Spelling breakdown

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Morphemes build on phonics to help pupils learn the meaning and spelling of new words

A person who writes is a ... The deep pink words flash up on the screen.

Letti sticks her hand up excitedly. "A writist," she exclaims.

After a whooshing sound from the computer, "writer" comes up, the last two letters highlighted in green. A new half sentence follows. A person who runs is a ...

"Runner?" offers Amal. The Year 3 children all watch the screen in anticipation.

The group at Lauriston primary, in Hackney, east London, is learning to read and spell using morphemes, a system of breaking words down into their constituent parts. This approach, pioneered at London's Institute of Education, is intended for key stage 2 pupils, complementing the phonics they have already been taught.

The aim is to teach pupils the ways in which suffixes and prefixes can transform a word. For example, a word ending "ion" changes a verb into an abstract noun. By contrast, the suffix "ian" transforms a verb into a noun describing the person practising that verb. In this way, electrician is differentiated from electrocution.

The theory is that morphemes not only indicate the meaning of a word, but also have a fixed spelling. So words that might otherwise appear irregular or difficult to spell, can be broken down into regular parts.

This approach was developed by Terezinha Nunes, professor of education at Oxford University, who wanted to provide key stage 2 pupils with an alternative to memorising long lists of spellings.

"English isn't an alphabetic script," Professor Nunes says. "It's represented in morphemes. So being more aware of morphemes gives children an insight into the nature of English spelling."

Analysing words also helps pupils when they are faced with new vocabulary.

They learn to see the link between "angle" and "triangle", for example.

`Hilary Cook, the special needs co-ordinator at Lauriston primary, says:

"Occasionally, there are children who simply cannot synthesise sounds .

It's very useful for them to have a visual way in."

The morphemes are taught using a combination of repetition, games and pseudowords. The pupils gather round to play a game, moving counters on a homemade board every time they complete a sentence correctly.

"You guys are so going to cry," says 7-year-old Stacee, as she correctly identifies a person who does art as an artist, and moves forward five squares.

"It's making use of implicit knowledge they have already," says Ms Cook.

"They know what sounds right. We're making that a conscious process."

* www.tlrp.org

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