Reading Study by
Rosemarie Farkas Myerson

by Rosemarie Farkas Myerson

This thesis was presented in 1976 to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Education of Harvard University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Education. A retyped version (2002) is provided here in Adobe PDF format:

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This study investigated selected aspects of children's knowledge of complex derived words of English. The term "complex derived words", refers to those word pairs which involve systematic sound changes of the base word in its suffixed derived form, as in relate-relation, in which the [t] sound of relate has become an [š] sound in the suffixed word.

The two purposes of the research study were:

  1. to investigate changes in knowledge that children between the ages of eight and seventeen have acquired with respect to certain complex word derivational processes.
  2. to investigate the relation of the changes in children's word derivational knowledge to their achievement in various aspects of reading.

N. Chomsky and M. Halle in Sound Pattern of English (Harper Row 1968) hypothesized that inner knowledge of sound pattern changes must be part of the adult speaker's general system of grammatical knowledge. They showed that the pattern of sound changes between sets of base and derived words is systematic. It is predictable from information about both syntactic and phonological factors. Their rules require that the speaker have internalized a representation of the lexical formatives of complex derived words that is abstract in relation to the phonetic sounds.

Five sound patterns were selected to be used in this study:

  1. Palatalization of final dental stops before the suffix -ion as in the words relate-relation or distort-distortion.
  2. Vowel shift of [e y] to [æ] before the suffix -ity as in words like sane-sanity or grave-gravity.
  3. Vowel shift of [iy] to [e] before the suffix -ical as in gamete-gametical or meter-metrical.
  4. Stress shift with the suffix -ity as in moral-morality or plural-plurality.
  5. Stress shift with the suffix -ical as in method-methodical or history-historical.

The study used the above ten words as models for creating nonce pairs of words for testing children's inner knowledge of the five sound patterns. The nature of these five sound patterns is such that they allow for testing of inner knowledge both of relations that are and are not abstractly encoded in English orthography. The writing system's code is basically morphemic. Rather than representing the surface sounds of complex derived words, the writing system tends to preserve the visual identity of each morpheme. Children learning to read are taught the multiple sounds possible for specific letters. The writing system uses one letter "t" to represent the [t] and the [š] sound of relate-relation - an abstraction from the phonetic sound in the derived word. The writing system uses the one vowel letter "a" to represent the [e y]~ [æ] change of vowel sounds in sane-sanity: it uses the one vowel letter "e" to represent the [iy]~ [e] alternation in meter-metrical. Thus vowel sounds, too, are abstractly encoded in the writing system. However, stress is never marked for printed language. Therefore reading and writing instruction do not teach stress changes.

The literature review of the research done on children's and adult's knowledge of word formation processes provided conflicting evidence. The conclusions that a researcher drew from his data were dependent upon the nature of the tasks required of the subjects. Asking a child to create a new derived word from a nonce base word did not show evidence of inner knowledge of English patterns of sound changes. In order to study children's knowledge of complex word formation processes, there was need to first create a task such that one could deduce from the child's behavior the structure of his inner knowledge of word suffixing processes.

A new method for testing inner lexical knowledge was created, the word recall test. Children were taught ten nonce words, and their ability to recall them was tested one day, one week, and six weeks after the original teaching. The ten nonce words taught to the children consisted of two words for each of the five sound patterns. One of the nonce suffixed words was correct according to English rules of phonology. The second nonce word had sounds that were similar to the base word; the sound change rules had not been applied. The ages of the children who participated in this study were from eight to seventeen. There were 72 children, eighteen from each of grades 3, 6, 9, and 12.

Below are listed the experimental tests used for investigating children's knowledge of the five sound patterns listed above and the relation of such knowledge to their reading. There were three oral language tests - one of production ability, one of intuitions about which of two words sounds better, and the third was the word recall test. There were also two experimental tests of the ability to read aloud real complex derived words. The scores on the experimental tests were compared to children's scores on two standardized reading tests (one of paragraph reading and one of oral word list reading) and to a measure of I.Q. as given by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. The youngest children's silent reading was measured by the Stanford Achievement Test - Primary I and II - Paragraph Meaning. The three upper grades' silent reading as measured by STEP (Sequential Test of Education Progress). All children were given the Wide Range Achievement test of oral word listing reading.

The experimental tests were:

  1. Production test. This showed children's ability to produce a new derived word when given a nonce base word and the required suffix.
  2. Conscious Judgment test. This tested children's ability to decide which of two possible derived words sounded better: one word was derived according to English rules of phonology and the second word had sounds similar to those of the base word.
  3. Word Recall test. This tested children's ability to learn and to recall over a six week period the ten nonce derived words described above.
  4. The 29 Word list. This tested children's ability to read aloud graded lists of real derived words representing the five sound patterns of the study.
  5. The Uncle John Story. This tested children's ability to read the ten real derived words used as models for the creation of the ten nonce words. Since the words were in a story, this allowed the comparison between reading the suffixed words in a list to reading derived words in a meaningful context.

With respect to the three oral language tests of inner knowledge of the five sound patterns, the data replicated previous research results wherever direct comparisons between tests were possible. Further it was found that the word recall test provided the most accurate insight into children's abstractions about complex derived words. The study has used a cross selection of children of different ages since it was impossible to follow the development of a few children for a ten year period. Yet it was still possible to order the five sound patterns for difficulty. The Guttman Scale analysis of the word recall data from the 72 children from grades three through twelve showed the following hierarchical ordering for the acquisition of knowledge of the five sound patterns:

  1. Palatalization of dental before -ion.
  2. Vowel shift before -ity
  3. Stress shift before -ity (and with it stress shift before -ical). The two stress shift items could not be ordered for relative difficulty.
  4. Vowel shift before -ical.

The data of the study showed for all the 72 subjects combined, inner knowledge of the five word formation processes correlated with subjects' silent reading comprehension, and oral word recognition ability as measured both by the WRAT and by the experimenter designed 29 Word List. The correlations of the word recall test to all the reading measures (except oral reading errors and reading time for the Uncle John Story) was significant for the third graders. Further, the two sound patterns which distinguished the word recall scores for the three levels of reading groups of third graders were vowel shift -ity and stress shift -ity; only third grade good readers showed inner knowledge of these sound patterns. For the subjects in the two upper grades, word recall seemed to relate more to oral word recognition than to silent reading comprehension.

Myerson, Rosemarie F. (1978), "Children's knowledge of selected aspects of sound patterns of English," in Recent Advances in the Psychology of Language: Formal and Experimental Approaches, edited by Robin N. Campbell and Philip T. Smith, New York: Plenum, pp. 377-402.

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