Is Structured Word Inquiry the answer to America’s reading woes? Part III

What B & B present as SWI’s greatest feature—the excitement of an explicit, inquiry-based approach to word recognition, is, arguably, its greatest liability. The more a child’s conscious attention is directed to the morphological structures and etymologies of individual words, the less room it has to attend to the overall meanings of phrases and sentences. The whole point of reading instruction is for word identification to quickly become automatic, and learning by rote what phonics presents as irregularities is arguably a more efficient pathway than deliberating generating hypotheses and tests for each newly encountered word.


After all, when it comes to reading, word identification is a means to an end; not an end in and of itself. Given this, the parallel B & B draw between acquiring reading skills and acquiring astronomy knowledge is faulty: if I want to learn astronomy, I want to be able to read an astronomy textbook without being bogged down and distracted by morphological word families and etymological histories. Indeed, even if I’m reading a book about morphology and etymology (a better analogy to an astronomy class is a linguistics class!), I still don’t want to get bogged down by a possibly ingrained habit of attending to the morphological and etymological properties of every single word I’m reading in the process.

And even if a phonics-based approach to reading, complete with the rote learning of what phonics considers irregularities, is a lot less fun than SWI, mastery of the process makes reading a lot less effortful a lot more quickly. Reduced effort, in turn, frees the mind for greater engagement with the actual content of texts than what is possible via SWI’s approach to word recognition.

It’s worth noting at this point that children are especially good at the rote learning of irregularities: look no further than language acquisition. The morphological building blocks of language—those roots, prefixes, and suffixes—involve arbitrary mappings between spoken sound and semantic meaning, and children are famously expert in “fast mapping” these correspondences. Compared to the number of arbitrary mappings that children learn in acquiring spoken language, the number of arbitrary mappings that they must learn once they’ve advanced to phonics is minuscule. Recall, again, the commonalities of “to”, “too” and “two” vs the chaos of “togh”, “gar” and “blim.”

B & B’s criticism of implicit approaches to word identification, recall, is that “in a completely arbitrary world, no generalization is possible.” But through the prism of phonics, for all the letter patterns it treats as exceptions, the English writing system is far from chaotic.

Could SWI still be a viable alternative route to reading–offering, for all the downsides of explicit hypothesis generation–a strategy that’s superior to phonics, at least for some students?

When it comes to the viability of SWI, particularly for novice readers encountering unfamiliar printed words, the devil is in the details. Stay tuned for part IV.

Is Structured Word Inquiry the answer to America’s reading woes? Part II

So is SWI the answer to the nation’s reading problems? In particular, is it a better alternative to phonics?

Let’s first return to biggest purported problem with phonics—namely, its inability to handle what it calls spelling irregularities. Let’s look, in particular, at the difficulty purportedly posed by homophones like “to”, “too”, and “two.” B & B claim that “If the prime purpose of spellings is to encode sounds, we should expect homophonic words to be spelled the same.” (p. 128). And “to”, “too”, and “two” are certainly not spelled the same. But neither are they spelled completely differently. They are not, for example, spelled “togh”, “gar” and “blim”. As even a cursory comparison of “to”, “too”, and “two” makes clear, their spellings have more commonalities than differences—precisely because these spellings are largely (and arguably primarily) based on their pronunciations. Indeed, all sets of homophones overlap significantly in the details of their spellings—some minimally (“heal”, “heel”; “grown”, “groan”).

It’s also worth noting that, while B & B are correct that English has many (indeed hundreds of) homophones, the overwhelming majority of English words aren’t members of homophone families.

The other big problem with phonics, according to SWI, is that it overlooks that spellings encode meaning as well as sound. But how big a problem is this when it comes to actual comprehension? After all, we have no difficulty understanding spoken language. When we hear a word that sounds like “sign” or “sine”, context tells us whether it denotes a street sign or a trigonometric function. Generally, homophones disambiguate through context. True, students routinely have trouble when it comes to spelling common homophones—confusions of “there”, “their”, and “they’re” are as ubiquitous as they are alarming—but this is not an issue for reading. No student is going to misread “they’re” simply because they often misspell it as “their.”

What about all those common monosyllabic words with irregular spellings? Yes, if one follows a strictly letter-to-sound-based route one will theoretically mispronounce them. But are these the sorts of words that are commonly mispronounced by actual children? How many children, even if all they’ve had for reading instruction is SWI-free phonics, persist in mispronouncing “do” as “doe”, “are” as “air”, “though” as “thoug”, “laugh” as “log” or “react” and “reekt”? As B & B note, it’s the high frequency words that tend to be irregular in their phonics (and also, I would add, in their morphology): this makes them especially suitable to implicit learning mechanisms (subconscious learning through high frequency exposure). Does SWI, with its non-implicit framework, really have a more efficient way of teaching their correct pronunciations? I’ll return to this question later on.

Furthermore, even when such words are mispronounced, the mispronunciations often provide sufficient clues as to their actual pronunciations. A child who reads “Do you want a cookie” as “Doe yow wannt ay kookie?” on the first pass may well be able to self-correct—and, through repeated trials, internalize those corrections to the point where they automatically override the mispronunciations.

