Why Structured Word Inquiry is at odds with basic cognitive science

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“One possible objection to SWI is that young children in Grade 1 who are just starting to read do not have the cognitive skills necessary to explore the interrelations between orthography, phonology, morphology, and etymology. Indeed, it is often claimed that morphological instruction should occur only after phonics… However, these claims and findings provide no evidence against the claim that SWI should be adopted from the very beginning.” Beyond Phonics: The Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System. Jeffrey S. Bowers and Peter N. Bowers

I am in favour of teaching children about morphology and etymology as part of a broad reading program. The program adopted by my own school does just this. However, I am doubtful about the idea that these concepts should be introduced at the very beginning of reading instruction.

I have already addressed the point that SWI is not the only way to teach morphology and etymology and the possibility that other approaches may be better, so I won’t rehearse that argument here. The Bowers brothers tend to cite a 2013 study by Devonshire, Morris and Fluck to support the case for morphological instruction from the very beginning of reading instruction. They point to the age of the children involved – between five and seven – and that the children apparently benefited from morphological instruction. However, age hardly matters. What matters is relative level of expertise which, in models such as cognitive load theory, effectively correspond with the presence of relevant schemas in long-term memory. These could be present in a four-year-old and absent in an 18-year-old. Critically, the children in the Devonshire et al. study had been given at least one, and up to two, years of a form of phonics instruction prior to receiving morphological instruction. So in the key sense that it has been cited i.e. as evidence supporting morphological instruction from the very beginning of reading instruction, it is entirely irrelevant.

Should a study be designed that addressed this key issue head on, I am doubtful it would find in favour of the SWI approach due to findings from basic cognitive science. However, before I examine why, it is worth pointing out that children who have not yet had a reading lesson are likely to be similar to children who have had lessons but failed to make progress in the sense that in both cases, their schemas for reading will be absent or only partially formed. We might therefore be able to infer something about initial reading instruction from studies that compare reading interventions for older struggling readers. I am aware of no study comparing SWI and systematic phonics as interventions for struggling readers, although one study involving Jeffrey Bowers did compare SWI with something called ‘motivated reading’ and found that the effects of both approaches were about the same. So that’s hardly overwhelming evidence for SWI.

One solid finding from basic cognitive science is that our working memory is extremely limited. The concept of working memory was developed by Baddeley and colleagues out of the earlier concept of short-term memory. The key difference is that working memory involves processing information in some way rather than just retaining it. Although we cannot grab a sharpie, draw a circle on a brain scan and say, ‘working memory is there,’ it is a robust construct that predicts a wide range of experimental outcomes. Currently, we believe that working memory can only process about four items at any one time.

Although fundamental to cognitive load theory, this finding sits outside the theory and is widely accepted. The role of cognitive load theory is to flesh out the implications for learning. Specifically, cognitive load theory suggests that when learning something we have not evolved to learn, such as learning to read, we must first process all of the items in working memory. However, as we learn, we build schemas in long-term memory that can be drawn upon to circumvent the limits of working memory. Oddly, it appears that we can fill-up our working memory to such a point that we can perform a task but not learn from it because there is no working memory available to help with schema building.

Cognitive load theory therefore predicts that it is optimal for learners to be asked to process only a few items at a time (no more than four) and that some or all of these must be relevant to schema building. Precisely how schemas are built and the role of working memory in building them is an area of some debate but regardless of the outcome of this debate, the limits of working memory still hold.

Now, picture a child on day zero of reading instruction. She knows none of the relationships between letters and sounds. If we are lucky, she may perhaps have received some phonemic awareness training in kindergarten (the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words) and she may have tried tracing some letters. But she cannot read at all. That is my definition of someone who is about to start initial reading instruction. That’s the very beginning.

I am not an expert in phonics and so those of you more expert than me will be able to suggest better approaches, but lets say I start teaching some simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words such as ‘cat’. There are three grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) in ‘cat’ – these are the correspondences between distinct sounds (phonemes) and the letter or letters that represent them in the word (graphemes). In ‘cat’ these are ‘c’, ‘a’ and ‘t’. Each of these is an item to process because our learner has no schemas to draw upon. Then there is a fourth item – blending them together. We have already reached our capacity limit and this probably explains why starting with CVC words is common in systematic phonics programmes.

