Response to the the 10/26/18 New York Time article, “Why are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”

Response to the the 10/26/18 New York Time article, Why are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”and Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?(APM Reports)

Teaching students about the connection between oral and written language is one of several critical components of reading instruction.  Students in Grades K-2 need to receive systematic and explicit instruction, whether analytic. synthetic or other phonic program, in the graphemes (letter or letter teams) that represent the 44 phonemes or sounds of the English language.  Some students may learn to read without this direct instruction but approximately a third of students will not.  Therefore, systematic and explicit instruction needs to be a part of every K-2 core curriculum.  There also needs to be frequent assessments, both formal and informal, that monitor progress so that instruction may be responsive to student needs during these critical grades.

As a Reading Specialist who has years of experience teaching students to read, the question is not if phonics should be taught but how.  How should phonics be taught in the classroom?   In the NY Times article, the answer to “how” seems to be Dr. Lousa Moats’ LETRS program.

I think such programs can be helpful, especially if teachers and administrators do not have a deep understanding of how to teach reading but nothing replaces a teacher’s deep understanding of how written and oral language works together.

We must also keep in mind that teaching reading can be big business for those companies that make money off of pre-packaged programs and teacher training, such as LETRS and Wilson.  A thoughtful, experienced and knowledgeable teacher will always be able to adapt whatever materials or curriculum in order to personalize instruction to meet student needs.

A knowledgeable teacher could design their own phonics/spelling scope and sequence based on decoding and spelling errors in the classroom. There is also promising research around an approach called Structured Word Inquiry (SWI, Bowers & Kirby, 2010) that layers meaning (morphology) and history (etymology) onto the teaching of the traditional sound/symbol relationships.  SWI rejects the common notion of irregular spellings and sight words and argues that English spelling makes perfect sense.  It also rejects the term “phonics”, preferring to use the more linguistically correct term, “orthographic phonology.” Structured Word Inquiry teaches orthographic phonology – which is the grapheme/phoneme correspondences- but also teaches the “why.”  Why is there a <w> in two?  Why is there not a <tion> suffix?  Hint: act + ion —> action  Why is there a <g>in <sign>.  The answers to these questions emerge through inquiry and the inter-relationship of orthographic phonology, morphology and etymology.

Although impactful evidence for systematic phonics instruction above Grade 2 has not been shown, common sense indicates that instruction continue to be provided in phonics or orthographic phonology, if you are a SWI disciple, as indicated by student assessment (spelling and/or decoding errors).

I would maintain that Structured Word Inquiry could be seen as “systematic and explicit” at all grades.  First, I would administer benchmark assessments to determine reading, decoding and spelling abilities. Since it uses an inquiry approach, I would, as the teacher, “map” what has been taught based on student or teacher inquiry in my plan book or on my living curriculum map.  I would like to develop a digital Structured Word Inquiry curriculum map that gives an overview of what is taught through SWI and that I could attach matrixes, class charts and student work (spelling out loud videos, pre-post writing and spelling samples that demonstrate the teaching and learning.)  Also, it would be helpful to develop case studies of student progress within a SWI framework.

What is to be commended from the article and the documentary is that an educational community came together to better meet the needs of the students learning to read.  Taking time to focus on improving reading outcomes for students through thoughtful inquiry and study is extremely important and should be a hallmark of every school community and teacher preparation program. I can’t agree about some of the claims made about the role of phonics in balanced literacy or the best approach to teaching phonics but we can all agree that sound/symbol relationships must be explicitly taught and that we should work together in our educational communities to thoughtfully inquire, research and update our practice so that we may best teach ALL students how to read.

Structured Word Inquiry: Adding Meaning and History to Phonics Instruction

“Structured Word Inquiry”, developed by Peter Bowers and John Kirby (2010), adds layers of meaning, history and critical thinking to traditional phonics and spelling instruction. It’s also a protocol for deep understanding of content area vocabulary.  Done well, it allows teachers and students to uncover the stories behind words by understanding the history of the word and how spelling and meaning has changed through time.


SWI starts with a hypothesis.  It takes any word or words and begins to explore by asking 4 questions:  (from Teaching How the Written Word Worksby Peter Bowers)


Stuck on a Spelling?

