The sophisticated world of Structured Word Inquiry

Since writing my post about structured word inquiry (SWI), I have encountered a Twitter community of SWI advocates. This has led to two insights. Firstly, I now think I understand why it is so important to this group that systematic phonics should be shown to be no more effective than whole language as a method of early reading instruction. I also think this community exposes a fundamental flaw in the whole SWI project, if that project is about displacing other forms of initial reading instruction with SWI.

Those in the SWI community often point out that they are linguists and what I had not been aware of was the level of contempt in which they hold systematic phonics. To them, phonics is a simplistic mapping of letters and sounds that takes no account of etymology, morphology and so on.

For instance, they may highlight that ‘make’ and ‘making’ have the same initial vowel sound but phonics insists that this is represented as a different grapheme in each of these words, despite the obvious common origin. I have some sympathy for this argument. I guess a systematic phonics advocate would also have some sympathy but would argue that this kind of observation should come later in teaching rather than being something to tackle with five-year-olds. I’m not sure.

As an illustration of the antipathy, one SWI proponent, Gina Cooke, went so far as to describe a list of graphemes from a systematic phonics programme as a ‘lie’, which I understand to be an intentionally false statement:

Cooke also tends to describe advocates of systematic phonics as ‘phombies‘, a portmanteau of ‘phonics’ and ‘zombies’ which strikes me as somewhat pejorative.

I suppose that if you hold a teaching method in such contempt, it is hard to concede any merit in it, even relative to another method you hold in contempt. Perhaps this drives the need to find whole language and systematic phonics equally (in)effective.

Cooke has also taken issue with my writing. I apparently mischaracterised SWI in my previous post. I said that the method focused on teaching morphology from the start. This is apparently a common mistake made by the ignorant and misinformed. Although SWI does teach morphology from the start, it does so in interrelation with lots of other things:

I didn’t think I had claimed that SWI focused only on morphology. In fact, in my original post, I described at some length how Peter Bowers claims SWI also teaches GPCs ‘from the start’. However, I am happy to be corrected by someone who knows more about SWI than I do.

But here’s the thing. There is an awful lot of nuance and fine distinction going on here, in much the same way that many of the SWI community constantly make nuanced and fine distinctions about the nature of the English language itself. For instance, another advocate has the claim that ‘*tion is not a suffix’ listed in her pinned tweet:

I could not possibly comment on the validity of such a claim. I am not a linguist and so I am happy to defer. I would only point out that, in this case, all the dictionaries appear to be wrong.

And here is the rub. For SWI to become a primary means of initial reading instruction, all primary school teachers in the English-speaking world would need to deliver it. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there is no scripted version to follow, or even a highly structured one. And so they would have to know all the stuff that these expert linguists know in order to make all of the correct decisions in real-time while planning and teaching. For instance, they would need the knowledge and confidence to ignore incorrect claims made in dictionaries (if they are indeed incorrect and I am not missing an even more nuanced point that reconciles the linguists and the dictionaries).

My practical experience of working with teachers to deliver improvements in schools – including with the far more simplistic systematic phonics – suggests to me that this seems like a tall order. Primary school teachers will certainly not leave initial teacher education with anything approaching the required knowledge to teach SWI and would perhaps need something like a masters degree in linguistics. Maybe advocates of SWI need to focus on how they can turn it into an instructional strategy that can work at scale. Otherwise, it looks a lot like a game of one-upmanship.

17 thoughts on “The sophisticated world of Structured Word Inquiry

  1. While some SWI supporters claim to be linguists, I can tell you, as someone with a doctorate in linguistics, that they make claims about language that are at odds with standard linguistics concepts/terminology. For example, they claim that the letter “x” in English stands for a single phoneme, which is at odds with the linguistic definition/understanding of phoneme.
    While there are many people out there who call themselves “linguists,” I know of no practicing linguistics PhDs who work in actual linguistic departments who agree with this claim–nor, as far as I can tell, are there any people with PhDs in linguistics who publicly support SWI.
    Many professional linguists, in fact, (particularly those with children) are supporters of systematic phonics instruction.

  2. The letter U spells a single phoneme even when it stands for two “sounds” (consider the /ju/ in “putrid.”) So spells /j/ and /u/. Nobody has a problem with U, But it’s the same thing as that X. I’m not a linguist, by the way. I’m a speech-language pathologist.

    sorry I had to edit this so many times —- this is the edited version – thanks

    1. I find this very confusing, I have to admit. For instance, I would suggest that the difference between ‘sock’ and ‘socks’ is the addition of a phoneme which, in this case, also happens to be a morpheme. However, would the difference between ‘sock’ and ‘sox’ not be the addition of a morpheme but the replacement of one? What’s going on here?

      1. No, it doesn’t work like that. If I understand correctly, socks was formed by derivation. Sox is an altered plural, first used only for commercial purposes, It wasn’t formed by derivation. I could be wrong here and am open to feedback.

      2. I would agree that x is two phonemes- /k/ and /s/, but they are highly coarticulated. At end of day, I´m not sure it really matters if you are sitting with a 6 year old. As professionals, we can debate these things, but I can´t imagine any teacher talking about coarticulation with a new reader.

        The word “sock” comes from German. It´s literally almost the same word (socke). Most ck words are German-based. Just like in English, words spelled with German “ck” have a short and stressed vowel, while German words spelled with “k” usually retain “long” vowel form.

        Many words spelled with x also come from German- although, they are spelled “ch” in German. For example, six is spelled sechs in German. It sounds almost identical though, as the “ch” sound in German makes sound of English /x/. (There is no word “sochs” in German, although there really isn´t a word “sox” in English either. I´m a Chicago Cubs fan.).

