Structured Word Inquiry

“scientific word investigation”

Understanding SWI:

“Structured Word Inquiry” or “Scientific Word Investigation”

“Structured word inquiry” (commonly referred to as SWI) is the term I used to describe the instruction I used in the Grade 4-5 morphological intervention study I conducted with John Kirby (Bowers & Kirby, 2010). If you read that article, you will see that from the start the guiding principle of this instructional approach was that it was about using the principles of scientific inquiry as the basis of word level literacy instruction. I originally chose the phrase as a way to signal two key features of the instruction. 

  1. 1)This instruction explicitly targets any features and conventions that govern “word structure.”

  2. 2)This instruction employs not just an “inquiry” approach, but a “structured inquiry” approach.

As a teacher, I had seen a great deal of instruction with the label “inquiry” that I found to be unfocused and ineffective. I was determined to signal that SWI was not just about students engaging in any sort of inquiry about words. In SWI, the teacher had the obligation to structure the scientific inquiry they did with students.

I never had any expectation that this this phrase would start to become used fairly widely, but am certainly gratified by this growing interest. It is helpful to have a common phrase with which to refer this instruction. One problem I’ve found with the phrase, however, is that some mistake it to refer to a spelling or word study “program.” I work hard to dispel this misunderstanding. I often found myself trying to clarify this point by saying that “Structured Word Inquiry” is just a way of describing scientific inquiry of the written word.

Recently, I was pointed to an article by Angela Wilkins (2016, Fall) that offered a welcome reinterpretation of what SWI could stand for. Her article was in the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators Newsletter. In her description of this instruction with matrices and word sums, she referred to SWI as “scientific word investigation” and I loved it! Her phrase is a more direct description of exactly what SWI is supposed to be -- and conveniently, it offers the same acronym! Also, it just so happens that Grade 4 teacher Matt Berman, who was responsible for bringing SWI to the Nueva School has long made the case that the word “investigation” is more appropriate for this work of tracing back the trail of history and meaning of words as marked by orthography. If you study this old post on Matt’s Real Spellers website in which a 10 year old student introduced me to the structure, history, relatives and meaning of the word <investigation> I have to admit, that I think he’s right!

Regardless of the title, it is important for those trying to make sense of SWI to have a clear understanding of the crucial features for instruction that can be accurately described with this acronym. Below is my attempt to foster exactly that understanding.

Guiding Principles of Structured Word Inquiry

(“scientific word investigation”)

  1. BulletThe primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.

  2. BulletThe conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.

Scientific inquiry is necessary to safely guide spelling instruction and understanding.

  1. BulletScientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.

Inquiry learning is rudderless (and unscientific) without a reliable means of falsifying hypotheses that don’t stand up to the evidence. A community committed to the use of scientific inquiry to deepen its understanding of orthography has an ever-evolving understanding. It strives to apply the same critical analysis to its own assumptions, hypotheses and working conclusions about orthography as it does to to those of any other reference. Every conclusion is accepted as temporary, pending further evidence.

There are many features necessary for instruction to warrant the title “structured word inquiry” or “scientific word investigation.” The purpose of the guiding principles above is that they offer educators a means of recognizing when they are moving away from SWI and thus a cue to reconsider that practice.

For example...

  1. If you find yourself using instruction that suggests that the primary purpose of spelling is to represent the sounds of words, you are violating the first  principle.

  2. If you find yourself using instruction that suggests that some words are “exceptions” or irregular, you are violating the second principle.

Here are some of the linguistic tools and practices that must be present for instruction to meet the  criteria of SWI include:

  1. Morphological analysis and synthesis with word sums. The word sum is a necessary tool to allow for falsification of hypotheses of orthographic morphological structure.

  2. Analysis of morphological families and etymological families. Use of the “structure and meaning test” to determine whether two words are etymological relatives (share a root) and morphological relatives (share a base element). The word matrix permits the analysis of the interrelations morphological elements of a morphological family.

The following are the standard four questions used to guide SWI investigations. Question one should be first and question 4 should be last, but questions 2 and 3 have no particular order.

Research and SWI

For Pete’s published research related to SWI see the bottom of the About WordWorks  

page HERE.

Pedagogical possibilities that grow from SWI

The content above addresses the necessary scientific principles for word level study to meet the criteria of SWI. In addition, rich pedagogical considerations and possibilities grow from this scientific foundation that I can’t describe as necessary, but that I think are well worth considering.

I recommend those working with SWI seek ways to leverage it as a means of deepening concepts of any subject area under study. Since all spellings have evolved according to the same orthographic conventions, educators can use SWI to investigate whatever terms and concepts they are trying to help students make sense of. In this way SWI becomes not a separate subject, but simply an additional means of making better sense of the world. Lyn Anderson has played a major role in emphasizing this integrated context in her work right from the beginning of schooling.