How exactly could I add morphology and etymology to this? I could discuss ‘cats’ but I’ve then added one, and possibly two, more items to process. I have added the ‘s’ GPC and the concept of plurality – this may be something the child implicitly knows but mapping it to a particular letter will be a new item to process. And we have got nowhere near what I understand to be the core SWI practice of using word matrices.

With some effort, I can imagine an early approach to reading instruction that references morphology without overloading working memory, but it would be a weird kind of approach where, say, children would learn a series of sight-words and sight-morphemes. You may start, for example, by getting them to sight memorise ‘sleep’ and ‘s’, ‘ing’ and ‘er’ (although ‘ed’ wouldn’t help you much in this case). Such whole-word approaches have been largely discredited and I am not sure anyone advocates for them now. Even the dwindling band of proponents of whole language acknowledge the need for understanding GPCs, they just assume that children will pick-up this knowledge in context or implicitly. And proponents of SWI repeatedly insist that it teaches GPCs, claiming it is a misconception to suggest otherwise. In fact, the claim seems to be that SWI teaches GPCs, morphology, etymology and anything else you might imagine, right from the very beginning. It is difficult to picture how this is done without violating the four items limit of working memory.

In a lengthy response to one of my previous blog posts, Pete Bowers argues that SWI is consistent with cognitive load theory. He picks up on the idea of germane cognitive load – i.e. working memory resources that are used for schema building – and seems to suggest that SWI aligns with cognitive load theory because it generates this germane load. That may be true, but too much germane load will still violate the four items limit. This seems to be a slightly more sophisticated version of the ‘begging the question‘ syllogism that Jeffrey Bowers has deployed a number of times i.e.

  1. Learning is best when information is presented in an organised and meaningful way
  2. SWI presents information in an organised and meaningful way
  3. Therefore, SWI is best for learning

There are three problems with this argument. Firstly, learning is not best when too much information is presented at once, be it organised and meaningful or otherwise. Secondly, why should we assume that SWI is particularly organised and meaningful? Thirdly, why should we assume that alternatives to SWI such as systematic phonics (the clue is in the name) are not particularly organised and/or meaningful? After all, it’s pretty meaningful to be able to read stuff.

Pete Bowers goes on to give an example to support his contention that SWI is consistent with cognitive load theory. Bearing in mind my argument that cognitive load theory implies that teaching morphology from the very beginning of reading instruction would overload children, he chooses an odd example:

“Consider Cognitive Load Theory in the context of trying to teach a child who misspells the word “action” as *”acshun”. This mistake reveals accurate learning of possible ‘letter-sound correspondences’ (grapheme-phoneme correspondences). But if s/he has the phrase “sh sound” and “t sound” automated, we can see why drawing on learning from instruction would not provide guidance to get to the attested spelling. In this case the phrases “sh sound” and “t sound” represent an extraneous load to understand the spelling of this word. These oft repeated instructional phrases build well-integrated mental representations that then need to be hindered in order to get to the attested spelling of “action”.”

A child who can attempt a spelling of ‘action’ is someone who is already a pretty good reader. We are not talking about initial reading instruction here. In this case, I agree that some morphological instruction would help this child’s spelling ability and I would suggest that this may be a good stage to introduce it. It would certainly help with the interference a child would experience by having multiple ways of representing the same sound – although phonics does not teach that there is just one way, as Pete Bowers implies. I think that the critical message we are meant to take away from this example is that phonics instruction leads to this interference problem but SWI would avoid it. If true, we need to see exactly how. We need to see what SWI instruction looks like from the very beginning.

