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Beyond Phonology

The Role of Morphological and Orthographic Spelling Skills in German

Kargl, Reinhard; Landerl, Karin

doi: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000165
Original Articles

German orthography has highly consistent grapheme–phoneme correspondences, whereas the consistency of phoneme–grapheme correspondences is much lower, but morphological consistency is very high. After giving a short description of German language and orthography, the current article reviews earlier findings on early spelling acquisition, showing that even poor spellers are well able to produce phonologically adequate spellings early on. In contrast, the acquisition of orthographic markers, which are mostly morphology-based, is a long-term enterprise. We present data for the close association of morphological awareness (assessed by a classroom measure requiring students to build new word forms based on presented pseudowords) with orthographic spelling skills. In a large sample (N = 796) of students in Grades 4–7, morphological awareness predicted children's spelling skills above and beyond fluid intelligence and phonological spelling skills. In the last section of this article, we review findings on the efficiency of morphology-based spelling intervention in German.

Institute for Reading and Spelling, Graz, Austria (Mr Kargl); and Institute of Psychology, University of Graz, Graz, Austria (Dr Landerl).

Corresponding Author: Karin Landerl, PhD, Institute of Psychology, University of Graz, Universitätsplatz 2, 8010 Graz, Austria (Karin.Landerl@uni-graz.at).

R.K. discloses that he is a co-author of the commercial intervention programme MORPHEUS. K.L. indicates that she has no financial and no nonfinancial relationships to disclose.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE AND ORTHOGRAPHY

Different dialects and vernaculars of German are spoken by an estimated 90 million native speakers (Lewis, 2009), which makes it one of the major languages of the world. As a West-Germanic language, it is linguistically closely related to English as well as Dutch. In the following description of German language and orthography, we will make use of the high similarity with English and contrast some important features. The inventory of German consonant phonemes largely overlaps with English. Standard German has eight vowels that are expressed in short as well as long monophthong pronunciations and three diphthongs. Short vowel phonemes are all lax, whereas long vowels (with the exception of /[Latin Small Letter Open E]/) are tense. Syllable structure and stress patterns are also mostly comparable with English. An important difference is that in unstressed syllables, only the /[Latin Small Letter Open E]/ vowel is reduced to schwa, whereas all other vowels are pronounced as their short versions. The phonotactic rules of German are more lenient than in English, so that complex consonant clusters are not simplified but fully pronounced in spoken language (e.g., Knie, Psychologie).

An important difference between German and English (as well as Dutch) is its clearly richer inflectional morphology. Noun phrases (including articles and adjectives) inflect into four cases, three genders, and two numbers, which are marked by different suffixes. The verb system is in many ways similar to English, but again, verb forms (including the infinitive) receive different suffixes (e.g., to live—leben: ich lebe, du lebst, er lebt, wir leben, ihr lebt, sie leben) and prefixes (e.g., gelebt [lived], Vorleben [earlier life]). A characteristic feature of German is that it allows complex compounds that are written as one word (e.g., Geburtstagsfeier [birthday party]; Hausaufgaben [homework]). Morphologically related word formation processes frequently induce complex consonant sequences, for example, at the end of inflected verbs (e.g., du schimpfst [you rant]) or in the middle of compound nouns (e.g., Wohnungsschlüssel [apartment key]).

German uses an alphabetic orthography written in Latin script (plus the three umlaut letters, Ä-ä, Ö-ö, and Ü-ü, and the special grapheme ß representing /s/ in specified contexts). The most important difference from English is that German orthography is phonologically highly consistent in the reading direction. This includes vowel quality, which (in contrast to English) is unambiguously represented in German orthography. Vowel length is coded by a complex set of context-sensitive rules (the simplified version is that short vowels are succeeded by two consonants, e.g., beten vs. Betten [pray vs. beds]; but see later). Interestingly, this has limited implications for word recognition as the number of minimal word pairs that differ only in vowel length is relatively small and their meaning is most often very distinct so that word identification is usually possible even if vowel length is underspecified or incorrectly identified during the decoding process. Indeed, young learners who predominantly rely on a strategy of systematic left-to-right decoding typically produce artificially lengthened phonemes (/m:a:n:/), and this artificial pronunciation is usually sufficient to access the correct word in their lexicon (/man/—Mann [man]).

