Basket Case

Over the summer I had the privilege of traveling to Pennsylvania to work with some old colleagues and make some new ones. The travel itself is a slog — three hours in a car, four hours on a plane, several more hours in a rental car for a few days, another four hours on a plane, another three hours in a car. By the time I get home, all I want to do is watch a little Netflix and go to bed, but my brain doesn’t wind down so easily. After my return, I found myself turning over a couple of conversations in my head. I didn’t consider them to be related, but of course, there are no coincidences.

The first thing I kept turning over was something I heard from a colleague while I was on the road. She was summarizing for me some comments she had heard from a bigwig phonics apologist (we’ll call her BW for BigWig) during a professional development event. So first, I want to acknowledge that this is total hearsay; I am now reporting this to you third-hand, which is probably irresponsible, but it’s not like I’m going out on a very far limb: it’s a ubiquitous perspective, and one that confronts me a lot in my work. A lot of people are laboring through the whole erroneous sound-it-out, A-is-for-Apple thing out there. But this story was sticking with me because it offers such clear evidence that people highly trained in multisensory structured language education are getting really bad information, right from the top, as though it were scientific or factual. Again.

It went something like this: after a lively discussion about language and teaching, the training session ended with BW admonishing her teacher trainers: “You’ll hear a lot of talk out there about morphology and etymology,” she said. “But the fact is that children need to master their phonology first.”

Just let that sink in: children need to master their phonology first.

My colleague brought it up because after a few hours of orthographic study with me, she could so clearly see that morphology and etymology both outrank phonology in the hierarchy of the writing system’s concerns, and she was well aware that she was being warned away from my work and the work of my orthographic scholarship community, because it threatens the rabidly phonocentric foundations of the trainer’s life’s work.

I looked at my colleague and asked her, “So at what point does she suggest children have mastered their phonology?”

And now I’m looking at you and asking you to consider at what point you mastered your phonology, and what exactly that means.

*                                    *                                    *

The second thing keeping me up was a question that had popped up on Facebook about spelling and, of course, pronunciation. Actually, questions pop up on Facebook every day. I do some of my best writing in response to those questions. There was a thread on whether the vowel in bang, sang, hang, etc., is ‘long’ or ‘short.’ It was a long conversation about who’s pronouncing what, taking place among people who, like my Pennsylvania colleague, are highly trained and knowledgeable about the English language. What most of them didn’t understand was that regardless of what you feel like you’re pronouncing, the vowels in those words are all phonologically checked, lax, or (shudder) ‘short,’ just like they would be before <tch> or <ck>.

That’s not the question that stuck with me, however; it was a post that took on disyllabic words that end in <et>, like blanket or locket or basket.

The common understanding out there in Phonicland is that these words have an /ɪ/ in the final syllable, but are spelled with an <e>. Because of what is perceived as a mismatch in the orthography, many teachers and tutors try to cue students in to the spelling by articulating the final syllable with a pure [ɛ]: “lock-ET.” The thing is, no one talks like that in real life. That word is never pronounced that way in a normal utterance, only in a phonics lesson. If the kid is writing a sentence sometime later with that word, they’re going to be thinking about the content of their composition, and it won’t feel like “lock-ET” in their head. So if that’s the approach, it’s likely that kids will continue to spell these (and other) words according to the way they pronounce them with little regard for sense and meaning.

Let’s consider these words, or at least a goodly number of them, in terms of our four questions of structured word inquiry. The thing is, we usually take these four questions to the study of a specific word, but this time, I want to take them to the study of words with that have an <et> suffix, and of that <et> in general.

  1. What does it mean?

Most of these words are of French origin and have a diminutive denotation, at least historically. The <et> may no longer clearly express smallness in the word (as in musket), and the word’s semantics may have drifted considerably from their etymon, but somewhere in many of these words’ etymologies is diminution (the history of musket includes an association with a ‘little fly’ — think mosquito).

A packet is a small pack of something; a locket is a little locking thing; a rocket is, etymologically speaking, a little cylinder. They are by and large nouns, though many have been zero-derived into verbs, as in snow that blankets the landscape. In the French that they come from, <et> is a masculine diminutive suffix, and <ette> is its feminine counterpart. English uses both: kitchenette, rosette — sometimes with the same base element, even: planchet, planchette, or toilet, toilette.