SWI sceptics such as me – or ‘phombies’ as some SWI advocates like to call us – have repeatedly asked for evidence on how SWI is used to teach initial reading. I have already examined two supposed examples that I found deeply unconvincing (here and here). Responding to my request, Jeffrey Bowers pointed me to some sources:

I have had a look at the sources and found a couple of videos, both from a place called The Nueva School. Nueva is a Californian school for gifted and high-ability learners. In order to be admitted, students need to pass an IQ test. This is interesting, because IQ (thought to measure something known as ‘general intelligence’ or ‘g’ in the literature) is highly related to working memory capacity. Perhaps working with such children has skewed the perspective of SWI advocates.

When you look at the videos, the children involved can evidently already read. For instance, consider the video below investigating the word ‘rain’. There is no instruction in how to read ‘rain’. The teacher simply asks one of the students to do so. And then off we go into morphology etc.

Yes, these are often very young children. But, again, that hardly matters. They also happen to be exceptionally gifted children. Moreover, if they can already read ‘rain’, perhaps because their parents have taught them to read at home, then this is not initial reading instruction. Age does not matter. What matters are the schemas in long-term memory.

Perhaps there is a form of SWI initial reading instruction that does align with cognitive science and that does not involve teaching children who can already read. However, until we see what it looks like, through an accurate description, lesson plan or video, I have no reason to suppose that any such form of SWI exists and teachers have no good reason to abandon systematic phonics in pursuit of a mere possibility.

17 thoughts on “Why Structured Word Inquiry is at odds with basic cognitive science

  1. Good explanation of what concerns many of us about SWI – thanks, Greg.

    In England, systematic synthetic phonics (ssp) for beginners has been official policy since 2007, largely as a result of the Clackmannanshire study done in Scotland. The particular characteristics of this type of ssp are worth noting, as it probably differs a bit from some other systematic phonics approaches. Its aim is not to teach words, but to teach children to work words out for themselves as far as possible. Letter-shapes and a sound for each are taught at the rate of about one correspondence per day, with the children given lots of practice with each as it’s introduced. After three or four correspondences have been taught, children learn to read simple words made up of them by saying a sound for each letter from left to right and blending the sounds. As each new correspondence is taught, the number of words which children can work out increases very rapidly. The government programme ‘Letters and Sounds’ (2007) lists 102 words which are manageable after 4 weeks of teaching, when 15 single letters and ‘ck’ have been taught, but those are just examples – others would also be possible. The words are at first only two or three letters long, to minimise the number of sounds children have to remember before blending, but by Week 4, there are also words such as ‘rocket’, ‘sunset’ and ‘carrot’. As the remaining 11 letters are taught, a further 126 words are listed, but again, these are only examples and the real number of manageable words is much larger. The ‘Notes of Guidance’ warn against encouraging children to guess at words using cues from pictures and context, so the emphasis is very much on phonic decoding.

    The children in the 2013 Devonshire et al. study cited by Pete Bowers were taught by ‘Letters and Sounds’ before SWI teaching started, but in a way which took liberties with the programme – GPCs were taught much more slowly than recommended, and in reading their Oxford Reading Tree books, children were encouraged to guess at words. This shows that the school used in the study had not started to put more emphasis on phonic decoding when it became known that a Year 1 Phonics Screening check would be introduced in 2012. Even if the school had been among those which DID increase this emphasis, the children would still not have been beginners, as they were in Years 1 and 2. The Nuffield study which found little difference between SWI subjects and Motivated Reading subjects was also not done with beginners, but with children in Years 3 and 5. They had probably been taught ssp rather more systematically in earlier years than the Devonshire subjects, but had also been taught by the 2014 National Curriculum. This doesn’t extend to the Reception year, but its spelling appendix puts quite a lot of emphasis on morphology from Year 1 onwards, showing that this IS considered important once children have been started off on ssp.

    If SWI continues to claim that it is the best approach with beginners, what we need in England is a study done with children in Reception.

  2. I agree that this explanation is very helpful, and I would appreciate hearing any counter-arguments, especially to the ‘4-item limit’, which goes a long way toward explaining my experiences teaching GPC’s to beginning readers. Greg writes:

    “Cognitive load theory therefore predicts that it is optimal for learners to be asked to process only a few items at a time (no more than four) and that some or all of these must be relevant to schema building. Precisely how schemas are built and the role of working memory in building them is an area of some debate but regardless of the outcome of this debate, the limits of working memory still hold.”

