Mona Voelkel

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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): , 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 and rely more on the concept of morphophonemic understandings, since the phoneme/grapheme correspondences are best understood within units of meaning (morphemes) ), 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 psycho-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 was 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:

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:


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 completed two phonetic classes taught by Patti Bottini-Bravo that were excellent.)
  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.)Update: Nell Duke recommends stocking classrooms with 3-dimensional letters. Some magnetic letters are here. Larger letters are here.
  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.

One Response

  1. I’m not sure if actually used the Secret Stories, as they do account for all 44 phonemes, but unlike Letterland, the Secrets connect phonics skills to earlier-developing “feeling-based” centers in the brain for easy access. There’s a great video about this on YouTube.

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