Discussion with Scott Mills

Educational neuroscience, phonics, and a more promising way to teach reading

Here I post a recent discussion I had with Scott Mills regarding educational neuroscience and reading instruction, topics that relate to Bowers (2016) and Bowers and Bowers (2017).

The basic point I make is that if you want to improve English reading instruction you don’t need to understand the brain (educational neuroscience bad), but you do need to understand the English writing system. Unfortunately, almost no one does. English is not an alphabetic system in which letters are designed to represent phonemes (as assumed by proponents of phonics), rather it is morphophonemic, with English spellings representing both phonology and meaning. As the famous linguist Venezky (1967) put it:

“The simple fact is that the present orthography is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but instead, a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles”.

I argue that this motivates another form of instruction called Structured Word Inquiry where children are taught the logic of their writing system given that the system is well organized and makes sense.

Very briefly, to illustrate the morphophonemic nature of the English spelling system, consider the morphological families associated with the bases <act>, <do>, and <go> in the Figure below. The spellings of the bases are consistent across all members of the morphological families despite pronunciation shifts (e.g., acting vs. action; do vs. does; go vs. gone). Or consider the consistent spelling of the <-ed> suffix in <jumped>, <played>, and <painted> despite the fact that <-ed> is associated with the pronunciations /t/, /d/ and /ɪd/, respectively.


These are not cherry-picked examples: English prioritizes the consistent spelling of morphemes over the consistent spellings phonemes. Indeed, in order, to spell morphemes in a consistent manner it is necessary to have inconsistent (or perhaps a better term is ‘flexible’) letter-sound correspondences. A language that prioritizes the consistent spelling of morphemes over phonemes is not alphabetic, and it raises questions about teaching methods that ignore this structure. For example, once you understand the system, it seems crazy to call the word <goes> regular and <does> irregular, as is done in phonics. Go to the above link if you would like to hear a bit more, and the papers if you would like to read a lot more.

Also, I highly recommend you go to Scott Mills website ‘Language InnerViews for Educators‘ where he has interviews with many prominent researchers on the topic of education and language, including Steven Pinker, Morten Christiansen, Timothy Shanahan, Mark Aronoff, Holly Shapiro, and of course, my brother Peter.  And of course, any comments on the papers/interview more than welcome!

I just posted the following response to an interesting blogpost by Pamila Snow. It is closely related to this topic, so I thought I would include here as well.

Dear Pamila, I agree with some of what you say in your most recent blogpost, but your statement in following passage is fundamentally misguided:

“I would also like advocates such as Professor Ewing to explain why, if reading is all about meaning from the start, five year olds are sent home with lists of de-contextualised sight-words to somehow magically learn by rote. The equivalent task would be giving adults a list of wing-dings to learn as stand-alone units of meaning”.

It is also frustrating given that proponents of phonics so often characterize spelling-meaning correspondences are arbitrary. To give another recent example, Taylor et al. (2017) compared phonics vs. meaning-based forms of instruction in an artificial learning study, and in their artificial language, the letter-sound correspondences were systematic, and spelling-meaning correspondences were arbitrary. And based on the finding that adults learned better in the phonics condition they write:

“For alphabetic scripts, this means teaching the systematicities that exist in print-to-sound mappings for both consistent and inconsistent words, not teaching arbitrary print-to-meaning mappings, which will be difficult to learn for all words.”

But this is a mischaracterization of the English spelling system, and a mischaracterization of how meaning-based forms of instruction can be designed. In fact, English is a morphophonemic system that prioritizes the consistent spelling of meaning (morphemes) over the consistent spellings phonemes, and this means that meaning-based forms of instruction do not have to consist of giving adults or children “…a list of wing-dings to learn as stand-alone units of meaning”. Bowers and Bowers (2017) describe the logic of the English spelling system in the following paper, and we detail how children can be taught the logic of their writing system (an approach as far as possible as memorizing wing-dings). You can find the paper here.

And here is a response to the Taylor et al. paper (2017) that characterize meaning-based forms of instruction as equivalent to learning a “list of wing-dings to learn as stand-alone units of meaning”.

Would be interested to hear any responses.


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