  1. How are they built?

Well, since <et> isn’t a word, we need to think about this a little differently. It’s a suffix, not a base, but we can still take a look at how its morphology works. It attaches to both free bases (locket) and bound bases (banquet). These words take the typical nominal inflections, as in two caskets or the rocket’s red glare, and they may also compound, as in basketweaving or toiletpaper, or take derivational suffixes, as in toiletries or musketeers. The suffix is never stressed in these word families, so words like magnetic tell us that we’re not dealing with the same diminutive suffix here.

Now, I wouldn’t argue that all of these words are very productive for analyzing morphologically in the present day; you won’t find the <rock> in <rocket> in any other words without the <et>, and the <jack> in <jacket>, while free (a kind of sleeveless tunic or, well, jacket), is archaic and no longer used. But even many of the words that are not morphologically generative are still hugely etymologically productive.

Let’s take a look.

  1. What are their relatives?

Well, I’ve already given several examples of the kinds of morphological relatives you’ll find with these words. Some compound prolifically (basketball, breadbasket, wastebasket), others compound a little (straightjacket), while still others don’t compound at all (blanket). Where we really hit paydirt is with the etymological relatives. When we peel off that <et> and identify the base, even if it’s not morphologically generative in present-day English, it often points to relatives that help us deepen our understanding not only of the meanings of these word families, but also of the kinds of relationships we mark in writing. Consider the following relatives and their shared historical denotations:

banquet ~ bank ~ bench ‘table’

blanket ~ blank ~ blanch ~ blanquette ‘white’

bracket ~ breeches ~ britches ‘support or armor’ (influenced by, but unrelated to, brace)

crocket ~ crook ~ crochet ~ croquet ‘hook’

latchet ~ lace ~ lasso ‘lace’ (historically, ‘rope, noose, snare;’ influenced by, but unrelated to, latch)

market ~ merchant ~ merchandise ~ mercantile ‘to buy’

picket ~ pike ~ peak ~ pique ~ pitch ‘to prick or point’

pocket ~ pouch ~poke (as in pig in a poke) ‘bag’

planchet ~ planchette ~ plank ‘board’

placket ~ placard ~ plaque ‘plate or tablet’

ratchet ~ rocket ‘spindle or cylinder’

ticket ~ etiquette ~ sticker ~ stitch ‘to stick, to fasten by sticking’

As we study these shared denotations and the stories they tell, we also begin to see another dimension of the writing system come to life: the etymological relationships between phonemes and graphemes. In the examples above, we can see certain relationships repeated in the graphemes: <tch> or <ch> and <ck> or <k>; between <c> and <ck> and <k>, and <qu>; sometimes multiples of these. We see these same relationships across English orthography, even in words without the <et> including dike~ditch, break~breach, wreak~wretch, mystic~mystique, and so many others.

Some of the morphological relationships that emerge in this study are built around free bases and are fairly intuitive, like <face> + <et> or <cab> + <in> + <et>. Others have bound bases whose denotations make perfect sense, but may not be guessable, like the <buck> shared by <bucket>, <buckle>, and <buckboard>, which denotes ‘bulge.’ The <cors> in <corset> is related to corps and corpse — they all denote ‘body.’ I know, right? Wow.

We also see in many of these words all these medial spellings that we associate with being final to monosyllables, like <tch> and <ck> and <nk> and <dge>. Once we understand that, historically at least, those spellings are final to a base element, we understand those words and their spellings better. If we look at relatives like toilet and toilette or blanket and blanquette, floret and flowerette, ticket and etiquette, we ought to be able to surmise that the <et> and <ette> suffixes are related somehow.

Basically, the more relatives we can gather, the more data we have to support our understanding. I could go on, but I want to save some of the study for other people. So let’s wrap up with the fourth question.

  1. What segments of the pronunciation are relevant to the meaning?

This is really the question that started it all, as it so often does. Even though it should be our final question, this is frequently where people start when studying spelling: with the pronunciation. And that’s a mistake. It’s a mistake, as it was in the Facebook discussion, to zero in immediately on “why are these words pronounced like this but spelled like that?” without considering the other questions, the context of the meaning and structure and relationships that govern the spellings.

Just as with the <a> in rang, sang, and hang, people get hung up on what the physical pronunciation of a word is — its phonetics — rather than considering how we organize a word’s possible pronunciations within the whole system of our language — its phonology. All writing systems represent some aspect(s) of the language’s phonology, its psychological organization of the pronunciation of meaning, but no orthography represents phonetics, the physical properties of speech.

