The Golden Eagle
A man found an eagle's egg and placed it in the nest of a backyard hen. The eaglet hatched with a brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the backyard chickens did, thinking he was a backyard chicken.
He scratched the earth for worms and insects.
He clucked and cackled.
And he thrashed his wings and flew a few feet into the air like the chickens.
Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird far above him in the cloudless sky. It floated in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe, and said ‘Who's that?’ A neighboring chicken replied, ‘That's the eagle, the king of the birds. But don’t give it another thought. You and I are different from him.’
So, the eagle never gave it another thought; he died thinking he was a backyard chicken.
The story of The Golden Eagle, shared by Anthony de Mellow, is an apt metaphor symbolizing how it is possible for us to go through life unaware of our innate potential. We are eagles, but due to conditioning and false perceptions, we believe we are backyard chickens. The story of The Golden Eagle is a reminder for us to awaken and challenge our false perceptions and conditionings about the world, ourselves, each other, and even the English language.
In this guidebook, we hope to nudge you into your own awakening where you begin to challenge your perceptions about yourself, others, the world, and the written English language. As critical literacy educators, our aim is to support you in “reading the word and the world ” (Freire, 2008). Towards this goal, we take a critical stance, meaning that we strive to create equitable learning opportunities for you, our students, and when we notice inequitable circumstances, we work to challenge them in order to change or transform them. For example, we noticed that many of our students were unable to afford the expensive textbook for our class; this situation was negatively impacting their success. So, we decided to take action by writing our own book–the guidebook you are reading now–and making it available on a free open access platform. We believe that it is essential for all students to have access to class readings, not just students with financial means. This is just one way we’ve enacted critical literacy. Critical literacy is a process of seeing and naming injustices in our environment (reading the world) and then using the tools of literacy (the word) to make changes or imagine new possibilities.
To support you in reading the word so that you too can read both the word and the world, we will be learning how the written word, also known as English orthography or the English spelling system, is composed. The composition of the spelling system reflects its main purpose: English orthography represents the sense and meaning of words. One of the reasons behind the complexity of English is that the sense and meanings of English words have and will continue to change and evolve over time. As a result, English words can have multiple meanings - they can be polysemous.
However, the spelling system of written English is coherent and logical and is constructed to support your word learning. Within the orthographic system are three interrelated dimensions: 1) morphology (the study of a word and its meaningful elements), 2) etymology (the study of the history and origin of words and their relatives), and 3) phonology (the study of how the sounds of English are represented by letters and combinations of letters). By looking at English orthography through all three dimensions, along with the spelling conventions (the standards that guide English spellings), English words can begin to make more sense to both instructors and students. Presently, you might feel uncertain about the spelling system, but as you journey through this guidebook, you will become more familiar with the system and the terminology. As literacy educators, we had not been aware of the spelling system, and as a result, we held false perceptions about English; we believed that English spellings were crazy and illogical. Unfortunately, we conveyed these misperceptions to our students. In addition, we had been caught up in the middle of a reading war.
False Perceptions of Literacy
Historically, the literacy field has been dominated by a longstanding “reading war” between two competing approaches to reading instruction. One side advocates for instruction that focuses on learning the sounds associated with letters - this is called phonics instruction. The other side focuses on understanding the meanings of written words within stories - this is known as whole language. While you don’t need to know all the details about this war, you should be aware that neither side presents a full and accurate depiction of written English; as a result, there are many words accepted as irregular. Moreover, each side has been preoccupied with finding fault with the other side instead of engaging in self-reflexivity. Self-reflexivity is a key component of critical literacy. Self-reflexivity is the intentional evaluation of ourselves and our experiences to identify places where we can grow and develop. In education, self-reflexivity involves evaluating our instructional practices to identify effective and ineffective practices so we can ensure we employ methods that develop literacy.
