A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong – and a proposed solution | Jeff Bowers

A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong – and a proposed solution | Jeff Bowers
— Read on jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/916-2/

End of story?

I already checked in with language. How about I look into what the field of psychology has to say? Dylan William boils it down for me when he states without equivocation: Cognitive Load Theory is the one most important things that teachers need to know about. Reduce cognitive load or bust, meaning if we want children to learn we are well advised to teach knowledge in an interconnected and meaningful manner. Here are some words that would have never occurred to me to teach side-by-side during my phonics days.

There has got to be a better way.



Etymology, Too!

I’ve often encountered the argument that “there is no evidence that teaching etymology helps students.”  Well, I go back to Dylan William’s insights that we need to continue to challenge ourselves to think about “what might be,” about “what could be.” Here’s an  example. Spelling has always come very easy to me. Despite that, a few words have remained elusive. A couple of weeks ago, determined to practice what I preach, I investigated permanent hoping to help myself out with that first “a”. Perminent? Permanent? I was never quite sure. A quick look at an etymology dictionary was all it took. Remain. It’s related historically. It shares meaning. There is a similarity in the spelling.

I shared my excitement on Twitter only to be told that there’s a better way and that would be to teach the student to pronounce it incorrectly as perMANent


Frankly, I think this is messed up.

How is the kid supposed to remember which wrong way to say it? Is it permaNENT? PerMANent? What if they can’t remember which wrong way to say it?

Permanent, however you pronounce it, has no connection to man. Where permanent and remain will always have something to do with the idea of “stay”. Always. Word parts that share meaningful and historical connections have a tendency to share similarities in spelling despite differences in pronunciation. That is the expectation in English. It’s how our writing system works.




Listen to Language!

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Once I started to realize what a system could teach me, I found some different resources and began to study the written language system itself. I needed to put the system of language in dialogue with the arguments of phonics and then see where I found myself. That dialogue looks something like this:

Argument: Divide words into syllables but don’t split up a digraph such as <sh>.

The Language: Um, dishearten.

Argument: But you could tell the student to take off the prefix in a word like dishearten. We teach our students these things. They would know that rented isn’t “ren ted” because we teach to take off the <ed> suffix first.

The Language: Unbred.

Argument: Okay, okay. But phonological awareness has to be first. It’s basic. You have to teach it before letters.

The Language: Then what are you going to say when a child tells you the first “sound” in dress is /dʒ/ (as in jump), the first “sound” in train is /tʃ/ (as in chip)?

Argument: I just won’t give those words.

Holly: That’s cherry-picking.

Argument: Okay, okay. But you have to teach phonological awareness before morphology.

The Language: Explain why there’s a /p/ phoneme in “dumpster “but not in “hamster”.

Argument: But there has to be something we can do so students can figure out any word on their own.

Holly: I thought “awry” was /ɔɹi/ (“aw – ree”) and “caveat” was /kəvit/ (“kuh – veet”) up until my mid-twenties at which point I heard them pronounced by one of my professors. How are we supposed to teach something to students that I couldn’t even do myself? That would require a magic wand and I don’t have one.



Get Close to the System

I’ve been talking a lot about research lately, and how it’s helped me understand my teaching practice in a bigger context. But as Dylan William says–and I agree–teachers should “be seeking to improve their practice through a process of ‘disciplined inquiry’.”  I also like that he says, “Educational research can only tell us what was, not what might be.”

The closer I’ve gotten to teaching English as a system, the better results I get in working with students.

Let me tell you about another system I learned and how it transformed me.

When I was a little girl my parents took me for piano lessons. My teacher taught me Every Good Boy Does FIne, Good Burritos Don’t Fall Apart, and FACE. I could read music!  Or so I thought.


I picked up piano again as an adult. My new teacher Lisa took me on a different path. First, she taught me the key signatures by pointing out a pattern. Start on any C (any white key to the direct left of two black keys) and follow the pattern of whole and half notes: WWHWWWH (a half step on a keyboard is the very next (contiguous) key with no black or white key in between). If you try it and didn’t play any black keys you’ve played a C major scale.