I have posted an archive of such investigations at this Real Spellers link. Many are from my year as a visiting scholar at the Nueva School in the Bay Area, but it includes examples from other sources as well.

Some rich examples include the following:

  1. Studying the word <journal> to help introduce the idea of writing in a journal in a Grade 1 class. (Click HERE)

  2. Investigating the terms <grace> and <subjugation> to better understand a presidential speech in a Grade 11 class. (Click HERE).

  3. A powerful video of a Grade 7 student articulating his political thinking in a humanities class by investigating the word <dissident>. (Click HERE)

  4. And from another source, see a science lesson in which a Grade 4 student from a low SES public school prompted rich inquiry-led investigation of <condensation>. (Click HERE)

The key purpose of the video below was to walk teachers through the scientific process of investigating morphological and etymological families. However, I also specifically modeled how these investigations were leveraged to deepen curricular understanding. 

Another frame I recommend that educators consider is the distinction between teacher-led inquiry and inquiry-led teaching. The screen shot below, taken from my teacher resource book based on my intervention study addresses that difference.

SWI brings the inquiry principle schools seek to the context of the written word

Most schools have mission statements citing “inquiry” as central to their instruction. A common and reasonable justification for this emphasis is that we need to develop critical thinking skills in order to prepare students for a world that will have problems and jobs that don’t yet exist. We need instruction that builds knowledge that allows for the solving of novel problems.

It is for exactly this reason that I argue schools should purposely create learning environments in which teachers create situations in which they investigate problems to which they themselves do not know the answers. This context can be described as “inquiry-led teaching”. Teachers can prepare themselves for successful inquiry-led teaching by practicing the scientific process of inquiry in “teacher-led inquiry” lessons. Teachers practice and build up their own and their students’ orthographic knowledge and skills for scientific word investigations by planning lessons to arrive at “answers” to questions they know before class begins. This is just like a biology or physical science experiment in which teachers model investigations to help students arrive at known answers. When orthography is the context of the scientific inquiry, they model using the “4 questions” to help the class arrive at understandings they knew be the investigation began. But, when a student asks a teacher a question about a word that they have not yet studied, the teacher can respond with excitement about a novel question. Why not respond to such a student question by saying, “Awesome! I have no idea. Let’s use our four questions to see what we can discover?” This gives the teacher and students a real-life context to do what their school’s mission statement claim we are doing -- using what we are learning to make sense of novel problems.

If instruction lives up to the claim of preparing students to able to solve novel problems, I argue that teachers should be able to rely on the principles of that instruction to practice the process of novel problem-solving with their students. It is not necessary that a full understanding of a question is arrived at each time, or that a resolution is discovered right away. This is just like the real world for which we claim to be preparing our students.

But I have found that drawing on the guiding scientific principles identified above, and the 4 questions consistently provokes some sort of deepening and expanding of orthographic knowledge. My experience is that children are never more excited about an investigation than when they realize they are taking part in a real investigation as co-learners with their teachers. See just one such example of an investigation of the spelling of the word <come> sparked by a Grade 2 student in this WW Newsletter, and this Real Spellers post.

See an article on the link between SWI and the concept of “Backwards Design” from Understanding by Design HERE.

See a video of another example of an “inquiry-led” SWI investigation in a classroom below.

A brilliant example of an “inquiry-led” structured word inquiry lesson in process

Above is a video of Dan Allen and his Grade 5 class engaging in an “inquiry-led” with confidence, expertise and joy. Consider how Dan introduced this video on his blog:

“The central idea for our new unit of inquiry is “Motion pictures entertain, inform, and provoke.” The students were assigned the analysis of <entertain> at home, so we needed to address <inform> and <provoke> at school. I hadn’t looked up either <provoke> or <inform> before making this video. I wanted the kids to see me ‘think aloud’, and I wanted them to participate.”

Dan recognizes that if teachers can expect children to do an investigation of a topic at home, we teachers should be willing to do a similar investigation with our students - without having access to the answer before hand. In this way, students participate as authentic co-learners with their teacher applying the principles he or she is teaching.

This video shows an incredibly rich and engaging vocabulary building experience. But that is only a small part of what these students and their teacher gain from this investigation. This is a lesson on learning how to learn -- how to develop and test hypotheses. We see students and their teacher refining their knowledge about how English spelling works, and how to use that knowledge as leverage for future independent problem solving of the meaning, history and structure of words they encounter in any context.

When I start to work with teachers, they are often daunted by the knowledge about spelling that I and other teachers demonstrate about concepts they have never been taught before. I try to articulate that the way to learn this content is to study it with their students. Dan shows this process in action. If these Grade 5 students can have this kind of control over these concepts, surely we teachers can learn it too.


Copyright Susan and Peter Bowers 2008