With the frequent phonics practice of stressing that second syllable in words like locket or packet — a with many frequent phonics practices — we not only fail to study how these words’ pronunciations actually work; we also obscure other facts about the pronunciation of this suffix. Sometimes it is stressed, especially in musical terms like quintet or quartet or duet or clarinet. Some of these can be spelled either with <et> or with <ette>: quintette, quartette. We also find the same diminutive suffix stressed but pronounced only as /eɪ/; these are later French loanwords like ballet, filet, bouquet, sachet, croquet. In French, which is a syllable-timed language, the tonic stress falls at the end; the closer a word is to its French origin in time, generally the Frencher it is in English.

Rather than fixating on whether a child spells the second syllable of these words correctly immediately and consistently, what if we left that alone for a bit and studied instead what is actually happening in these words, with this suffix? So far, we know that the diminutive suffix <et> can be pronounced as [ət] (as in musket), [‘ɛt] (as in clarinet), or [‘eɪ] (as in ballet).

Wait — what? So there’s no /ɪ/ in locket, bucket, basket, musket, and the like? Nope. Some people might feel like they’re pronouncing [ɪ] in these words, but there’s no /ɪ/. If you don’t know the difference between [ɪ] and /ɪ/, you need to take my IPA LEXinar post-haste. There is an /ɪ/ in fidget and in ticket, but it’s in the first syllable, not the second, and it’s spelled with an <i> as it should be. In fact, /ɪ/ is one of the simplest vowel phonemes to spell in English because it only has two spellings: <i> and <y>. The grapheme <e> is not associated with the phoneme /ɪ/ in English. It could be spelling the phoneme /ɛ/ in these words, arguably, but unless it’s stressed, it’s a schwa.

Now, not every di- or trisyllable that ends in <et> has a demonstrable or identifiable diminutive suffix, even diachronically. The word that started it all, basket, is of obscure origin. Hornet is Old English, not French, and isn’t actually related to a horn or anything. But as words orbited around each other in Middle English and beyond, surely their spellings have been influenced by that ubiquitous <et> suffix.

Whether the schwa in these words is phonemic on its own or just an unstressed allophone of /ɛ/ in these words is anyone’s argument to make. But it’s not an /ɪ/. There are words, also schwaed at the end, that arguably do have an /ɪ/ phoneme in the unstressed syllable, because it’s spelled with an <i>. Latinate words like habit, limit, merit, and implicit all have a Latinate <it> suffix (compare rehabilitate, subliminal, meretricious, and implicate). Since its pronunciation is similar if not identical to an unstressed <et>, it bears examining what differentiates these kinds of words. First, the <et> suffix is French; these words reliably made their way into English via French, some from Latinate roots (like facet) and others from Germanic roots (like bucket). The <et> in French could be word-final, as it can in English. The <it>, on the other hand, is a Latin stem suffix, meaning it’s followed (in Latin, and often in French) by another suffix: habitare, limitem, meritare, and implicitus). While these words may have traveled via French, they retain a Latinness in their morphological families that the <et> ones don’t: compare habit, habitual, rehabilitate, inhabit to bucket, buckle, buckboard. The relatively concrete homeliness of the <et> words is what makes a lot of Phonics Pholks misidentify them as “Anglo-Saxon.” The Latin <it> almost always fixes to bound bases (inherit,circuit, audit), while the <et> is less selective.

Here’s what’s up, phonologically speaking: words that end in an unstressed <et> — whether or not it’s a suffix — do not have an /ɪ/ in the final syllable; if you want to name a pure vowel phoneme, it has to be an /ɛ/ or an /eɪ/; that’s all the orthography allows for. The unstressed ones have a schwa, because they’re unstressed. They may have an [ɪ], but when people are trying to identify the phoneme by saying “Well I pronounce it this way,” they’re missing the point. They’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Phonology isn’t in your mouth; it’s in your brain. Not in your physics, but in your psychology.

Orthography is human thought made visible as text. Because phonemes are in our heads, we can argue for a long time about their identity. Because phonemes are sets or categories in our linguistic psychology, we can debate their contents in perpetuity. If we want to identify them, literally, to figure out their identity, we need only look to the orthography. The orthography takes our phonology — our human thought — and makes it visible as text. Many orthographic scholars understand that the orthography doesn’t represent phonemes; rather, it pinpoints and identifies them with graphemes.

