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Archive for April, 2019

Five and a half years ago, the IDA asked me to write an article about Orton-Gillingham and Structured Word Inquiry. I’m providing it here to show that this “OG or SWI?” is not a new question. Here is my article:

Is This OG? (IDA Dyslexia Connection 2013)

Often, people new to my work assume that I just haven’t met the right OG yet, that if I really understood OG, I’d surely see it as the Godsend it is for dyslexics, rather than as a false understanding masquerading as science. So first, for those arriving in LEXland fresh off the dyslexia boat, let me first articulate that my OG and dyslexia credentials are impeccable. I’m a certified Initial & Advanced OG trainer in a nationally accredited training program, and my certificates are current. I have trained hundreds of teachers in OG and presented to thousands more at state and national conferences; I have supervised the instruction of more than a thousand children with dyslexia.

Second, I’d like to sketch out what I call my OGenealogy, my pedigree in OG. I’m very proud of my heritage in the field. I had remarkable trainers who themselves have had award-winning and prestigious careers in OG, dyslexia, special education, professional development, and higher education. So here’s that family tree, starting with Orton and Gillingham themselves.

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Marcia Henry and David Winters were my two OG trainers: Dave trained me at the Initial Level, and Marcia trained both Dave and me at the Advanced Level. Becoming an Advanced OG Trainer under Marcia Henry was a multi-year process, beginning in 2002 and ending with my certification in 2006. That means that for four years, I worked closely with Dr. Henry, shadowing her in trainings, preparing presentations to deliver under her supervision, co-observing tutors teaching at the Advanced Level, reading academic and historical texts about dyslexia and submitting reports on these books, giving conference presentations to Dr. Henry’s critique, and submitting reams of documentation under her authority.

It’s not the case that I just haven’t met the right OG yet, guys.

Yesterday, Dr. Henry offered the keynote address for the Dyslexia Training Institute’s annual Dyslexia conference, and I watched it. The title of the keynote was “O-G and SWI: Complementary or Incompatible?” In her presentation, Dr. Henry cited my 2012 article, “Is this OG?” shared above, but she mis-titled it as *”Do structured word inquiry and O-G go together?” That was not the title of the article I published, and it was definitely not the point of that article at all.

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Unlike Dr. Henry’s keynote, my article was not a piece of apologia for Orton-Gillingham; rather, it was an urgent call to action to the field, an exhortation that the field must do better, a screaming-my-head-off invitation to honor the  pioneering spirit of Orton and Gillingham, who honored the intellects of the children they worked with, and who were constantly revising their understanding and publications to keep up with new scientific developments. My article was and is an admonition to the field that real science doesn’t stagnate, that it’s not OK to rest on past laurels. As any freethinker knows, “We’ve always done it that way” is the last refuge of the scientific scoundrel. It is not sufficient to say “I’ve been doing this for 50 years.” Making the same set of errors for 50 years or even longer does not magically transform said errors into facts, or into anything noble. They’re just errors. My article implores the Dyslexia Industry to stop relying on past understandings because “that’s OG,” and instead, to remain true to the science-minded, ever-revising, innovative legacy that the founders of the field bequeathed us. It in no way argues that SWI and OG “go” anywhere at all, separately or together.

Dr. Henry’s keynote began with an acknowledgment that there’s been “lots of friction” around this question, and indeed, she came back to this theme with several negative commentaries times throughout her talk, as though disagreeing with the status quo in a scientific field is a bad thing.

Let that sink in.

She then articulated that “One size does not fit all,” a piece of empty rhetoric that I’ve also heard a lot from DTI itself and a lot of others. But you know what? Language is not a size, and facts don’t come in small, medium, and large.

Which children are the right size to be misinformed?

How large do children have to be to get the facts about their writing system?

I do appreciate that Dr. Henry went on to articulate that SWI is more than just morphology, and that OG is more than just phonics. That is an important understanding that often gets lost in the “friction.” Orton-Gillingham and its derivatives absolutely do include some morphology and etymology, but, as I’ve been writing for a decade, they get it really, really wrong. I for one never said that OG doesn’t “do” morphology and etymology; what I have said over and over and over again is that OG gets morphology and etymology wrong. I wish I could say that Dr. Henry’s keynote here was an exception to this sad rule, but as I will demonstrate, it is not.