German adheres to the principle of morpheme consistency, that is, the spelling of morphemes is preserved in different word forms (e.g., fahren, Fahrer, Fahrzeug/ [drive], [driver], [vehicle]). However, in contrast to English, the morphological principle never overrides the phonological principle. Sometimes the German umlaut graphemes are used to retain both morpheme and phonological consistency. For example, plural formation frequently involves a change of the main vowel. Thus, the plural of /bal/ [ball] is /'b[Latin Small Letter Open E]lə/. The spellings of the two word forms are Ball and Bälle. The grapheme ä corresponds consistently to the vowel phoneme /[Latin Small Letter Open E]/ so that the phonological word form can unambiguously be derived from the letter sequence. At the same time, the singular and plural word forms are visually similar, thus retaining consistency at the morphemic level.

The principle of morpheme consistency is probably the main reason why German is clearly less consistent in the spelling than in the reading direction. Whereas in reading there is almost always only one possible translation of a grapheme into a phoneme, the speller has to choose among various phonologically acceptable translations of a phoneme into a grapheme. This explains why German (just like English) has a considerable number of homophonic spellings, for example, mehr—Meer [more—sea], viel—fiel [a lot—fell], Lied—Lid [song—eyelid], Wal—Wahl [whale—election].

Orthographic marking of vowel length is particularly inconsistent. Short vowels are typically marked by two following consonant letters; however, there is a set of high-frequency words (mainly function words and prepositions) for which the short vowel is not orthographically marked. For long vowels, there are three different kinds of orthographic marking, doubling of the vowel (Beet, Haar), a “silent h” after the vowel (e.g., Zahn, sehr), or no orthographic marking at all (baden, Regen). There are no clear algorithms for the particular orthographic marking (e.g., Tal, Zahl, Saal). The long vowel /i:/ is typically represented by the digraph ie (e.g., Lied), which is taught as “long /i:/.” The vowel graphemes u and i never occur as double letters. Similarly, doubling of umlaut letters is orthographically illegal; therefore, some words that are spelled with a double vowel in singular word forms have a simple vowel spelling in plural form or other word forms requiring a vowel change (e.g., Saal—Säle), which violates the principle of morpheme consistency.

Inconsistency on the phoneme–grapheme level also is evident for voiced versus unvoiced stops. This is mostly due to the fact that voiced stops are systematically devoiced in syllable-end position whereas the spelling retains the voiced phoneme of the deep structure (e.g., Tag /ta:k/, Tage /ta:gə/ [day–days]) and that in certain geographic regions (e.g., in Austrian Standard German), the phonemic distinction between voiced and unvoiced labiodental and palatal stops is neutralized in most phonemic contexts, so that two graphemes correspond to one and the same phoneme.

To compensate for the high flexibility of word order in German syntax, nouns are systematically spelled with a capital letter, which is meant to allow the reader to identify them easily in any position. Note that in German, verbs and adjectives can take the noun position, which means that words that are usually spelled with a lower case letter (schwimmen [to swim]; rot [red]) need to be capitalized when they are used as nouns (zum Schwimmen [for swimming]; das Rote [the red one]). Inflectional and derivational morphemes provide information about word class, for example, words ending in -ung are always nouns (buchen [to book]; Buchung [booking]). The morphologically based capitalization rules pose particular problems for spelling acquisition (Menzel, 1985).

In summary, morphological consistency induces a good deal of phonological inconsistency for spelling. However, phonologically irregular spellings are exceptional and mostly limited to foreign words.

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PREDICTORS OF SPELLING IN GERMAN

In German, as in other languages, phonological awareness at the syllable and onset/rime level develops during the preschool years whereas awareness of phonemes usually develops in the context of learning to read (e.g., Grorecki & Landerl, 2015 ; Schaefer et al., 2009 ; Wimmer, Landerl, Linortner, & Hummer, 1991 ; Wimmer, Landerl, & Schneider, 1994). There is evidence that children who received phonological awareness training in kindergarten show significantly better reading and spelling skills in Grades 1 and 2 but only when the training involves letters as well as sounds (Schneider, Roth, & Ennemoser, 2000). Still, the predictive quality of phonological awareness for reading development seems to be lower in German than in English (Landerl et al., 2013 ; Mann & Wimmer, 2002). It should also be noted that the effects of early phonological awareness training are relatively small. This is probably due to the fact that in first grade, children receive systematic instruction in letter–sound knowledge and phoneme blending and analysis in the context of literacy instruction, which is likely to compensate for any early phonological deficits. As a matter of fact, Wimmer, Mayringer, and Landerl (2000) showed that children with poor phonological awareness at school entry did not develop any reading problems later on. Interestingly, however, these children showed marked problems with orthographic spelling in Grades 3 and 4. As explained in detail later, at that age even poor spellers are well able to segment spoken words into their constituent sounds and produce phonologically adequate spellings, but they have very limited knowledge of word-specific spellings. A plausible explanation for the association of phonological awareness with orthographic spelling is that the phonological underpinnings (Perfetti, 1992) of orthographic representations might be impaired, which in turn negatively affects an amalgamation of spoken and written words in the orthographic lexicon (Ehri, 1992).

