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Issue Editor Foreword: Morphological Awareness and Literacy

Section Editor(s): Gabig, Cheryl Smith PhD CCC-SLP; Issue Editor

doi: 10.1097/TLD.0b013e31828190ef
Issue Editor Foreword

Assistant Professor Department of Speech-language-Hearing Sciences Lehman College/The City University of New York Bronx, NY

The author has disclosed that she has no significant relationships with, or financial interest in, any commercial companies pertaining to this article.

Curiouser and curiouser

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Words are curious things. Words invite our inspection and interest because of their inherent detailed structure and intricacy. Words are made up of a sound or combinations of sounds to signal meaning and are formed in a language through processes and patterns of word formation specific to the language, such as using inflection, derivation, or composition. English language users are able to express ideas and concepts, using sound or sound combinations to convey both word-level units alone or in combination with grammatical morphemes to signal aspects of tense or number and derivational morphemes to create new words and to express additional semantic and syntactic information. Similarly, English written orthography is morphophonemic; it represents language at both the level of sound and meaning. Phonological information within printed words is conveyed through the grapheme/phoneme correspondences, whereas morphological information within a printed word is conveyed via the lexical root as free morphemes and the grammatical inflections and derivational relations as bound morphemes. Thus, when reading, we simultaneously process the phonological structure of the word to pronounce the word and also process the meaning and syntactic function conveyed by the morphological structure of the word (Verhoeven & Perfetti, 2003).

Morphological awareness is a metalinguistic ability that focuses on the awareness of the underlying structure of words at the level of meaning. Morphological awareness is the ability to recognize, reflect on, and manipulate the sublexical structure of words—the roots, prefixes, and suffixes that make up the word. There is compelling evidence that morphological awareness of the underlying structure of words contributes unique variance to many aspects of literacy, including word reading, vocabulary development, comprehension, and spelling. The influence of morphological knowledge and awareness to literacy is a current focus of researchers because both sound and meaning are conveyed within English orthography (Carlisle 2003; Carlisle & Fleming, 2003; McCutchen, Logan, & Biangardi-Orpe, 2009). Skilled reading of morphologically complex words may involve other linguistic processes in addition to understanding grapheme–phoneme relationships, such as the ability to decompose words into constituent morphemes as well as to use the direct lexical route to access full lexical representations (Verhoeven & Perfetti, 2011).

This issue of Topics in Language Disorders focuses on morphological awareness and literacy across three broad themes. The first three articles present information relevant to the development, assessment, and intervention of morphological knowledge and awareness in children and adolescents. Next, there appears a theoretical review of the structure of the mental lexicon and the importance of understanding derivational morphology as a lexical process. Finally, the last two articles explore the transfer of morphological knowledge and awareness across languages by English language learners (ELLs).

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The article by Gabig and Zaretsky (2013) discusses the acquisition of morphological knowledge and awareness by school-age children and adolescents within the context of learning both morphology type and aspect (e.g., the semantic, syntactic, and distributional properties of morphemes) and within the framework of the grade-specific morphological objectives identified within the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (CCSS/ELA, 2011). Students with identified language impairment and ELLs are two types of students within the educational setting identified by the authors who may be at risk of failing to acquire adequate morphological knowledge and awareness to support disciplinary literacy and academic achievement. Gabig and Zaretsky (2013) provide identification guidelines and grade-specific suggestions for intervention based on the CCSS/ELA standards to support morphological knowledge and awareness in both types of students.

Wolter and Green (2013) provide a broad discussion on the clinical application of morphological awareness intervention across several aspects of literacy including the effect of morphological awareness on facilitating phonological skills, vocabulary, reading, and spelling in children with language and literacy needs. They provide an evidenced-based hierarchy for morphological intervention practices based on a meta-analysis by Goodwin and Ahn (2010) including introducing morphology, identifying morphological patterns, discriminating inflectional versus derivational morphemes, and constructing words from free and bound morpheme types. Evidenced-based techniques to support the cognitive-linguistic processing of word structure and morphology also are presented, including techniques involving word sorting, deconstruction of complex words, and reasoning about word meaning by analogy. A case study of a language-impaired 8-year-old boy is used to provide information about a morphological awareness intervention program that focuses on morphology in reading and spelling, targeting phonological awareness, orthographic knowledge, and morphological awareness simultaneously, with positive changes documented on the basis of pre-/posttest comparisons.

In the third article in this section, Apel, Diehm, and Apel (2013) consider the lack of consistency of tasks used to measure morphological awareness in children across grade levels, making cross-study comparisons of findings difficult to interpret and generalize. These researchers provide the results of a study of 156 kindergarteners, first-, and second-grade students on four tasks designed to assess different aspects of morphological awareness. The tasks are to (1) orally produce inflected and derived forms; (2) say and judge the meaning of derived pseudowords; (3) identify, by circling within a time limit, affixes attached to pseudowords; and (4) spell morphologically complex words. Their results revealed two tasks that differentiated the children's development across the grades: the meaning relation task requiring the child to produce inflected forms, and the identification of word affixes in words. The meaning relation task also predicted variance in students' reading skills across all three grades.

