Following yesterday’s post on Structured Word Inquiry (SWI), Kathy Rastle highlighted in the comments that The Nuffield Foundation have conducted a randomised controlled trial comparing SWI with something called ‘motivated reading’ as interventions for struggling readers.
An intervention for struggling readers is not the same as initial reading instruction but interventions are often the subject of research because they tend to be more contained and manipulable. In this case, there appears to be no published paper on the study, but the research team have released a set of slides destining the study and its findings.
Critically, this was a developer-led study. In other words, SWI developers were involved at all stages, unlike a program out in the wild.
Interestingly, the SWI researchers refer to it as the ‘MORPH’ project, illustrate the slides with images of a cartoon character called ‘Morph’ and refer to SWI as a form of ‘morphological instruction’. I have been called-out by SWI advocates on Twitter for suggesting that SWI focuses on teaching morphology from the start and I am now beginning to wonder why.
That phrase ‘from the start’ is important. The slides contain examples of what are described as ‘word matrices’ which show how a root word such a ‘sign’ can be altered by various prefixes and suffixes. I have seen Mandy Nayton of DSF demonstrate something very similar, but that was in the context of children in late primary school who had already mastered the earlier stages of a systematic phonics program. Morphology of this kind, coupled with etymology can be particularly helpful for English spelling, given our use of schwas (unstressed vowel sounds that we tend to pronounce as a short ‘uh’, making it hard to determine which vowels to use to represent them). I cannot imagine having a discussion of word matrices with early or struggling readers but then I’m not a reading teacher.
The control condition, motivated reading, is interesting. Children selected a book that was read aloud to them. They then reread it in a group while applying reading comprehension strategies. In addition, one lesson per week focused on vocabulary instruction. It does not appear that any phonics was involved.
Both the motivated reading condition and the SWI condition were delivered by the same set of teaching assistants. The SWI developers decided to script these sessions and they also provided four days of training and fortnightly school visits by the developers. The interventions consisted of three 20 minutes sessions per week for 24 weeks.
The results showed that the effects of motivated reading and SWI were basically the same, both on broad measures such as reading comprehension and on measures you might expect to favour SWI such as a ‘morphological spelling task’. The researchers conclude that SWI is no more effective an intervention than motivated reading.
The researchers suggest possible reasons for the failure of SWI and these include that it was too high level and that the teaching assistants lack of knowledge and confidence in SWI may have reduced its effectiveness (even though fidelity scores for both conditions were not significantly different). This is supported by interviews with the teaching assistants who felt that SWI was more challenging for children to learn.
I don’t find this particularly surprising.
No doubt, these findings will not convince the committed. They may find fault with the design of the study. But it is worth pointing out that these are ideal conditions, designed by developers with an interest in SWI who maintained a commitment throughout the duration of the study. If it doesn’t work as an intervention here then where will it work? What hope is there for rolling SWI out at scale as an initial form of reading instruction?
I would make two more observations. Firstly, motivated reading sounds a lot like whole language to me. Can we conclude, therefore, that SWI is no better than whole language?
Secondly, motivated reading did not appear to contain any phonics. Yet even those who are sceptical of the evidence for phonics will admit that systematic phonics programs are superior to no phonics at all. If so, we may expect a systematic phonics program to beat motivated reading and, from the results of this study, we may therefore expect it to beat SWI.
If you think these observations are a bit of a stretch then fine. The best way forward would probably be to run SWI against systematic phonics in a randomised controlled trial. In fact, I’m unsure why they didn’t do that and why they instead chose to run it against a phonics-free condition we would all expect to be inferior. Go figure.