These initial admonitions about friction and fittings were followed by a long history of the OG field, from its founders through its significant players, including most of the people whose photos you see above. “I was trained by one of the best,” said Marcia, reflecting on her revered trainer Paula Dozier Rome. In my notes, I wrote, “Well, I was trained by two of the best: MKH & DCW.” The thing is, the quality of the person who trained me 20 years ago really has nothing to do with whether what they taught me was accurate. Most of it was, but some critical pieces of it were not. We can play six-degrees-of-OG-separation all day long, bragging about our backgrounds and tracing our lineage back to the big O and G themselves, but that’s not science. None of that has anything to do with accurately understanding the structure of English as it has been researched in the present day. Marcia Henry does indeed have a wonderful professional history. So do I. That doesn’t make either one of us right or wrong in considering the relative merits of OG and SWI.

In comparing OG and SWI, Dr. Henry concedes, “Perhaps OG would put phonology first,” but there’s no perhaps about it. I am not going out on a limb when I critique the field for its wrong-headed Assumption of Phonological Primacy, and I’ve laid out that case over and over again. In fact, I am at the very root of OG: any OG documentation you can find, past or present, including IDA’s new-fangled, thinly-veiled ripoff of “Structured Language,” puts phonology first. Dr. Henry continued, “but in SWI, morphology is first.” Herein lies the problem: it’s not a question of preference of pedagogy, which comes first. The linguistic fact is that morphology is the defining and delimiting framework of the writing system; that’s not even remotely controversial. So really, here, Marcia inadvertently underscores what I’ve been saying all along: as an approach, SWI accurately represents the facts of English, and OG misrepresents those facts. A couple of times, she referred to the “guiding principles” of OG — you know the list, structured, sequential, cumulative, multisensory… But the thing is, SWI isn’t guided by any principles that aren’t linguistic. OG is top-down, super-imposing prescriptive “principles” on the language, false things like the *alphabetic *principle, or those old canards like “i-before-e” and “when two vowels go walking….”

Real linguistic rules don’t rhyme, y’all. SWI prescribes nothing, but instead seeks to discern and describe the actual principles inherent in the written language itself. Those two things cannot “go together.” Not just because I say so and I’m kinda famous, but because they don’t.

Dr. Henry continued by sharing with the audience several charts and other graphics that will be familiar to anyone who has followed her work for any of the last few decades, including Bob Calfee’s etymuddular triangle of “Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek” that I’ve written about for years, and her own similar grid from her doctoral studies and subsequent publications. I won’t reproduce them here. Dr. Henry’s grid features a column for “syllables,” a topic she began to discuss with the claim that “Some people think that’s a nasty word.”

Oh, really? Is that right? Some people think that “syllables” is a nasty word? I was not aware of that — I wonder who she means! Certainly Dr. Henry can’t be referring to me, because (a) I teach two well-documented, groundbreaking, game-changing professional development seminars about syllables, one called “Syllables: Fact and Fiction,” and the other called “Stress and the Schwa,” and (b) I have researched, written and self-published a monograph called “Making Sense of Syllables,” both of which take syllables very seriously and treat them with considerable respect. Both of these resources have also helped hundreds of teachers to better understand syllables and to incorporate a more accurate understanding of syllables and their effects on English spelling.

So clearly do not think that “syllables” is a “nasty” word.  Really, no one does. This is just Dr. Henry’s way of trying to take sides in what she referred to as “friction,” without really having to consider any actual linguistic facts, provide any researched evidence about syllables, or fairly represent my objection to OG’s syllabaloney. Unlike my courses and my monograph, Dr. Henry’s keynote did not offer any actual research about syllables. [For the love of God, WHERE are the people CONSTANTLY haranguing me for ‘research’ when it comes to these presentations?] What the keynote did offer was a lot of opinions about syllables:

“There is some logic to syllable division.”

“They do provide some new strategies.”

“We know that there are six syllable types [sic], and that’s useful for kids to know.”