    I also appreciated Jenny’s explanatiobn of SSP instruction in England. I have been perusing new programs for my district, and I’m finding, as Jenny mentions, that many of these programs teach GPC’s far too slowly.

  3. Part 1:

    In my detailed response to Buckingham I made the case that politics has trumped science in the “science of reading”. It is now difficult to publish work that challenges systematic phonics (see final section of my post you can find at: https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/buckingham/)
    And proponents of phonics have become so ideologically committed that they ignore problematic evidence for phonics, or mischaracterize findings, or selectively report findings, or don’t seem to understand fundamental problems, and most often, don’t engage when challenged while making the same strong claims elsewhere. For example, I find it striking that Buckingham has not responded to my blogpost where I claim that every point she made was wrong (barring one trivial point). Just one positive comment thus far.

    But perhaps what I find most surprising is that proponents of phonics are so uncurious about alternative views, in this case SWI. For the most part, the pro-phonics/anti-SWIers raise one objection after another without carefully reading published articles or blogposts that address the concerns they raise. These are not mutually exclusive traits: quite often, the misrepresentations and uncuriousness regarding SWI go together.

    Greg has written a series of posts (including “Structured Word Inquiry gets curiouser and curiouser”) that highlight both of these traits. In the current post “Why Structured Word Inquiry is at odds with basic cognitive science” he writes: “I have already addressed the point that SWI is not the only way to teach morphology and etymology and the possibility that other approaches may be better, so I won’t rehearse that argument here.” Indeed, in multiple other places he has emphasized that SWI does not have a monopoly on teaching morphology.

    The objection that SWI does not have a monopoly is an odd claim given that no one makes this claim. Rather, the claim is that there is good evidence that morphology is useful for reading instruction, and that there is almost no evidence about how to teach morphology. Greg seems to accept that some form morphological instruction is relevant sometime after phonics, but he doesn’t seem interested in considering how to teach morphology, nor be much impressed with the proposals of SWI. How can someone who agrees that morphology is relevant to instruction not at least be intrigued by the morphological matrices that organize groups of words into morphological families in a way that highlights their spelling, meaning, and phonological consistencies? How can there be no mention of morphological matrices in the reading literature outside a few papers that describe SWI (papers dating back a decade now)?

    Peter Bowers (my brother) tells the story of a reading researcher who was so struck by the morphological matrices for the word families do/does/done and go/goes/gone that she attended one of his workshops on that basis. Morphological matrices make obvious why the spelling of “does” and “gone” makes sense (they are not “exceptions”). The use of word sums and using etymological dictionaries in order to explore whether a word belongs in a morphological family are also fundamental tools of SWI, and to just brush aside and say SWI does not have a monopoly of morphology is neither constructive nor reasonable. Future research may show that it is better to organize words by the “ing” or “ed” affix, but the lack of curiosity of researchers is astounding to me.

    Apart from being uncurious about the tools of SWI, Greg is concerned with the proposal that SWI should be taught from the start. As I’ve said multiple times, I would be thrilled if people would take seriously SWI in grade 2, although I think there are strong reasons to consider the hypothesis that SWI should be taught from the start (even if your only concern is teaching GPCs at the start). Why is Greg so concerned with SWI at the start of instruction? Well, he is concerned that SWI is incompatible with what we know about working memory and cognitive load theory. Children can’t store more than 4 thinks at a time in their memories, and SWI requires much more than this.

    Greg gives the example of teaching the word “cat” in phonics. This works according to Greg because we have only 3 graphemes to consider, one grapheme under the working memory limit. But then he writes: “How exactly could I add morphology and etymology to this? I could discuss ‘cats’ but I’ve then added one, and possibly two, more items to process. I have added the ‘s’ GPC and the concept of plurality – this may be something the child implicitly knows but mapping it to a particular letter will be a new item to process. And we have got nowhere near what I understand to be the core SWI practice of using word matrices.”

