One question that baffles many of us about Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) is how it could possibly be used as a beginning reading program. In a previous post, I mentioned Peter Bowers’ video that was intended to demonstrate just how this is done but where the child could apparently already read, “Mom says she wants a…”. So it was with interest that my attention was drawn to an initial reading program developed by an SWI proponent.
I have to say that it starts oddly with an address that is ostensibly directed towards the person who is about to learn to read:
“Congratulations! You’re going to learn how to read! But, before you read a single word, you need to know some facts about the English spelling system… A grapheme is the smallest meaningful contrastive unit in a writing system. <h>, <sh>, and <ugh> are graphemes. Single letters can be graphemes. Graphemes can be made of two letters. A two-letter grapheme is called a digraph. The prefix di- means “two.” Graphemes can be made of three letters. A three-letter grapheme is called a trigraph. The prefix tri- means “three.”.”
And so on. I assume that we are not to take this literally and that it is not being suggested that we talk to illiterate five-year-olds about the ‘smallest meaningful contrastive unit’ or later that, ‘Letters can function as lexical, phonological, and/or etymological markers’. Instead, I will assume that this is a colourful way of informing the instructor about some of these concepts.
However, I do think this preamble is revealing. At one point, we are told that, “English spelling is rule-based. There are no exceptions, just more rules to uncover.” Then later on in the text, there is a discussion of homophones:
“Homophones provide further evidence that the primary function of English orthography is to represent meaning. Homophones are two or more words that sound the same but that have different spellings and meanings. The homophone principle states that, when two words sound the same but have different meanings, the spellings will be different whenever possible.” [my emphasis].
That ‘whenever possible’ is carrying a lot of weight here because there are indeed words known as ‘homonyms‘ that sound the same, are spelled the same way but that have different meanings. We may have been worried about these being exceptions to the rule that ‘when two words sound the same but have different meanings, the spellings will be different’ but no. In the case of homonyms, presumably this is not possible. All is well with the world. Order is restored.
I am reminded first of the epicycles that accounted for the motion of planets in a universe with the Earth at its centre and all heavenly objects in orbit around it. I am also reminded of Godel’s theorem. But more of that later.
It seems to be important to proponents of SWI that English spelling is rule-based with no exceptions because a key criticism they make of phonics seems to be its use of rules that have exceptions. Here are Jeffrey and Peter Bowers writing together on the subject:
“It is widely assumed that the primary role of letters in English is to represent sounds, and the many “exception” words are generally taken to reflect a poorly designed spelling system. However, this reflects a misunderstanding. In fact, the English spelling system is designed to encode both pronunciation and meaning of words, and as a consequence, English word spellings are constrained by phonology, morphology, and etymology. Rather than a perverse system that needs reform, some linguists call English spelling “near optimal” (Chomsky & Halle, 1968). Whether or not English spellings are near optimal, the key claim we would make is that English spellings are logical and can be investigated like other scientific subjects given that the English spelling system is systematic.”
Repeat after me the Orwellian mantra: There are no exceptions, just more rules to uncover.
The SWI argument strikes me as peculiar because it appears to derive the logic of the English language from written English. It is plain as day that written English has had a profound effect on spoken English, but it is also clear that spoken English has primacy. If we all start saying something new then written English has to accommodate it. There is no process by which written English can lodge a formal objection to innovations in spoken English.
For example, take the word, ‘slippy’. It clearly exists because you can look it up in a dictionary. At some point, someone must have decided that ‘slippery’ was too much of a mouthful, they couldn’t be bothered with it and so they would say ‘slippy’ instead. But that’s just my own speculation because when I tried to look it up in the online etymology dictionary, I couldn’t find it. So I’ve no idea what rules govern the spelling of this word. They must be yet to be uncovered because, remember, there are no exceptions. None. Zilch. Nada.
Holding such an absolutist stance seems like a fundamental flaw. Just one bona fide exception and the SWI edifice crumbles. There is no room for pragmatism here or for a shrug of the shoulders and a wry smile at the eccentricities of English. The inductive logic of science is replaced by the deductive logic of mathematics. This is probably why SWI proponents spend so much time on Twitter trying to dig themselves out of holes that their all-encompassing generalisations have thrown them into.
And there is an interesting warning from mathematics – a warning for anyone who wishes to construct complete formal systems of logic, epicycles and all. In 1931, Godel published his mathematical demonstration that no formal system of mathematical axioms can prove all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers. In other words, even in mathematics, whatever system of logic you decide upon, there will be exceptions.
Maybe the logic of English spelling will turn out to be more robust than the logic of basic mathematics. Time will tell.
In the meantime, repeat after me: There are no exceptions, just more rules to uncover.