In addition to her unfounded claim that “some people think [syllables] is a nasty word,” Dr. Henry also claimed that some professionals “scoff” at syllable pedagogies and call them “ridiculous.” Again, she can’t have been talking about little old me. I don’t “scoff.” I mean, maybe some people do, but I’m very specific in my critique of syllable-based pedagogies, and I give plenty of linguistic evidence, including nuclear theory of syllables, the stress-timing of English, and human data. I offer the linguistic understanding that there are just two types of syllables: open (ends in a vowel, has no consonant coda), and closed (ends in a consonant coda), and that has little to do with the way a syllable is written. The monosyllables bake, beak, and bike are all closed; bay, boy, and bough are all open, linguistically speaking, and again, that’s not controversial among people who study language structure. But even syllabogogues don’t agree on how many “types” there are, as a quick google search will reveal: there are pedagogical treatments for six types, seven types, five types, and even four types of syllables in English, all of which are top-down, prescriptive, and false, and all of which conflate spoken and written patterns indiscriminately. If, in fact, there were any “logic” to syllable types and division, why would syllable-based pedagogies disagree about the number of syllable types and division patterns that there are? Given these unsettling detailss, Marcia Henry’s claim that “we know that there are six syllable types” [my emphasis] is just plain false. We “know” no such thing. Really, it’s that claim that is ridiculous. Laughable. It’s not scientific. It’s just wrong.

Even wronger, perhaps, is Dr. Henry’s unfounded claim that these supposed syllable types are “useful for kids to know.”  The problem here is three-fold: first, that kids can “know” something that is not factual; second, that doing so is useful; and third, that this claim and others like it are routinely made by leaders in the field with no evidence for them. There is no evidence that syllable typing or division patterns are “useful” for children. None.  In fact, not only is there no research supporting syllable pedagogies in English, but there is actually research that suggests that morphological instruction has superior outcomes. Some of that research is nearly 50 years old, and I learned about it from Marcia Henry years ago. She writes about it in Unlocking Literacy, where she says, “Groff questioned whether teaching syllable division is an important part of reading” (2010:37) The thing is, though, he didn’t just “question” that — he researched it in an actual metanalysis, and found that it wasn’t helpful or important. Unlike Dr. Henry’s keynote, Groff’s research doesn’t offer his opinion; rather, he offers a constellation of what previous research had found. Groff’s100+-page metanalysis is part of the research I outline and update in my monograph, which you can buy as a PDF for $4. Does that sound like the behavior of someone who “scoffs” at syllables or thinks syllables is a “nasty” word?

Dr. Henry’s defense of syllable pedagogy is not a metanalysis, and it does not cite or rely on any actual research. Its structure is three-fold: personal anecdote and opinion, as I’ve already outlined; an insistence that some words require syllable division as they lack morphological complexity; and the belief that teachers and children benefit from having a “big bag with lots and lots of information” in it, regardless of the quality and veracity of that information.

Dr. Henry supports her claim that some words cannot be morphologically analyzed with the examples hobgoblin and mizzenmast, because, you know, it’s really really important for children to be able to read and spell hobgoblin and mizzenmast. More to the point, both of those words are morphologically complex: <hob + goblin>, in which both the <hob> and the <goblin> are free base elements with interesting eponymic histories.  And <mizzen + mast>, again, both free base elements. The Italianate <mizzen> denotes ‘middle’ and is related to mezzo and mezzanine, while the Germanic <mast> is one of English’s very old native words. Anyhow, most of the teachers I work with are working with kids who have never seen a ship and are unlikely to; like yacht, which shows up on pretty much every word-reading test out there, mizzenmast is a word that mostly serves wealthy white people. Regardless of the intended audience, both hobgoblin and mizzenmast are indeed morphologically complex, and neither one stands as proof of the utility of syllable division nonsense. Even her cherry-picked examples fall short.

Finally, Dr. Henry claims that syllable patterns are “useful” because teachers and children all need to have lots of information and lots of strategies: “[K]nowing the alternatives for dividing words into syllables provides students with another strategy for word analysis” (2010:37). She echoed that claim in her presentation: “I think it’s important to provide as many strategies as possible,” she said. So is it just a numbers game, then? Throw a whole lot of information spaghetti at the dyslexic child wall and hope a lot of it sticks? Whether it’s true or false? Really? The thing is, being educated doesn’t mean that you have lots and lots of information; it means that you learn to discern good information from bad information, and you keep the bad information out of your damn bag.

