Updated Theory of Reading

I used to think that Reading and Spelling was largely based on visual memory. Yes, you needed to know the graphemes and phonemes but the goal was to synthesize that information quickly to aid quick visual word identification or spelling.

Now I think (after my research on the theories of Dr. Peter Bowers and Dr. Linnea and the work of Dr. David Kilpatrick) over these past three years that Reading/Spelling is a morphophonemic process. When students encounter a word, they analyze the spellings and map the graphemes to the phonemes and to the meaning and retrieve this representation from memory. It can take from 1-20+ exposures for this representation to make it into long-term memory but, once there, the word is immediately accessed.

Thus, the 4 questions of Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010) can be analyzed through the lens of orthographic mapping (Linnea Ehri), which is the process by which sight words (any word, not limited to our previous understanding of irregular words), are immediately accessed.)

The 4 Questions of Structured Word Inquiry:

  1. What is the meaning? (Meaning)
  2. What are the relatives? (Etymological information adds a layer of meaning as it can explain why a word is spelled as it is while morphological information helps students to focus on morphemes (base, affix), the meaningful units in a word.)
  3. What is the structure? (analyze the spelling using word sums and/or a word matrix)
  4. Pronunciation? (map the graphemes to the phonemes, articulate the sounds, note pronunciation shifts across the word family, articulation activities, spelling-it-out, and writing-it-out to consolidate understandings. Chart new phoneme and grapheme understandings as references.)

I might add a fifth question, “Can you use this word in a meaningful way?” as a way to monitor and assess developing word understandings. I would also be interested to map exposures, as possible, to begin to understand how many exposures is optimal for each of my students, as well as continuous informal assessments of comprehension, decoding and encoding(spelling) (with grapheme/phoneme analysis).

Here is a recent SWI thinking sheet that I created for <judge>:

As I was working on this, I had some questions about <judge> and <judicial> which was resolved with the help of some friends:

I have seen Structured Word Inquiry have such a positive impact on the word learning and spelling of diverse learners. It has been exciting to see the research on orthographic mapping confirm this. Looking forward to more explorations on the science and the magic of word learning!

Explaining the “Why?” of Spelling

I just listened to a Reading League podcast with Dr. David Kilpatrick. Dr. Kilpatrick has helped translate Dr. Linnea Ehri’s excellent research on orthographic mapping, which is the process of automatic word recognition, into classroom practice. He has written two great books, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, and Equipped for Reading Success.

As I listened to Dr. Kilpatrick’s explanation on how he would explain the spelling of <yacht> to a student, he used the words “tricky parts” to refer to the <ch> in the word.

As part of my learning journey to uncover how our spelling system really works through Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010), I once again reflected on how closely SWI connects to the research on orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping research has demonstrated that for words to be recognized automatically, the graphemes (letter or letter strings that represent phonemes) must be bonded to the phonemes (unit of sound) and the meaning in memory. It may take anywhere from 1 to over 20 exposures for the word to move from having to be decoded to being instantly recognized.

Structured Word Inquiry looks at a word and asks four questions:

  1. What is the meaning?
  2. What are the relatives?
  3. What is the structure?
  4. What are the sounds that matter?

The following is an inquiry into the word <yacht>:

An investigation of the word shows that the <ch> in the word <yacht> is an etymological marker that connects the spelling to its Germanic origins. It has been my experience that being able to share the real reason behind a spelling adds another layer of meaning that can be further explored during question 4 through grapheme/phoneme matching.

This would just be the initial inquiry into the word. Exposures can be continued through word-sums, spelling-out-loud, writing-out-loud and using the word in short student-created texts.

Map Tricky Phonemes to Graphemes with a Listening Activity!

Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 12.00.15 PM

Help students at the “Partial Alphabetic” phase (Ehri, 1995) to map phonemes to graphemes by asking them to listen for words that represent a particular phoneme like /iː/ as in <eat> ( first give them time to feel the phoneme in their mouth and look in a mirror as they articulate the sound) as you reread a picture book aloud. Words with the targeted phoneme can be listed during the rereading and then sorted afterwards by grapheme (spelling pattern) and grapheme position. Afterwards, engage the students in the “So what, Now what” Thinking Routine. Some possible outcomes:

“So what?”: “The phoneme /iː/ can be represented by a variety of graphemes: <ie><ee><ea><i> and <y>. Are there other graphemes that represent /iː/?”

Now what?: “In my reading and spelling, I can use what I learned today to decode and spell. I will add graphemes and words to the chart as I find them. The words on the chart can be used as a word bank for my writing.”

Research shows that readers at the “Partial Alphabetic” stage have not yet “glued” the phonemes to the graphemes which, along with understanding the meaning of the word, is crucial to cementing these understanding into long-term memory so words can be automatically identified.

Teachers, through informal and formal assessments of decoding and spelling, can determine what phoneme/grapheme relationships are not yet stored in long-term memory. If using a Structured Word Inquiry approach, teachers can introduce, in addition to student-led inquiry, words that contain graphemes that are not yet fully bonded to the phonemes in memory. After word inquiry, including phoneme/grapheme correspondence, a teacher could create a chart, like the one above, to explore grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

The Science of Reading Instruction: Is My Word Reading Instruction Aligned with the Latest Research?

 By Mona Voelkel, NBCT

After reading, “The Science of Learning to Read Words: A Case for Systematic Phonics Instruction” by Linnea Ehri (Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 55(1); 30 August 20):

https://ila.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rrq.334 , I wanted to compare my Structured Word Inquiry instructional approach with current research. (Underpinning all my reading instruction is that decoding and encoding (spelling) are related processes and instruction should support that.)

A deep understanding of The Big 5 Pillars of Reading Instruction  (Phonemic Awareness, Morphophonemic Instruction (usually called phonics but as a Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010) practitioner, I now reject phonics as the correct term for the study of our orthographic system), Fluency, Comprehension and Vocabulary) ground my instructional practice.

Each pillar needs to be carefully assessed and addressed in any classroom or reading intervention program. 

What has been so exciting over the past few years is how our knowledge of how children learn to read has been enhanced by developments in neuroscience and reading research.  What stands out to me, however, is the tireless research of Linnea Ehri.  She rejected Ken Goodman’s theory of reading as a psych-linguistic guessing game” many years ago and has spent her career researching topics in reading, especially how students learn words.  I think her most recent hypothesis of how students learn words has really bad news for devotees of the cueing of context clues, good news for disciples of the analytic and syllabic approaches to learning words and excellent news for converts to “Structured Word Inquiry” (Bowers, 2010).  The best news of all, though, is for the children who will benefit when her latest research is applied to classroom instruction.  After reading her article, I wanted to analyze how my instructional practice aligns with her latest research.  

While Ehri agrees that words CAN be read by using context clues or through the process of decoding letters into sounds, what contributes MOST to reading and comprehension is “reading words automatically from memory by sight.”


That means that there are no sub-classification of words called sight words.  All words are sight words when read by the accomplished reader.

Key Foundational Skills Needed to Move from Pre-alphabetic to Partial and Full Alphabetic:

What are the key foundational skills?

  • Letter Knowledge (names, shapes and sounds)
  • Phonemic Segmentation
  • Grapheme/Phoneme Knowledge (Including seeing spellings of words)
  • Onset-Rimes and Syllabic Knowledge (It is important to blend syllable knowledge within SWI as needed, especially when it comes to understanding the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables and syllabic understandings such as having each syllable contain a vowel.
  • Morphemic Knowledge

I would add to this list

  • Oral Language (Students must “float in a sea of talk”(Britton, 1970) as much as is possible to be able to read, write and spell.)