Here’s my hypothesis: [ɛ] isn’t typically realized in unstressed syllables in English. In compounds like redhead or daybed, the second element carries secondary stress; it’s not neutralized. In other words, you have to stress it to fully pronounce it. If you pronounce basket as *[‘bæsˌkʰɛt] you end up giving the second syllable some stress — it’s louder, longer, and maybe higher than in [‘bæskʰət]. It ain’t natural. So, instead of emphasizing or overemphasizing pronunciation (indeed stop doing that — good for the teacher who posted for identifying that this practice is both ineffective and misleading), zero in on meaning. Use the four questions as a guide. Talk about the phonology only after after you’ve made sense of the meaning, the structure, the history and the relatives of these words.

In these Facebook conversations, which are brave and honest and sometimes even moving, people reshape their understanding of English orthography. People are vulnerable and willing to be wrong. Everyone learns from each other that way. It struck me that in this friendly, brilliant, experienced, well-educated group of parents and educators and activists and innovators, conversations about phonology were still often woefully wandering. Participants remained fixated on the physics of their pronunciation, rather than looking at the grapheme that make human thought visible.

“You people have a phonological awareness problem and I am not kidding,” I posted. “I mean, I am, but I’m not. I mean this in the friendliest of ways.” Then I put a smiley face for good measure. I don’t want to insult anyone, you know.

I do want to suggest, however, that it’s possible they haven’t yet mastered their phonology. So rather than waiting until everyone totally agrees on the pronunciation of bang and sang and hatchet and blanket to start studying the structure and history, how about instead we use the morphology and etymology to make sense of the phonology? Go ahead, BW, keep all your eggs in one phonocentric basket and keep insisting that children master the phonology, whatever that means. I’ll be over here helping people understand it instead.

13 Comments

  1. Gina,
    Your work– and that of Pete Bowers and Real Spelling– is a constant inspiration.

    Because of you all, Lexercise includes morphology and word inquiry procedures from the very beginning of its structured literacy curriculum. We see its power, and we love the process.

    Keep on keeping on!

    Sandie

  2. Lisa Barnett says:

    Gina,
    Picture this: Mike Myers & Dana Carvey in the basement of Wayne’s World chanting, “We’re not worthy!” –that’s me, right now….bowing to you! Your arguments for mastering phonology is in-itself, masterful. You provide unarguable evidence and build webs of words that are linked in meaning, structure and etymology. I greatly appreciate your ability to see the relationships in words and investigate and analyze those relationships with sense and meaning.

    I’ve lived phonics for more than 20 years and only lived Structured Word Inquiry for less than 2 years. Old habits are hard to break, and I’m so glad you brought a bulldozer! With each post, course and conversation I learn more and more and sometimes, find I’m more cemented in my old thinking than I realize. Thanks for having patience with us and being so willing to share your knowledge. “Excellent!”

  3. Marcia Henry says:

    Bravo, Gina! If most kids with dyslexia had to master phonology before moving on to morphology and etymology they’d never move on.

  4. Pete says:

    Sorry for this overly long post. I started and then realized I had a lot to say! Here are the thoughts you inspired when I read your post a few days ago…

    Thanks so much for this post, Gina. So much to learn from in here. I know I will be rereading multiple times. Here is my current favourite nugget…

    “…people get hung up on what the physical pronunciation of a word is — its phonetics — rather than considering how we organize a word’s possible pronunciations within the whole system of our language — its phonology. ”

    I do know a fair bit about the difference between phonetics and phonology, but this description captures a much deeper sense of the crucial distinctions that I have been able to articulate so far.

    Phonology: “…how we organize a word’s [morpheme’s?] possible pronunciations within the whole system of our language.”

    Beautiful.

    I love how the two seemingly disconnected stories of your post link so well in the end. The strong claim from an educational leader that it is “a fact” that children need to master their phonology before being taught about morphology and etymology in the fist story is so clearly negated by the linguistic analysis in the second.

    I have certainly heard this strong claim made many times before. However, your story made me want to address a “softer” claim that may be even more common, and which is equally unfounded. I can imagine someone agreeing with you that phonology does not need to be “mastered” before teaching about morphology — but still holding on to this common less extreme position:

    “Yes morphology is important, but the research says children need to be taught about phonology first.”

    Not only is this common assumption countered by analysis of everyday words children encounter in writing from the beginning of schooling, it is a factually untrue statement about the research.

    As your readers and this community knows, words like or the pronunciations of the suffix (/t/, /d/ and /ɪd/) or the suffix (/s/ and /s/) should be enough to make it clear that one could not accurately understand how phonology is represented by orthography in English without addressing morphology. Attempting to teach about phonology before addressing morphology means misteaching as an “irregular” word to be memorized, and that children cannot understand the spelling of suffixes that are so common it is hard to find a page of text without them. The child who pays close attention to instruction about the “z sound” or the “t sound” is certain to misspell countless common words. Simple logic tells us that instruction about a thing should accurately reflect how that thing works!