You’re right: there are no sharps or flats in the key of C major and it works no matter which note you start on, as long as you follow the same pattern (WWHWWWH). Start on any note and follow the same pattern. If you start on F, for example, you will end up playing a scale with one black key, a B flat. Yup, the F major scale has only one flat and that would be B.

There’s only one middle C and the two staffs work together as one system. A line to a space or a space to a line is one note. Look below and you can figure out any note. Add a couple of extra landmarks and you’ve got this down.

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Holy burrito! Lisa showed me how the system of music notation works. Holly the little girl could read music only if she already knew the tune. Now, as an adult with some infrastructure under my belt, the whole world was my song. My sight reading improved and my ability to memorize complex pieces of music was transformed.

In a word: systems.

More Research on Morphology

The more I read, the more research I find to add to the piles of studies supporting the need to rethink of orthography as related to phonology yet inseparable from and governed by morphology and etymology. Here are a couple of single studies to mention that are of interest to me:


  • In their study, Devonshire, Morris, and Fluck (2013), teaching 5 to 7 year old students, compared a traditional phonics condition (the U.K. National curriculum) with intervention that integrated etymology, morphology, orthography and phonology. Their novel intervention focused on “making children aware of the way the English writing system works, in terms of all levels of representation.” I was particularly excited to see they instructed the children in “form rules.” The children were shown, for example, that certain letter combinations are not permitted in English, along with a bit of alphabet history so they could understand why. The investigators found the more integrative intervention to improve reading skills over and above the phonics condition and concluded that “early teaching of English literacy should include instruction in morphology.”

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  • In another study, Halaas Lyster, Levag and Holme (2016), looked at the long term effects of morphological awareness training in preschoolers. One group of children received morphological awareness training, while a second group received phonological awareness training. A control group followed the ordinary preschool curriculum. Children were tested on reading ability at the end of first grade and five years later in sixth grade. It’s important to note that all of the children were taught with a phonics, a program with “a strong focus on the alphabetic principle and grapheme–phoneme correspondences.” The investigators found a positive effect of morpheme training in preschool on reading comprehension in sixth grade. The students who had the morphological awareness training, as sixth graders, “brought with them additional knowledge about word meaning and form that they might have applied when learning to read, especially when reading more demanding texts.”

The evidence base is compelling indeed.

The Jury is In: More Morphology

For a long time, I stayed with the program and taught common words like often, been, come, move, really, and two as irregular. I got to the point where I couldn’t stand doing it for one more minute. So I got rid of the irregular pile and shifted towards synthetic phonics in the style of the U.K. National curriculum along with a handful of programs here in the U.S.

Often wasn’t irregular anymore. It simply has an ft spelling for /f/.

Two stepped out of the irregular pile as well. It has a tw spelling for /t/, that’s all.

Come has split digraph o-e spelling /ʌ/.

Move has a split digraph o-e spelling /u/.

Horse? No worries, as we can add se as one of the ways to spell /s/. I was pretty satisfied.

The literature, however, kept poking me in the shoulder.

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Everyone points to the evidence base supporting phonics instruction and the five pillars of literacy promoted by the National Reading Panel. But the NRP findings were published over fifteen years ago. Even though I was happy with where I was, it wasn’t like I was going to stop reading papers and learning about newer findings.

As the years went by, I couldn’t help but notice a trend. The tide was shifting, and I was not going to be left out. One study, then another, then another was demonstrating the greater benefits of morphological awareness instruction especially for younger and less able readers. It was in my face, it was telling me I wasn’t good enough, and it was right.
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These newer studies told me there cound be a better way.

Here are some highlights from the literature:

  • Reed (2008) reviewed seven intervention studies and provided a narrative description of effect sizes on word identification, spelling and vocabulary. She found positive effects for morphological awareness instruction, with the strongest effects for students with literacy difficulties.
  • Wolter (2009) conducted a systematic review designed to help speech-language pathologists make evidence-based decisions regarding literacy instruction. Wolter looked at 13 studies and concluded that morphological awareness benefits literacy development in children with and without LD as young as second grade and as advanced as seventh grade. The evidence further supported giving students opportunities to practice new skills in the context of actual reading and writing.
  • Bowers, Kirby, and Deacon (2010) included 22 studies in their review, obtaining simple averages of effect sizes and standard deviations. They found that morphological instruction contributed to improvement in phonological awareness, morphological awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and spelling. Again, morphology was especially beneficial to the youngest and lowest achieving children.
  • Carlisle’s (2010) integrative review includes 16 studies in her analysis. She concluded that morphological intervention had a positive effect on phonology, orthography and vocabulary development. Note, again, that instruction in morphological awareness lead to gains in phonological awareness. Carlisle noted in her review that “even kindergartners can acquire morphological awareness, if this is what they are taught.”