Another important predictor across languages and orthographies, which is clearly less well investigated than phonological awareness, is morphological awareness, that is, the “conscious awareness of the morphemic structure of words and (the) ... ability to reflect on and manipulate that structure” (Carlisle, 1995, p. 194). In German, morphological awareness is indispensable in order to spell correctly and is explicitly taught, though to a variable extent. At a minimum, children receive instruction in distinguishing nouns from other grammatical word categories from Grade 2 on, when they learn which words must be spelled with a capital letter.

Although an increasing number of studies with English-speaking children shows that morphological awareness explains unique variance in reading (e.g., Carlisle, 2000 ; Deacon & Kirby, 2004) and spelling (Deacon & Bryant, 2006a , 2006b ; Kemp, 2006), evidence is still scarce on the relevance of morphology for written language processing in German. This is surprising, given the morphological complexities of German language and orthography as described previously. Preliminary evidence shows that performance on a morphosemantic task in kindergarten predicts spelling in Grades 1 and 2 (Brunner, 2007). In this task, three phonologically similar words are presented orally (e.g., laufen [run]—Läufer [runner]—Leute [people]) and children have to identify the two words with similar meaning (because they are morphologically related). Furthermore, a strong relationship between morphological awareness and spelling ability has been demonstrated for older children in Grades 5 and 6 (Fink, Pucher, Reicher, Purgstaller, & Kargl, 2012). Before we present more evidence from a large sample of students in Grades 4–7, we summarize findings on spelling development in German.

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DEVELOPMENT OF PHONOLOGICAL SPELLING SKILLS

It has been argued that the spelling of consonant clusters poses a major phonological hurdle to young children as they are particularly difficult to segment into separate phonemes (Treiman, 1993). German provides an interesting test case for this conclusion because just like in English, consonant clusters in syllable onset as well as coda position are frequent (e.g., blau [blue], drei [three], Hand [hand], Wolf [wolf]). Contrary to predictions, Wimmer and Landerl (1997) showed that after only 9 months of formal instruction, German-speaking first graders did not show particular problems with cluster spellings; phonologically inadequate cluster spellings were highly exceptional after only one school year. The relative ease of consonant cluster spelling suggests that early segmentation difficulties are easily overcome by the combination of a consistent orthography and an instructional regime that induces children to early word recognition in reading by means of grapheme–phoneme decoding. This procedure provides systematic segmentation training, which makes the phonemic composition of consonant clusters transparent.

In line with certain dyslexia theories (e.g., Tallal, 1984), correct spelling of stop consonants poses a particular problem in German; however, it is mostly voicing (b – p, d – t) that is represented incorrectly, but hardly ever place of articulation (Klicpera, 2000), which is not in line with Tallal's assumption that the relevant phoneme categories are not adequately established in individuals with dyslexia. Indeed, confusion of graphemes representing voiced versus unvoiced stops is most often not due to phonological misperceptions but due to the fact that there is a lot of allophonic variation in the voicing of stops inducing inconsistency in the use of the corresponding letters.

Importantly, even children with dyslexia develop reasonably adequate phonological spelling skills in German. Their incorrect spellings typically provide acceptable transcriptions of the phoneme sequence (sometimes representing colloquial language or dialect rather than Standard German), but orthographic markers such as consonant or vowel doublets or the silent letter h that marks vowel length are omitted or placed incorrectly (e.g., Klicpera, 2000 ; Landerl, 2001 ; Wimmer & Mayringer, 2002).

