‘Spelling as a Linguistic Skill’ Makes for an ‘Incredibly Fulfilling’ Journey

As a scientist, affecting children’s lives and the enthusiasm of teachers and clinicians is an exciting result of her research, said Julie Masterson, Ph.D. She emphasized that science is a broad-based concept, including identifying a problem that needs to be solved, collecting and analyzing data, and forming conclusions.  Sometimes people think of scientists as only being in the traditional natural science areas, such as chemistry, biology, and biochemistry, but there is a solid science base in the social and cognitive sciences, such as child development, language learning, and reading.

The need to learn more 

During clinical work as a speech language pathologist in Los Angeles City Schools, she developed an appreciation for the role that cultural and linguistic diversity plays in communication. She realized she needed to learn more and earned a doctoral degree in child language development/disorders at the University of Memphis (UM). She also earned a master’s degree in speech-language pathology/pathologist from Baylor University and a bachelor’s degree in the same concentration at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU).

She grew up in Arkansas and married her husband right out of college. He was a professional athlete, so they moved around a lot. When he finished competing and completed his PhD, their goal was to find a university that would be a good fit for them and support their research. Twenty-eight years later they are still at Missouri State University (MSU), and almost six years ago she became associate provost and dean of the graduate college. “The university has been very good to both of us and our careers. We’ve been able to do a lot of things and we both feel really good about our accomplishments,” she said.

One of those accomplishments has been knowing that therapists and teachers use the model she and her research partner created for both classrooms and the clinic.  This 20-year journey has been “incredibly fulfilling. You hope your work matters, that when you write a paper, somebody will read it,” she said. She’s also written a book as a result of her research, Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development For Parents and Caregivers.

Problem solving the unexplored

Shortly after coming to MSU, she discovered her own child had difficulties with spelling, which she thought was strange, because he was a good reader. Her early work focused on the relationship between general problem-solving abilities and spoken language, so she began to study the contributions of various areas of language (phonological, semantic, morphological, graphemic storage) to spelling.  “At the University of Virginia, in the field of education and some in psychology, they were beginning to research this, but it was really a wide open area.” she said. 

For example, she explained, “vocabulary (semantics) plays a role in spelling the words, rain and reign. If you’re talking about what comes out of the sky, you’re going to choose one spelling. If you’re talking about what kings and queens do, you’re going to use a different spelling.” An example of using morphology is to choose to spell a noun characterized by sensitivity as tact, but what you did when you put up a poster on your wall as tacked.  The fact that there was an “ed” at the end of that word signaled that it was an action that had occurred in the past. 

Proficient spellers use all types of linguistic information simultaneously.  Dr. Masterson has worked to help teachers and parents understand the importance of helping students use the linguistic underpinnings of spelling. A simple rote memorization of words for a Friday spelling test is not the path toward mastery.  Dr. Masterson has a software assessment system that collects a sample and identifies the patterns that students are spelling correctly versus incorrectly as well as the linguistic nature of each error.  She and her research partners have a curriculum that is tailored to the specific profile of needs for each child.  

Finding the Research Gap

Dr. Masterson and her team have conducted several treatment studies and found that the students did get better in spelling, but their reading improved even more.  This likely was because the same principles that govern spelling, govern reading or single word decoding. She said a student can fake their way through reading a little bit, but they cannot fake their way through spelling.

With all the emphasis that we’ve had on reading for the past 20 years, starting with No Child Left Behind, we know how important reading is to academic and ultimately professional success, she said. “If we started encouraging children when they are young to love and appreciate the way words work, as opposed to just thinking they have to memorize, we would likely better position them for academic success.  They may think there is no rhyme or reason as to how a word is spelled but that’s not true. There’s quite a bit of rhyme or reason to the way that words are spelled…you just have to know that there are several places to look for them!” Dr. Masterson said. 

MSU has an on campus laboratory school for students in K-12. Having access to the lab school made it easier to get participants for her research and run intervention studies across grade levels. Through the K-12 school she could follow students’ progress across time. The students who were enrolled in the school have a very high retention rate. Since it’s a laboratory school, the families were committed to participating in research and usually gave consent for their children to participate in the studies.  

In addition to conducting research at the lab school, Dr. Masterson also sent her children there.  She appreciated the great educational experience and convenience . Her children not only attended the campus laboratory school but each of them ultimately earned a degree from MSU.

MOST mission close to her heart

She is an advisory board member of the Missouri Science and Technology Policy Initiative (MOST). “It is the epitome of our mission in higher education, and as scientists, to affect the lives of people,” she said. What’s impressive about MOST is that it takes strong scientists and teaches them the importance of communicating and how to write and speak about their areas of research expertise.  

She was thrilled to hear that MOST was designed to bring science to politics and other kinds of entities to promote evidence-based decision making. “You couldn’t find anything that’s closer to my heart than that, she said. “How much better off would we be everywhere- locally, statewide,  regionally, nationally- if all of our leaders had the evidence they needed at their fingertips and then based their decisions on it? ”

When people run for political office, they can’t possibly know everything,  Dr. Masterson said. They are running to serve their community or their state, so they don’t have time to read all the information. So having access to scientists from MOST, who are dedicated not only to know the science, but also to communicate it in an efficient and effective way, is powerful.  “It encapsulates this mission of what higher education and what science ought to be doing. I’m just so proud it’s in our state and I am thrilled to be on the board,” she said. 

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