How Does Morphological Awareness Relate to Overall Literacy?

A new morphology meta-analysis was published this September (2022), by Won Lee, et al. Their meta-analysis examined the correlation between morphological awareness and other literacy skills. The meta-analysis included 106 pre-k to grade 12 morphological awareness correlation studies. The resulting Pearson effect sizes can be seen in the below chart.

This meta-analysis was a correlational meta-analysis, meaning that instead of looking at quais-experimental and experimental studies, they looked at correlational studies. Correlation studies are sometimes looked at as less meaningful than experimental studies, as they are seen as less valid for demonstrating causation. For example, all of the factors above, appear closely correlated, which begs the question: is morphology the real correlating factor, or is it another factor on the list, would we get the same results, if we switched this analysis to phonological awareness instead?

 

Realizing this issue the authors actually redid their meta-analysis, both with reading comprehension and phonological awareness being their primary correlating factor, the results can be seen below:

The above graphs show that, while phonological knowledge correlates with other literacy skills, this connection is weak. This might be surprising to many as much of the focus on the reading wars debate has focused on phonics. However, it should be remembered that this study looked at research for pre-k to grade 12 and that phonics instruction has not been shown to be effective for core instruction past grade 3; whereas, morphology instruction has been shown to be effective for primary and secondary education. Indeed, the researchers found that morphological awareness showed statistically significant higher effect sizes for older grades than younger grades. For example “The relation of morphological awareness with vocabulary was .26 for primary grade students and .36 for upper elementary grade students, and this difference was statistically significant (p = .02), controlling for the other moderators. Similarly, the relation of morphological awareness with word reading was .29 for primary grade students and .37 for upper elementary grade students, and this difference was borderline (p = .05).”

 

Similarly some might be surprised to see that comprehension skills showed no correlation with other literacy skills. This might be reflective of passage comprehension being a by-product of other skills. In other words, decoding, vocabulary and fluency knowledge lead to comprehension knowledge, comprehension knowledge does not lead to decoding, vocabulary and fluency knowledge.

 

While this meta-analysis was still correlational, we already have several morphology meta-analyses on experimental papers, and I believe that this paper helps to build upon an increasingly compelling argument that we should be teaching morphology alongside phonics in earlier instruction and after phonics instruction stops. It should also be noted that the results of this meta-analysis were consistent with the results of experimental meta-analyses. My secondary meta-analysis of morphology experimental meta-analyses, found a mean effect size of .51. The mean results of this paper of .47 are statistically similar. 

 

There are some weaknesses to the existing experimental morphology research. Firstly, many of the studies include phonological instruction (also referred to as phonics) alongside morphology instruction, which leads to wondering if it was the morphology helping students or the phonics. For example, the 2022 Colby Hall on interventions for dyslexic students meta-analysis found no statistically significant differences between interventions that included or did not include morphology. We also have very limited experimental morphology research on early primary instruction. This meta-analysis helps to address both of these issues. As it included 28 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten studies, it better helps to address the relative importance of morphology instruction in primary grades. Moreover, it allows us to see that higher morphological knowledge better correlates with generalized literacy skills than phonological knowledge, at least as an aggregate across grades. 

 

One question that I am left with, after reading this paper, is how these results specifically relate to the English language, as the meta-analysis included morphology studies on 17 different languages. However, the results were not broken down according to each individual language. While many languages are similarly developed, the authors did note “a stronger relation in orthographically deep languages”. That said, I would assume the authors considered English a “orthographically deep language”, as its writing system is morpho-phonemic. 

 

Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited 2022-10-09
 

References:

Lee, J. won, Wolters, A., & Grace Kim, Y.-S. (2022). The Relations of Morphological Awareness with Language and Literacy Skills Vary Depending on Orthographic Depth and Nature of Morphological Awareness. Review of Educational Research, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543221123816

N, Hansford. (2022). Morphology Instruction: A Secondary Meta-Analysis. Teaching by Science. Retrieved from <https://www.pedagogynongrata.com/morphology>. 

 

Hall, C., Dahl-Leonard, K., Cho, E., Solari, E.J., Capin, P., Conner, C.L., Henry, A.R., Cook, L., Hayes, L., Vargas, I., Richmond, C.L. and Kehoe, K.F. (2022), Forty Years of Reading Intervention Research for Elementary Students with or at Risk for Dyslexia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Read Res Q. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.477