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DISSOCIATIONS BETWEEN READING AND SPELLING DURING DEVELOPMENT

Recent evidence indicates that deficits in reading versus spelling frequently dissociate in German-speaking children (Moll & Landerl, 2009 ; Wimmer & Mayringer, 2002). Poor spelling in accordance with adequate reading skills has been observed and studied in many orthographies including English (e.g., Frith, 1980 ; Holmes & Castles, 2001) and is usually explained by two facts: (1) in most orthographies, phoneme–grapheme correspondences are less consistent than grapheme–phoneme correspondences, and (2) word spelling requires retrieval of fully specified orthographic representations whereas for word reading, bottom-up processes of word recognition can be complemented by top-down lexical processes. There is evidence that children with poor spelling but adequate reading skills have phonological awareness deficits at the onset of reading acquisition (Wimmer & Mayringer, 2002), which they seem to be able to overcome later because of heavy practice in phonemic decoding (Moll & Landerl, 2009). They also manage to acquire highly accurate phonemic analysis skills allowing them to spell words in a phonologically acceptable way. However, their early phonological deficit seems to prevent them from establishing orthographic word representations that are amalgamated with the phonology of the word (Ehri, 1992).

Poor reading in correspondence with age-adequate orthographic spelling has not been reported for other orthographies, although the analysis by Moll and Landerl (2009) indicated that 40% of primary school children with marked problems in reading fluency (below percentile 10) showed spelling skills within the age norm. A dissociation of deficits in reading and spelling also was reported by Wimmer and Mayringer (2002), who demonstrated that at school entry, children who later on showed poor reading in association with age-adequate spelling skills did not experience any deficits in phonological awareness. Overall, phonological awareness was found to be a less adequate predictor of reading and reading disorders in German than in English (Landerl et al., 2013 ; Landerl et al., 2018), indicating that problems in the phonological domain are less detrimental in the consistent German orthography than in the complex and often phonologically nontransparent English-writing system.

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MORPHOLOGICAL AND ORTHOGRAPHIC SPELLING SKILLS

Although some stage models of reading and spelling development assume that integration of orthographic and morphological knowledge is a late development (Ehri, 2005 ; Frith, 1985), another perspective is that literacy development is an integrated process of various skills, including phonological, orthographic, and morphological processing (Berninger, Abbott, Nagy, & Carlisle, 2010 ; Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010). Thus, the assumption is that children draw on different types of information throughout development. This is nicely illustrated in the types of knowledge children need to have available in order to spell the highly familiar German word Fahrrad [bicycle] (May, 2012). A young learner might produce the phonologically acceptable spelling farat. However, to produce the correct spelling, children must work out that in spoken language, voiced stops are devoiced in syllable-end position whereas the spelling retains the voiced phoneme of the base morpheme—rad (wheel). They also need to understand the inconsistent orthographic marking of vowel length, which in this case means that a “silent h” is added after the stressed vowel (fahrad). Because Fahrrad is a compound that consists of two roots (fahr [drive/ride] and rad [wheel]), it is spelled with two rs in the middle (fahrrad), one from each morpheme. In addition, all nouns are capitalized; thus, the correct spelling is Fahrrad.

This brief example illustrates the high relevance of morphological and orthographic knowledge in the context of learning to spell in the morphologically complex language of German. Empirical evidence for the important role that morphological competencies play in reading and spelling development comes mostly from studies of English (e.g., Deacon & Bryant, 2006a , 2006b ; Kemp, 2006 ; Nagy, Berninger, & Abbott, 2006), whereas evidence for the morphologically more complex language of German is still surprisingly scarce. To address this research gap, the current study investigated the relevance of morphological skills for orthographic spelling. A large sample of students in Grades 4–7 was assessed. This age group was particularly relevant, as this is when children are expected to master the major challenges of the German spelling system.