As we used reading practices from both sides of the reading wars, we encountered many inconsistencies about the English language that were confusing and for which we could not account. For example, we had learned and taught the rule “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” That means when 2 vowels are next to each other - like the <ea> in the words each and eat - the first vowel (the <e>) will be what is known as long - a long vowel sounds like the vowel letter name <e>. However, we encountered countless words that were exceptions to this rule, such as earth, bear, head, and break. In addition, we had no idea why the words crumb and comb contain a letter <b> and why the word friend has a letter <i>. These spellings confused us because we were looking at words from only one dimension of the language - phonology - the study of sound. Without including the history (etymology) or the meaningful word structures (morphology), we were unable to explain to students the rationale for the spellings. As a result, we blamed the inconsistencies on the English language itself. We believed English to be chaotic and illogical; moreover, we conveyed these false perceptions to our students.
Unfortunately for our students, trying to learn a language system without logic or coherence is not only difficult but it is confusing, frustrating, and disempowering. This became apparent to us through a study that Megan, one of the authors of this guidebook, conducted among more than 130 students in her developmental reading classes. More than a third of the students expressed negativity towards their reading and their literacy abilities as shown by the following student responses:
“Well I know for a fact I am not a good reader so I don’t even try.”
“ I get so insecure when other people know the meaning of the story and I don’t.”
“ Frustrating, frustrating has always been my downfall in reading and understanding. If I can’t understand the first time I feel like I failed or give up sometimes.”
“Struggling with reading can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting for me.”
“My level of confidence in reading is low with the fear of being wrong and not being able to advance further with my reading.”
The negative feelings of fear, frustration, and insecurity do not support optimal conditions for students to learn literacy. In fact, the last student quote directly describes the broader psychological toll of students’ struggles. In addition to these negative emotions, the students held misperceptions about the traits of “good readers” and the purpose for reading. For instance, the students were asked to describe the characteristics of a “good reader. Over 37% of students focused on the ability to read quickly and accurately and 70% noted the ability to pronounce words correctly, while many others emphasized the importance of answering comprehension questions. Within these characterizations, students were predominantly focusing on only one aspect of the spelling system: phonology. Having the capabilities to read or pronounce words quickly and accurately and answer comprehension questions correctly is important; however, none of those abilities fully address the deeper purpose of reading, which is to construct meaning and make sense of texts.
Accordingly, it is possible to read something quickly and accurately and even answer comprehension questions correctly, while still not fully understanding what was read. For instance, you most likely have the ability to accurately read the following excerpt from the song Waltzin’ Matilda:
Once a jolly swagman, camped beside a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited ‘til his billy boiled
You’ll come a-waltzin Matilda with me.
In addition, you could probably answer the questions, “Who was the character and what was he doing?” Yet without knowledge of what the words swagman, billabong, and billy mean, you probably cannot comprehend or make sense of the song. Thus, pronouncing words accurately and answering comprehension questions do not ensure understanding of a text. It is conceivable that the students attended schools that emphasized practices such as timed readings, reading aloud without practice, and reading passages and answering comprehension questions, all of which could influence students’ false perceptions of “good readers.”
Even though most students in Megan’s study did not articulate that “good readers” can understand words and texts, they tacitly understood that this ability is essential, as demonstrated through their explanations about their own difficulties with reading. Furthermore, students recognized the negative impact that not understanding words had on their comprehension:
“When I see a word I don’t know I end up being blind sighted [sic] and everything that I’ve come to understand about the passage has vanished.”
“When I encounter unfamiliar words I am not really that confident in trying to figure them out. I feel this way because in the back of my mind I will just think I am wrong so why am I even trying to figure it out.”
“The hardest part of reading for me is the deciphering of words I do not understand. It is just very tough for me to understand how to find out the meaning of words I do not know, and it frustrates me that I do not have a solution as to why.”
These statements reveal that students understood the importance of deep word knowledge, especially within their goal of comprehending texts. Moreover, the students noted that they were using limited or ineffective strategies for learning unknown words when reading. For instance, the students shared that when they encountered unfamiliar words, they would sound them out, use context clues or dictionaries, or ask parents or teachers. Some students noted they were not using any strategies at all, and they would completely skip over unfamiliar words or avoid texts that they expected to be too difficult.
