Published on September 29th, 2017


Finding the PhD in Me: The Morphing Morpheme Study

Part 5 of the blog series Finding the PhD in Me. Read part 4 here.

 By Bonita Squires, M.Sc., S-LP(C)

It is hard to believe, but I have just begun the third year of my doctoral program! I was successful in passing the oral defence of my comprehensive exams at the end of March, so the only thing left ahead of me is: “The Study”.

In the fall of 2014, I drafted up my first vision of what “The Study” might look like for my application to the PhD in Health program at Dalhousie University. While, at the time, I felt driven to implement the study that I was proposing, a number of aspects of my proposed study have changed dramatically since then. As I look around at other research trainees, I see the same process happening over and over: an original plan is made that will inevitably change before it is finally implemented. If you are considering undertaking research training, you will need to be comfortable with a plan that gradually morphs as you read about designs of similar studies, write papers on related topics and meet for discussions with supervisors/collaborators.

How The Study has Changed Over Time

What Kind of Study?

I first planned to test the language abilities of a large group of students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) then conduct a group intervention. The challenge with conducting a group intervention study is either I do all the intervention sessions myself (since I have no research assistants working for me) with children spread out all over the province, or the intervention would be implemented by a variety of different teachers. This design began to appear rather impossible. So a year ago I changed my plan to what is called a “single subject design” with only three or four students that I would work with directly. This would have required weekly repeated testing and teaching over several months, meaning that I would have need to do a lot of driving to reach even two students per day (if I were lucky). This past December, I decided to focus solely on a “descriptive study,” gathering more information about the abilities of children who are DHH without including an intervention at all.

What to Measure?

I started off with an interest in morphological awareness (MA), the ability to consciously manipulate meaningful parts of words called morphemes (e.g., re-build-ing). The intervention would teach MA skills to see if they would help to improve passage reading comprehension abilities. For awhile I re-aligned my focus to single word reading only but have now decided to evaluate reading abilities in three ways: single word reading, reading fluency and reading comprehension. Also, aside from MA abilities, there is a similar skill called phonological awareness (PA), the ability to consciously manipulate the smallest parts of words called phonemes (e.g., sh-i-p). PA skills are known to support early reading, so I ended up including PA skills in “The Study” along with MA skills (but no MA intervention). Finally, after doing some work with language samples in our research lab, this winter I decided that I will also collect a 10-minute language sample from which I will be able to see which morphemes children use in spontaneous conversation beyond the well-studied plural –s  and past tense –ed.

What is the Purpose of the Study?

Originally, my primary goal was to test the efficacy of an MA intervention. With the inclusion of PA skills, I decided to compare how MA and PA might impact each other and reading abilities. The change to a larger group study minus the intervention allows me to include a control group of hearing children and explore relationships between morpheme use, MA, PA and reading. I am particularly interested in how these relationships might differ between hearing children and children who are DHH.

Who to Include in the Study?

Initially, I wanted to include students who are DHH in grades 4 to 8 but after further reading, I determined that grades 2 to 4 would be best for the group testing but grades 2 to 3 would be ideal for the single subject intervention group. With the focus now back to a larger group, grades 1 to 3 will be comparable to other studies that investigate morphological development. I have also decided that I should include only children who wear hearing aids and have mild to severe hearing levels and exclude children who have cochlear implants. This will help to focus the study.

The Takeaway

What does this all mean and why am I telling you this? In short, research requires flexibility and adaptability. The truth is, we have grand plans when we undertake doctoral studies. We think that in some small way we just might change the world. We think that we can tackle the greatest challenges immediately and want to “do all the things” in one study. Yet, our research context, our resources, and our growing awareness of what has been done (and what still needs to be done) will guide unanticipated changes to our fledgling research plans.

For now, I will focus on what is feasible, what will perhaps contribute a small yet novel piece of the literacy puzzle to the greater body of literature, and what builds on my own developing skills and interests. The Study will indeed happen one day (I hope to begin testing in the fall!) and I look forward to finding out exactly what its final iteration will look like.

In my next blog post, I will discuss ethics and my humble thoughts on hearing privilege as I undertake research with individuals who are DHH.

For more information on research design, I suggest you take a look through the succinct descriptions provided by the University of Southern California: http://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/researchdesigns.

Don’t forget that SAC has research grant opportunities for clinicians. If you are interested in conducting research and require funding to do so, go to: http://www.sac-oac.ca/about-sac/clinical-research-grants.

About the author:


Bonita Squires, M.Sc., S-LP(C) is a speech-language pathologist who specializes in accent modification. She began her PhD in health at Dalhousie University in 2015. Her research area is language and literacy in children who are d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing. In her past (professional) life, Bonita was an American Sign Language/English interpreter. She has been enriched by the language and life experiences that individuals in the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities have shared with her. Bonita’s ongoing blog series, Finding the PhD in Me, shares some of her thoughts and the challenges she encounters as she navigates the doctoral journey.

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