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.

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

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.

Oral vs. Written Language–Two Talks on Twitter

In the last 24 hours, I’ve participated in two different but intersecting discussions on Twitter—one on phonics, the other on autism. Their point of intersection: the question of oral vs. written language.

First, Phonics

The phonics discussion was one I couldn’t help jumping into. A distinguished education professor and specialist in reading instruction dismissed someone’s linguistically accurate observations about consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) patterns by telling them they should take a class in linguistics. I’ve taken many classes in linguistics, so I piped in as follows:
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After 100+ autism interviews, it’s time to debrief

I’m finally coming up for air after an intensive autism project funded by National Science Foundation. We had seven weeks to conduct at least 100 interviews–mostly with parents of autistic kids and with autism-focused teachers and therapists. The unrelenting stress of those seven weeks (which also involved weekly homework, lectures, and presentations, two trips to Boston, and a boot-camp ethos throughout) reminded me of the unrelenting stress I felt during the most difficult eras of J’s childhood.

And the difficulty I found in tracking down autism parents made me wonder whether autism is quite the epidemic people say it is.

My specific target was parents of children somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum: kids who can recognize and produce at least a few spoken and written words, but who continue to struggle at least to some extent in putting those words together into grammatical phrases and sentences.

In the end, I spoke with about 40 parents, just barely enough to meet our weekly quotas and not get yelled at. Actually, the fear of being yelled at—funny how that doesn’t fade away with age!—was ultimately a good thing, as it resulted in some really interesting interviews.

Here are my main takeaways (some of these will be familiar to anyone familiar with autism):
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