. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(1): 86–97.