  4. Part II:

    This is absurd. Please watch the “rain” video that Greg posts at the end of his post and ask yourself if the teacher expecting the children to store 5 things at the same time in their working memory? But let’s consider initial reading instruction (the “rain” video clearly is not depicting day 1 of reading instruction), and the case of teaching the word “cat” using SWI. The teacher would talk to children and ask them what does the word “cat” mean? And what about “cats”? and “catnip”? etc., the teacher can talk to completely illiterate children about what is the difference between cat and cats? Do you know what catnip means anyone? No, I’ll tell you. Etc. And then you can break down the word “cat” into its graphemes one at a time. Sound it out. Then add the “s”. Consider how it sounds. Say, OK, we now know that the graphemes “c”, “a”, “t”, and “s” can be pronounced… Next they might learn about the “dog” and “dogs”. And then have a conversation about why there a common letter “s” in “cats” and “dogs” when the sound differently. Etc. The idea that any of this is inconsistent with working memory and cognitive load is absurd.

    While Greg asserts that working memory falsifies SWI, I’ll just note that I’m a cognitive psychologist who has studied and published on short term and working memory. Fun fact, I was colleagues with Alan Baddeley when he was at Bristol and moved into his office when he moved to another university (I’m still in his old office). It never even occurred to me that SWI violates working memory constraints, because it is based on an absurd understanding of what goes on in SWI.

    In fact, the main reason why I’m so motivated to study SWI is that it is so well motivated by cognitive science. Below I just copy a section from Bowers and Bowers (2018, Current Directions in Psychology), that summarizes some cognitive science that is consistent with SWI. I hope people who are interested in reading instruction will be curious enough to read the papers that you can find on my webpage: https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/publications/

    “First, SWI can exploit the finding that learning is best when information is encoded in an elaborative and organized manner. For example, Bower, Clark, Lesgold, and Winzenz (1969) carried out a memory experiment in which words were organized within a hierarchy that highlighted the meaningful relations amongst the words, as depicted in Figure 2. Memory was approximately 3 times better in this condition compared to a condition that did not highlight these relations. SWI (but not phonics) can exploit this insight because children learn about the meaning bearing elements of words (morphemes) and learn to organize words into morphological families that share meanings and spellings. Organizing words into morphological families using matrices (as in Figure 1) highlights this organization, much like the hierarchies use by Bower et al. (1969).

    Second, SWI can exploit the finding that memory and learning benefit from a strategy called “elaborative interrogation” in which learning is better when children generate plausible explanations as to why some stated fact is true (Dunlosky, et al., 2013). This insight is again easily exploited by SWI. For instance, children can be presented with lists of words (e.g., play, playful, replay, plays, plane, playmate, and say) and investigate the structure and meaning of these words in order to generate and test hypotheses about which words belong to a common morphological family, which do not, and why. Or children can make sense of why “does” is spelt “does” rather than *”duz”, or why there is a “g” in “sign”, or explain countless other spellings that cannot be understood via the alphabetic principle (See Kirby & Bowers, 2017, for more practical illustrations of SWI).

    Furthermore, there are good reasons to think that SWI can address the main criticism of phonics, namely, the view that an emphasis on grapheme-phoneme correspondences is not engaging for many children. For example, when discussing the disappointing results of some phonology-based intervention studies, Snowling and Hulme (2014) argued that intervention studies need to focus more on pupil motivation with the aim of increasing students’ enjoyment of reading. We would suggest that SWI is a promising approach in this respect given that it aims to give children an understanding of the meaningful organization of the writing system through word investigations. As noted by Dunlosky et al. (2013): Anyone who has spent time around young children knows that one of their most frequent utterances is “Why?” (p. 8) Indeed, nothing motivates like understanding.”

    1. Thanks for your detailed response. If I wasn’t interested in SWI then I wouldn’t have written so many posts about it. However, I think it is quite unfair to demand that we are all as enthusiastic about it as you are. We get that you like it a lot. Word matrices may seem like a revelation to you. I just see them as one more proposed approach and I don’t find them revelatory because I have seen something similar before in the context of a systematic phonics programme.