Exploring Alternative Literacy Approaches
In response to our students’ negative feelings, limited concepts of reading, and lack of strategies for learning unknown words, as well as our own frustration with not being able to explain countless “irregularities” within the language, we took a self-reflexive stance. We began by asking the following questions: How had our students’ beliefs and feelings towards reading been shaped? How did our instructional approaches contribute to students’ beliefs and emotions? What could we do differently as educators to better support our students' literacy learning? Having posed these questions, we were motivated to seek alternative, more productive approaches to literacy. Our search led us to the work of Pete Bowers (Bowers & Kirby, 2010). Pete utilizes structured word inquiry (SWI), a scientific approach for investigating English spellings, especially those that seem inconsistent. It was through our study with Pete and SWI that we gained a deeper understanding about the complexity of the spelling system and the interrelationship of morphology, etymology, and phonology. Consequently, as we began our exploration of the English language through SWI, spellings began to make sense. In addition, we were encouraged by the promising research; SWI has been shown to increase vocabulary learning (Bowers & Kirby, 2010), word reading, and spelling abilities (Devonshire et al., 2013), and integrated strategic reading (Trexler, 2021). With our new understanding of the complexities and multidimensions of English, we transformed our instructional approach to literacy.
Our instruction began by encouraging students to investigate the “hard” or “irregular words.” Students became word scientists, gathering and observing words to look for historical (etymological) evidence of their relationship to other words. They compared these word relatives and observed the similarities and differences in their structure (spelling), meanings (morphology), and pronunciations (phonology). The evidence became the basis for generating hypotheses or inferences about words and their word families. Whenever evidence did not support our inferences, we rejected them and sought out new explanations. For instance, the rule about “2 vowels going walking” occurs less than 50% of the time. When something occurs in less than 50% of cases, it is not logical or scientific, and therefore must be dismissed. This rule is just one of the many misperceptions about the English language that we were now able to challenge and explore.
At the end of only one semester of exploring English through SWI, the students in Megan’s study reported significant shifts in their perceptions of reading, strategies for learning unknown words, and their understanding of English.
“I thought English was just a language to memorize, but now I think that it is a language I can understand.”
“This was different from how I learned English before because usually when we wouldn’t know a word we would either be told to look it up on google or check a dictionary. We would take out the prefixes and suffixes of words and find the base but it’s different because we wouldn’t try to find out what all of these [elements] mean and where they come from. I think that a lot of words that we think are so simple actually have a deeper meaning by breaking them down into morphemes which are interesting and make so much more sense as to why the word is spelled the way it is.”
“Lately I have been challenging myself to not only look up a definition of a word but to use SWI and etymonline has become my best friend. When I was writing my last essay for Developmental English, I researched [etymonline] on words which I was unsure of.”
“The concept of SWI was foreign to me until I started this class. Every session… has always felt unique and different compared to how I learned English before… I’ve heard of prefixes and suffixes before. However, I can’t quite recall learning about graphemes, morphological or etymological relatives."
“Reading is the world of comprehension and knowledge. It isn’t based on how to read properly or being fast in reading. It is more than that. Reading teaches us how to study a word’s meaning ...”
By the end of the semester, 44% of the students reported that they were now utilizing morphology and etymology to make sense of unfamiliar words. This was significantly higher than the 9% of students that mentioned the use of prefixes, suffixes, or root words before the semester. Learning the complexity of English through SWI provided students with new tools and strategies to learn unknown words. As students began incorporating etymology and morphological analysis into their reading practices, their emphasis on reading quickly lessened, and by the end of the semester, only 11% of students mentioned speed or pace. Moreover, the students’ emotional responses changed, as 39% of students reported gaining confidence in themselves as readers during the SWI instruction. Their comments reveal this shift:
“Today’s class, as always, made me feel more intelligent as a student. But, the bigger thing about today’s class that made me feel confident, I feel smarter as a reader. Reading has never been a strong suit of mine. I am pretty aware that I could become better. I just never knew how exactly. While taking tests, I always see a bunch of words, panic, then I guess, then I fail. It is always a series of downfalls when I take tests that involve stories. Now, I feel confident that I might be able to break down those words. Even greater, I might even be able to tell you the root of the word itself.”
“This [SWI] gives us a chance to expand our vocabulary by knowing where words come from and what they mean. Some of our words and some of their words could sound and be spelled the same but mean totally different things. Honestly, I feel pretty good about this lesson, it really boosted my confidence level.”