Beyond the purported downsides of phonics, what about what some proclaim as SWI’s greatest feature: the excitement of an explicit, inquiry-based approach to word-recognition?


Stay tuned for Part III.

Is Structured Word Inquiry the answer to America’s reading woes?

The decline in reading scores seen in the just-released NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) will amplify the competing claims in our endless reading wars. Some will say we need more Lucy Calkins-based balanced literacy; others will say we need more systematic (analytic or synthetic) phonics. And still others will claim that neither of these approaches is working and that what’s needed is something completely different.

Namely, Structured Word Inquiry.

SWI argues that reading instruction should include not just the grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) correspondences prioritized by phonics programs, but also two other factors that relate more to word meaning: morphology and etymology. Justifying this shift, Bowers and Bowers, in their 2017 article “Beyond Phonics: the Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System,” argue that English spelling is based not just on sound, but also on meaning, and that “literacy instruction should target the way orthography represents the interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology rather than selectively focus on orthography to phonology mappings.” (p. 127).

Taking this a step further, B & B suggest that sound isn’t even the primary factor encoded by English writing: “If the prime purpose of spellings is to encode sounds, we should expect homophonic words to be spelled the same.” (p. 128.) Citing “to”, “too” and “two”, and noting that English has many other such homophones, B & B discuss how these spelling differences can be explained by differences in the words’ etymologies, which amount, ultimately, to the differences in their meanings.

Beyond homophones, B & B point out, there are many other words that phonics-based-approaches fail to explain. For example, 16% of the monosyllabic words in the Children’s Printed Word Database, if one follows a strictly letter-to-sound-based route to reading them, “are mispronounced.” (p. 131).

But if students consider meaning in addition to sound, they can understand these apparent irregularities. For example, the spellings of “sign” and “two” are explained by their morphological (and semantic) relationships to “signature” and “twice.” As an added benefit, if students focus on the meaning-based aspects of spelling, they will purportedly pay more attention than they otherwise would to the meanings of the words they’re reading, and, presumably, comprehend texts more deeply than they would if taught to read via phonics.

Another purported advantage of SWI, in contrast to the exception-riddled phonics-based approaches, is that it organizes content in a principled way that is better suited to assimilation into long-term memory: “memory is best when information is encoded in a meaningful and structure manner.” (125)

Yet another benefit, B & B argue, is SWI’s inquiry-based approach. Integral to SWI are tactics like “explanatory questioning” and “elaborative interrogation and self-explanation,” the former involving “generating plausible explanations as to why some stated fact is true.” (p. 132) Drawing parallels between written words and planetary orbits, B & B discuss how asking students to consider why it takes Neptune longer than Mars to orbit the sun helps them understand and remember the answer. Similarly:

children can be presented with words such as play, playful, plays, plane, playmate, and say and investigate the structure and meaning of these words with word sums and matrices to develop and test [e.g. via etymological dictionaries] hypotheses about which words are from the same morphological family and which are not. (p. 133).


All this, B & B suggest, makes reading instruction not only more effective, but also more fun. Stoking curiosity by having students ask questions and investigate answers surely results in more enjoyable and lively learning than can possibly occur when students are tasked instead with the rote memorization of material that is presented as largely arbitrary and devoid of meaning.

SWI’s more engaging approach, B & B make clear, is grounded in explicit learning: on the conscious acquisition of linguistic and orthographic rules via the generation and testing of hypotheses. While acknowledging the alternative possibility of students learning some English letter patterns implicitly (subconsciously, via frequent exposure), B & B object that this route ignores the morphological patterns that “can easily be taught explicitly.” Implicit approaches to word identification, they suggest, treat spelling as arbitrary, and, “in a completely arbitrary world, no generalization is possible.” (p. 134)

Finally, B & B cite three studies that directly address SWI in particular, though only one of them (Devonshire et al 2013) addresses reading (as opposed to spelling and vocabulary). This study showed improved reading performance for subjects who spent 6 weeks exposed to SWI as opposed to “standard classroom” phonics-based instruction.

So is SWI the answer to the nation’s reading problems? In particular, is it a better alternative to phonics?

Stay tuned for Part II.

Blackboard shmlackboard


There. I’ve said it.


This fall my department has purchased a new, online grammar-practice program that has to be integrated with Blackboard. Integrated by each individual adjunct, not in one fell swoop by the college.

In theory, the program is a good idea. We need a grammar-practice program, and if the new one we’ve got were on paper I would be ecstatic.

But it’s not on paper. It’s online.

And it has to be integrated.

As horrifying as that prospect sounded to my ears, I have, amazingly, managed to integrate the new program with Blackboard completely on my own, sans any instruction or help-desk help whatsoever.

But now that integration has been achieved, I have to deal with Blackboard, a task I’ve avoided for years. I’ve always used a class blog with no log-in, no password, no winding, multiply-nested, counterintuitive pathways to whatever you’re looking for, and easy to find on Google to boot. I could send out a class email with a single, solitary link, and with one click my students were exactly where they needed to be, not on a landing page with a mile-long menu bar in need of perusing.

