Improving literacy outcomes in struggling readers

This project is a randomised control trial (RCT) to test the efficacy of a morphological training intervention called Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010). This form of instruction makes use of graphical methods that highlight the logic and structure of English spelling, and capitalises on the benefits associated with structuring and organising learning material.

While there are many anecdotal reports of the efficacy of this method, there is little systematic evaluation. However, Structured Word Inquiry may be especially beneficial for children who are resistant to intensive phonics instruction (perhaps due to phonological deficits), because it takes a compensatory approach that focuses on training their stronger skills. 

About the randomised control trial

The researchers will conduct an RCT in which 480 less able readers from 20 schools will be allocated to either a morphological training condition, a best-practice phonics training condition or a waiting-list control group. Teaching will take place in small-groups over the course of 30 weeks, with three 20-minute teaching sessions per week. It will be delivered by teaching assistants, who will be trained via two workshops that will be led by experts, as well as regular meetings with the research team. The team will also test whether the efficacy of morphological instruction varies as a function of age by comparing two grade levels (Year 3 and Year 5).

Measures of children’s literacy will be obtained prior to invention, immediately after the intervention and then again at a one-year follow-up. Standardised tests will be used to evaluate word reading, phonics, spelling, vocabulary and comprehension.

In addition to evaluating the efficacy of Structured Word Inquiry, the results of the RCT will also be valuable for assessing the effect of systematic phonics instruction on reading comprehension and vocabulary.

Project details



Professor Colin Davis, University of Bristol

Grant amount and duration


October 2015 - December 2018