Spellings, letter strings, graphemes, however you refer to the building blocks of words, “attach to pronunciations and meanings in memory and enhance memory for vocabulary words.  When a word is seen, these connections are activated in memory to read the word.”

Ehri makes the point that spelling and word identification draw from the same knowledge and skills and that “spelling instruction benefits beginner word reading and that learning to read and spell are two sides of the same coin.”

In SWI, foundational approaches like “spelling-out-loud” and “writing-out loud” and phoneme/grapheme tapping help anchor grapheme/phoneme correspondence. For more about this important SWI practice: http://www.wordworkskingston.com/WordWorks/Spelling-Out_Word_Sums.html

This is a clarion call to make sure that practitioners teach the meaning of words, word identification and spelling simultaneously with grapheme/phoneme correspondence. 

I teach word identification(decoding) and spelling using “Structured Word Inquiry” (Bowers, 2010).  It is an inquiry framework where the teacher guides the students through 4 questions:

  1.  What is the meaning of the word?
  2. What are the relatives? (Morphological and Etymological)
  3. How is this word built?  (Analyzing and synthesizing elements using lexical word sums)
  4. What grapheme function coherently here?

So far, SWI would seem to set the stage for a word learning framework by grounding students in the meaning and spelling of the word while grounding students in the grapheme/phoneme correspondences.

See Dr. Pete Bowers demonstrating the “Structured Word Inquiry Approach” that he pioneered here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjdUK5YmkEo


Ehri talks about “unitization” as when all the identities of a word (meaning, spelling, pronunciation) are “immediately accessed from written to spoken words when seen.”  We know from prior research about orthographic mapping that some students require just 1-4 exposures to be able to achieve this automatic word identification but other students may need over 20 exposures. ( I would make quick spelling assessments during each intervention session to continuosly monitor developing orthographic understandings. It is also helpful to get a sense of how many exposures each student needs to achieve orthographic mapping or unitization.)

Teaching in Isolation vs Context

It is also important to note the importance of teaching words in isolation and in context.  Students who were taught words only in isolation had better spelling but struggled with meaning tasks while students who were taught words in context had better understanding of meaning but struggled with spelling, according to Ehri’s research.  

In SWI, the target word is presented in context and then the word is analyzed in isolation for meaning, structure and grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  I have asked students after the inquiry to use the word in a meaningful context to “show what they know” (see here) and Ehri’s discussion highlights the importance to me of bookending the isolated word study with meaningful context.

Should You Teach Syllabication?

Structured Word Inquiry teaches how our orthographic system is really organized and besides the shock of -tion not being a suffix (it’s -ion), the next shock was when I found out that English is not a syllable-timed language, it is a stress-timed language.  That means that our instructional focus should be on teaching meaningful units (morphemes: bases, affixes).  (Interestingly, Ehri references a study in the Portugese language (which is a syllable-timed language) that found that teaching grapheme/phoneme correspondences better prepared readers to read and spell than teaching syllables.) Understanding of syllables and syllabication is a key skill, however, and can be addressed as needed during the 4th question of Structured Word Inquiry. Students need to understand stressed and unstressed syllables and how that impacts pronunciation and parts of speech. It may be also helpful to let students know that each syllable in English contains a vowel and to demonstrate the emergence of the schwa sound in word pairs like athlete-athletic and nation-national.

Stretch But Do Not Break

As part of SWI, students learn to tap out the grapheme/phoneme correspondences on their arm and then slide their hand down their arm as they say the whole word.  It was interesting and supportive of this practice, along with a reminder for grapheme/phoneme analysis work, that Ehri found that students who were instructed to “stretch out but not break up” the speech stream of a word had better reading and spelling, including reading medial letters.  I have noted students in the past, before using SWI, that had great difficulty decoding medial letters and I wonder if those students may have benefitted more from a stretching out rather than a breaking up sound by sound speech stream.