      The main point of my post was that I cannot conceive of a way of teaching GPCs, morphology and etymology from the very beginning of reading instruction without overloading working memory. You seem to think this is absurd, but many people find the prospect of teaching GPCs, morphology and etymology from the start absurd. We need to do more than simply label each others arguments absurd. We need to refute them.

      Your discussion of how to teach ‘cat’ to a beginning reader using SWI is a helpful advance. Until this point, we have asked repeatedly for examples of how SWI teaches children from the very beginning and you have pointed us to examples such as the ‘rain’ video in which the children can already read. I still think your description of an SWI approach to ‘cat’ would provide far too much for children to attend to simultaneously – I think they would be pretty bamboozeld by it – and I may take the time to break that down for you at some point. But it is an advance.

      I have to say, the fact that you have moved into Baddeley’s old office, although an interesting anecdote, hardly seems relevant to the main point. I wonder whether sticking to the main point would aid the clarity and concision of these exchanges? Just a thought.

      I will read the Bower, Clark, Lesgold, and Winzenz study. However, your description of it does not prove that SWI is more meaningful than systematic phonics, as I guess you probably know.

      Just on an admin note – do you want me to delete the first of your three comments? It looks like it is an earlier draft of your last two.

      1. I have now had a look at the Bower, Clark, Lesgold and Winzenz study. here’s the link:

        https://web.stanford.edu/~gbower/1969/hierarchical_retrieval_schemes.pdf

        I am not convinced that this study is entirely relevant. For instance, in Experiment 1, one group of subjects were presented with a list of words arranged hierarchically. A diagram (which I cannot paste into this comment) shows the word ‘minerals’ under which sits the words ‘metals’ and ‘stones’. Under metals sits the words, ‘rare’, ‘common’ and ‘alloys’. Under alloys sits ‘bronze’, ‘steel’, ‘brass’ and so on. There are 26 words in total. The other group of subjects were presented with the same words in a random list. Recall was better for the subjects presented with the hierarchical list.

        This is not a surprise and seems pretty consistent with schema theory i.e. that concepts are stored semantically in long-term memory. However, the link to SWI is tenuous at best. Unless there is some horrible misunderstanding going on about the nature of systematic phonics instruction, we should all be able to accept that it does not present children with random lists to memorise and is, in fact, highly structured. So we have two competing models for the organisation of concepts in early literacy instruction: SWI and systematic phonics. A study that demonstrates that organisation is superior to no organisation therefore tells us little about which is the better model of organisation. We would need studies directly relevant to early literacy instruction to determine that.

      2. This was my response to the Bower, Clark, Lesgold, and Winzenz study that I posted on Jeff’s blog a year ago:

        These two articles on EN really were fascinating. There are two parts that stood out based on my experiences working with over 500 struggling readers.

        The first is the statement that “rather than the common view that letters are primarily designed to represent sounds, English is a morphophonemic system in which spellings have evolved to represent an interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology.” Jeff, you conclude that “this has obvious implications for literacy instruction given that learning and memory is better when information is encoded in a meaningful and well-organized manner (e.g., Bower, Clark, Lesgold, & Winzenz, 1969).”

        The first thing that struck me is this reference to a study done in 1969. Since the premise that morphology facilitates learning and memory is central to your recommendations, I was surprised that the study cited is 50 years old. Then when I looked it up, I was further surprised by this conclusion:

        “The message of these studies is simple: If S can discover or learn a simple rule or principle which characterizes the items on a list and which relates them to one another, then he uses that rule as a retrieval plan in reconstructing the items from memory, with a consequent improvement in his performance.”

        If the aim is to learn a “simple rule or principle” and use this rule “as a retrieval plan”, then I see a direct application to phonics teaching in beginning readers. Instead of having my kindergartners memorize a whole word like “play” or teaching them to simply spell out all four letters, I taught them the three phonemes and the “rule” that the two letters “a” and “y” represent a single sound. This facilitated their “learning and memory” enough for some of my students to apply it to their writing by independently composing the word “mayk”. I think this is the level of complexity appropriate for beginning readers as they make meaning out of the spelling variations for a given sound when they blend and segment. If this is how we can apply the term “meaningful”, then it very much describes the “meaning” my beginning readers take away from phonics.

