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

When I left off last November, I ended Part III of this series with this note:

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.

So how does SWI teach basic written words to novice readers? How does it teach a reader who is encountering the word “cat” for the first time in print how to sound it out?

The guiding principles of SWI, according to Pete Bowers, suggest that sounding out a word is, in fact, not a good way to identify it.

Rather, students should start by looking at the word’s meaning and morphological components.


But if you’ve never seen the word in writing before, how do you know what it means or how it’s built? And how does figuring out how it’s built get you anywhere in the case of basic words like “cat” that are built out of a single morpheme?

Such basic words are beyond the scope of Bower & Bower’s paper; instead they discuss “react.” “React”, they say, exemplifies why morphology comes before sound: it’s in part by recognizing that the “ea” in “react”, unlike the “ea” in “reach”, straddles two morphemes (and therefore isn’t pronounced as a single sound). But how can a child even begin to recognize the presence of the prefix “re” in  “react” until they take a stab at sounding out its component letters?

SWI proponents equivocate about whether sounding out is even a part of the SWI approach, some seeming to renounce this phonics-flavored procedure altogether while instead permitting readers to guess at new words by “spelling them out” (saying the names of their letters). But no approach can hope to address America’s reading woes without clearly and unequivocally showing how it teaches novice readers to identify basic written words they’ve never seen before.

Perhaps feeling some pressure to address this, Pete Powers, since my last writing on this topic, has stated that SWI does, in fact, teach letter-sound (aka grapheme-phoneme) correspondences for basic words. And this past December he released a “video on how SWI explicitly teaches grapheme phoneme correspondences from the start.”

This video, however, raises a number of troubling questions about SWI’s suitability to novice readers. First, it reinforces something that even SWI proponents have admitted: its complete lack of a curriculum or even a scope and sequence (dismissed by some SWI proponents as “scoop and sequins”). The SWI teacher’s M.O. seems to be to take some sort of relatively easy text as a starting point and then to read along with the class until an unfamiliar word comes along. (How this works when the word is familiar to some students but not others is not addressed here). In this video, the hypothetical students are hypothetically familiar with the words “mom”, “says”, “she”, wants”,  “a”, and are only stumped when they reach the word “cat.” The teacher then addresses their bafflement by simply telling them what sounds the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” stand for in the word “cat” and then sounding the word out for them. No active practice, let alone repeated practice, by the students.

Then there’s the question of student engagement. Watching the video, you have to wonder how 5 and 6-year olds could maintain their attention through such an unsystematic, disorganized, and, in places, point-belaboring approach (see the discussion of plural endings starting at 7:00). My kids would have been climbing the walls. It’s also hard to imagine parents choosing this kind of ad hoc inefficiency over a fleshed-out, systematic phonics curriculum. “Here are some letters. One of the things a letter can do is to mark a sound inside of a word. Let’s look!” (an actual quote from an SWI proponent) sounds neither promising nor engaging.

But regardless of what sounds promising, engaging, or efficient, no reading curriculum should be inflicted on America’s flailing readers—no matter how many linguistic credentials it has—without solid efficacy data. In my next post, I’ll return to that oft-cited study that supposedly favors SWI over systematic phonics—Devonshire et al (2013).

One thought on “Is Structured Word Inquiry the answer to America’s reading woes? Part IV

  1. I saw the video mentioned here, and anyone with a basic background in literacy can see that it is very ad hoc how they are claiming to approach beginning readers. Your assessment of the situation is spot on. In fact I have an overview from someone in their group who had a suggested sequence to approach teaching early literacy, and it’s essentially just phonics with some “SWI” sprinkled in earlier than you might get in a standard program. Don’t see what the big deal is here at all, past some rhetoric and cursory research. This type of knowledge has been around in literacy and spelling instruction for a while now.

    Liked by 1 person

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