Morphological competence is a complex construct that subsumes a variety of different morphological skills and has been assessed by a range of different tasks (Deacon, Parrila, & Kirby, 2008 ; Tibi & Kirby, 2017). In our research, we focused on two central aspects within the broad range of morphological competencies: morphological awareness and morphological spelling skills. To investigate the relation between morphological awareness, learning to use morphologically correct spellings, and general spelling abilities, we developed a set of classroom tasks to assess each of these components. Morphological awareness was assessed in terms of a written paradigm, which required students to complete sentences by deriving new word forms from a presented pseudoword (e.g., Peter kann gut bruben. Er hat gut _________. (gebrubt) [Peter can brub well. He has ______ well]). In this task format, the students need to apply their morphological knowledge, whereas it was not necessary to spell the pseudoword “stem” correctly. In a preliminary study (Fink et al., 2012) with children in Grades 5 and 6, this task correlated significantly (r = .59) with performance on a standardized spelling test. In the current study, spelling was assessed with a task that allowed a more fine-grained assessment of student's spelling strategies. A morphological spelling strategy relates to the application of morphological knowledge in word spelling: To spell morphologically complex words correctly, the students need to correctly identify and spell the word stem, add the correct grammatical morphemes (e.g., fahren–fährt), and segment them into their morphemic constituents (e.g., ver-sprech-en contains the German prefix ver). Thus, a morphological spelling strategy clearly goes beyond alphabetic spelling, which is based on systematic translation of the phoneme sequence into corresponding graphemes. As children were already beyond the early stages of spelling acquisition, we expected that errors in alphabetic spelling would be exceptional and that the majority of spelling mistakes would reflect negligence in applying morphological rules. Our central hypothesis was that the ability to derive word forms for unknown pseudowords would account for unique variance in overall spelling skills, above and beyond fluid intelligence and phonological/alphabetic spelling skills.

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STUDY

Participants

A large convenience sample of children aged between 9 and 13 years, attending Grades 4–7 in Austria and Germany participated. Only students who were reported to speak predominantly German at home were admitted to the study. Assessments took place at children's schools and lasted for a maximum of two school lessons (approximately 90 min). Complete data from all tasks were available from 796 children (402 girls, 394 boys; n = 188 for Grade 4; n = 419 for Grade 5; n = 125 for Grade 6; and n = 64 for Grade 7).

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Tasks

Spelling

This task was developed in our laboratory. Students were asked to write 64 words to complete dictated sentence frames (e.g., Wir treffen uns am __________________. (Fußballplatz) [We meet on the _______. (soccer field)]). The words were selected to contain the most relevant and typical orthographic markers and the stems were taken from a German basic vocabulary for fourth graders (Augst, 1989). In addition to the score for number of correctly spelled graphemes, which provides a general measure of spelling ability, we applied a more differentiated scoring scheme that is informative with respect to the strategies applied to spell a certain word: Alphabetic spelling accuracy (the number of words that were spelled in a phonologically adequate way), morphological spelling accuracy (number of correctly spelled prefixes, suffixes, and stems), and orthographic spelling accuracy (number of correctly spelled orthographic markers, e.g., doubling of consonants after short vowels, “silent h” after long vowels, the digraph ie, and the special grapheme ß). The scoring procedure was highly standardized and partly computer-aided. Specifically, every word was divided into graphemes, all relevant orthographic markers and morphological spellings were predetermined, and analysis was aided with a computerized scoring procedure.

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Morphological awareness

To assess morphological awareness in our large sample, a written task format was developed that could be presented as a classroom test. We used pseudowords to assess an important facet of a child's morphological awareness, namely, the understanding of morphological principles and rules. A given pseudoword had to be adequately inflected or derived to complete written sentences. The task consisted of 35 pseudowords that had to be filled into corresponding gaps without time limitation (generally, students took about 20 min). Children had to use inflectional suffixes (e.g., Das ist ein Nerb. Das sind mehrere _______________. (Nerbs) [This is a nerb. These are several _________.]) as well as derivational suffixes (e.g., Georg kann gut bruben. Er ist ein guter ________________. (Bruber) [Georg can brub well. He is a good __________.]). The number of correct morphemes produced was scored, whereas incorrect spellings of the pseudoword stem itself were not considered. Cronbach's α for this task was 0.81 (based on item-based scoring of a subsample of 376 students from 18 classrooms).

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Phonological spelling

Children's ability to spell words phonologically correctly also was assessed on the basis of a standardized spelling test (Hamburger Schreibprobe; May, Vieluf, & Malitzky, 2000). This instrument provides a reliable (internal consistencies for Grades 4–7 are between 0.75 and 0.84) measure of phonological spelling competence. Words and sentences were dictated by the experimenter and had to be written next to a corresponding picture illustration. The phonological spelling score is based on a set of words that include 30 phonologically complex letters clusters (a point is given for each correctly spelled letter cluster).

