Learning to Spell Out and Write out Word Structure with Word Sums

 
“Where do I start?” 
This is a logical and common question I get when educators start to get a glimpse of the underlying order of English spelling system. 
One message I try to convey at all of my workshops is that if I can encourage any change in teacher practice, it is that they start to include the word sum and matrix in their regular classroom instruction. 
The matrix and the word sum offer concrete frames of the underlying orthographic representation of morphology in English. These graphic representations of morphology reduces the cognitive load on working memory that is used to perceive, investigate and discuss the abstract  underlying orthographic structures of words that Carol Chomsky (1970) described as “lexical spellings.” 
The matrix is addressed in this introduction, but the focus here is mainly on word sums and specific conventions I recommend for using them to guide the practice of spelling out word structure. The crucial role of the matrix in revealing how spelling structure marks membership in morphological word families  warrants another piece that I will have to finish  at another time.
“When do we start?” 
Since WordWoks began, I have shared countless examples of morphological instruction bringing literacy learning in the earliest grades and with students who struggle with literacy. But the evidence that young children can gain from morphological instruction is not limited to such anecdotal evidence. Our meta-analysis of morphological interventions (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010) found that morphological instruction was as effective or more in pre-school to Grade 2 as it was in Grade 3 - Grade 8 interventions. The greatest effects were found for the less able students. These results have been corroborated by other meta-analyses. (See meta-analyses chart from my IDA presentation.)
Both anecdotal and meta-analysis evidence tells us that we should teach about morphology and phonology from the start of children’s schooling. We know what we need to do, now teachers need help understanding how morphology operates in oral and written English so that they gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to  to investigate morphology in the youngest grades.  
It is important to know that we can spell out and write out word structure with children right from the beginning of their encounters with text. At the top of this page you saw a Grade 1 student announce the structure of a word sum independently. The video immediately above shows a lesson I taught with kindergarten students at the International School of Beijing via Skype. In this lesson I introduced these youngsters to word sums and the matrix for the very first time. I simply work with the text of a story they had been reading and I use word sums and spelling out to highlight the underlying morphological and graphemic structures within the words of a story they already know. Once word sums that share a base are introduced, the matrix is a natural extension of this new knowledge. If you read on to the next page, you will see that the skills Sofie and these kindergarten students are learning can also be used as a tool for quite advanced work in social studies and science in upper elementary grades. But first a few more examples of this work in practice.
Spelling <does> make sense with word sums and matrices!
The short video to the right was captured by teacher Emily Roth the the American Community School of Abu Dhabi that I recently visited. 
Watch the joy of understanding in this student’s face as he explains why <does> is a logical spelling after linking it to the spelling of <doing> with word sums. Consider the generative lessons about how spelling works Emily is able to offer this student through this brief introduction to the  spellings of <doing> and <does> with word sums. Now consider how that learning contrasts to typical instruction.  
Explicitly teaching this student that <does> is one of the many examples of “irregular words” that they just have to memorize would be in line with the training and resources of most teachers. Such “irregular” words are often presented in lists for practicing an attempt to facilitate that memorization.Clearly, however, it is easier to remember things that we understand. 
Instruction which teaches <does> as irregular makes no attempt to foster understanding.  Not only does typical instruction fail to explain the spelling of <does>; it fails to target systematic understanding of English spelling. In fact it does the opposite. By teaching commonly occurring letter-sound correspondences that have frequent “exceptions” like <does>, typical instruction misleads children to see their spelling system as a frustratingly irregular system with the main purpose of representing sound. That account of English spelling directly contradicts what linguists have long explained. As Richard Venezky put it, 
“the simple fact is that the present orthography is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but, instead, a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles” (1967, p. 77)
Venezky, R. (1967). English Orthography: Its graphical structure and Its relation to sound. Reading Research Quarterly, 2, 75-105
Word sums and the matrix reveal the order of spelling
Note what happens when word <does> -- that is typically treated as irregular -- is investigated with word sums and a matrix. In the session captured  on video by Emily Roth above, and in the video immediately to the right, we see this word used as a vehicle to make sense of English spelling. 
In these videos we see students poised at the beginning of learning how to make sense of the reliable, logical system described by linguists like Venezky and Carol Chomsky. The students in all the videos on this page are learning how to use these tools that will help them investigate the spelling and meaning of any complex word. 



Getting teachers started with spelling out word sums
The practices described here focus students’ attention on the underlying structures and conventions that drive the English spelling system. It also helps teachers continually attend to the structures within words that they are charged with helping their students read and write. 
Perhaps the best way I can communicate how spelling out word structure builds an ever deeper understanding of the conventions of English spelling is to invite you to work through the process yourself. 
My hope is that the instructions that follow offer a means to guage your own learning about English spelling with the help of spelling out word structure with the help of word sums. You can judge for yourself whether completing these tasks facilitates learning about word structure that you have not gained previously through other means.
View an example: The first step is to watch the video at the top of the page of a Grade 1 student spelling out the structure of the word <wonderfully> with the help of a word sum. If you haven’t watched it, please do so now before reading on. 
Learn the conventions: Now that you have seen Sophie spell out word structure, you need to know the conventions for announcing word structure with a word sum that she has been taught and that she puts into practice in that video. Click the document below for detailed instructions for constructing word sums and spelling out word structure. The first page of that document provides background on this practice. The three following pages provide step-by-step instructions for spelling out word sums like the image shown below. The final page also has links to videos illustrating spelling out word sums in practice. 
Note: I don’t expect that Sofie was taught all these suffixing conventions, but she does show that she has learned the conventions needed to spell out the word <wonderfully>.

Practice: Now that you have gone over the conventions for spelling out word structure with the help of a word sum, challenge yourself to announce the morphemic and graphemic structure of the words listed below -- without the scaffolding of a word sum. 
Signal morphemic boundaries with a clear pause.
Signal digraphs and trigraphs in the bases. Note that this list includes words that are just bases. For those words, you must signal digraphs and trigraphs, but do not leave any large pauses that signal a morphemic boundary. 
Signal that you know which of these words include “double letters” and which simply include the same letter twice in a row as an accidental juxtaposition as outlined on page 3 in this document. 
the
does
doing
marry
spelled
helpfully
teacher
bookkeeper
pondered
purple
fighting
duckling
Note: I have taken it easy on you by avoiding words that include suffixing changes for this first practice. I hope that reducing the complexity for this task will help you focus identifying the following orthographic concepts with the way you spell them out according to the conventions described in the document above.
Assessment -- Check your learning: Click here to see a page with this list of words marked with word sums and a written out description of the proper spelling out. On that page, you will also find more about this practice as a teaching and assessment tool along with further classroom examples.Carol_Chomsky,_1970.htmlSpelling-Out_Word_Sums_files/published%20Meta-Analysis.pdfSpelling-Out_Word_Sums_files/published%20Meta-Analysis.pdfSpelling-Out_Word_Sums_files/published%20Meta-Analysis.pdfCarol_Chomsky,_1970.htmlSpelling-Out_Word_Sums_files/spelling%20out%20word%20structure%20best.pdfAssessement_for_spelling_out_challenge.htmlNewsletter_63.htmlSpelling-Out_Word_Sums_files/spelling%20out%20word%20structure%20best_1.pdfSpelling-Out_Word_Sums_files/spelling%20out%20word%20structure%20best_2.pdfshapeimage_2_link_0shapeimage_2_link_1shapeimage_2_link_2shapeimage_2_link_3shapeimage_2_link_4shapeimage_2_link_5shapeimage_2_link_6shapeimage_2_link_7shapeimage_2_link_8

Copyright Susan and Peter Bowers 2008