In addition to all I’ve outlined here, Dr. Henry’s presentation was punctuated by additional false claims about language, most notably mis-identifying the etymological origins of more than a third of the words she offered. She repeated the tired, old, false claim that Latin “generally” affixes while Greek “generally” compounds; I’ve written about this before as well. The fact is that all Indo-European languages compound, including Latin. Affixing developed later, but Greek does indeed affix, a lot. The most amusing example I can offer is the Hellenic word dyslexia — a word built from a Greek prefix, a Greek base element, and a classical suffix.  Dr. Henry gave several word lists in her presentation; among them are the following Latinate compounds:

<nave + ig + ate + ion>
<legis + late + ive>
<mult + i + plice + ate + ion>
<rec + i + proc + al>
<percent + age>
<circ + um + fer + ence>
<rect + angle>
<cent + i + meter><dece + i + meter>, <mille + i + meter>  (The meter part is Greek, but the concepts and the compounds were developed in French.)

Unfortunately, none of the live attendees noticed or addressed any of these problems. None of them asked Dr. Henry for “research” to support her “approach,” so I guess Phombies only do that when they’re talking to me. One attendee, also well-known for morphotwaddle and etymuddle in teacher training, praised Marcia as a “class act,” because apparently it’s classy to intimate that a nameless-but-obvious someone “scoffs” at syllables and finds them to be “nasty” and “ridiculous.” I guess that’s classy, huh? Doing things that way? Especially when you follow it up with unfounded opinions and sweeping statements about what’s “useful” for dyslexic children.

Another live attendee asked Dr. Henry to sanction the use of nonsense words, which she happily did. “It depends,” she said, and the conference host echoed that sentiment, offering her audience the pablum of “each student is different.” Dr. Henry again offered tradition and opinion, saying “I think they are useful…” but offering no research support, no evidence. And no one questioned it, because people suffer from an inability to be discerning about what they hear when they hear it from someone they think is an “expert.” Dr. Henry suggested that “older” children (undefined) can benefit from nonsense words. I’ve heard this before, and I’ve written about it before, but really, English has a million words, so if you can’t find any that your “older” child can’t read, then he probably doesn’t need what phonics will offer him. The statements of “it depends” and “for some children” and “each student is different” are empty rhetoric at whose core lives the following claim: some children merit being lied to, if it makes it easier for the teacher. Both Dr. Henry and the host reiterated that “true scholarship” is learning all you can, as though a large quantity of information is the goal regardless of the actual quality of that information. I will stand by my assertion that no child benefits more from lies about his language, from false information, than they do from the facts.

Dr. Henry ended her presentation with the question, “So are O-G and SWI Compatible?” and the answer “Yes!” But again, that’s a matter of opinion easily falsified by facts that the speaker herself raised: OG puts phonology first, and SWI puts phonology where it belongs, which is last. That’s not compatible, even if you an exclamation point after your “Yes!” This continued insistence that OG and SWI are simply different “sizes” to “fit” different children is specious. If that were the case, then really, if each child is different, why would just two sizes of fact be sufficient? I mean, if each child is different, then why not use the whole language and look-say and rote memorization that Dr. Henry denounced in her keynote? Even if children came in different literacy “sizes,” however, the language does not. The facts of the writing system are the same no matter what size you are. 

I’m not saying that Marcia Henry is a bad person. I have always been personally fond of Marcia Henry, and I appreciate the role she has played in my life and career. She was a wonderful trainer, and she’s been a good friend and mentor to me. She has offered me wisdom that extends far beyond word history and structure, detailed and helpful notes on my conference presentations, and advice and experience about things like divorce and dating and doctoral programs. What I am saying here is that Marcia Henry is wrong about OG and SWI, and I’m offering evidence for that assertion. If I kept my mouth shut, then I would not actually be the exacting professional she helped train me to be.   

I’m sure lots of people will read this and think I’m being mean. But you tell me what’s mean: calling out falsehoods in a professional conference, or charging people $150 to hear those falsehoods? Seriously, one of those things is A-OK, and the other is just WTF.

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