SWI students become aware of many bases and affixes through the inquiry process and become better able to analyze unknown words through “spelling-out-loud” and applying their morphophonemic knowledge.  I have seen dyslexic students become so confident as they can trust their ability to deepen their understanding of any word and their understandings become generative and lead to even more confidence.  Given my informal experiences, I was very happy to see that Ehri’s research showed that when compared to a control group, students who were morphophonemically trained showed the greatest transference and gains for reading words and nonwords.  

What are the Stages for Word Reading Development? (From Linnea Ehri)

Pre-alphabetic Phase

-relies on visual/context clues but NOT letter-sound cues.

Example:  “Reading” the McDonald’s sign

Partial-alphabetic Phase

-uses knowledge of letter names and sounds to write and read but can’t decode unfamiliar words.

Example:  Can write and read <dog> but also gets “stuck” on many words.

Full Alphabetic Phase

-acquired decoding skill and can fully analyze and form grapheme/phoneme connections within words to read and spell from memory.

Example:  Student can read and spell many words but struggles with content vocabulary.

Consolidated Alphabetic Phase

Accumulated fully analyzed spellings of many words in lexical memory and has acquired knowledge of larger spelling patterns and morphemes.  Students can write multi-syllabic words from memory.

Example: Students are comfortable writing and reading content vocabulary and other words.

Ehri notes that students should receive both structured phonics- and meaning- based instruction tailored to student needs and developmental phase.  Teachers need to assess students in order to determine appropriate instruction.

Practices to Improve Word Reading Instruction:

  1.  Ehri cites research that spelling is improved by creating “spelling connections” for words.  For example, in order to spell <chocolate>, the research advocates having students pronounce the word by emphasizing the <o>”  choc-O-late.  

 As a SWI practitioner, I would create a very different “spelling connection” based on etymology by framing an inquiry into, “Why is there an <o> in chocolate”? To find out, visit Etymology Online to discover that the spelling may have been influenced by the Mayan word for hot which was <chocol>. The <o> in <chocolate> could be an etymological marker that connects the word <chocolate> to the Mayan word, <chocol>.

  1.  If you are using analogy-based spelling instruction like Words Their Way or other programs, Ehri’s research shows that word reading outcomes improved by adding grapheme/phoneme instruction.  It is a key part of SWI instruction to explicitly map graphemes to phonemes and phonemes to graphemes.
  1.  Students learn letter best when taught using embedded pictorial mnemonics in the  letters as opposed to teaching the letter with a separate picture.  In the distant past, I had used “Secret Stories” and other programs (Ehri mentions “Letterland”) that used letters embedded with pictorial mnemonics to highlight the grapheme/phoneme connection but I realize that I have not been using this tool for SWI.  I was very excited but as I thought about this I realized that there are 44 phonemes that are represented by letter strings of one or more letters and that phonemes may be represented by multiple graphemes.  It didn’t seem enough to just represent the consonant and short vowels graphemes with embedded pictorial phoneme mnemonics, perhaps I should try to represent the range of grapheme/phoneme possibilities.  I need to think more about this but here is a quick attempt at some embedded pictorial mnemonics:

          In SWI, I share the IPA with my students to represent phonemes.  I am wondering if 

          I should create foundational cards with the IPA symbols and the embedded pictorial  


  1.  When teaching for word reading development, teach students to articulate along with letters in order to strengthen the connection between grapheme and phonemes.  Structured Word Inquiry practitioners like Peter Bowers and Rebecca Loveless have taught me to, instead of asking students, “What do you hear?”, ask students “What do you feel?” when articulating the phonemes.  Ehri says that, “Teaching students to segment using articulation along with letters helps to strengthen the connection between graphemes and phonemes.  Articulation is more central to the representation of phonemes in the brain than acoustic cues are.”  Ehri would agree with Rebecca Loveless about the importance of teaching beginning readers to monitor mouth positions and sounds during phoneme segmentation instruction.  This is a reminder to add a mirror and visual representation of the sounds in the mouth to my word teaching toolkit.  