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Nonverbal IQ

Students were given subtest 3 of the Culture-Fair Test (CFT-20-R, Weiß & Weiß, 2006), a commonly used test to measure fluid intelligence with high psychometric quality. Three-month test–retest reliability is reported as 0.80–0.82 in the test manual.

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Results

Table 1 shows the descriptive statistics for morphological awareness (cloze test pseudowords), spelling ability (correctly spelled graphemes), alphabetic spelling accuracy, orthographic spelling accuracy, morphological spelling accuracy, phonologically adequate spellings, and fluid intelligence. All variables were negatively skewed, suggesting that students were at the upper end of the ability spectrum. In particular, the scores for alphabetic spellings and phonological spellings, which both assessed children's ability to translate the phoneme sequence adequately into graphemes, were high, confirming once again that translating the sounds of words into adequately representative graphemes is not a particular challenge in the phonologically transparent German orthography.

Table 1

Table 1

To get a first impression of the association of our morphological awareness task with spelling, we analyzed partial correlations (controlling for grade level) with the alphabetic, morphological, and orthographic spelling accuracy measures and overall spelling ability as well as with fluid intelligence and the phonological spelling score. Because of the large sample size, all correlations were highly significant (all ps < .001). The correlation between morphological awareness and overall spelling ability was r = .59. As expected, correlations with morphological awareness were higher for morphological spelling skills (r = .53) and orthographic spelling skills (r = .50), but somewhat lower for alphabetic spelling skills (r = .44) and the phonological spelling score (r = .42), and notably lower for fluid intelligence (r = .24).

To test whether morphological awareness explains variance in children's spelling skills over and above fluid intelligence and phonological skills, general linear univariate modeling was used to evaluate the contributions to overall spelling ability (number of correctly spelled graphemes) by fluid intelligence, phonologically adequate spellings, and morphological awareness (cloze test pseudowords). Grade was also entered as an independent variable in the modeling. Results revealed a small but significant effect of fluid intelligence (F(1, 791) = 10.92, p = .001, η2 p = .01), significant effects of phonologically adequate spelling (F(1, 791) = 101.50, p < .001, η2 p = .11), and morphological awareness (F(1, 791) = 210.49, p < .001, η2 p = .21). There was no significant effect of grade (F(1, 791) = 0.08, p = .77, η2 p < .001).

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DISCUSSION

The results of our analysis indicate a strong and specific association of the understanding of morphological principles and rules with spelling skills in Grades 4–7. Note that the relationship between constructs might actually be somewhat attenuated due to skewness among some of our variables. Thus, the assertion that morphological processing is relevant for written language processing, which is mostly based on data in English (e.g., Deacon & Bryant, 2006a , 2006b ; Kemp, 2006) and French (Casalis, Deacon, & Pacton, 2011 ; Casalis & Louis-Alexandre, 2000) was confirmed for learning to spell in German: The ability to understand the morphological structure of spoken language and to productively apply its morphological rules is strongly associated with children's ability to spell words orthographically correctly. This is not surprising because, as explained previously, the complexities of the German spelling system are mostly morphology based.

For English, it was important to demonstrate that morphological awareness explains variance in written language skills above and beyond phonological awareness (e.g., Nagy et al., 2006). The very same issue—whether or not morphological awareness accounts for variance over and above phonological awareness—is less critical in the consistent orthography of German, where variance in phonological awareness is generally low due to ceiling effects. In the current study, even the poorest spellers were able to segment spoken words into their constituent phonemes, as demonstrated by the high number of alphabetically correct spellings. For the age group investigated in our study, we would thus expect ceiling effects for standard measures of phonological awareness like phoneme segmentation or deletion. It will be important to implement longitudinal designs that assess phonological and morphological awareness in younger age groups and test for the amount of variance in later orthographic spelling skills that is accounted for by each of these components. Obviously, such designs also would be more informative with respect to causality. In the current study, it is unclear whether morphological awareness is the foundation of morphological and orthographic spelling skills or whether learning about spelling patterns drives the development of morphological awareness. If it is the case that morphological awareness causally predicts spelling skills, interventions that focus on morphology should have positive effects. Indeed, such effects have been demonstrated and will be summarized in the next section.

