Going with the Flow

A few weeks ago, one of my wonderful clients asked me for some help in moving her practice from OG to SWI — especially with the more severely struggling kids. She’s been moved by some of my recent posts here and on Facebook about, well, what’s wrong with OG and why we need to change its false practices and false assertions. So see, this is why I shout it from the rooftops. Because when people are ready to move away from language lies like syllable types, they move in the right direction.

So this client emailed me and said she was struggling with SWI, but instead of just whining at me, she actually sent me some examples of her work, of her efforts to really study words with her students. This allowed me to give her specific feedback. For one thing, she was neglecting etymological relatives, and we discovered that’s a space where she can refine her understanding and help her students better. I’m pretty good at helping when people are willing to share their work, be wrong, and not be panty-twisted when I tell them they’re wrong.

Since then, I have seen a huge shift in the depth of her understanding, her engagement with the writing system, and her willingness to bring this understanding and engagement into her sessions with students. She’s shared with me and others some of her study and discoveries, and it’s so clear how much she’s enjoying herself as well as how much she’s learning. Her frame of mind is totally different than it was just a few weeks ago, when she was scared and uncertain and kind of weary. I am so glad she reached out — many people are benefitting from the dialogues about real language that she is now initiating.

Today, she revisited a question she had asked me about fluency, right before the Etymology conference, when I had said “Let’s talk later.” Well, now is now later, so I responded to her this time, and thought I’d share it here, because it will help other people too.

Her original question was, “Do you recommend doing anything in addition to SWI for fluency or comprehension? I don’t know if that’s outside of the scope of what you’re currently doing but I thought you’d be a good person to ask.” Today, she reached out again: “I wanted to follow up on the topics of fluency and blending,” she said, “but mainly how to teach kids with dyslexia how to read.
“I’m not a die hard OG person,” she continued; “it’s just the only training I have for teaching kids how to read so I am totally open to new ideas.” I think a lot of people are in that same boat. Not that they’re married to OG; they just don’t know what else to do.

“I didn’t used to focus on fluency,” she wrote, “but a lot of experts say it’s important to become fluent in cvc words before moving on in an OG program so I’ve been working on it with my students but I would love to hear your opinion on the topic. As I think of doing SWI with my students, how would I work on reading with them? Especially the ones who struggle a lot.”

Again, these are all fair questions, and so articulate in the asking. Notice that she didn’t come to me to defend OG. She didn’t make any defensive claims about how helpful it is. She very honestly said, This is really all I know. She didn’t insist that syllable division or timed drills or nonsense words are really very valuable, or try to explain to my why that was so. She nailed it, you guys. She thought about it, pinpointed her needs, and opened herself up to being wrong, and to learning new things.

Learning is just so beautiful when we let it be.

Here’s my response:

The whole “become fluent with CVC words” is very phonicky. It’s artificial. Reading doesn’t really develop that way, and in my experience, the most severe strugglers, when met with that kind of thing, the nonsense words and the blending and the lists of monosyllables, they get stuck there. They often become just unable to move past CVC into larger words, let alone into real reading.

If you’re working with a new, young, or severe kiddo where you’d do a lot of CVC work for a long time in OG, then my suggestion is to go ahead and use whatever OG CVC words you’re use to using, but study them with SWI. Build out their families. For example:

fat: fats, fatter, fattest, fatted (like the fatted calf, a fatted lamb…), nonfat, fatty

cat: cats, catty, catted, catting, cattish, cattail, catwalk

mat: mats, matted, matting, bathmat

sat: outsat, babysat (it’s already past tense, so it doesn’t do much else morphologically)

at(well, this compounds in atone, but as a function word, it doesn’t do much else) 

This gives you a chance to get the kiddo reading and recognizing patterns besides just CVC. It is rich for being able to discover that a real word family doesn’t mean words that rhyme; it means words that share a base element. This is huge, and so productive, and kids see the difference right away. They really do.

As he encounters these words in the families you build, you can provide whatever reading support he needs. Step away from requiring him to perform. If he can’t read a word, have him spell it out first. If he still doesn’t know, then tell him, and ask him to use it in a sentence. Maybe try to revisit it again later. You’re not asking him to spell words with a doubled consonant yet, but you can notice that with him. Just notice it and say, “Huh! There’s that doubled consonant again!” You and he will also be able to notice affixes — especially the <ed, ing, s> that are so common, and also compounding. For writing / spelling, you can have him ‘tap’ mat or cats and write it from memory if you want, like SOS in OG, but you can also give him a synthetic word sum like < cat + walk > ➙ and have him solve it. You can tell him what the <walk> spells, and then ask him what the whole word is. 