      3. Yes please remove the earlier post. It is the same but for some reason the second half has a line through all the words. I thought it might be because it was too long so broke it down into two parts. thanks

      4. I think you are interested in SWI in so far as you are trying to dismiss it and support phonics. The following claims you’ve made suggest to me that you are not that interest in understanding this alternative approach: SWI requires a PhD, SWI is bad linguistics, SWI is inconsistent with cognitive science, SWI does not have a monopoly on morphology, SWI is a cult, Bowers himself has falsified SWI, etc. But perhaps I’m wrong.

        I’m not demanding you or anyone else is as interested in SWI. I do hope people to be open to alternative ideas, modify their confidence in their views when new facts become apparent, and characterize SWI fairly. I do expect researchers to characterize the evidence for phonics appropriately.

      5. I’m not sure I’ve said all the things about SWI that you attribute to me. More broadly, if someone proposes x then that will obviously attract attention from those who propose y. If x is sound it has nothing to fear from debate.

  5. Jeff, I suggest that one of the basic problems with this debate about SWI is not that you are promoting SWI, it’s that you are promoting SWI at the same time as undermining, or raising questions about the efficacy of, teaching beginning reading with systematic synthetic phonics. Then people who watch the videos you flag up note that the children concerned can already read and sometimes show evidence of phonics knowledge and application. When asked about your views of teaching phonics, more often than not phonics does get decried in one way or another by many of the responses of SWI proponents.

    When you accuse people of not being curious, some at least show that they have looked at the various postings, and the research flagged up and watch the videos – they’re also responding to your work and asking questions through their curiosity and willingness to debate about these things even though you don’t like some of these responses. They’re still responses as a result of looking into SWI.

    1. Hi Debbie, I’m just posting a section of an earlier blogpost of mine that explains why I’m criticizing phonics at this same time as discussing the promise of SWI:

      Title: There is little evidence that systematic phonics is better than whole language and other common methods used in schools (and no, this is not evidence for whole language)

      Why question the evidence for systematic phonics?

      Let me start with the second question first: what motivated me to question this claim? I started looking more carefully at evidence in response to the difficulties I had in publishing a paper co-authored with my brother that detailed an alternative to systematic phonics instruction called Structured Word Inquiry or SWI (Bowers and Bowers, 2017; see previous blogpost for brief summary of the main arguments in this paper). I lost count of the number of places the paper was rejected, and what made the process of publishing this paper particularly frustrating is that reviewers repeatedly mischaracterized many of our claims. For example, reviewers consistently criticized us for rejecting fundamental role that phonology plays in reading despite the fact we clearly wrote the opposite, as in the following quote:

      “SWI is motivated by a fundamental insight from linguistics, namely, the English spelling system makes sense when the sublexical constraints of morphology, etymology, and phonology are considered in combination… Consistent with phonics, SWI agrees that it is important to teach sublexical grapheme–phoneme correspondences, but it emphasizes that English spellings are organized around the interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology and that it is not possible to accurately characterize grapheme–phoneme correspondences in isolation of these other sublexical constraints”

      Our impression was that many reviewers did not understand our claims because they did not even try. We still find it hard to get many researchers to engage with the ideas now that they are published. Why? Because so many researchers assume that the case for phonics is settled — the “reading war” is over, phonics won, and it is almost irresponsible of us to question the efficacy of systematic phonics given the continuing resistance to phonics in many schools.

      It was this absolute commitment to systematic phonics that led me to start looking more carefully at the evidence for phonics. And with a critical eye, it does not take long to discover that the case for systematic phonics is weak at best. The case is built on a house of cards, with 1000s of researches citing the NRP (2000), Rose (2006), and multiple additional meta-analyses without understanding what the reports actually show. Indeed, the authors of these reports and meta-analyses often misunderstand their own findings. The disconnect between the claims and evidence are so striking that I ended up writing the long and detailed paper you can download at the following link (Bowers, submitted, https://goo.gl/5SMdXF).