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Morphological spelling intervention

In the German language, deficits in spelling skills often are more obvious and therefore more prominent in children's written school work than any problems in reading fluency. Furthermore, a considerable number of children experience serious deficits in spelling in spite of intact reading skills (e.g., Moll & Landerl, 2009). Only in the very early stages of learning or in very serious delays do spelling problems in German concern the ability to adequately segment sound sequences into their constituent phonemes and translate those into corresponding graphemes. The dominant types of spelling errors in German are phonologically adequate spellings that do not contain the mostly morphology-based orthographic markers like double vowels or double consonants. Thus, we are faced with the problem that phonology-based training programs as they have been devised for English are not sufficient for German-speaking children.

An economical approach toward spelling intervention is programs that exploit the principle of morpheme constancy, that is, that morphemes are spelled consistently in different word forms (Arnbak & Elbro, 2000 ; Bowers & Bowers, 2017 ; Kirby & Bowers, 2017). For instance, knowing how to spell the stem “friend” helps spell morphologically related words by adding prefixes and/or suffixes (e.g., un-friend-ly). Inflectional as well as derivational morphemes also provide information about word class (e.g., words ending in –ness are nouns and words ending in –ed are verbs), which is particularly important in German as all nouns are spelled with a capital initial letter (essen [to eat] vs. das Essen [the eating]).

The morphological structure of German makes it possible to derive a large number of words from one particular stem. Because of the principle of morpheme constancy, the spelling of the stem is the same across word forms. Thus, practicing the spellings of high-frequency morphemes may yield comparatively good intervention success with relatively little effort. Morpheme-based intervention programs thus focus on children's morphological awareness and morphological spelling strategies.

Based on these principles, Kargl and Purgstaller (2010) developed MORPHEUS, a computer-aided, morpheme-based spelling treatment program, which has a number of similarities with the Structured Word Inquiry program that was developed for English by Bowers and Kirby (2010) at the same time. The MORPHEUS program includes a book of exercises, computerized tutorials (see Figure 1 for an example), and morpheme-based games to facilitate consolidation. The intervention consists of five instructor-guided courses (lasting approximately 2 hr, delivered once per week) and daily handwritten and computer homework and lasts 5–6 weeks. The tutorials on the computer include 12 different game-like exercises dealing with morphemes (e.g., recognizing and matching word families, morphological cloze tasks, finding suffixes and prefixes). During the tutorials, scores are tabulated and displayed on the computer screen. Participants can reach the next difficulty level of the same exercise only when they have solved at least 75% of the given problems correctly. The automatically saved score of each tutorial serves as the basis for assessing treatment progress. The intervention materials of the MORPHEUS program consist of the most frequent morphemes of the German language and contain different levels of difficulty. The words used for the intervention were taken from an empirically based collection of words (German basic vocabulary for fourth graders; Augst, 1989). The MORPHEUS program was constructed using the following principles and/or constructs: morpheme segmentation, simplicity, consolidation by practice, playfulness, avoiding mistakes, adaptation to the level of the individual learner, and practice through handwriting.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Meanwhile, the efficacy of the MORPHEUS spelling intervention has been investigated in our laboratory in a series of small-scale pre-/posttest studies comprising students from late elementary and secondary school (Gebauer, Fink, Filippini, et al., 2012 ; Gebauer, Fink, Kargl, et al., 2012 ; Kargl, Purgstaller, Mrazek, Ertl, & Fink, 2011 ; Kargl, Purgstaller, Weiss, & Fink, 2008 ; Schneeberger et al., 2011 ; Weiss, Grabner, Kargl, Purgstaller, & Fink, 2010). All studies focused on improvements in spelling ability, which were determined using the same standardized test that was used in the current study (May et al., 2000) and allows a more fine-grained evaluation of children's spelling strategies. Some of these studies also analyzed improvements in morphological awareness, whereas others included additional assessment of reading skills.