What I really couldn’t ignore: teaching morphology can remediate difficulties with phonemic awareness and younger and lower achieving children benefited the most.

I went from piles of words to piles of studies.

Piles of Exceptions

I started to think about word frequency. I began the mammoth project of collecting the 20,000 most common words. Armed with my corpus, I placed as many as I could into the extensive phonics scope and sequence I had been using for many years. I was going to fix this.

A year and a half later (that’s how long it took), my new practice materials were stocked with words that my students would be most likely to encounter in the real world. In short, I made the language of books the target of reading instruction. Chippendale begone!

This was phonics, so there was still an exception pile. A big exception pile. An exception pile that was getting too large to be ignored! There were literally thousands of words that, according to phonics, were exceptions.

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Teaching through the lens of phonics was unwieldy and frankly getting ridiculous. It’s not that the students weren’t improving. They were. But could they get more? Could it be better?

Word By Word

It was time to pay attention to the words I was teaching. I was carefully curating lists of words so students could practice the phonics rules I was teaching them. I was getting tired of dredging up the same words over and over: cactus, picnic, dentist, locate, remote, Chippendale, badminton and fig.

In 2003, Sally Shaywitz’s book Overcoming Dyslexia came out. I got my hands on it as soon as I could and read it right away. The book covered a lot of ground, but what I couldn’t get out of my head was one of her conclusions regarding fluency. Students acquire fluency “word by word,” she said. There were a lot of words I was sweeping under the carpet.

screenshot-37About a year later, I read a study published in Annals of Dyslexia entitled, “Training reading fluency in dysfluent readers with high reading accuracy: Word specific effects but low transfer to untrained words.”

The investigators found that “remarkable” amount of repetitions on trained words with certain consonant clusters did not generalize to untrained words with the same consonant clusters.

I had to liberate myself. Glad I did.

Phonics, Systems, and More Systems

The OED defines phonics as a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system. And therein lies the problem but I didn’t know it yet. For several years I continued to search within phonics, immersing myself in all kinds of  workshops and professional development offerings.

The one that resonated with me most was the pure Orton-Gillingham approach having spent an intensive three weeks at The Reading Center in Rochester, Minnesota studying with Jean Osman and the late Paula Rome who actually knew Dr. Orton. Years later, I was grandfathered in as a Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, and a Fellow I remain today.

Still, the knowledge I gained from O-G training didn’t feel complete. One thing I remember is poring over word lists for weeks at a time trying to figure out how to teach students when to use “tion” and when to use “sion.” Nothing I tried actually worked. There was still so much I couldn’t explain. I invested in more trainings, workshops, workbooks, and materials.  If it existed at the time, there was a pretty good chance I bought it, tried it, or trained in it.

Here’s the short list:

Discover Intensive Phonics, Auditory Discrimination in Depth, How to Teach Spelling, Spellbound, Phono-Graphix, Recipe for Reading, Project Read, Alphabetic Phonics, Spaulding, Slingerland, Hooked on Phonics, Jolly Phonics, Letterland, Language!, Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum, Road to the Code, Read Naturally, Great Leaps, Morgan Dynamic Phonics, Wilson, SLANT System, Sonday System, Starting Over, S.P.I.R.E, Fun Phonics, Megawords, Solving Language Difficulties, Explode the Code, Lexia, Sounds Abound, Angling for Words, Fast Track Reading Program, REWARDS, Language Tool Kit, Advanced Language Tool Kit, The Alphabet Series, WORDS, Primary Phonics, Touchphonics, Right into Reading, Preventing Academic Failure, RAVE-O.

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There’s more where that came from.

For so long, I thought the problem was me not understanding the systems I was gathering–not the other way around.