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Jarmulowicz and Taran (2013) provide a review of the literature on the structure, process, and development of lexical morphology, describe the representation of derivational morphemes in the mental lexicon, and discuss the implications of lexical morphology for assessment and intervention for students with language impairments. Lexical morphology refers to the study of word formation processes. Although morphological knowledge and awareness have traditionally viewed both inflectional morphology and derivational morphology equally when discussing morphological processing, Jarmulowicz and Taran caution the reader to consider the different roles and ordering of inflectional and derivational morphemes in English word formation. These authors also discuss the processing and storage of lexical representations in the mental lexicon by bridging several types of information stored in the lexicon, including conceptual, semantic, syntactic, phonological, and orthographic information associated with a stored lemma or concept.

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The final two articles in this issue focus on morphological issues for ELLs and literacy. Ramirez, Chen-Bumgardner, and Pasquarella (2013) discuss the contribution of morphological awareness to vocabulary and reading comprehension in Spanish-speaking ELLs, whereas Marinova-Todd, Siegel, and Mazabel (2013) discuss the role of morphological awareness in ELLs from several language backgrounds.

Ramirez et al. (2013) note that Spanish-speaking ELL students may be at risk for a lag in vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension problems relative to English-speaking peers due to difficulty with morphological awareness of English word structure. These authors studied 90 Spanish-speaking ELLs in both fourth and seventh grades; all were in English language classrooms, yet the primary language spoken in their homes was Spanish. The children were given a battery of language and literacy measures in English and derivational awareness measures in both English and Spanish. Results showed a cross-language transfer of morphological awareness in that awareness of Spanish word morphology was related to English cognate vocabulary, but not English noncognate vocabulary, and that English reading comprehension was mediated by English derivational awareness. Spanish derivational awareness appears to play a critical role in English reading comprehension and vocabulary in Spanish-speaking ELLs, suggesting that guidance in English morphology and cognate strategies be incorporated into academic and reading instruction for Spanish-speaking ELLs.

In the concluding article, Marinova-Todd et al. (2013) investigated oral language and literacy relationships in a large sample of sixth-grade ELLs who came from several home-language backgrounds, including Chinese, Filipino, Germanic, Korean, Persian, Romance, and Slavic languages. The children were given English metalinguistic tasks measuring morphological, syntactic, and phonological awareness and reading tasks to measure English word reading (real and pseudowords), word reading fluency (real and pseudowords), reading comprehension, and spelling (real and pseudowords). The language groups varied on measures of syntactic awareness and morphological awareness, as well as on spelling and reading comprehension tasks, but not phonological awareness. Morphological awareness influenced all the literacy measures, even after controlling for the effects of phonological and syntactic awareness. However, the strength of the association between morphological awareness and reading comprehension, and between morphological awareness and real and pseudoword spelling, varied among the language groups relative to the transparency of morphological structure of the first language. The authors conclude that the explicit teaching of English derivational and inflectional morphology may facilitate the continued development of syntactic and morphological awareness in ELLs in the upper grades, thus enhancing word reading, spelling, text comprehension, and vocabulary development in the ELL students.

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My hope as issue editor is that this issue on morphology and literacy provides you with information regarding the connection between morphological knowledge and awareness and literacy, the critical differences among grammatical, derivational, and lexical morphology, and the nature of the structure, organization, and storage of lexical morphology in the mental lexicon. The developmental progression and learning expectations of grade-specific morphological knowledge and awareness for school-age children and adolescents, as well as the information regarding evidenced-based methods and guidelines for assessment and intervention with at-risk students should provide helpful information for clinical practice and collaboration with classroom teachers to support students who may struggle with acquiring morphological awareness, including student with language literacy needs, specific language impairment, and ELLs.

—Cheryl Smith Gabig, PhD CCC-SLP

Issue Editor

Assistant Professor

Department of Speech-language-Hearing Sciences

Lehman College/The City University of New York

Bronx, NY

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Apel K., Diehm E., Apel L. (2013). Using multiple measures of morphological awareness to assess its relation to reading. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(1), 42–56.
Carlisle J. F. (2003). Morphology matters in learning to read: A commentary. Reading Psychology, 24, 291–322.
Carlisle J. F., Fleming J. (2003). Lexical processing of morphologically complex words in the elementary years. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7(3), 239–253.
Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2011). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history, social studies, science and technical subjects. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from
Gabig C. S., Zaretsky E. (2013). Promoting morphological awareness in children with language needs: Do the Common Core State Standards pave the way? Topics in Language Disorders, 33(1), 7–26.
Goodwin A. P., Ahn S. (2010). A meta-analysis of morphological interventions: Effects on literacy achievement of children with literacy difficulties. Annals of Dyslexia, 60, 183–208.
Jarmulowicz L., Taran V. L. (2013). Lexical morphology: Structure, process, and development. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(1), 57–72.
Marinova-Todd S. H., Siegel L. S., Mazabel S. (2013). The association between morphological awareness and literacy in English language learners from different language backgrounds. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(1), 93–107.
McCutchen D., Logan B., Biangardi-Orpe U. (2009). Making meaning: Children's sensitivity to morphological information during word reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 44, 360–376.
Ramirez G., Chen-Bumgardner B., Pasquarella A. (2013). Cross-linguistic transfer of morphological awareness in Spanish-speaking English language learners: The facilitating effect of cognate knowledge. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(1), 73–92.
Verhoeven L., Perfetti C. (2003). Introduction to this special issue: The role of morphology in learning to read. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7, 209–217.
Verhoeven L., Perfetti C. (2011). Morphological processing and reading acquisition. Applied Psycholinguistics, 32, 457–466.
Wolter J. A., Green L. (2013). Morphological awareness intervention in school-age children with language and literacy deficits: A case study. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(1), 27–41.
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