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.

word_matrix_3

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?

word_matrix_2

Stay tuned for Part III.

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

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).

sign_word_matrix

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.

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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Do all children learn differently?

1. No, they don’t

First of all, I agree with Emily Hanford’s tweet: our brains are much more similar than different.

The way I think about this is to ask myself whether evolution would be likely to create many, many millions of creatures who all, every last one of them, learn differently. 

Do all goats learn differently?

Do all birds learn differently?

All fish?

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Do gifted readers exist?

With math, giftedness is obvious (I think).

Is it the same thing with reading and writing? 

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born, the last of three children, on Sept. 15, 1890, to the former Clarissa Boehmer (known as Clara), who was susceptible to fads and spiritualism, and Frederick Miller, a jolly idler whose death in 1901 left the family in reduced circumstances. This being an era when cutting back, for the middle-class Millers, meant renting out their Torquay house and decamping to Paris and Cairo. Childhood education was sporadic. Clara disapproved of formal schooling and of children learning to read before the age of 8, so her daughter taught herself. “I’m afraid Miss Agatha can read, ma’am,” the nanny announced apologetically when the girl was just 4.

Agatha Christie’ Review: The Queen of the Cozy by Anna Mundow | Wall Street Journal |  3/2/2018