    Since you have already address the linguistic facts so effectively in your post, I wanted to build on that by unpacking the underlying pernicious assumption that “the research” has supported this idea that phonology has to be taught first. That may seem like a strong claim, but it is actually easy to back up.

    (Note: Because there is extremely little research about the effect of teaching etymology — I’ll limit my comments to the topic of when morphological instruction should begin and largely leave aside the topic of etymology for the moment. In no way should that choice be taken as signaling that etymology can be set aside in classroom instruction!)

    It is true that for decades researchERS have suggested / hypothesized / claimed that the research shows that children need to be taught about phonology first and that morphology should not feature until later instruction — especially for struggling readers. I regularly cite a statement from one of the most influential research books on literacy instruction called “Beginning to Read” by Marilyn Adams from 1990. A key focus of her book was to take a look at the scientific evidence regarding the “whole language vs. phonics” debate. She presented lots of evidence to support her claim that more children succeeded in literacy when they were explicitly taught about grapheme-phoneme correspondences and phonemic awareness compared to when these features of oral and written language received little or no attention. Adams also wrote the following:

    “Although teaching older readers about the roots [base morphemes] and suffixes of morphologically complex words may be a worthwhile challenge, teaching beginning or less skilled readers about them may be a mistake” (p. 152).

    It should be emphasized that Adams makes no claim of instructional evidence here or elsewhere in her book to support this view. I would argue that it is in fact totally reasonable for a researcher to share hypotheses beyond their data as a way to point the research community to interesting hypotheses to test. The problem is that the research world took a very long time to test this hypothesis. It turned out I worked on the first meta-analysis of morphological intervention studies (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010) to test this hypothesis. As you can see from the dates, this is two decades after Adam’s book! The extremely influential National Reading Panel (2000) a decade after Adam’s didn’t even mention the word “morphology.”

    We found that not only was Adam’s hypothesis not supported — the exact opposite of her hypothesis was found. The less able and younger students gained the most from morphological instruction. And this was with morphological instruction that I would argue left much to be desired. Of the 22 studies we looked at, only 5 even addressed the fact that it is common for consistently spelled morphemes to vary in pronunciation. Our meta-analysis was followed by two more (Goodwin & Ahn, 2010; 2013) that corroborated our findings.

    The point I’m trying to make very clearly is this: I have never found any research evidence suggesting that we should teach phonology before morphology. Such evidence would need to come from studies that included a condition with morphological instruction. When researchers, educational leaders, administrators etc. make the claim that “the research says we need to teach phonology first” they are making a statement that is false. I understand why they say it. Many researchERS have made this suggestion — but that is not research EVIDENCE.

    If anyone ever makes such a claim to you, I encourage you to ask them for a reference that shows phonology should be taught before morphology. Remember evidence that explicit teaching about grapheme-phoneme correspondences and phonemic awareness is more effective than little or no such instruction allows no-one to make any claim about morphological instruction. In fact, my argument in my dissertation is that evidence that teaching about some sub-lexical aspects of words like grapheme-phoneme correspondences should have been taken as evidence to start looking at the the effect of teaching about other sub-lexical structures as we would with morphological instruction. Note — there is NO suggestion that we should teach morphology from the beginning and avoid instruction about orthographic phonology. The point is we should teach how the writing system works. To do that we need to teach about the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology.

    For those who are interested in following up in this research, go to the bottom of my About WordWorks page here and you can find my published research including the meta-analysis I cited above. I do recommend a short 4-page paper I wrote with Gina (Bowers & Cooke, 2012) that reviews what morphology is, how it interrelates with phonology and the research evidence showing that we need to teach about morphology from the beginning.

    I know of few studies that have actually tested the key question directly. One paper that came out after these meta-analyses by Devonshire, Morris and Fluk (2013) provides particularly important evidence to share. They taught 5-7 year olds in the UK in two conditions. In the experimental condition students were taught the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology with the use of word sums and matrices and compared that to a condition in which children were taught what is typically thought of as “best practice” phonics. (Unfortunately, they don’t mention their use of the matrix in the paper, but Devonshire confirmed that they did via an email correspondence with me.) They found significant benefits for the experimental condition over the phonics condition for standardized measures of reading and spelling. You can find that article here .