These days, though, most of my students seem to have gotten used to Blackboard, and would like to see class content on Blackboard.

So Blackboard it is.

Thus far I’ve spent …. is it 2 hours now (?) …. dealing with Blackboard, at the end of which I have  successfully loaded a picture of myself.

I experienced a ray of hope when I came across a page informing me that I can receive in-person Blackboard training here in the town where I live. Wow! That would be a huge help, and efficient, too.

But the appointment link is broken.

And why not?

There’s no other means of reaching the promised live-instruction humans, no email, no phone number. Just a dead link and another problem to troubleshoot. Maybe YouTube will have a video.

Then there are the grammar exercises themselves, which, albeit integrated with Blackboard, continue to reside on their own site.

Which is a labyrinth. Page after page after indecipherable page, with links that aren’t located in obvious places and aren’t labeled with obvious terms.

So yesterday I spent two hours on the phone with the publisher’s tech person.

She was a saint.

By the end I was so frustrated I could hear myself becoming cranky and short, something I try never to be on the phone. Or in person, either, but somehow short and cranky seems like worse behavior on the phone with a complete stranger who is only trying to do her job.

The phone connection didn’t help.

“Could you say that again?”

“Could you say that a little louder?”

“I’m having trouble hearing you, could you talk a little louder, please?”

Which gradually gave way to modal-free eruptions like —

“I don’t know what you just said.”

And to modal-free, one-word responses like:

“Can you hear me better now?”


Another problem: half the site’s pages seemed to be named the same thing, so the customer service person and I had recurring episodes of thinking we were looking at the same page when we weren’t.

Throughout all this my interlocutor remained calm, friendly, and encouraging, finally confiding in me that the site is indeed hard to use but it gets easier after you do it for a while.

One useful piece of information I picked up: if I want to build my own test, I can’t use the “Test Builder” function to do it.

Good to know!

Test Builder doesn’t build tests. That I’m going to remember clear as a bell next time I work up enough nerve to attempt a feat of online test-building.

The Test-Builder-doesn’t-build-tests rule reminds me of our old campus system, which required us to change passwords every 90 days.

When you got to the change-password page, there were 2 options: one that said “Change Password” and another whose legend I’ve forgotten.

If you clicked on “Change Password,” it locked you out of the system.

I didn’t realize till today, thinking about it, what an oddity that was.

Aside from the obvious illogic of “Change Password” meaning “Lock me out of the system,” why would you have a “Lock me out of the system” feature anyway?

When does anyone want to be locked out of a system?

Do people ever want to be locked out of their car or their house?

Or their office website?

Has Lock myself out of the system ever appeared on anyone’s to-do list, ever?




I wrote this post at least a week ago, thinking I’d edit the next day, then didn’t get to it.

Between then and now I’ve made friends with Blackboard.

It’s a pretty easy site to navigate, as work sites go (and I dealt with a doozy last summer–or with what I took to be a doozy given my blessedly limited experience of workplace websites.)

Meanwhile the online grammar exercises, which my students are actually doing (!!), need  a user manual.

The Economist saves the best for last

A particularly shocking example of sentence end focus in a tweet from The Economist:

If you were wanting evidence that English readers actually do stress the end of a sentence, take a look at reaction to this tweet. Everyone reads it the same way: environment first, poor people second.

Seems clear readers would have been a lot happier if editors had flipped the sequence:

More poor people are eating meat around the world. That is bad news for the environment, but it means the poor will live longer, healthier lives.

And see:
Greetings from the West Bank
End focus, part 2
Greenbaum & Nelson on sentence end focus

Bullet journals and barking dogs

Just saw this in a New Yorker story on bullet journals:

He started writing down his thoughts in short bursts throughout the day and found that it calmed him, allowing him to see past his anxieties to their root causes. “When there’s a barking dog outside, you can’t hear anything else,” he told me recently, by way of analogy. “But when you go to the window you realize there might be something wrong, you think about it, you get the context. It’s barking at something. You actually get up and look. And, for me, writing is that process.”

The dog is barking at something. I love that.

Of course, in my own case, what with the two American Labs who weren’t bred to be “lifestyle dogs” and all, the real trick is training my adrenal glands not to launch a tsunami of cortisol every time the dogs explode into a frenzy of barking and hardwood-floor scrabbling over nothing at all.

I have an extremely reactive startle reflex. Medical science can do nothing to help (I’ve asked).

So the dogs we live with–Luke and Lucy–are the exact wrong dogs on that score. Roughly once a day I have the same bodily reaction to my own pets that I would to being caught in crossfire in Syria, say, or Yemen. Except there are no guns and no enemy combatants, quite apart from the fact that there is nothing in the yard that needs barking at. 

Keeping a bullet journal, which I do, doesn’t help with any of this, sad to say. I already know, as I’m jumping out of my skin, what the context is and whether there’s anything either I or my insane dogs actually need to worry about. 

There isn’t.