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.