    Let me finish by saying that I did not add this rather long comment to suggest that the research evidence is in any way more important than the linguistic evidence that Gina articulated so well — and that we see all the time when we study families of related words with the aid of analysis of word families with word sums, the matrix and etymological references. I simply know that research is regularly used by people in positions of authority to counter the work going on in this community. I expect many of the people who do so actually believe that this is what the “research says”. But regardless of their motives, it is important that this community has access to what the research actually does and does not show. Once someone has invoked “research” to support not teaching morphology until later — they need to be confronted with what the research actually has found. At that point they get to demonstrate whether they were citing research because they really believe that we need to follow what the research says, or if they only want to follow it when it says what they are already doing is right.

  5. I appreciate your commentary, Pete. See, all I really want to do is holler about the language. If I can explain to a kid why one word is spelled with a ‘wr’ and another with an ‘rh,’ then I don’t really care whether some pedagogical research or other has “proven” that etymological study has a positive outcome on literacy. I don’t think it’s okay to lie to kids — or to omit facts about what they’re trying to accomplish — in order to improve some test score or other. Of course, no one would admit to thinking it’s okay to lie to children about the way their language words, but that is what phonics does (-tion, syllable division, exceptions, etc.). Whole language lies too, just different lies.

    One of the things I love about working with you is that you *do* tackle these research questions. I was reluctant to tackle the whole “The fact is…” issue, because I didn’t hear BW say it myself. But it is a common thing for researchers and trainers and teachers to mistake research for critical thinking, and to mistake researchers’ suggestions for facts.

    I like sticking to facts I can see here, which is why written language is my gig. That ‘ion’ is a suffix or that every word has a base element — these are facts in a way that “phonics works” or “you have to teach phonology first” are not and can never be.

  6. Gina: Thank you for your elegant post, always inspiring. When I think of teaching etymology and morphology along with phonology I smile. I smile because students, especially the intervention students, love to learn, to understand. They love to discover that they can understand in order to read, to spell, to soar. Thanks for all you do.

  7. shawnamay says:

    Wow, so much to be gained in this entire thread. I am a believer because I jumped in with both feet and began to change my teaching. It made sense and answered many unanswered questions I had. I didn’t spend time arguing about it, I just set to work. Even after a fairly heated argument with my dad about the – ion suffix I was not deterred lol. Since then I have found that students struggling with reading and spelling suddenly smile and enjoy words when they are told the truth rather than the so called ” rules” with so many exceptions. I currently have a child who is just now realising she indeed can learn to read and spell and she is no longer afraid to open a book. A previously solemn little girl giggles and smiles during our discoveries. She asks some of the best questions I have heard! Her mind goes to meaning first.

  8. Well, I just don’t read this blog enough–but then I don’t eat chocolate truffles enough either! What a treat, Gina, as always.

    Working backwards, I very much appreciate the wording of your final SWI question. Very possibly I have not been paying attention, but I had not used that wording before and will now. I was just half-joking to Pete that I hardly get to the “last” question “How is it pronounced?” at all–in fact I left it out of a recent blog post of my own. But your wording infuses it with a relevance I felt had been lost for me.

    The notion that children have to “wait” to do morphology is fundamentally absurd. But it was not until I began teaching Grade One that I really had this epiphany. Having been arguing with the phonics bigwigs around me for some time–those telling me things like “children aren’t really ready for morphology until Grade Three–I realized: children ARRIVE at school understanding morphology! They use it in their oral language all the time, sometimes with inaccuracies such as over-use of the suffixes, but they are generally using affixes with competence and improve (apparently) with almost no instruction. It is as close to a natural process as exists in orthography.

    Having made that last statement, I now recall one of your recent responses to a Facebook question. “Phonology,” you said, “isn’t in your mouth; it’s in your brain.” So I suppose it’s accurate to say that our understanding of how sound relates to meaning is also a “natural” process–though many children struggle to “hear” and reproduce the “correct” sounds just as they sometimes struggle with orally adding in the right places.

    What they DON’T have is an understanding of how this morphology is represented in writing.

    And of course, to do this we also need to really introduce phonology–it’s graphemic representation. What I was then implicitly or explicitly told to do was deny them the whole truth about this system!! (Insert implicit or explicit swear words here).

    What your third-hand Big Wig and her peers fail to grasp is that morphology is central and that it is utterly learnable by young children. Is that a fact? I think it is. (Cuz I seen it).

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