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Research at Boston University

Counting Syllables

By Maggie Bucholt
Early Childhood

From the concept of sharing, to the hurdles children face in learning to read, faculty across Boston University are examining how early experiences shape children’s lives and the ways in which they learn. As parents, teachers, and caregivers strive to instill the emotional and cognitive skill sets needed for children to succeed, these three researchers are demonstrating that simple modifications to the ways we teach can have a profound impact on the ways we learn.

Photo by Vernon Doucette

You’ve heard it before: a teacher urging an elementary school student who can’t read a long word to “guess.”

“Guessing is a bad strategy,” says Assistant Professor of Elementary, Early Childhood & Special Education Devin M. Kearns, who acknowledges there are different schools of thought on the subject. “A long word that begins with e isn’t always elephant; we want kids to use their skills in breaking the word down.”

Kearns is daring to go where few researchers have gone before; he studies what makes words with more than one syllable easier or harder for children to read. According to Kearns, most research is done with monosyllabic words because “testing polysyllabic word skill is so difficult.” There are few studies, if any, that examine the importance of the characteristics of a word as well as frequency, or how often a child hears a word, in learning to read.

With start-up funding from the School of Education, Kearns conducted a descriptive study with more than 200 third and fourth graders from six diverse Boston-area elementary schools. The students, a cross sample of high- and low-proficiency readers, were given a standardized reading test and a test that included polysyllabic words.

In developing the test, Kearns sought advice from Vice President and Associate Provost for Research Gloria S. Waters, a professor of speech, language & hearing sciences and former dean of the College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College, and Dr. David Caplan of Massachusetts General Hospital, both experts on language and word-recognition; and from two colleagues at the School of Education, Scott C. Seider, assistant professor of education, and Donna Lehr, associate professor of special education.

Forty-eight words were chosen based on their potential familiarity to new readers. Scientist and wonderful were among the high-frequency words used; low-frequency words included critical and zealous. Kearns found that, while frequency did make a difference, what was more exciting was that phonological processing—understanding that without the g sound, tiger sounds like tire—was not important.

“We need to be building children’s knowledge of word meaning and their skills to sound out the word,” he says. “Often, kids can say part of the word but not all of it. When this happens, kids who know a lot of word meanings will think ‘Com-mun-nit-tye? Hmmm. Wait! That almost sounds like community!’”

A believer in teaching phonics, Kearns says that word-reading skills are related not only to frequency, but to children’s knowledge and ability to add affixes and prefixes to root words. An intervention strategy that included an emphasis on words they already know would allow them to “divvy up the chunks so the word isn’t a mystery.”

“We need to give schools the tools to build strategic word instruction,” he says. “I want to make things better for kids and design an intervention that allows kids to master basic reading skills faster. That way, they can spend more time enjoying the stories that the authors are telling and less time figuring out the words.”

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