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.