Language & Literacy Connection: Phonology, Morphology, Syntax, and Orthography

Effective language and literacy skills are the foundation for successful communication, academic, and life skills. Therefore, it is important to understand the connection between phonology, morphology, syntax, and orthography. Children and adolescents with excellent linguistic skills readily learn various tasks in these language domains. However, those with language disorders, learning disability, and dyslexia will struggle immensely with these areas.

Phonology is the study of phonemes or sounds and their patterns. This is a pre-requisite skill to develop literacy skills. It is part of language form. Children with language and reading disorders need direct instruction in this area. Those who struggle immensely with reading decoding do not have a solid understanding of phonology, phonological awareness, and phonemic awareness. It is imperative that speech/language pathologists, reading teachers, and literacy specialists provide remediation in this area for children and adolescents who struggle with understanding and completing phoneme tasks.

Reading decoding and encoding (orthography or spelling) begins with the simplest and smallest units of language (e.g. phoneme) and progresses to increasingly larger and more complex structures. As learners progress in their understand of sound to symbol correspondences (e.g. phoneme to grapheme), word patterns, and language structure, then intervention shifts more to advanced word analysis (morphology) and sentence structure/conventions (syntax).

Morphology is the study of word structure that includes root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Children and adolescents with morphological disorder have a spoken and/or written language disorder in the area of word structure. They do not have adequate morphological awareness or an understanding of how words can be broken down into smaller units of meanings including the root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Children and adolescents who demonstrate morphological errors that are not due to language or dialectical differences have a language impairment in the area of morphology.

Syntax is the sentence structure. Language has a rules of word order and word combinations to form phrases and sentences. Solid syntactic skills require an understanding of correct word order and language organization of simple, compound, and complex sentence forms. Children with language impairment, reading disorder, and writing disorder often have difficulty with syntax. They may have difficulty spontaneously communicating sentences in a clear and cohesive manner. In these instances, their verbal or written message may not be understood by their communication partner or the reader.

A syntactic disorder is a spoken and/or written language disorder that occurs when children or adults have difficulty sequencing words, thoughts, and information in order. When toddlers learn to speak, they may use incorrect syntax or word order. As children get older and enter school, the complexity of their sentences increases. Students, even in early grades, begin to understand the importance of word order and how it affects the meaning of a phrase, sentence, or passage. Children and adolescents who exhibit syntactic errors that are not due to linguistic/dialectical differences have a language impairment with sentence structure.

Children and adolescents with morphological and syntactic deficits have difficulty learning and using the rules that govern word formation (morphemes) and phrase/sentence formation (syntax).  At the word level, these children may not correctly use plural forms or verb tenses.  At the phrase or sentence level, children with syntactic deficits might use incorrect word order, leave out words, or use a limited number of complex sentences. For example, a child may omit prepositional clauses which decreases one’s use of complex sentences. It is important to target prepositions with one-step instructions such as stating, “Put the ball under the box.” In addition, locative prepositions can be targeted by presenting a descriptive photograph with many items, asking the child, “What is under the ___?”

Speech/language pathologists should provide direct instruction using structured and functional tasks. They can serve as a verbal model for correct grammatical usage. Then they can provide children and adolescents practice opportunities with root words, prefixes, suffixes, and verb tenses. During speech/language therapy sessions, students will need both oral and written language practice to master this essential skill. Similarly, they need practice formulating simple, compound, and complex sentences in both structured language activities and conversation. SLPs can provide picture description tasks for children to practice producing oral and written sentence with various syntactic structures. Fiction and non-fiction text can be used as exemplars for correct sentence structures. When planning intervention, it is important to keep in mind dialectical variations and provide language therapy for the word and sentence structures that are truly disordered rather than due to linguistic difference.

Additionally, general and special education teachers should directly teach alphabetic principle. This means that students should learn that there are predictable relationships between sounds and letters. Words are comprised of letters that each have a distinct sound. Consonant blends such as /th/, /sh/, and /ch/ are diagraphs that represent one sound. It is important for teachers to understand that a grapheme is an individual letter or sequence of written symbols (e.g. c – a – t). A grapheme is also multi-letter or consonant blends that represent one sound or phoneme (e.g. /th/, /sh/, and /ch/).  Speech-language pathologists can help reinforce alphabetic principle as needed during speech/language therapy sessions with children who struggle with reading and writing. Children with language and literacy disorders can practice writing simple sentences through dictation. Teachers may use high frequency words (e.g. Fry or Dolch word lists) for sentence dictation practice. Speech/language pathologist may assist children and adolescents with written expression during functional tasks such as writing a letter to a parent, describing a personal narrative, or retelling a story with key story grammar elements. They can help guide them with organizing their ideas in a cohesive manner at the basic paragraph level or 3-5 paragraphs over time. Teachers address this in the general education and special education classrooms and also focus on conventions such as capitalization and punctuation.

There is a definite connection between phonology, morphology, syntax, and orthography. With a comprehensive assessment and intervention, children and adolescents with language, reading, and writing disorders can make noticeable gains in these areas. Speech/language pathologists and educators can collaborate to maximize student achievement with language, reading, writing, and spelling. This will contribute to an increase in functional and academic skills.