Investigate with these questions…

  1. What does the word mean?
  2. How is it built? (Build word sums.  Can you peel off any affixes?  Refer to suffixing flow charts for suffixing changes.)
  1. What other related words can you think of? Morphological Links: Use the Word Searcher to find word connected by the base. Etymological links: Look up word origins to find words related to the root of your word.
  1. What are the sounds that matter(What grapheme/phoneme correspondences can you find that fit in your hypothesized morphemes?)

There are two types of SWI: Teacher-Led Inquiry(teacher selects topic or concept to investigate and guides students established strategies) or Inquiry-LedTeaching (a question arises during class and teacher models established strategies for investigating spelling questions.) (Bowers, 2006, 2009, 2013).

SWI in Action: A Teacher-Led Inquiry during Guided Reading

Molly (not her real name), a 4thGrade dyslexic student, was reading The Vegetarian Dragon during our individual tutoring session.  During the reading, she miscued on the word <ventured>, pronouncing it something like <vented>. My next step in a SWI-based lesson would be to ask her to spell the word out loud.  This spelling, if Molly was familiar with all the elements in the word would be announced like this: “v-e-n-t—ure—ed.  This spelling would immediately allow me understand what Molly knew about the graphemes, morphemes and phonemes represented in this word.

( Note that letter digraphs would be announced as a unit.  For example, <bird> would be announced “b-ir-d.”  Prefixes and suffixes are announced quickly, as one unit, as in “un—h-e-l-p—ful—ly”, with bases spelled out as in h-e-l-p.)

See the sheet below for a look at how I guided Molly through the 4 questions:

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I hadn’t known that spelling-out-loud could be incorporated into reading at the time, so instead I made a note of the miscue and created the chart above, based on Scott Mill’s Adapted Frayer  SWI Framework, for our next class.

Molly was captivated by the chart and took great delight in spelling-out the word sums and later, writing-out-loud the word sums on a whiteboard.

Over the next few reading conference and with continued writing-out-loud and spelling-out loud activities, Molly correctly identified not only ventured during reading, but related words like adventurous and venturing, indicating learning transfer.



This is just the briefest of introductions to Structured Word Inquiry and I hope that I have conveyed the promise and the power of this practice so that you may decide to investigate SWI for yourself.

Last year, I took an online class on SWI with Mary Beth Stevens, a talented 5thGrade teacher and SWI practitioner.   It was very exciting to see the depth of knowledge evidenced by her students about not only words but vowel and suffixing conventions.  This year, I am taking a class with the generous and brilliant Peter Bowers. Thanks to the class, I am refining my understandings of SWI, especially related to the power of spelling-out-loud and writing-out-loud.  I highly recommend both classes.  I am getting so much out of Peter Bowers class and I think it is because I had a solid introduction to SWI through Mary Beth Stevens’ class.

Resources for getting Started with Structured Word Inquiry:

Structured Word Inquiry and Pete Bowers has a wonderfully informative website:

This is an excellent article that highlights how SWI combines meaning, history and explicit phonics instruction:…/Teaching_base_words.pdf 

Mary Beth Stevens’ blog, including her thoughtful and highly recommended article, Outer Beauty Attracts but Inner Beauty Captivates:

Geared for younger students, Lyn Anderson’s blog has many wonderful examples of supporting Structured Word Inquiry using word bags and word webs:
















BookJoy: Making a Difference


IMG_4137I had such a hard decision to make recently!  Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Reunion and Bank Street Book Fest were on the same day!  Both offer such amazing professional development opportunities for teachers!  I decided to attend the TC Reunion but only after I realized that I could get a list of the featured “Book Discussion” books for the Bank Street Bookfest here.

So excited to peruse this wonderful list last week and find most of the books at my local library.  Here are my five favorites:

We Rise We Resist We Raise Our Voices

Edited by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson

Have you been wondering how to address the very tumultuous and frequently unkind and insensitive rhetoric that has overtaken the political and news realms? Have you wondered how to address your child’s or your student’ fears about the threats to civility or to to our environment or the many other concerns that are seeping  have into their consciousness from the gestalt of life in 2018?

If so, both you and your children or students will find comfort in this book.  It is a beautiful collection of over 50 letters, poems, stories and gorgeous artworks that will help us all address our present day challenges by pondering the advice offered by those who have lived through their own challenges.

This book is almost too beautiful to describe in its power and its many homages to resilience and perseverance.  It does remind us all about the dark days that people in our world have seen and survived, bearing the scars but also the story about how they found their way.