        This is probably why socks is spelled with ck and not x. To this extent, the etymology is interesting. However, teaching kids that words that end with “ck” keep the vowel “short,” aka a phonics method, would help a child create more connections to other words. You could throw the etymology in there as a connection too, but ultimately the sound-letter combination is more helpful. And yes, not all words that are spelled “ck” have a German connection. There is no 1-1 correspondence for everything. (i.e. Black is schwartz).

  3. For a language with no future tense, English has no problem using verbs about the future. Odd that.

    True, we don’t inflect our future tense. But so what?

    You have to a particular sort of know-it-all to insist that means English has no future tense — because we do it differently.

    All subjects simplify themselves — I don’t tell 16 year olds that a quadratic is always solvable because we can use complex numbers. Physics teachers don’t start with Einstein’s gravity equations. And don’t start me on how Chemistry at school differs from quantum chemistry!

    Phonics ignores some of the complexity of language. That is a good thing.

  4. I believe that the Nuffield Foundation funded a trial of SWI against ‘motivated reading’ for slightly older children (but still in primary school).

    I haven’t seen a publication reporting the results. But there is a slideshow on their website

    The slides suggest that SWI was not more effective than motivated reading. One potential reason given is that TAs found the delivery of SWI to be challenging, and they lacked confidence in this form of instruction. This is despite the fact that TAs got a 4-day training workshop, scripted lessons, and fortnightly visits from the research team. The authors suggest that further work could explore the impact of greater TA training.

    These observations from the Nuffield trial seem consistent with your argument about the feasibility of delivering this kind of instruction on a very large scale.

  5. Your last two posts are so important–thank you! I have been following this discussion since first hearing about SWI two years ago. Since then, I’ve added morphological matrices to the teaching I do in a third grade class once a week. However, I am primarily a reading specialist working with about 75 struggling first and second graders a year, so I really do need to get this beginning reading piece right. Here’s what I posted on Jeff’s blog:

    What I still haven’t seen is a clear “how to” for beginning readers: How do you teach children who have no understanding of grapheme-phoneme connections how to read words? In her responses to you and Pete in the February 2018 exchange on her blog, Pamela Snow makes a similar point: the “sticking point” seems to be the “starting point”, and she–like many of us–would like to see how SWI is “translated into everyday practice” with students who have no grapheme-phoneme connections.

    She writes:”We have to start somewhere to help novices to understand the nature of reading and I’m curious to understand where you advocate starting . . . I just don’t see morphology as the starting point in a language that has a strong alphabetic component, particularly for the kinds of words we want to start young children off on . . . morphology and etymology are critical, but are not the entry point to early systematic reading instruction . . . I think pretty much all of us agree on the importance of phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and oracy, but the sticking point seems to be whether the starting point is introducing children to a small subset of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to get them off the blocks . . . If you have evidence that starting with morphology and guided word study is “better”, then of course I am eager to be directed to that and will read it with great interest. How such evidence would be translated into everyday practice in early years classrooms (particularly in Australia), however, is a leap into the darkness.”

    1. The key point that seems very hard to convey in writing is that we can begin our instruction with young children by investigating morphology AND phonology simultaneously. Our young students begin by studying words like ‘play, cook, water.’ They learn a bank of affixes that they easily access with their oral morphology (-ing, -ed, -s, -er.) We also teach the phoneme/grapheme relationships within those bases. Using multisensory strategies, students will have several encounters with (p – l – ay) in one lesson. Since there are more digraphs than single letter graphemes in English, it doesn’t seem sensical to hide this part of the system and save it for later. After all, we expect young children to learn the word “the” quite early on, and it contains a digraph. I do hope to share more soon about how this translates into everyday practice on my blog.

      1. Here’s where we differ: My “young students” do not start with play, cook or water. They start with CVC words like cat, big, and fun. I’m not “hiding” anything–I am careful not to overwhelm them, especially since many of my students have had few literacy experiences at home.

        Here’s what I posted on Jeff’s blog:

        I am not out of my depth when it comes to teaching 5 and 6 year-olds how to read, and after watching Pete’s video on teaching SWI right from the start (, I’d have to say that I just don’t see that method working until students have nailed their GPC’s through quick and efficient blending and segmenting. Too much information! But once they’re “off the blocks” as Pamela Snow says, it’s good stuff.

  6. Thank you for your article Greg. I have done some training and SWI and appreciate what you say about the training required, but it is well worth it to understand how English orthography works.

    I believe that there is some mix up with syllables and suffixes and that is why -tion is often seen as being the suffix rather than -ion. By the way my Mac Dictionary lists both as a suffix.

    SWI gives a very clear case for -ion being the suffix in the word . When breaking into syllables it would be ac / tion, but when breaking into morphemes it would be act + ion as isn’t the base, it is

    Many years ago I was teaching rules for spelling and when to use ti or si for /sh/. (This was before knowing any SWI instruction.) It made sense to me to use with words that had in the base e.g. educate/ + ion, meditate/ +ion. In these two particular examples there is the suffix -ate and the is replaced when adding a vowel suffix.

    I also had to teach how to spell the word . This word has some difficulty due to being an unstressed syllable and being pronounced as the schwa phoneme. There was some long winded way of explaining why it was an and all I could see was that the base was where the was clearly pronounced and then the suffix -ent was added confide/ + ent. However notice that pronunciation changes. My favourite saying is “pronunciation changes but spelling stays the same”.

    I would also recommend listening to the podcast “History of the English Language”

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