What’s in a Word

What’s in a Word

Jered Chua studies the smallest parts of words, hoping to make
the biggest impact on literacy.

by Drew Ruble

According to the Tennessee Literacy Coalition, 14 percent of the adult population in the U.S. does not read well enough to fill out a job application or to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth-grade level. Closer to home, in Tennessee, First Lady Crissy Haslam has made raising child literacy rates one of her top priorities. In partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, Haslam hopes to see at least 60 percent of Tennessee schoolchildren reading proficiently by third grade. The current proficiency level is 42 percent.

Research being conducted by professors and undergraduate students at MTSU might be of some assistance to that effort.

The MTSU research hinges on a reader’s ability to recognize morphemes—the smallest components of a word or unit of meaningful language (think Greek and Latin roots). Under scrutiny is whether or not individuals are better readers if they can better recognize and quickly translate a morpheme. If the answer is yes, then refocusing literacy efforts more on morphemes could potentially improve reading and the teaching of reading for young students and adult learners alike.

Jered Chua is one of the undergraduate researchers involved in the project. Chua is an Industrial/Organizational Psychology major—part of an MTSU program that the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology routinely ranks among the best nationally in various categories. Chua hopes one day to work in a corporate human resources environment helping to improve work culture. But her current research as an Honors College student involves another passion—understanding how better and quicker recognition of morphemes makes better readers and curbs illiteracy.

“Take the word photosynthesis, for example. It’s a big word—one potentially intimidating to a young reader. But the mind’s ability to break the word down into the morphemes ‘photo’ (from Greek, meaning ‘light’), ‘syn’ (meaning ‘with’ or ‘together’), ‘the,’ (meaning ‘to put or place’), and ‘sis,’ (meaning ‘to process’) arguably allows a reader to more quickly understand the word and read through it,” she says.

That, in turn, alleviates the potential frustration a student might experience without a strategy to break a word down into more understandable and digestible parts. By contrast, the quicker individuals understand the root, the quicker they identify the meaning of the word, the better they read, and therefore the more they read (without frustration), leading to greater literacy.

Chua’s role in the research is testing a new series of questions that perhaps more accurately quantifies an individual’s knowledge and understanding of morphology. The Morphological Awareness Task (MAT), created by MTSU psychology professor Dr. Stuart Bernstein and his doctoral student Danielle Thompson, has already been shown to mirror Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) science scores—one of the biggest finds to date. Results like that make a strong case for greater emphasis on teaching reading by using morphemes, if only because schools are searching high and low for strategies to raise TCAP scores.

Chua’s hope, and the hope of other undergraduates working on the project, is to help Bernstein get statewide attention for the project, attention that could enable the project to branch out and tackle illiteracy statewide. It’s a lofty goal. But consider the advantages. Such research could potentially undergird attempts to fix what ails education in the state of Tennessee—illiteracy, low graduation rates, and inadequate teacher training, among others—which, in turn, would no doubt help fix other challenges the state faces, from economic development to out-of-control health care costs.

In the end, going back to the roots (of language at least) could pay big dividends in the fight against illiteracy in Tennessee.

[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in print in Honors magazine, the newsletter for the MTSU Honor’s College.]