Five Considerations for the SWI Classroom

A language arts teacher (Cristi Julsrud) made a promise that she would challenge herself this year.  The challenge she chose was to take an art class.  Cristi enjoyed the experience immensely, but walked away with more than sketches and paintings.  She walked away as a more reflective teacher.  You see, throughout the experience, she couldn’t help but notice what a masterful teacher her art instructor was.  Away from the art room, Cristi Julsrud was able to think about what made this art teacher so wonderful.  She made a list of ten things that she felt made the art classroom a place where an individual’s learning was truly valued.   You can read her full blog post here.

While I agree with all of the points she made,  five of them really struck a chord with what I do in my classroom while incorporating Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) and other orthographic truths.

  1.  It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be in the same place, at the same time, working on the same thing.

I often have students working at different points in an investigation then their classmates. If a group or an individual finishes before others in the class, there is always another investigation to begin. The very nature of an investigation is such that I can’t predict what will be found. Sometimes an investigation can take several class periods. Other times it takes less. Pair that up with the drive and abilities of the students, and it becomes impossible to have everyone start and finish at the same time.

When looking for a next investigation, I might suggest comparing words that have a final <ck> to those with a final <k> (or final <dge> to <ge>, or final <tch> to final <ch>).  I might suggest looking at a word off the Wonder Wall in our room and seeing what they can find out about it.  I might suggest a particular diminutive suffix (or frequentative suffix) to investigate.  I might ask them to choose a word from our current science topic or from their current reading book.  Quite often they suggest what their next investigation will be!

The really important thing is to make time to present these investigations to the class. The group presents, and the rest of the class asks questions or suggests things that might be added. These reflective discussions of the investigations are where so much of the learning takes place!  It is where we build a community of learners.  Students become comfortable asking questions of one another.  It is not about being right or being wrong.  It is about building an understanding together.

  1. We don’t have to “fix” every problem.

For me, this point addresses the fact that when we as teachers know a deeper analysis of a word, sometimes it is better to hold back on our own contribution to the investigation.  Instead, we should guide the students to recognize the connections and logic of what they see on their own. Too often students get handed all the pieces and are expected to simply arrange the information or memorize it. The engaging factor with SWI is that the students learn how to dig for the information they need in order to prove their hypotheses about words. They learn to gauge whether or not what they found does that, and in doing so learn to see the sense and logic in our language for themselves.

Here is one example of how I have guided a student who was trying to prove whether or not <tion> was a suffix.

 

  1. Look to masters to get started.

In her post, Cristi is referring to the mentors, the experts, and the craftsmen who create art. In the SWI community, there are many teachers to look to who are already integrating SWI in their classrooms. Many of them have blogs and can be viewed as mentors.  I encourage teachers wondering where to start, to read the blogs and watch the videos of students engaging in SWI.

Here are the ones I am aware of.  Please let me know if there is one out there I haven’t seen:

Beyond the Word  This is Lyn Anderson’s blog.  She works with very young children. She has posts dating back to 2012.

Small Humans Think Big  This is Skot Caldwell’s blog.  At the time this blog was active, Skot was teaching Grade 1 and thinking through the idea of word walls and the understandings even children this young are ready for.

Rebecca Loveless  Rebecca is a Structured Word Inquiry Coach who works with children, teachers and tutors.

Mrs. Barnett’s Buzzing Blog  Lisa Barnett is a special education teacher working with K-5 children in a resource room.

Mrs. Steven’s Classroom Blog  That’s me, and you’re already there.  Posts back to 2012.

Grade 5 Mr. Allen  Dan Allen has posts pertaining to SWI from August 2011 through October 2015.  His posts were my original inspiration for learning more about SWI!

Who in the World  Skot Caldwell is now teaching Grade 5/6 and shares activities as well as how he teaches a scientific attitude.  We often trade ideas!

Word Nerds  Ann Whiting taught 7th grade Humanities class.  This has posts from 2012-2013.

Word Nerdery is Ann’s second blog with 7th grader students.  This has posts from 2013-2017.  I have adapted many of Ann’s activities and learned much by reading Ann’s blog!

WordWorks Literacy Centre  Although this is not a teacher blog, there are many videos here of students working with SWI that I highly recommend watching!  Pete Bowers began as a classroom teacher, and as he began his graduate work, focused on the scientific framework and 4 questions that are now known as Structured Word Inquiry.

Take your time and look at many of these.  Do not limit yourself to the age of the students you work with.  You may find a great idea that just needs to be adapted in order to work for your students.  Looking at many of these will also demonstrate the value of using SWI in your classroom.  The videos contained in these blogs cannot be unseen.  After watching them it will be hard to believe that teaching endless sorting or rote memorization is better. 

Choose an activity or investigation that fits your situation and try it. How did it go? What do your students need to understand next? Go back and read some more. Email the teachers you are following to ask your questions. Post your questions or share your experiences on the recently formed Facebook Group called Structured Word Inquiry in the Classroom.  There are many in that group who have experience using SWI with children.  This is a community of learners and we all benefit from questions asked.

  1. The process is important.

By building investigations around the Four Questions of SWI, you are bringing a consistency to those investigations.  The student will consider the meaning, morphology, etymology and phonology of a word, and because of their findings, see the relationships within a family of words.  After a while the first thing wondered by a student about a word will be “What does it mean?” instead of “How do I pronounce it?”.  Students will wonder about words in and out of school. They will have discussions with their families on the way to the soccer field or around the dinner table.  And when one student comes to your desk first thing in the morning to ask you if the <ped> in pedestrian is related to the <ped> in pediatrician, you can smile and say, “Great question!  Let me know what you find out!”

The scientific framework of SWI empowers the students.  They have a routine to follow that will lead to the evidence they are seeking.  They will know what to do when the evidence they find proves their hypothesis, but also what to do when it doesn’t.  Because of it, they can become independent learners.    They will, through practice, be able to provide evidence to support their thinking no matter what subject they are studying. This is a model for scholarship, and you will find your students are hungry for it!

  1. Grades. Don’t. Matter.

By the end of the year, my students have stopped asking, “What did I get on that?” They don’t need a grade to tell them they learned something. It is so obvious to them. The grade is not the final step for them. It is not the finish line or the reward. The middle of an investigation, that is what they enjoy. The finding out what no one else in the room knows and being able to help everyone understand what they have found out – THAT is the reward and the joy and the goal. 

 

 

One thought on “Five Considerations for the SWI Classroom

  1. Love this! No matter what we teach, or what content, we can all seek to make our classrooms more joyful places! Thanks for reading, too!

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