So many gems here including Pat Cummings, “We’ve Got You,” and Marilyn Nelson’s “It Helps to Look at Old Front Page Headlines.”  This is a book you will savor and reach for again and again because it is so true and so inspiring.  Browse the initial pages here.


Her Right Foot

By Dave Eggers.  Art by Shawn Harris.

If you thought you knew everything about the Statue of Liberty, I bet you didn’t know about Lady Liberty’s right foot!  This is a book for every classroom, especially as we, as a country grapple with immigration.  A light-hearted yet profound book.


Grandad Mandela 

By Zazi, Zibeline & Zindzi Mandela.  Illustrated by Sean Qualls

This biography of the great Nelson Mandela is told in a question and answer format between Zazi, the daughter of Nelson Mandela, and Ziwelene and Zindzi, his grandchildren.  A perfect mentor text for any leadership or biography study.

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe

By Megumi Iwasha.  Illustrations by Jun Takabatake

This charming beginning chapter book begs to be read aloud and shared.  It could kick off a letter-writing unit with great excitement or lead to discussions about how we deal with our own misperceptions and those of others about ourselves.  The title of the first chapter is “A Bored Giraffe Writes His First Letter.”  Need I say more?

Little Leaders

Bold Women in Black History

Written and Illustrated by Vashti Harrison

Vashti Harrison has written a book highlighting the lives of forty black women that made a profound difference in America and the world.  Each two page spread includes a biography of women such as Shirley Chisolm, Rosa Parks or Dominique Dawes, etc. and a charming illustration of each women as a girl.  What a great way to make history accessible!  Each biography includes interesting anecdotes from childhood and beyond and details the challenges each women faced and how they were overcome.  The concise and well-written biographies would be a perfect text for Guided Reading for some students in Grades 2-4.

Hope you find much pleasure, happiness and/or wisdom in these wonderful books!



Inspire Writers with SCBWI “Draw This”

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Just got an email from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) that had a link to their monthly art contest based on a prompt.  September’s “Draw This” prompt was “I’m Scared” and as I scrolled through all the amazing entries, I thought that our students may absolutely love to be able to select one of these images as a springboard for narrative or essay writing.  The artwork is so diverse and inspiring.  My favorite was Katia Wish’s art and I’ve already started trying to write a story about it!

October’s prompt is “Girl Power.”  Happy viewing and writing!

The Global Read Aloud 2018 Starts Today!

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One of the most exciting literacy projects for any home or classroom is The Global Read Aloud. Started 9 years ago by esteemed educator, Pernille Ripp, it asks that participants read, discuss and share their thoughts about books over a 6 week time period.  This year’s selections are:

Picture Book Author Study Julie Flett, Monique Gray Smith
A Boy Called Bat Elana K. Arnold
Amal Unbound Aisha Saaed
Refugee Alan Gratz
YA: Love, Hate, and Other Filters Samira Ahmed

I am so grateful to Pernille Ripp for providing yearly lists of inspiring books.

I just finished reading A Boy Called Bat and it is a charming story of the very endearing Bixby Alexander Tam. Bat, as he is nicknamed, struggles to relate to others.  He has a supportive family and school community but there are bumps in the road as he navigates sibling dynamics and friendships. At the heart of this story is his relationship with a stray baby skunk that his mother, a veterinarian, has brought home.  Read this book if you enjoy heartwarming stories of growth, realistic depictions of family dynamics, an example of a compassionate “village” in action or are animal lovers.

Amal Unbound is one of those special books that you can’t wait to share with others.  It tells the story of a girl named Amal whose family faces economic hardships in Pakistan.  Amal’s burning desire is to become a teacher and school is her passion. One day, Amal’s life is upended when she incurs the wrath of the powerful scion of her village’s ruling family. Her life changes in that instant and she must endure being thrust as a servant into this powerful family’s home. This book will resonate with Malala fans, the real life heroine who risked her life to attend school.  I appreciated the window it offered into life in Pakistan, including many references to traditional foods and customs. Most of all, this book is a story of resilience and a reminder that reading a book is a privilege.  Highly recommended.

I am reading Refugee for the GRA18 and am looking forward to this story about children fleeing their native countries (Nazi Germany, Cuba, Syria) in 3 different time periods.

I hope you are inspired to participate this year!  The best part of the GRA18 is the community, who generously shares their thoughts about the books and also their teaching ideas.  Please see Pernille Ripp’s blog for more information, including a link to teacher resources and a request for self-selected donations to organizations that support the themes of these books.