For fluency more generally, start with a study of function and content words. You will learn the basic framework I use for that study in the Function & Content LEXinar. You pay attention to stress, which is different in function and content words, and that practice can really help improve prosody. You practice having the kids read phrases:

Noun Phrasesa big test, lots of kids, the rest of the cake, ten pet cats, the red sunset…
Verb Phrasesmight have gone, had been running, didn’t see, could’ve been sleeping, were done…
Prepositional Phraseson the bus, up a hill, with a big dog, at six, at home, in the way…

Phrases can also be practiced for writing (dictation, if you do that). Their grammar can be studied. They can become the kernel for a sentence that the child completes (and writes, or dictates to you). For writing, don’t be afraid to have the child do more copy work — where you build a phrase together, and you write it, and then he writes it. Or you can give him 3 or 4 phrases already written (or typed), and then have him arrange them into a sentence, then write the whole sentence. So, for example, if he had the phrases above, he could build Lots of kids might have gone on the bus. You can build real sentences or silly ones, like Ten pet cats had been running in the way. I prefer stuff that makes sense, but the thing is, if you go Noun Phrase – Verb Phrase – Prepositional Phrase, in that order, you will make a grammatically correct sentence every time, even if it doesn’t totally make sense. You just might have to make the verb agree with the subject (was done instead of were done). 

If you have an oral reading component, like where the kid is reading aloud, you can do some shared reading, as that helps him read in a text that’s maybe a little out of reach for him independently. If you are used to ‘controlled’ texts, then don’t be afraid of reading Dr. Seuss, poetry of any kind, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, folk tales, or other real texts that still have repeating patterns and perhaps a simplified language. I also really like reading things with kids where they can actually learn about their language, like Why is a Tiger a Tiger? That one’s great for sharing because some pages have hardly any text, and some have a lot, and you don’t have to read the whole thing. We might also read about the history of the alphabet, or the Vikings.  

You can also pull phrases from any oral reading text and use them in your phrase practice. Then, when he goes to read the paragraph or page or whatever, he’s already practiced several of the phrases in it. That’s good for what the ‘experts’ call fluency, which is really just a question of having enough comfort in a text to be able to concentrate one’s mental deskspace to understanding meaning. Because after all, that’s the whole point.  


  1. Amanda G. says:

    “Step away from requiring him to perform” YES, preach! Thanks for this post, Gina!

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this post, Gina! I have wondered how you teach students with dyslexia to read using SWI. I have a better understanding of using SWI for spelling and morphological instruction. Thank you for explicitly comparing certain aspects of OG instruction and how a teacher might adapt them to SWI. Do you have a Lexinar that covers this topic in depth?

    • Well, I have had a year-long LEXinar in OG: Advanced Considerations, and I offer a lot of transitional information in that class, but I haven’t got any plans to offer that in the short term. I will say that my Function and Content LEXinar that’s coming up soon. That’s probably the most pedagogically practical piece I can offer in this way right now.

  3. Sarah says:

    Where can we access the function and content LEXinar?

  4. Brad says:

    Another important understanding is that “fluency” is a stage in the instructional hierarchy that the NRP bogarted into this construct of “reading fluency” that has existed since in education.

    You can be fluent in any skill: reading orally, solving math facts, playing the piano or changing a tire. It’s not something specific to reading.

    And yeah, the idea is that there’s enough headspace left over to understand meaning of the text you are reading. It’s been blown up to be conflated with “speed,” but the actuality is quite different.

    So, there’s a lot of conjecture and belief, occasionally borne out in “research,” in all I’ve said above.

    Which goes to say…trust the kids. They will guide you.

    • There’s no question, Brad, about what you’ve written, and so very well. All anyone has to do to get a more authentic perspective on “reading fluency” is to take up a new musical instrument or a foreign language. Even though I was already a musician, learning the banjo has been a lesson in developing fluent skills.

      You are also right about the conflation of fluency and speed. Imagine if we did that with equestrianism, or playing the banjo, or speaking French. Imagine if we thought that being fluent in French meant that you could speak so many words per minute, of that being a fluent banjo player meant that you could play the fastest. If people pay attention, then they will notice that adults with dyslexia who are readers tend to read more slowly than average, ***but they also read more deeply.*** When I read a novel in a day, the details are in one eye and out the other. But someone like the Old Grouch, who might take 4 months to read a novel, remembers a richness and depth of detail that I do not.

      The world needs both our brains.

      Another issue with the “reading fluency” conversation is that people assume that “teaching reading” is a totally different endeavor from teaching how the writing system works. People think I teach spelling, or that I teach spelling and morphology, or that that’s all SWI does. That’s really wrong-headed thinking.

      That kind of thinking, again, is spurred on by the ersatz research behind the NRP. It is pedagogy’s Anglo-Saxonest, knee-jerkiest feature: the insatiable need to cut everything human into parts, stick them in boxes, and label them.

  5. Nataly says:

    “If people pay attention, then they will notice that adults with dyslexia who are readers tend to read more slowly than average, ***but they also read more deeply.” T r u t h, t h a n k y o u!

    I would also like to add that I have attended many public school meetings where the erroneous fluency factor was tied to illusive proof of comprehension. “they go hand in hand don’t you know?” No! please show evidence (silence). I can effectively remove this propaganda from further discussion and get on with facts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *