Structured Word Inquiry gets curiouser and curiouser

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.

42 thoughts on “Structured Word Inquiry gets curiouser and curiouser

  1. Oh boy, and there are a LOT of rules. Having learnt languages with basically no pronunciation exceptions (e.g. Swedish), English is a sub-optimal nightmare.

    How do they deal with alternate spellings but the same sound and meaning: hiccup and hiccough? Or different pronunciations for the same word and meaning: either and either?

  2. What I find curious is the strong resistance to the idea that reading instruction should teach children all the regularities in the writing system, both the phonological (GPCs) and meaning (morphology, and etymology) together to jointly teach reading, spelling, and vocabulary knowledge.

    Yes, Bowers and Bowers wrote: “English spellings are logical and can be investigated like other scientific subjects given that the English spelling system is systematic”. Scientific subjects like linguistics. Crazy!

    I am willing to concede that there are words in English with no good explanations. And others that have linguistically compelling explanations that are sufficiently complex that the explanation are irrelevant to teaching literacy (and I’ll be the first to confess that I am not strong on linguistics, and Peter Bowers and Gina Cooke who know about 100x more about the linguistics of the English writing system might have different opinions on that). But what I do know is that there are lots and lots of simple cases where word spellings are “exceptions” to phonics, and easily explainable in SWI. The fact that SWI organizes words into morphological families to teach vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciations seems so reasonable rather than curious. It sees a reasonable idea even in a shallow orthography that does not have lots of GPC “exceptions”.

    The fact that Greg thinks he makes a good point with ‘slippy’ boggles the mind.

    1. “What I find curious is the strong resistance to the idea that reading instruction should teach children all the regularities in the writing system, both the phonological (GPCs) and meaning (morphology, and etymology) together to jointly teach reading, spelling, and vocabulary knowledge.”

      There is no resistance to this. All advocates of systematic phonics accept this. What they do not accept is that all of this should be taught from the very start of reading instruction or that we should impose an implausible formalism on English that allows no exceptions. You might want to start critiquing what phonics advocates actually believe.

      1. The key tools of SWI are morphological matrices, word sums, and etymological dictionaries to investigate how words are related to one another. How to make better sense of GPCs. How to build vocabulary, and how to understand spellings. How phonological and semantic regularities interact. If you like these tools and these goals in year 4 but not year 1, then big win for SWI. And odd to dismiss this earlier when there is no evidence for this conclusion, and indeed, all current (limited) evidence suggests that morphological instruction is effective for younger children, that SWI works in year 1-2, and perhaps most importantly, that learning and memory is always best for material that is studied in a meaningful and organized manner.

        And in any case, the whole point of your blogpost is misguided — nothing curious about the hypothesis that children should be taught the linguistic organization of spellings.

      2. SWI does not have a monopoly on teaching morphology and etymology. If you can bring yourself to accept that SWI may not be optimal for initial reading instruction then we might find some common ground. However, I suspect that more pragmatic approaches to etymology and morphology will still prove to be superior to SWI’s formalism.

  3. Jeff, with reference to teaching SWI to beginning readers, you say it’s “odd to dismiss this earlier when there is no evidence for this conclusion”. My evidence has come over the past twelve years from teaching hundreds of students to read, students who arrive lacking literacy skills and struggle to make sense of those squiggly lines in front of them–to attach print to sound. Once they’ve nailed this, showing “how phonological and semantic regularities interact” makes perfect sense. But not before.

  4. Greg’s writes: “If you can bring yourself to accept that SWI may not be optimal for initial reading instruction then we might find some common ground”. Do the final sentences of the Bowers and Bowers (2017) paper address this point?

    “These findings motivate the use of tools such as morphological matrices and word sums that highlight the meaningful relations between words and etymological dictionaries that allow hypotheses to be tested. Clearly more research is needed to assess the efficacy of these specific tools, and the approach more generally. Our main goal here is to help inspire more research into teaching children the logic of their spelling system (also see Crystal, 2013; Henderson, 1984; Venezky, 1999).”

    We make a similar point in every paper. It is researchers claiming the science of reading strongly systematic phonics who are curiously going beyond the data and ignoring basic insights from linguistics and cognitive science. That is, that spelling system is morphophonemic, and that learning and memory is best when information is learned in a meaningful and well organized format.

    Final point. The suggestions that proponents of systematic phonics are strongly committed to teaching morphology and etymology at a later stage of instruction is false. Teachers know almost nothing about morphology and etymology, and there is little consideration about how to teach it in the research literature. But new suggestions about how to teach morphology without matrices and word sums are welcome — indeed, as noted in the quote above, we are trying to motivate more research into how to teach all the regularities in English spellings.

    1. You continue your odd approach of accepting the need for more research while also making bold assertions that lack evidence. An example of the latter is “It is researchers claiming the science of reading strongly systematic phonics who are curiously going beyond the data and ignoring basic insights from linguistics and cognitive science. That is, that spelling system is morphophonemic, and that learning and memory is best when information is learned in a meaningful and well organized format.” You are making a priori assumptions here about both phonics, that it is somehow not ‘meaningful’ and some supposed ‘basic insights’ that are being ‘ignored’. It is particularly bizarre to call for a ‘well organised format’ when your whole post hoc case against systematic phonics is that you think the ‘systematic’ bit makes no difference.

      In addition, I have repeatedly discussed my experience with Letters and Sounds and the far more comprehensive Sounds-Write systematic phonics reading programmes. Phase 6 of Letters and Sounds (for Years 2 and upwards, from memory) introduces morphology and etymology. You should be aware of this because it is a quite well known, government developed approach. I have also discussed the fact that I have seen a Sounds-Write trainer demonstrating something similar to SWI’s matrices. John Walker of Sounds-Write has even suggested to me, in person, that spelling assessments are often better diagnostically than reading assessments because they assess morphological knowledge.

      The case for SWI seems to hinge on SWI owning morphology and denying that anyone else can address it. There is also this peculiar morphological formalism that asserts the primacy of written English and the suggestion that we should overload beginning readers by asking them to attend to phonology, graphemes, morphology, etymology etc all at once. Not only is this at odds with theories of educational psychology such as cognitive load theory, it is wildly implausible to the majority of early educators and nobody from the SWI field has yet provided a convincing demonstration of how it can be done.

    2. I’ve just looked up the ‘phonics’ curriculum standards for the State of Victoria where I live. It begins with a short preamble about the evidence supporting phonics. Level 5 focuses on morphology. Here’s a quote:

      “Morphemes are important for phonics (reading and spelling), as well as vocabulary and comprehension. Teaching morphemes is useful, as they are often spelt the same across different words (even when the sound changes), and often have a consistent purpose and/or meaning.”

      The fact that teachers lack knowledge of morphology and etymology is hardly surprising because we know they lack a lot of knowledge of phonics, presumably because we have to keep endlessly debating its value, muddying the waters sufficiently for schools of education to avoid teaching this knowledge. Here’s a good paper on the issue:

      1. And here is a paper that assess what teachers know about morphology.

        This is not surprising give how little consideration morphology is given by researchers advocating systematic phonics. Here is a quote from: Bowers, J.S., and Bowers, P.N. (2018). The importance of correctly characterizing the English spelling system when devising and evaluating methods of reading instruction: Comment on Taylor, Davis, and Rastle (2017). Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 71, 1497-1500.

        “The more general point we want to emphasize, however, is that most researchers
        claim that the function of letters is to represent sounds (the “alphabetic principle”) and little
        consideration is given to the fact that English is fact a morphophonemic system in which
        morphemes are spelled more consistently than phonemes. This failure to consider the
        morphological organization of English spellings has had a profound impact on reading
        research over the past decades. To illustrate, consider the National Reading Panel (2000) that
        was setup to assess how to best teach reading. In 449 pages, the word “morpheme” only
        occurs once (in a table), whereas “phoneme” occurs 294 times (derivations of “morpheme”
        were mentioned a total of 4 times). In more recent meta-analyses that are taken to support
        phonics (Galuschka et al., 2014; McArthur et al., 2012; Rose, 2006, 2009), and a recent meta
        analysis that fails to find any long-term benefits of phonics (Suggate, 2016), there are no
        occurrences of the word “morpheme”.

      2. I am all for more research, but the original point still stands. SWI does not own morphology – it is a key component of systematic phonics programmes, just not from the start of reading instruction. If anything, setting up morphology in opposition to systematic phonics is likely to hinder the cause of research into morphology given the wide acceptance of the evidence supporting systematic phonics among researchers. It makes it look like a fringe cause.

      3. This is very helpful, Jeff. Tomoroww when my first graders struggle to read a work like “spoil” (as they did today), to attach phonemes to the graphemes in front of them, I’ll instruct them to ignore the decoding strategies we’ve practiced because “English is in fact a morphophonemic system in which morphemes are spelled more consistently than phonemes.”

  5. Here is Activity 3 from Lesson 3 of the program you reference. I look forward to seeing other examples of beginning reading programs by SWI proponents.

    Activity 3: Can Spell [Ø]

    Remember that the grapheme can spell the phone [m]. Also remember that not all letters spell sounds. Letters can function as lexical, phonological, and/or etymological markers. The grapheme can also spell the zero phone [Ø].

    The word can spell [nəmɑnɪk]. The first spells the zero phone [Ø].

    Why does spell the zero phone [Ø] in ? A mnemonic is something that helps in remembering something else. comes from the Greek meaning “memory, remembrance, record.” The base is . Other words in the family include meaning “memory loss, lack of memory” and meaning “forgetting of past offenses.”

    Notice that spells the zero phone [Ø] at the beginning of a word like but [m] in the middle of a word like or .

      1. Thank you. There are many links there. Can you provide the one you think provides the best example of teaching kids who have no GPC knowledge how to read? That’s what I–and many others–would like to see. Much appreciated!

  6. In his opening sentence, Greg said that what was ‘baffling’ was how SWI ‘could possibly be used as a beginning reading program’. The ‘beginning’ point also bothers Harriet and me. SWI sometimes seems to assume that children can already read a bit, as in the ‘Mom says she wants a..’ example. At other times, it assumes that it’s not important for all the children to be able to read the words whose morphology is being discussed. We see this in a video which Pete Bowers recently drew to my attention: He commented that the pre-school teacher is ‘not even worrying about trying to get everyone to “read” these words yet, but she’s introducing them to the letter names as they spell them out’ – OK, introducing letter-names, but not expecting the children to apply that knowledge in reading even the words used in this lesson, let alone any other words. If this is a good way of teaching beginning reading, we should surely see some evidence that the children are learning to read the words.

    Jeff concedes that there are words ‘that have linguistically compelling explanations that are sufficiently complex that the explanations are irrelevant to teaching literacy’. I agree, but I also think that there are linguistic explanations which are too complex for real beginners, even if not for children a bit further up the learning curve.

    1. This video does indeed do a good job showing how rich and rewarding a morphology lesson can be. But as Jenny points out, it doesn’t teach kids how to read–it supplements rather than supplants reading instruction. It’s very telling that at the end the child doesn’t even attempt to decode “raincoat” after having had an entire lesson about the rain family.

      1. Thanks Harriet. I’ve also now followed up the things that looked most relevant in the link recommended by Kevin, but they didn’t answer my questions. n all the SWI material I’ve looked at, usually at the recommendation of SWI proponents, I’ve seen (a) children who can already read the words being worked with but nothing to show how they got to that point, and (b) children who can’t read the words but not being taught to do so. As I’ve said, the comment made by Pete Bowers on that video was that the teacher wasn’t even worrying about trying to get the children to read the words yet. I need to see something in print or on video showing how it’s done by someone who IS trying to do it if I’m to understand how SWI teaches real beginners.

  7. Something I found via Kevin’s link was a lesson described by Lyn Anderson on 23 April 2014 under the heading ‘Teaching Orthography in the Early Years: word webs for young children’.

    Anderson writes ‘We started this particular learning journey by rereading a well loved story, Mrs Wishy Washy by Joy Cowley.The children were delighted to read the story to me, which they did with great enthusiasm and understanding. They clearly viewed themselves as proficient readers, by explaining and discussing the underlying ideas and meaning of the story.’

    So the children could already read the story, and had apparently learned to do this without any discussion of morphology – if morphology had already been discussed, the lesson that Lyn Anderson goes on to describe would have been unnecessary.

    I’m therefore now wondering whether SWI envisages children first reading words logographically, without attention to morphology or GPCs, but does not regard this as the ‘start’. The ‘start’ comes a bit later, when children first have their attention drawn to sub-units in the words they can already read. At this point, the teacher chooses words consisting of more than one morpheme for investigation.

    Might this mean that differences between SWI people and phonics people could be resolved if we could agree on what we mean by the ‘start’? Are we at present a bit like the two participants in this Monty Python sketch, who understand the word ‘lion’ very differently? –

    1. Thanks for the levity, Jenny, which also highlights the gravity of the situation–of getting beginning reading right.

    1. Despite originally calling for discussion, on Twitter, Bowers has now said he no longer wants one with me. This is apparently because I called into question his integrity because I wondered whether he knew running SWI against SSP rather than motivated reading, wouldn’t have been good for SWI. This feels a bit rich, given the overt personal attacks, accusations of sexism etc that have been directed at me by SWI supporters since taking up Bowers’ invitation to discussion.

    2. I eagerly await responses from SWI proponents. As a practitioner in a high-poverty school, I depend on researchers to inform my reading instruction. When I taught kindergarten (and continuing now as a reading specialist working with struggling readers), my beginning reading program has relied on the following:

      1) Research on infants by Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald, which reveals how child-directed speech impacts vocabulary development and processing speed, both of which affect future reading.

      2) Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene (Reading in the Brain), who emphasizes that learning to read requires attending to phonemes and the graphemes that represent them

      3) Linnea Ehri’s work on letter-embedded picture mnemonics as discussed in her article, Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling, Memory, and Vocabulary Learning

      4) Using Elkonin Boxes in conjunction with Isabel Beck’s word-building activities in Making Sense of Phonics.

      5) Decoding rather than memorizing “sight words” as described in Rethinking Sight Words

      6) Providing ample opportunities for students to apply their phonemic awareness skills to writing as described in Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1

      7) And, of course, giving students ample opportunities to apply their skills to reading connected text in a variety of books for emergent readers.

    3. Hi Jenny, the thing is that I have replied repeatedly to Greg (e.g., see above) only to go around in circles with unjustified claims of post-hoc, etc., with most comments snide and confrontational (e.g., see the title of this blogpost). Greg finds it “a bit rich” that I don’t enjoy personal challenges from him because *other* people are rude to him? This is the level of argument that is not worth wasting my time.

      But do notice the irony. I’ve have responded in hundreds of tweets and multiple posts on various people’s blogs explaining SWI and responding to misrepresentations. But how about the responses to my challenge to systematic phonics? What do you make of it that Buckingham, Ashman, and no one else has commented on my blogpost to Buckingham? Hav e a read yourself and explain why my claims about systematic phonics are unjustified.

      1. The other people who have been rude to me are supporters of yours who you interact with and validate on Twitter. Do you need some quotes from them? Perhaps we could go with them calling Jen B a liar or suggesting I must be sexist. There are others. In this context, it really does seem strange to appear so wounded by my tone.

        My critique of your post-hoc analysis being post-hoc is valid because it literally is post-hoc. You can reasonably claim that this does not matter, perhaps, but you cannot deny a truth. I have even given you a quote from another academic paper explaining why this is an issue with the Camilli paper, repeatedly, but you don’t respond.

        And this is part of a pattern. Yes, we do go around in circles. But I think that’s because you want the discussion on your terms only. You want your questions and points addressed while ignoring many of those made by others that do not fit your narrative. Ultimately, it is the quiet observers of the debate who will make up their own minds. I’m comfortable with that. Are you?

      2. Greg, I kept responding to all your points, including in response to your “quote from another academic paper” (that I in fact I also discuss in my Educational Psychology Review paper). See:

        The claim that Camilli et al. are post-hoc by asking a different question to a similar (but not identical) dataset makes no sense, and it is not worth arguing about anymore.

        I even responded to the “lies” comment:

        But I don’t speak for other people, and they don’t speak for me. I often agree with the analyses of SWI by your critics, but I’m not responsible for their words. I’m responsible for my words, you responsible for your own.

        Our exchange has largely been composed of me answering your (often aggressively worded) questions, you not acknowledging the point that I make, moving on to something else to criticize (other than the repetitions of the post-hoc argument that you take as your most fundamental point). In the meantime, you rarely respond to the occasional points I raise. For example, will you be responding to my blogpost on systematic phonics?

        This is in fact a silly exchange to be having in public. I will respond to any substantive points you raise on my blogpost.

