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Research title: The Warwick Morphology and Phonology Project

University of Warwick Psychology Department Start date – target end date The project began on 01/01/12 and will be completed on 31/03/15

The Warwick Morphology and Phonology Project focuses on children with dyslexia or children with hearing impairments (including children with a history of repeated ear infection), in addition to 'typically' developing children in Years 2 to 6. Many of these children have difficulty working with the sounds in language (phonological awareness). We know that phonology is very important when learning to read and write. However, we don’t know as much about their other language skills. For example, it could be that children with weaknesses in sounding out words can use their knowledge of word structure (e.g. that ‘boys’ contains ‘boy’ + ‘s’, or that ‘electricity’ contains ‘electric’) to help them read. This is known as morphological awareness.

In order to carry out this examination, we are recruiting a wide range of children with difficulties in processing sounds, including children with either permanent or transient hearing loss (including through repeated ear infections) and children with dyslexia. We are currently recruiting hearing-impaired children between the ages of 7 and 11 for the project.

The importance of being able to use letter-to-sound rules to read and spell is well established – children who have difficulty processing speech sounds (phonology) often have difficulty learning to read. However, little work has looked at other types of information that are important for literacy. Reading is about obtaining meaning from text, which may sometimes occur via translation into speech but, crucially for children who have problems accessing speech, not always. Mature readers construct meaning across the sentence using information about word structure and grammar. In this project we examine how children acquire these skills. We are particularly interested in how understanding of morphology and grammar develop alongside phonological impairments.

Morphology is an aspect of grammar that refers to the separable parts of words that carry meaning (eg, boy+s to indicate plural). Many words which cannot easily be spelled through letter-to-sound rules can be spelled with knowledge of morphology (eg, sign shares a morpheme with signature and signal). We want to find out how morphology helps when reading and writing, but particularly for children who have difficulty processing speech sounds. For this reason we are hoping to compare children with a range of phonological abilities, including those with hearing loss, dyslexia and 'typically' developing children. This information will be used to inform teaching practice for all children.

The experimental measures include measures of sound and word awareness, spelling, a computerised memory game and reading for comprehension. During the reading task children’s eye movements will be recorded using some equipment referred to as an 'eye-tracker'. The eye tracker is essentially a video camera, positioned under a computer monitor, which records the direction and duration of eye gaze. This type of eye-tracker is widely employed in psychological and medical labs around the world and we (and others) have used it with child participants before. We are not aware of any health or safety risks involved. Children usually really enjoy taking part in this research.

Funded by: Nuffield Foundation logo

More information on this research is available by visiting www.warwick.ac.uk/morphology

or send an email to Dr Julia Carroll Department of Psychology, University of Warwick