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

At this point, with five recent SWI critiques from Greg Ashman, writing yet one more myself feels like beating a dead horse. In terms of SWI publications, much of Ashman’s criticism has focused on a paper that has come out since I started this series: Bowers’ recent paper “Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction“. Ashman’s criticisms are quite thorough, and I have nothing to add to them.

Instead, I’ll return to the older Devonshire et al (2013) paper—a paper that discusses efficacy data that supposedly favors SWI over phonics. This paper compares 1st and 2nd graders who spent 6 weeks exposed to 15-25 minutes daily of SWI as opposed to those got “standard classroom” phonics instruction, and finds that the SWI intervention improves word reading scores. While this is reasonable grounds for further investigation, it’s far from the kind of study needed to justify a replacement of systematic phonics with SWI. For one thing, all of the students in the study received phonics instruction in addition to SWI. For another, the comparison involved an instructional time frame of only 6 weeks. Finally, the “standard classroom” phonics being compared to SWI can mean just about anything, including watered-down, unsystematic phonics instruction of the sort that has failed many kids over many years.

To answer the question of whether systematic phonics should be replaced with SWI, what’s needed is a multi-year comparison of students who receive only SWI instruction (with no additional phonics) with a bona fide systematic phonics program. What’s needed, that is, is the kind of study seen in Project Follow Through, in which Siegfried Engelmann’s phonics-based Direct Instruction program was the hands-down winner.


Interestingly, there’s no mention of either Engelmann or of Direct Instruction anywhere in Bower & Bower’s papers.

Some SWI supporters argue that the lack of efficacy data doesn’t matter because SWI is an inherently scientific approach: after all, it’s all about students generating and testing hypotheses. But that fact does not make it a scientifically grounded way to teach reading. Indeed, there is plenty of reason to doubt that such a deliberative, conscious, rule-based approach is an efficient pathway towards the kind of automaticity that should be the goal of every word-recognition pedagogy (Cf the distinctions between System 2 and System 2 learning, and Greg Ashman’s last SWI post, addressing cognitive load issues in SWI).

No one is claiming that phonics by itself is all that’s needed by America’s elementary school English and Language Arts classes. Indeed, for spelling and vocabulary building, attention to morphology and etymology can be extremely useful. I’m a terrible speller, and I routinely use etymology-based mnemonics to guide me. (Just the other day I found myself referencing “health” to decide between “heal” and “heel.”)

Nor is “phonics” enough, in many cases, for many kids to master phonics. Many so-called “phonics” programs are highly watered down, highly unsystematic, and impaired by counterproductive strategies like various forms of word-guessing.

Nor is phonics enough for reading mastery. A huge component of reading is comprehension, and comprehension scores have flat-lined. But this isn’t because real phonics ignores meaning or is otherwise ineffective. Nor is it because, in grouping together words that rhyme but are morphologically and etymologically unrelated (“fat”, “cat”, “sat”, “mat”, “rat”…) phonics somehow (as one SWI proponent has claimed) confuses kids about conceptual categories.

Rather, what’s depressing reading comprehensions skills are current trends in both education and reading habits. Even when students get sufficient phonics instruction, they are generally reading less and less, reading easier books, and reading them with the ever increasing distractions brought by screens and social media. Schools, meanwhile, continue to prioritizing “21st century skills” and real-life relevance over novel, fact-rich content. The result is that kids are increasingly deficient in the vocabulary and background knowledge necessary for making sense of what they read—and (as textbooks dumb down their prose and minimize sentence complexity) in their ability to handle complex syntactic structures.

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

  1. “as textbooks dumb down their prose and minimize sentence complexity”

    I would be happy with a dumbed down textbook. The next trend on the horizon is for there to be no textbooks at all. My county has almost finished extirpating them from its elementary schools.


  2. “… SWI is an inherently scientific approach: after all, it’s all about students generating and testing hypotheses….”

    If this were an efficient way to teach, one might expect it to be an especially efficient way to teach, say, science. But except in the context of teaching scientific methods, it isn’t used for that purpose at all. With a bit of thought, it should be apparent that real progress in science is the result of the occasional genius figuring out a path through the darkened maze that is physics (or chemistry, or biology, …). A well-run science class will use demonstrations, because they can aid memory, focus the mind, and be really fun, too.

    But it’s not like we expect students to start from the assumption of the luminiferous aether, intuit that such a substrate would likely have movement relative to an observer (which inference arises from the assumption that there is some preferred rest frame), and then create and perform some version of the Michelson-Morley experiment to falsify that assumption. A decent teacher might well talk about that process, since students, especially bright students, are likely to make many of the same logical errors that their equally bright predecessors made. Real progress in science is only possible through inspiration and the scientific method, but learning is not the same as pushing the boundaries of the known..

    Similarly, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is the work of a set of brilliant linguists dedicating their lives to progress in the description of the language. Why would anyone assume that their work could be substantially replicated in a 7th grade English class by nearly every student in every school in the US?

    Pedagogy and research are fundamentally different, precisely because learning from someone else’s successes is so much easier than constructing a coherent intellectual structure from scratch.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s