      3. The fact that your analysis, and one of the ones you rely on, are post-hoc *is* the fundamental point.

        Tone is very difficult to perceive in writing. Because you do not like what I say, you perceive it to be aggressive. I perceive myself to be quite calm and composed. This is good on tone (and argument in general):

      4. Thanks, Jeff. There are points to do with the technicalities of research which are beyond me, so I leave discussion of those to people who are better qualified than I am.

        BUT I spent 28 years teaching English (and also sometimes Latin) to teenagers, and developed a particular concern about students’ spelling problems in the last 22 of those years. I saw that many errors could have been avoided if the students had understood more about morphology, so I don’t need convincing about that. I then spent 17 years working voluntarily on reading with much younger children, including real beginners. I know that children can start to grasp simple morphological points for reading and spelling very early, but I’ve never seen beginners being taught to read and spell their very first words at the same time as being taught about morphology and I don’t see this on SWI videos. What I’ve stressed in all my comments here is my puzzlement about SWI as an approach for those real beginners, which was also Greg’s starting-point in his blog. This makes me wonder whether real beginners as I know them are the same as real beginners as SWI knows them. Can you suggest anything which would provide answers?

      5. Jeff. Could you perhaps comment on David Kilpatrick’s work? He too has critiques of the literature on systematic phonics and in fact finds little support for any significant gains with Orton Gillingham only approaches. However, his vast combing of the literature does find support for systematic phonics mixed with aggressive phonological training — which from my layman’s perspective (whether they are aware of it or not) – seems to be the natural way most anyone actually learns how to read at the outset and as limited by their oral vocabulary – not through recognizing morphological or etymological contexts as useful and interesting as that may be.

  8. I agree that the research mentioned by Harriet is worth taking seriously – also research by people such as Stanovich, Share, Perfetti and (here in the UK) Rhona Johnston and colleagues. It seems, from what Greg says, that we may not hear again from Jeff, but there are other SWI advocates, so let’s hope we hear from them. We DO need clarity about what we regard as the ‘start’, however.

  9. On February 3rd Jeff tweeted:

    “For those interested in reading, here is Greg Ashman dismissing SWI as curious and peculiar, with cult-like followers mindlessly repeating an Orwellian mantra. And some responses from me.”

    Since this tweet came before Jenny started posting, I guess that means I’m the cult. Not sure how Greg feels about having a cult-like following with just one member. In any case, rather than resort to vacuous epithets, it would be helpful to have a response, as Jenny says, about what we regard as the ‘start’. The stakes are high for those of us who teach underprivileged children.

  10. My mistake, and I apologize. I now realize that Jeff’s references to a cult-like following and Orwellian mantra were in fact directed at Greg’s comments about SWI. I guess this goes to the heart of all the confusion and the lack of clarity, of trying to pin down what exactly SWI proponents are advocating for beginning reading instruction–for the ‘start’.

  11. Reposting from Twitter:

    Why do you assume that prereaders cannot learn to read via words like “morpheme” and “etymological marker”?

    Kids are smart.

    Why do you think morpheme meaning “word part” and etymological marker meaning “letter(s) that show the history of a word” are out of reach for a child who cannot yet read?

    Just today I asked my son to read a title of a book.

    “Are there any morphemes you can take off?” I prompted.

    “The ,” he said.

    He then easily read .

    He is 5 but would not yet be in kindergarten if he attended public school. He also knows what a “zero phone” is and what a “replaceable e” is.

    How can you say that beginning readers cannot learn words like “morpheme.”

    You also conveniently failed to mention the final paragraph of the introduction, which is to be read aloud to the child learning to read:

    “You do not have to remember or understand all this information now. This reading program will clarify and reinforce these facts about the English spelling system as you learn to read.”

    Learning is cumulative, not linear.

    1. The interesting issue with research into reading instruction is that it is not a case of some methods working and others not working at all. Whatever method you use, some children will learn to read. The issue is which method will lead to the greatest proportion of children becoming successful readers and hence the least reading failure. With all of the information SWI asks children to consider from the outset of reading, I would predict, based upon my knowledge of cognitive science, that it would be less effective than a systematic phonics program that only initially asks students to attend to letter-sound relationships. Of course, I could be wrong. A good randomised controlled trial that compared SWI with systematic phonics would provide evidence one way or another.