My Next Steps:

  1.  I want to deepen my knowledge of articulation by taking a course on phonetics. (I just signed up for a course in phonetics starting 11/28)
  2. Add a mirror and visuals that show how sounds are articulated in the mouth to my toolkit. (Patti Bottino-Bravo, who is teaching the “Fun with Phonetics class that I am taking recommends these resources.
  3. Ponder if embedded pictorial representations would be helpful for digraphs. (In email conversation with Dr. Ehri, she mentioned that the embedded representations were for learning letters so no, I don’t think at this point that the embedded pictorial representations are necessary for digraphs but it could be used as an intervention for someone having difficulty mapping digraphs.)
  4. Ponder if I want to create reference cards that would contain the IPA symbol with phoneme/grapheme representation and the mouth position. (I do not need to create these as they are available here.
  5. Continue to deepen my orthographic understanding through study of the Real Spelling Toolkit and SWI classes with Pete Bowers, Rebecca Loveless and others. (11/20 Update: I am taking another wonderful class with Dr. Peter Bowers and have recently started attending his free Monday evening Zoom drop-in classes.)
  6. Continue to keep up with current educational research.

MTV Series: “What’s Going on in this Picture?

A Thinking Routine adapted from Ron Ritchard’s book, Making Thinking Visible and the New York Times’ weekly feature, “What’s Going on in this Picture?”

Courtesy of Library of Congress

A Thinking Routine that strengthens inferential thinking, observation skills, develops vocabulary and increases a sense of global connection.

What’s Going on in This Picture Image Set  (Use “Speaker Notes” to see photo information.)

New York Times. “What’s Going on with this Picture?”


  1. View a photograph (without any identifying captions) and discuss these questions with your students:
  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  1.  As the discussion moderator, stay neutral and accepting of multiple interpretations.  When students make a claim about what is going on in the image, gently ask them, “What makes you say that?  This encourages them to provide evidence from the image or from their background knowledge to support their claims or inferences.
  2.  Think about not revealing the origins of the photograph at  the end of this activity but instead use the photograph on another day as part of a teaching lesson.

What’s Going On in this Picture? Extensions

Before the group discussion, have students answer the 2
questions in partnerships. This gives students who need
more thinking time, such as ENL students, a chance to talk
with a partner and reflect before the whole group

Partnerships can use the “What’s Going on in This Picture?” Thinking Sheet as a “script” to support ENL students or students with language disabilies.

To encourage active listening, have students pose the
“What’s Going on in This Picture?” questions to their partner. The student can interview their partner and jot down his/her responses. Later, during conferencing or when students return to the whole group, make partners responsible for telling the group what his/her partner thought was going on in this picture and why.

Over time, the the questions can be used to prompt thinking and to draft an analytical paragraph:

Topic sentence/Claim:
What is going on in this picture?

What is going on in the picture that makes me say that?

Another thing I think is going on in this picture…

What is going on in the picture or world that makes me say that?

Every Monday, the NY Times Learning Network posts an uncaptioned photograph and invites students around the world to participate in a “What’s Going on in This Picture?” activity. Students are invited to post their inferences and evidence on a live blog moderated by Visual Thinking. (Students must be 13 or older to post but a teacher can post for younger students.) On Thursday, the photograph is identified with links to the original captions and/or news article. An exceptional and highly recommended learning experience with intriguing pictures for students in Grades 3-12. 


After extended practice with the “What’s Going on in This Picture?” thinking routine, have students use these questions to make claims about written text and support those claim with evidence from the text:

What’s going on in this text?
What makes you say that?

Sample Thinking Sheet:

SWI: debate

Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010) helps students deeply understand our orthographic system. Using investigations, students learn why words are spelled the way they as they explore the history, structure and pronunciation of words. It is also intellectually absorbing. Please explore this investigation of <debate> and share your new understandings or connections:

Mini-Matrix Maker by Neil Ramsden