The decline in reading scores seen in the just-released NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) will amplify the competing claims in our endless reading wars. Some will say we need more Lucy Calkins-based balanced literacy; others will say we need more systematic (analytic or synthetic) phonics. And still others will claim that neither of these approaches is working and that what’s needed is something completely different.
Namely, Structured Word Inquiry.
SWI argues that reading instruction should include not just the grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) correspondences prioritized by phonics programs, but also two other factors that relate more to word meaning: morphology and etymology. Justifying this shift, Bowers and Bowers, in their 2017 article “Beyond Phonics: the Case for Teaching Children the Logic of the English Spelling System,” argue that English spelling is based not just on sound, but also on meaning, and that “literacy instruction should target the way orthography represents the interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology rather than selectively focus on orthography to phonology mappings.” (p. 127).
Taking this a step further, B & B suggest that sound isn’t even the primary factor encoded by English writing: “If the prime purpose of spellings is to encode sounds, we should expect homophonic words to be spelled the same.” (p. 128.) Citing “to”, “too” and “two”, and noting that English has many other such homophones, B & B discuss how these spelling differences can be explained by differences in the words’ etymologies, which amount, ultimately, to the differences in their meanings.
Beyond homophones, B & B point out, there are many other words that phonics-based-approaches fail to explain. For example, 16% of the monosyllabic words in the Children’s Printed Word Database, if one follows a strictly letter-to-sound-based route to reading them, “are mispronounced.” (p. 131).
But if students consider meaning in addition to sound, they can understand these apparent irregularities. For example, the spellings of “sign” and “two” are explained by their morphological (and semantic) relationships to “signature” and “twice.” As an added benefit, if students focus on the meaning-based aspects of spelling, they will purportedly pay more attention than they otherwise would to the meanings of the words they’re reading, and, presumably, comprehend texts more deeply than they would if taught to read via phonics.
Another purported advantage of SWI, in contrast to the exception-riddled phonics-based approaches, is that it organizes content in a principled way that is better suited to assimilation into long-term memory: “memory is best when information is encoded in a meaningful and structure manner.” (125)
Yet another benefit, B & B argue, is SWI’s inquiry-based approach. Integral to SWI are tactics like “explanatory questioning” and “elaborative interrogation and self-explanation,” the former involving “generating plausible explanations as to why some stated fact is true.” (p. 132) Drawing parallels between written words and planetary orbits, B & B discuss how asking students to consider why it takes Neptune longer than Mars to orbit the sun helps them understand and remember the answer. Similarly:
children can be presented with words such as play, playful, plays, plane, playmate, and say and investigate the structure and meaning of these words with word sums and matrices to develop and test [e.g. via etymological dictionaries] hypotheses about which words are from the same morphological family and which are not. (p. 133).
All this, B & B suggest, makes reading instruction not only more effective, but also more fun. Stoking curiosity by having students ask questions and investigate answers surely results in more enjoyable and lively learning than can possibly occur when students are tasked instead with the rote memorization of material that is presented as largely arbitrary and devoid of meaning.
SWI’s more engaging approach, B & B make clear, is grounded in explicit learning: on the conscious acquisition of linguistic and orthographic rules via the generation and testing of hypotheses. While acknowledging the alternative possibility of students learning some English letter patterns implicitly (subconsciously, via frequent exposure), B & B object that this route ignores the morphological patterns that “can easily be taught explicitly.” Implicit approaches to word identification, they suggest, treat spelling as arbitrary, and, “in a completely arbitrary world, no generalization is possible.” (p. 134)
Finally, B & B cite three studies that directly address SWI in particular, though only one of them (Devonshire et al 2013) addresses reading (as opposed to spelling and vocabulary). This study showed improved reading performance for subjects who spent 6 weeks exposed to SWI as opposed to “standard classroom” phonics-based instruction.
So is SWI the answer to the nation’s reading problems? In particular, is it a better alternative to phonics?
Stay tuned for Part II.