A while back, I debated Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) with one of its proponents, Jeffrey Bowers. You can see the discussion in the comments on this post. One issue seemed odd to me at the time and I will try to explain it.
The post was about a study by Bowers and his colleagues where SWI was compared to ‘motivated reading’ as an intervention for struggling readers. I found this odd because Bowers has expended a great deal of effort trying to dismantle the evidence base for systematic phonics. You would therefore think he would want to compare SWI to systematic phonics but ‘motivated reading’ is not a systematic phonics program.
The fact that SWI and motivated reading had pretty much the same impact therefore tells us little because we are left wondering what the impact of a systematic phonics intervention may have been.
In the comments, Bowers responded that, “group phonics instruction was not appropriate as the children were in years 3 and 5“. It is as if the age of the children matters even though, as I go on to point out, there are plenty of phonics interventions available for older children.
The inverse of this is the Devonshire study that provides some positive evidence for SWI. Bowers’ contention is that SWI, with its emphasis on morphology and etymology alongside letter-sound relationships, is a suitable alternative to systematic phonics from the very beginning of reading instruction. And yet the students in the Devonshire study were not beginning readers and had already received between one and two years of a form of phonics instruction.
Again, this seems of little importance to Bowers who suggested, “SWI worked for 5-7 year olds. If you are happy with that, me too.”
Why does the age of students matter in this way? If an eight-year-old does not understand letter-sound relationships then why would an intervention to address this be inappropriate? If a child is five years old and already knows at least some letter sound relationships then this is not the beginning of reading, right?
If you accept the simple view of reading, as many reading researchers do to a greater or lesser extent, then you see reading as being the product of two factors – oral language comprehension and the ability to turn the squiggles on a page into words familiar from oral language. If you cannot do the latter, it does not matter what age you are.
I was still puzzled by this argument when Debbie Hepplewhite drew attention on Twitter to the phonics guidance produced by England’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and this section on older students:
“For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach, or that these students have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target.”
This seems to assume that older struggling readers have previously been exposed to a high quality systematic phonics program. I don’t think we can assume that at all. At the very least, the EEF should be suggesting some diagnostic tests to figure out whether students know their letter-sound relationships before jumping to conclusions.
As for the suggested interventions, teaching reading comprehension strategies may provide a limited boost to reading comprehension but they are no panacea. In my experience, most children are likely to already have ample instruction in these strategies but I will take my own advice and not assume this. If letter-sound relationships are assessed and are not a problem then reading comprehension strategies are a good bet.
As for ‘meta-cognition and self-regulation’ – what can I say? The EEF seem obsessed with this grab-bag of approaches such as Philosophy for Children – “is it OK to hit a teddy bear?” – and explicit writing interventions that they have arbitrarily grouped together.
However, in sum, these two different sources perhaps demonstrate the emergence of a worrying fallacy that age is a guide to what kind of reading instruction a child needs.
This is false. As ever, the instruction a child needs is determined by an assessment of what they know and can do now.