By Minna Nygren (UCL)

What if I asked you to choose the right ending for the following sentence…:

… and the options to choose from were:

-which option would you choose? Yes, you did read right! And no, it’s not a typo. The list of options written here are deliberately chosen non-words – a way to gain insights about how a child may attend to, and understand the shape of a word (derivational morphology). In fact, non-words such as “dant” (correct answer by the way) are important tools that researchers can use to understand how children pay attention to a word structurally, not only in meaning. Because we replaced the above word with a sensical word, such as “dance”, the children would likely know the word’s meaning and shape, and automatically choose it. For research, non-words such as these can help us understand the types of features that children attend to when they are learning to read.

The above question featured as part of a real-world empirical study published as a journal article in June 2021 by Professor Andrea Révész and colleagues, a professor of linguistics from UCL Institute of Education. Professor Révész wanted to understand how children, learning English as a second language, attend to shapes and structures (morphological derivations) of a word – a hugely important skill that is part of any fluent reader’s toolkit. Knowing specific details about this process is useful, as this can help us design better ways to support readers on their learning journey. Altogether 127 children, aged approx. 12 years old, took part in Professor Révész and colleagues’ study. All children were learning English as a second language.

Studying Child L2 Learners’ Development in Derivational Morphology

To understand what supports children in attending to shapes of words (again, the morphological structures), researchers including Professor Révész and teaching practitioners, have used various techniques and tools to support children’s focused attention to morphology. There is a long tradition of the use of textual enhancement, modifications to a traditional black-on-white text such as highlighting, in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching. However, research into students’ attention to derivational morphology has been limited to short term studies focusing on adult populations. Therefore, Professor Révész’s recent longitudinal study is pioneering – it focuses on areas that have not yet been studied around how children attend to morphological features and how this is impacted by highlighting. Professor Révész’s research offers new insights into the ways in which textual highlighting facilitating L2 language development in derivational morphology.

Why Is Derivational Morphology Important?

As adults, it is quite challenging to travel back in time to remember our own days of learning to read, and the different types of processes and insights we gained along the way. From studies in linguistics and education we know that to be a fluent reader, we must have acquired morphological knowledge. In a nutshell, morphological knowledge has to do with knowing about how shapes of the words change. An example of this is “sing” which is a root word. Morphology studies how changes to the word, such as adding -er suffix at the end of the root word, into “singer” changes the shape and the meaning of the word. For a fluent reader this is obvious. Once we have learned to read, these types of processes become automatic and we don’t need to pay attention to them anymore. But when we are on the journey of learning to read, it is important we pay attention to morphology.

Awareness of morphology, the internal structure of a word, is a fundamental skill in reading. Research has shown that when a child has acquired morphological knowledge, it is a reliable predictor of reading skills later in life. Professor Révész says that one of the key motivators was a gap in literature on children’s learning of derivational morphology. “There’s not much about morphological derivation in in the second language acquisition litearature.” Révész explains. Describing the feature’s importance, she says: “Derivational morphology is actually a good predictor of reading scores.”

How Can We Study Children’s Attention and Morphological Awareness?

In Professor Révész’s study, two different groups participated: those who read a text with highlighting, and those who read without highlighting. After the children had read the texts, their teachers gave them a comprehension questionnaire based on the words they had just read. The questionnaires were designed to prompt children’s responses on how much they had knowledge about the grammatical structures of a word. Below is an example comprehension question from Professor Révész’s study. You can see how it is asking the child to find the right structure of the word that fits the sentence.

Comprehension question children filled in after their reading task. Select correct response to complete the gap with a real word, trying to find the correct syntactic structure.

The second task involved made-up words. What was special about the second questionnaire was that it involved the use of non-words, such as the ones at the beginning of this blog post. Non-words are useful when we want to understand how children attend to the structure of the word, not just its meaning. The benefit of this approach is that a non-word would be new to the child – they would not have previous knowledge about its meaning as with other familiar words, and therefore would be more likely to attend to its structure – derivational morphology: “The reason why we used these nonverbal tasks is because if we had used real words, it would’ve been hard for us to tell whether the learners actually know the word or they know the morpheme. You could know this word without being aware of the morpheme, so that’s why we had the non-words.” Here is an example of the type of question the children answered:

“Choose the right word in the sentence.” A task to study children’s morphological awareness, derived from Professor Révész’s study.

The third and final task in Professor Révész’s study also involved non-words, with a focus on another morpheme “-ion” (look carefully at the different “tails” of the words):   

“Choose the right word in the sentence.” Another example of a task to study children’s morphological awareness

Child taking part in the study’s research project, reading off the tablet with a questionnaire in front of them on the table.

Culturo-linguistic Differences in Morphological Awareness

One of the most interesting findings of this study was that there is an indication that some learners may benefit from highlighting specific morphemes. In addition, researchers hypothesised that some of these differenced stemmed from differences in the children’s culturo-linguistic contexts. As an example, the Swedish students improved in the “-ion” morpheme (syntactic category). “This was really nice to see”, Professor Révész describes, as it gave evidence of potential benefits of highlighting. Surprisingly, while Swedish participants showed improvement, the Romanian students did well in all tasks without significant improvement. One explanation for the differences is that Swedish is a Germanic language, while Romanian is a romance language originating from Latin. “From a linguistic perspective, it was really interesting,” Professor Révész describes.  When it comes to morphology, the researchers hypothesised that it may be easier for Romanian students to learn the target morpheme, “because their own language has a very rich morphology, while for the Swedish, not so much.” Existing research on second language acquisition already supports a correlation between a highly morphological languages and learning morphological features more easily.

Another difference in addition to different levels of morphology was the way in which English language is taught as a foreign language. In both the Swedish and Romanian schools that participated in this study, children received between 2-3 English lessons a week. There were some differences in the ways that they were learning. Professor Révész described the the Romanian schools: “From conversations with the Romanian team their language is partly meaning based. There’s a lot more focus on grammar instruction and the language itself. But actually, this in itself could have made the Romanian participants more prone to noticing any type of intervention.” whereas Sweden focused primarily on meaning-based teaching approach and focus on communicative purposes.

Future Steps

The findings demonstrated that highlighting may be useful for some students – and for others, less so. “Our findings are somewhat promising,” says Professor Révész. “Highlighting could be a way to draw learners’ attention to something that they need to learn about.” But it is important for us to understand more about the processes involved in studying highlighting. Technologies, such as reading tablets, can make studying textual enhancement easier as the feature can be designed in different ways, and be switched on or off swiftly. Furthermore, using technology in the classroom would enable teachers to emphasise different aspects of morphological features to support more targeted learning.

As next steps in her research, Professor Révész is interested in exploring how children attend to morphological structures and highlighting over a longer time: “We know from the literature that highlighting needs more time to really have an impact.” Another longitudinal study could deepen our understanding about using highlighting as part of EAL pupils’ learning of morphological structures. Another research interest Professor Révész mentions is attention. “Attention is really the first step in the learning process”. There are several ways to study attention, and using methods such as eye-tracking, could expand our current understanding about children attending to textual enhancements. We look forward to Professor Révész’s future research, and learning more about how we can learn from children what types of interventions support language learning.

To learn more about derivational morphology, you can read Professor Andrea Révész’s recently published study “The Effects of Multiple-Exposure Textual Enhancement on Child L2 Learners’ Development in Derivational Morphology: A Multi-Site Study”, published in TESOL Quarterly in June 2021.

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