Teaching is a profession that elicits a myriad of questions throughout the day, from the rhetorical to pedagogical. Finding intellectual space to ponder these questions in a way that will impact practice can be tough, and we want to help. Our new series, “In The Quiet: Reflections on Learning” invites you into the mind of an expert in the field through a brief Q&A. So, wherever your quiet is—after the bell, on the commute, or elsewhere—please enjoy this space to reflect as you hone your craft.
Heidi Anne Mesmer, PhD, is a Professor in Literacy in the School of Education at Virginia Tech. A former classroom teacher, she works extensively with teachers, schools, and young readers, directing numerous school-based initiatives to improve reading instruction.
Why is decoding multisyllabic and multimorphemic words often under the radar?
Decoding “big words,” is absolutely pivotal to reading and comprehending text. You cannot become a successful reader if you cannot decode multisyllabic words like hungry, language, animal, or multimorphemic words like undecided, spectacularly, or animalistic. English has more multisyllabic words than single syllable words (Balota et al., 2007) and words with multiple morphemes, meaningful word parts, outnumber single morpheme words 4-to-1 (Moats, 2020).
Yet, if you are like most educators, myself included, the term morpheme, feels a touch uncomfortable. It does not roll off the tongue like the terms phoneme or grapheme. It does not call up an immediate, easy definition. Often folks wrinkle their noses a bit and stop because they need to think about that word. That is because morphological instruction has not gotten the same attention that phonics has.
You don’t hear the phrase, “systematic, explicit morphological instruction” as often as you hear “systematic, explicit phonics instruction.” It is not included in the five pillars of literacy (e.g., phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension). It has not been written into laws at the same level that phonics instruction has. It is not a big part of teacher education.
Now some would say that multisyllabic and multimorphemic instruction are a part of phonics, a subset of structural analysis skills. But I would suggest that it is time to make morphological instruction a pillar, to call it out specifically and to bring clear attention to the morphophonemic nature of English. In fact, to be proficient in complex texts like those found on the 4th grade NAEP test, students must read a variety of long, complex words (Hiebert, 2022). We are not finishing the job with respect to decoding if we do not give instructional attention to big words.
Can you share an example of a misinterpretation—or overinterpretation—that you have observed as schools think about researched-based instruction in decoding big words?
There are a number of misconceptions about phonics, but one that is particularly relevant to decoding long words is this: all words are decoded in the same way. If you think about these words, bet, beat, and unbeaten, you would not approach them in the same way. The word bet can be decoded linearly, from left-to-right because each grapheme is only one letter. You can “slide through” that word. The word beat requires the reader to identify or consolidate the ea grapheme that represents the long/tense e sound. If you go left-to-right with that word, then you won’t get to the correct pronunciation.
The word unbeaten requires a different approach. Can you imagine asking a child to “sound out” the seven phonemes in unbeaten: /u/ /n/ /b/ /ea/ /t/ /e/ /n/? It can be done but that would be silly. In that situation you need to consolidate phoneme-based parts that form morphemes and then connect those parts to decoding and meaning. There are different research-based strategies for unlocking the parts in multisyllabic, multimorphemic words (Lovett, et al., 2000; Toste, et al., 2017).
What is one of the biggest myths you've encountered in reading instruction and what would you like to replace it with?
There are lots of myths about reading instruction, some of which I have believed and even perpetuated myself. With respect to decoding big words, I now believe this is a myth: teaching multisyllabic, multimorphemic words should not take place in grades K-2.
The notion that we cannot or should not teach multisyllabic and multimorphemic words until later has been a bit of tradition and a bit of teaching lore. The idea has been we must teach patterns in single syllable words before we teach any morphemes or multisyllabic word parts. In fact, this is simply not supported by the research (Bowers & Kirby, 2010; Goodwin & Ahn, 2013). Although the majority of decoding instruction in these grades will be patterns in single syllable words, we can introduce appropriate multisyllabic, multimorphemic patterns earlier. Others agree; Henry (2019) writes “The work of many researchers and educators illustrates the need to introduce morphology: which once thought to be useful only in the upper elementary and secondary grades, in early grades.”
Why should we introduce big words instruction earlier? There are three reasons. First, over 40% of words of first grade materials have more than one syllable, the majority of which are inflected forms or compound words (Kearns & Hiebert, 2022). Second, patterns in multisyllabic, multimorphemic words—syllables, compound words, inflections—are in first grade standards (National Governor’s Association, 2010). You are not teaching the standards if you don’t teach these parts. Third, we must build what I call a “big words mindset,” a disposition among our students to not be intimidated or shut down by big words. We can engage in appropriate, effective instruction on word parts as early as kindergarten and this will build a “big words” mindset and curiosity. With teacher training in the linguistic information about syllables and morphemes, translation of the research about how to teach big words, and practice teaching, we can strengthen this imperative of our reading instruction.
We can and must do better. We must expand the hackneyed mantra, systematic, explicit phonics instruction to include “Big words”—multisyllabic, multimorphemic instruction.