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.