It is hard to get someone to understand SWI if his/her job (or theory) depends on not understanding it

I’ve been fascinated and frustrated, in equal measure, to the many misrepresentations and misunderstandings of my claims regarding reading instruction, the lack of citations to my published work when obviously relevant, and failures to respond to direct and straightforward questions and challenges.  In the past few blogposts I have detailed examples of all this with regards to my critique on phonics, and here I want to briefly focus on “Structured Word Inquiry” or SWI.

Nate Joseph, the teacher who hosted my recent debate with Kathyn Garforth, had a detailed conversation with my brother Peter Bowers who introduced the term SWI.  I’ve posted links to the conversation below.  Nate is a proponent of phonics, a skeptic of SWI, but against the grain, he seems honestly interested in learning what SWI is about.  And this provides a great context to understand SWI, as Nate has the same questions that so many proponents of phonics have, he repeats some of the common mischaracterizations of SWI, and has difficulty following some fundamental points that go against his core assumptions.  But to his credit, he listens, and Peter does a great job explaining.  If you want to know whether SWI teaches GPCs, how it teaches GPCs, how you can teach SWI from the start, why SWI is not another form of phonics, what is the theoretical motivation of SWI, what are the claims regarding the evidence of SWI, etc., then this is a good place to start.  Yes, it is long, but if you are seriously interested in reading instruction, you are a proponent of phonics, you have been asking about SWI on twitter, then it is time well spent.  If in the future you ask me on twitter: “how does SWI work on day one?”, or any of the above questions, I can just point you to these videos.  Happy to exchange more after that, but first, watch the videos.

Video Part I | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUSPxy55xH4

Video Part II | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7x_LlYL4Z4

4 thoughts on “It is hard to get someone to understand SWI if his/her job (or theory) depends on not understanding it

  1. This was a great idea, Jeff. I’ve just finished watching the videos, which confirm my belief that SWI does a fabulous job when it comes to understanding words and how to spell them but a feeble job teaching children how to read them from day one, especially students with few literacy experiences in the home 0-5. Like many, my district is making the shift away from balanced literacy, and I’ve been co-chairing the ‘best first instruction’ committee. This has allowed me to revisit core models like the simple view of reading and orthographic mapping. The insight I had watching the videos was that what Pete describes as beginning reading instruction with all the analysis and explanations fits nicely with the language comprehension side of the SVR equation rather than the word recognition side. We know how important it is for teachers to read to students and have a ‘serve and return’ discussion–which can include the examples Pete gives with different words containing ‘rain’ or comparisons like ‘small, smaller, smallest’. This is important, no doubt about it. But for beginning reading instruction, I believe combining phonemic awareness with phonics (using phonology and orthography to decode cvc words that are meaningful to the child–cat, dog, mom, dad, etc.) is the most efficient and least taxing when it comes to cognitive load. Then, once the child cracks the code, the morphological explanations provide valuable instruction in word recognition going forward. I like Mark Seidenberg’s take on phonics: Get in, get out, move on. Thanks again for allowing us to see how you and Pete view the reading picture, big and small. This is why we need studies comparing phonics with SWI taught to children with no knowledge of GPC’s.

    1. Hi Harriett, all I can say is that there is little or no empirical evidence for you claims regarding phonics. I keep waiting for some researchers who are expert in the science to respond.

      Well, I will also say that I disagree with your assumption that SWI is not appropriate for initial instruction. I think there is every reason to believe that SWI will improve a child’s motivation, reduce extraneous cognitive load, and lead to better learning (given that learning is best when information can be organized in a meaningful way). But my claims regarding SWI (and yours) need to be tested more.

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