“Everything I learned today, I feel more confident because I am no longer so afraid of being wrong on this subject, and I understand that I am already beginning to have the best knowledge about these kinds of words, their bases, and roots, and the family that they belong to.”
This newly gained confidence motivated the students’ desire to challenge themselves to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. Since “people who have strong beliefs in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided” (Bandura, 1986, p. 39), this shift reflects a gain in their self-confidence as readers. As instructors, this reminded us that when students’ confidence is built through reliable strategies and accurate representations of the language, we don’t need to make the English language seem “easier”; rather, as this study demonstrated, students in developmental classes rose to the challenge and embraced the complexity because they knew that there was logic to be found. With newly gained confidence also came a revised expectation for literacy development. Whereas students’ initially had an expectation for quick success, SWI reframed that expectation by establishing slower, gradual inquiry and heightened reading resilience in the face of challenges. These positive impacts on students further motivated us to expand SWI instruction among students in developmental reading.
Guidebook for Developmental College Readers
More specifically, the significant impact that this form of literacy instruction had on Megan’s students inspired us to create this guidebook, which integrates elements of SWI with critical literacy so that this approach can become more accessible to other students and instructors. As we utilized the guidebook in our developmental reading class, we wanted to further understand the impact that the guidebook had on students’ reading growth, so we conducted another research study, the results of which revealed a significant gain in two key literacy areas:
1) Accuplacer Next Generation reading placement test. This comprehension placement test is administered to all incoming college students. The Accuplacer focuses on four main areas: rhetoric, vocabulary, synthesis, and information and ideas (College Board, 2017). The chart shows students made significant gains from their pre class scores to their post class scores.
2) Morphological analysis skills assessment. Morphological analysis refers to an active process by which students “problem solve meanings of unfamiliar words by applying knowledge of morphological constituents” (Carlisle, 2000). Morphological analysis extends beyond morphological awareness in that students must actively use word structure to determine meaning, as opposed to just possessing awareness of morphemes such as prefixes and suffixes.
These results are especially promising because students made significant and measurable gains in key areas of literacy after just one semester with critical SWI instruction via this guidebook. Furthermore, the results of our study reinforce the broader research on both SWI and morphological instruction, which also demonstrate gains in vocabulary and comprehension.
Preview of the Rest of the Guidebook
Throughout this guidebook, we will explore words through the three interrelated dimensions of morphology, etymology, and phonology; we will also examine the conventions of written English– those are the norms or guidelines designed for English spellings. Engaging in this inquiry process will deepen your understanding of the structure of written English; by extension, this insight will reposition you in relation to the language. For example, instead of having to memorize rules and spellings, you will discover the history and underlying reasons for those spellings. Instead of learning lists of isolated vocabulary words, you will study groups of related words, making it easier for you to understand and remember the words while also supporting you to figure out new unknown words. Throughout this guidebook, you might find that you’re surprised by our language-based inquiries, as many of our former students expressed. They thought that a reading class was focused on “just reading.” Through this experience with our guidebook, we aim to expand your idea of what reading entails.
The organization and structure of this book provides a gradual pathway into critical literacy and the English language. Our goal is to support you in imagining new possibilities of growth and transformation while equipping you with the tools of literacy to read the word in front of you and the world around you. Within the guidebook are five main sections that will support your critical literacy and English language learning (Hastings & Trexler, 2021). These sections are 1) reading self-reflexively, 2) questioning naturalized views, 3) challenging dominant ideologies 4) generating multiplicity and 5) reinscribing power dynamics. All five sections contain texts of various genres, including memoirs, poems, speeches, short stories, expository passages, reflective narratives, and excerpts from academic articles. Since each genre utilizes language in unique ways and invites you, the readers, to engage with the texts differently, our hope is that this textual variety will support your language-based observations. Furthermore, as we guide and engage you through these texts, we aim to facilitate your own inquiries. We want you to generate your own questions and notice which words or aspects of the language you are curious about. Your interest and curiosity play a central role in this text, just as they play a central role in your own literacy growth. In this way, we can take valuable insight from the story of The Golden Eagle. If the eagle had been encouraged to follow his curiosity, he may have recognized the many ways he was mistakenly being conditioned to be a backyard chicken. Moreover, he might have come to know himself better and been able to soar among the magnificent clouds.