The first study (Kargl et al., 2008) had four groups of on average 12-year-old participants (13 in each group, age range: 10–15 years): Two treatment groups (poor spelling below percentile 25 vs. average spelling above percentile 25) and two control groups that were matched with the training groups on age and pretest spelling level (poor vs. average). Although the instruction lasted only 2½ weeks (including homework and five instructor-guided lessons), both training groups showed significant and comparable improvements in general spelling ability (η2 p = .18) and morphological spelling skills (η2 p = .10). Based on the morphological cloze test used in the study reported here, which was given to an additional group of 33 average spellers (age range: 8–17 years) receiving the same short-term intervention, it could be demonstrated that the program had a significant effect on morphological awareness (η2 p = .37) as well as morphological spelling skills (η2 p = .27), whereas the number of correctly spelled words did not improve during the short treatment period. Weiss et al. (2010) used a similar intervention to train 34 students in Grades 3–8 with low-average spelling performance. Again, treated children improved their morphological spelling skills (η2 p = .15), whereas an untreated group (constituted using pairwise matching on age, spelling ability, nonverbal intelligence, and gender) showed no change. However, on standardized tests of spelling and word reading fluency, only older children at secondarygrade levels showed significant improvements, whereas elementary school children showed no improvements in their standardized test scores.

Whereas the studies reported so far assessed the effects of the MORPHEUS intervention compared with an untreated control group, Schneeberger et al. (2011) also included a trained control group (N = 21) receiving an nonspecific reading intervention. The MORPHEUS treatment group (N = 25) and an untrained control group (N = 19) were matched for age (range: 8–16 years) and spelling level (low-average). Although all three groups showed improvements in reading comprehension, only the MORPHEUS treatment group improved significantly in morphological spelling skills (η2 p = .09) as well as general spelling ability (η2 p = .13). Specific improvement in spelling after MORPHEUS training was replicated (η2 p = .28 for morphological and .21 for general spelling skills) in a later study (Kargl et al., 2011), with slightly smaller groups (Ns between 11 and 15) in the same age range. Again, both treatment groups (spelling as well as reading) showed improvements in reading comprehension, whereas this time the untreated control groups did not improve at all. In summary, several studies have demonstrated that a morphologically structured treatment program has the potential to improve not only spelling and morphological awareness but also reading skills.

Quite strikingly, we could demonstrate direct effects of the MORPHEUS intervention on brain function using repeated (f)MRI parameters (Gebauer, Fink, Filippini, et al., 2012 ; Gebauer, Fink, Kargl, et al., 2012). Prior to intervention, children with poor spelling and reading abilities (N = 10) showed increased activation in frontal medial and right hemispheric regions and decreased activation in left occipitotemporal regions compared with a control group during a lexical decision task. After 5 weeks of intervention, spelling and reading comprehension significantly improved in the treatment group (but not in matched untreated groups of poor as well as average spellers), along with increased activation in left temporal, parahippocampal, and hippocampal regions. These findings seem to indicate a normalization of brain functions in terms of an increased left temporal activation associated with the recollection of the newly acquired morpheme-based spelling skills (Gebauer, Fink, Kargl, et al., 2012). Based on the same sample, Gebauer, Fink, Filippini, et al. (2012) even found some indication of changes in white-matter integrity in the right hemisphere using pre-/postintervention diffusion tensor imaging.

Thus, the reported results are promising as they suggest that morphological instruction can effectively improve spelling in poor as well as average spellers. In particular, treated students showed evidence of improved morphological spelling skills: They provided more correct spellings of stem, derivational, and inflectional morphemes than before intervention. However, a more comprehensive evaluation of the MORPHEUS program in terms of a large-scale randomized controlled trial is needed. It will also be important to further investigate the exact mechanisms underlying the observed improvements. In particular, is an intervention that focuses on morphemes more efficient than one that practices whole-word spellings? In morphologically rich languages such as German, mere exposure to the very same material without explicit reference to morphological structure might potentially be sufficient to induce similar improvements. Note that the fact that the MORPHEUS intervention improves children's morphological awareness suggests that the treatment does help them better understand the morphological basis of German orthography.

The MORPHEUS intervention is usually provided only once children have pretty much mastered the hurdles of phonological spelling, which, as illustrated earlier on, are not particularly high in the phonologically transparent German orthography. Thus, findings are not informative with respect to the ongoing discussion regarding whether or not instruction based on morphology can be used right from the start or only later on (Bowers & Bowers, 2017 ; Kirby & Bowers, 2017). The evidence reported in this article, however, convincingly shows that morphological awareness is relevant to represent the complexities of German orthography. Furthermore, findings in German confirm evidence (Goodwin & Ahn, 2010 , 2013) that morphologically structured intervention is an efficient means to improve spelling beyond a phonology-based strategy of simple phoneme–grapheme translation.

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Keywords:

morphology; orthography; spelling

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