  6. I felt the need to address a couple of points you raise Greg.

    Firstly about the video about the “rain” lesson. Yes this is a school for gifted kids. And yes SOME of the kids can read. But to give your readers more context. It is absolutely the case that a number of the children in this preschool class are not reading yet and yet they get to engage in the lesson because they do have the oral language to be able to do so. So this is an an example of a lesson building on SWI morphological and phonological instruction with children — some of whom can read and others who are not yet readers. And yet, those non-readers are getting explicit instruction in letter names and specific grapheme-phoneme correspondences in the context of a family of related words. A child does not need to be a reader in this class in order to be able to share a word that has “rain” in it, because they have the oral language to think about words like “rains” and “raincoat” and “raining” whether or not they can yet read those words. And when they do so, they are getting valuable explicit instruction about how words they know are related with a base and other elements (affixes and bases) that can be added to those words. They have their attention drawn to common suffixes that can be added to many words. AND while their attention is captured by a group conversation about words they know, they also get to address letter names and grapheme-phoneme correspondences. The one that happens to be captured in this video is the role of the “s suffix” at the end of “rains” and how it is pronounced /z/. It’s not a big deal, it’s just an exposure to a grapheme-phoneme correspondence as a part of this conversation. Since the most common way to write the /z/ phoneme is with the “s” grapheme, I think this is quite helpful to be exposed to from this early age.

    I can also tell you a couple of things about the teacher leading this lesson. After the video was posted, she told me she was disappointed in herself for not spelling out the base “rain” as “r-ai-n”. This is is a standard practice we use in SWI to announce graphemes in the base. It was not that it was required in this lesson to address the “ai” digraph writing the /eɪ/ (“long a”) phoneme – although she certainly could have. It’s just that one way to help kids build automated mental representations for graphemes, is to ensure that kids are exposed to graphemes named as grouped letters. If we here graphemes like “ai” or “th” or “ea” or “ch” or “igh” announced by teachers, and then children are guided to announce those letter sequences as groups, they already have a familiarity for that orthographic structure when a teacher chooses to teach a phoneme it can represent, or it may prompt the child to ask about tit. It’s also not at all a tragedy that she didn’t think of that in the moment! Having seen the video reminded her about this practice that she was trying to take on – and that helps her do it more in the future. Another point that Carolee — the teacher in the video would not mind me sharing is that when I first went to the Nueva school, she thought this work was way too advanced for her children. She said to her principal, “Why would I go to a spelling workshop, I teach pre-school?” I totally understand why people are not used to this instruction in young grades. They certainly rarely have experience seeing it. I offered to go into her class and try some stuff with her kids if she wanted to see. I worked with a small group and we ended up looking at words, and it was spelling them out with digraphs and trigraphs that grabbed their attention. Soon, they were running around he room looking for examples of “th” or “igh” that we fond in the book I read them. Carolee was intrigued and came to the workshop. She has become a passionate practitioner of SWI ever since, and keeps getting stronger every year.

    Secondly, while this is a private school for gifted kids, the reason I point to this video is because it seems to me the conversation being had here is not something that is above an average public school conversation. Is it your sense that the vocabulary with words related to the the base “rain” is too advanced for kids in a lower SES public school? Is there some part of this video where you see language or activities that you think is inappropriately advanced?

    I’ll write about your concern with my example of “action” another time in the string where I posted that issue. For the moment, though, I want to be clear that the lesson I included in that post I presented there as an example of using a morphological context to teach about graphemes was not presented as a page I would give to a class who were not readers. I presented it as a lesson I had used in grade 1 classes, and I showed images of kids in a grade 1 class addressing this exact concept. I would be happy to address the grapheme-phoneme correspondences in morphologically related words like “act” “acting” and “action” with a non-reader if we encountered that family in a book I was reading to the child. But I would not use the pages I linked in that document at that point.

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