  12. Good points, Greg.

    Whoever was doing the RCT would have to decide whether to use a version of SWI which teaches about ‘zero phones’ and ‘replaceable e’. from the start or the type which starts with words such as ‘cats’, ‘rains’ and ‘raining’ as we see on videos recommended by Jeff and Pete Bowers. The latter approach seems more realistic than the former, though still not as realistic for beginners as a typical synthetic phonics approach.

  13. The confusion around the beginning reading piece in SWI is baffling. Although I primarily work with struggling first and second graders, I teach a third grade class once a week, and I have now added morphological matrices to my instruction by using a very convenient online matrix-maker. SWI for kids who can decode is beneficial–no doubt about it. But this means my third graders can effortlessly read “struct” before we engage in word sums, which is not the case with my beginning readers. Interestingly, the Nueva school, a private school highlighted on Pete’s website that embraces SWI, requires an IQ test for admission. I wonder if that tells us something about using SWI for beginning reading instruction.

  14. Just want to thank everyone for this discussion. I recently came across SWI and had me starting to question my own approach, though indeed couldn’t get around the randomness of their websites, information, and approach – not to mention the biting and overzealous nature of that Gina woman over at LeX. This article has articulated my initial thoughts succinctly, and to see that the SWI people have not come up with a valid answer to your critiques is very useful. The fact that Bowers has backed out of a conversation with you is also a clincher for me in not taking them too seriously at this juncture.

    My best sense, is that yes their approach is useful for *some* readers, and seemingly more so as an add on to a solid program so that the many kids who struggle do not fall through the cracks. But as your core reading/spelling instruction – I can’t even imagine what that would look like and it appears neither can they. This includes Pete Bowers video from Dec. 2019 wherein he is essentially teaching phonics in a random and incoherent fashion (also ignoring how kids are getting their initial phoneme-grapheme relationships in the first place) as well as using exercises I’ve seen elsewhere in proper and systematic programs and passing it off as fundamental to “SWI”…..seriously? I was almost going to attend a workshop with him in a couple weeks, maybe I’ll just stay at home and keep reading the linguistics book I’m working on…

    1. Frank’s point about Kilpatrick’s work related to phonological awareness (Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties), is a very important one for those of us working with non-readers. This is why I really like Isabel Beck’s word-building program in her book, Making Sense of Phonics. These activities are used in conjunction with Elkonin boxes, and it is fascinating watching kids turn ‘ran’ to ‘rain’ and move their letters from the three boxes on their sound boards to the four boxes below–and all the PA discussion/training that goes on to teach them about how the ‘ai’ digraph represents one sound and that both words actually have three sounds though the number of letters is different. Then, much further down the line of instruction, looking at the fact that a seven-letter word like ‘thought’ also just has three sounds.

      1. Harriett. I like Beck’s text, though it is nothing novel and I do not think the research is clear in terms of training PA skills with or without physical referents, and she takes her side quite clearly. I’ll have to revisit Kilpatrick and am not 100%, but I think he is actually in favor of also training PA in a purely auditory fashion based on his research and as evidenced in his manual. In fact one of the methods that Kilpatrick’s mentions in the research studies as being highly effective is Phonographix, which essentially involves the same core exercises seen in Beck’s text; though having worked with both approaches, I feel one needs to tweak and bring other elements in for a more complete approach – particularly for those who struggle or older readers.

      2. Thanks for the clarification, Frank. In addition to getting my reading specialist credential, I’ve been trained in Phonographix, and I definitely do PA training with and without referents, though my understanding is that the research favors using letters in conjunction with PA activities. I first learned about Phonographix through Diane McGuinness, and I highly recommend her three books, Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It: A scientific revolution in reading (1997); Early Reading Instruction: What science really tells us about how to teach reading (2004): and Language Development and Learning to Read: The scientific study of how language development affects reading skill (2005).

        Steven Pinker wrote the foreword to her first book and says: “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on. This basic fact about human nature should be the starting point for any discussion of how to teach our children to read and write. We need to understand how the contraption called writing works, how the mind of the child works, how to get the two to mesh. It is a national tragedy that this commonsense understanding has been so uncommon.”

        This is why this discussion is so important.

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