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.

13 thoughts on “Is Structured Word Inquiry the answer to America’s reading woes? Part III

  1. My daughter had trouble learning to read, and I can’t imagine that being confronted with a confusing block of text bits would have done a thing for her. This looks like one more way to take a somewhat difficult task and make it WAY more difficult and confusing.

    The improvement I’d like to see is the teaching of word roots. This is genuinely useful information that can help you figure out words you’ve never seen before. Why isn’t it taught?


    1. You know, Beth, at no point in Structured Word Inquiry does anyone “confront” a child with “a confusing block of text bits.” That is not a thing. It looks confusing to you because no one has explained how it works, or offered any kind of purpose for it, in this blog post.

      You can *imagine* or *guess* what SWI would be like for your daughter, but in reality, I’ve had exactly the opposite experience in real life countless times, with people just like your daughter: people who are liberated from their confusion and struggle because they can finally see how the language is built.

      You’re 100% right that the study of morphology — or “teaching of word roots” — is key to helping students improve their literacy and language skills across the board. The main reason it doesn’t get taught bis because teachers don’t know it, but that’s really because the Phonics Cartel pretends that phonemes are the only sub lexical structures that exist. They act like morphology is “advanced” rather than the fact that it’s the defining framework for the written language.


      1. When I was in 10th grade 40 years ago, we were taught out of a paperback book called “Word Power Made Easy”. Each “chapter” tackles one or two Greek or Latin roots, prefixes, or suffixes. For example, in the chapter for -phon-, we also got eu- and caco-, so we could make euphony and cacaphony, and we had already had tele- and micro-, so we also got telephone and microphone. Then we could make new words or understand unfamiliar words by breaking them into the pieces we knew. I think the book also had calli- and -pyg- so we had both callipygian and cacopygian. Of course, being teenagers, we all snickered when we got to that part.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Okay, I looked at Katherine’s link. My first impression is that this is the most patient, best-behaved second-grader in the world. She could do this for 45 minutes? Wow. My daughter would have taken the room apart. Secondly, no, I don’t see how this would have helped my daughter. It’s tedious and it’s a mile away from reading something you’d want to read. My daughter was stuck at a very basic level — she needed practice sounding out every letter, left to right. She wasn’t stuck on adding “ed” or “er” to a word. In the part that Katharine highlighted, around 8:30, you see River also having trouble just reading the letters left to right. I think in her case, she’s an extremely compliant, adult-oriented kid, and she thought the teacher was still teaching the “health” related words. I’m also not convinced that River understood everything the teacher said — for instance, “Do we have any evidence for a th suffix?”

    Katharine, what’s going on in your sentence “Teaching roots, morphology, and etymology are great for vocabulary building”?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The more I think about this, the more I wonder what problem we’re trying to solve. I’ve never noticed kids, including my daughter who had some language issues and struggled with reading, having any particular problem with endings like -ed or -s. Is it really such a difficult concept that it’s worth going on about at this length?


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