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Multicultural group of middle school students working on phonics and word study

Developing Advanced Word-Level Skills

Adolescents who lack advanced word-level skills often have difficulty decoding multisyllabic and unusual words, difficulty reading and writing words that have irregular spellings, and less developed vocabulary knowledge. Luckily, targeted instruction can help!

Historically, word-level skills have not been a key focus of middle and high school instruction partly due to the view that middle and high school students are “reading to learn” and therefore no longer require direct word-level instruction. In the early 2000’s, “Phonics Instruction for Older Students? Just Say No” (Ivey, 2004) was a vivid response to the onslaught of skill and drill phonics programs creeping into secondary schools as federally funded, K-3 Reading First initiatives began bleeding into upper elementary grade levels and beyond.

More recent research still does not support providing middle and high school students with the same phonics instruction that younger students receive. However, there is an argument to be made to focus a small amount of instructional time on decoding multisyllabic words and delving into morphemic analysis for adolescent learners who still lack advanced word-level skills.

Decoding multisyllabic words

Often, when confronted by a long and unfamiliar word, students with underdeveloped word-level skills will sound out one syllable and then guess the rest. Coming across the word “transition,” for example, they might read “trans”… “um, trans-lation.” You can quickly model and think aloud how to break multisyllabic words into recognizable parts by encouraging students to slow down and sound out each part of the word and then blend them together. The three minutes you spend modeling how to attack multisyllabic words can pay dividends, as up to 90% of words that adolescents read are multisyllabic (Baayen, Piepenbrock, & Gullikers, 1195).

Morphemic analysis

Morphology describes how words are formed from building blocks called morphemes (e.g., Greek and Latin roots, suffixes, prefixes, etc.), the smallest unit of meaning in a word. Teaching students to identify and manipulate the morphemes in words benefits older students’ reading and writing skills (Reed, 2008; Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010), particularly striving readers. Students who are more aware of the morphological structure of words are often stronger spellers and decoders and have more advanced vocabulary knowledge and a greater understanding while reading.

Key instructional ideas

  • Teach different morpheme patterns (e.g., Greek & Latin Roots, Suffixes, Prefixes, etc.). Students often need to be shown, explicitly, that many of the words they read share common prefixes (such as pre-, pro-, and auto-), suffixes (such as -ology, -ous, and -ism), and roots (such as -ped, used in “pedal” and “pedestrian”).

  • Keep it relevant! As much as possible, teach morphemes within the context of a sentence and discuss how inflections and derivations change the meaning of words (e.g., present to past tense, etc.). You also want to try and choose words that are linked to your class content, so that students have a reason to learn and use them.

  • Keep it short and sweet! Give students multiple opportunities to develop automaticity with specific word parts and meanings. Brief sessions (10-15 min.) with 5-10 words at a time rather than overwhelming them with 15-20 words.

  • Make it fun! We want students to develop “word consciousness,” a term that experts use to describe a curious and playful attitude toward language. In the long run, kids who learn to enjoy words — having fun with puns, word play, and the use of rare and unusual words — will make more connections between more words

Related resources

Morphology Wording

Phonics, Word Study & Decoding

Key Literacy Component: Morphology

Morphology describes how words are formed from building blocks called morphemes, the smallest unit of meaning in a word. Students who don’t understand this structure have trouble recognizing, understanding, and spelling words.