When we decide to explore any of the sciences, we expect to dive deep. We expect to examine what others have already discovered, we expect to find out things we didn’t know before, and we expect to be enlightened by those findings. If we are testing some established scientific principle or a student hypothesis about the way things work, we think like scientists. We follow some form of the Scientific Method. We do this so that some one else might repeat our experiment if they wanted and get the result we got. In other words, our results would be verifiable because our methods were consistent.
This same idea is at the very core of Structured Word Inquiry. It is inherent in its three basic principles.
Many people think they are “doing SWI” because they teach prefixes and suffixes, because they teach Greek and Latin roots, or because they have some information on a word’s etymology ready for their older students. If you are not treating word study as a science, you are not “doing SWI.” If you are using a boxed program, you are no doubt following someone else’s idea of what is appropriate for your students based merely on their age. How can that possibly reflect a student’s natural curiosity and support that student’s flow in thinking, questioning, proving/falsifying, and understanding? It can’t. It can’t because it cannot possibly follow all three principles of Structured Word Inquiry.
So what does it mean to treat spelling/word study as a science? How is that different from what is being done in other practices? What are those three principles and why are they so important?
Here they are. These are the three guiding principles of Structured Word Inquiry. They are something I keep in mind as I plan the starting point of each inquiry with my students. Just to be clear, these are not principles I thought of. These are the principles Dr. Peter Bowers developed as he was seeking to further define Structured Word Inquiry and what its implementation with students means exactly. I think it’s fair to say that the word ‘inquiry’ and even ‘structured’ is becoming part of more and more literacy programs. But what exactly do those words mean in those contexts? What do those words mean in the context of SWI? That is what Dr. Bowers set out to clarify with these principles.
- The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
- The 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 the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
If you are not familiar with Structured Word Inquiry or where it started, I encourage you to visit Dr. Pete Bowers’ website. A much more thorough accounting, including links to research that supports SWI can be found here at WordWorksKingston. Structured Word Inquiry describes the instruction Dr. Bowers used when he ran a grade 4-5 morphological intervention with John Kirby in 2010. It is important to note that he was “using the principles of scientific inquiry as the basis of word level literacy instruction.” After running the intervention and writing about their findings, Dr. Bowers knew how important it would be to carefully describe the underlying and crucial supports of Structured Word Inquiry.
The three guiding principles are different than the four questions that guide an actual structured word inquiry. They are foundational. They must be adhered to in order to conduct a structured word inquiry. Without the principles, as I’ve said earlier, this is just another program that becomes automatic and routine over time when compared to the unpredictable discovery and inquisitive nature of true structured word inquiry.
This idea of treating spelling as a science probably sounds weird because we have been taught that there is nothing more to know about a word except how to pronounce it, how to spell it and what it means. You may be wondering what there is to investigate. What would we even be looking for? But here is where structured word inquiry differs from other programs or boxed kits. The point of structured word inquiry is to show the child how to use scientific rigor and resources to prove to themselves why words are spelled the way they are. You won’t find other approaches explaining the why. They may explain what is, but not WHY what is, is. That takes orthographic science!
Let’s take a closer look at each of these important principles.
1) The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.
I remember reading this principle for the first time and thinking, “Whatever. How can that be?” I listened to and read everything else being presented to me and kind of ignored this principle. I ignored it because of the dissonance it created in my head. Thinking back on my own schooling, I recall all the time I spent memorizing a word’s spelling, all the time I spent looking up definitions of words, and finally, all the time I spent figuring out how to remember which word went with which definition. Now I was supposed to believe that the spelling of a word represents its meaning? “Whatever. How can that be?”
Fully believing in this principle has happened slowly for me because, well, old beliefs are sometimes embedded deeper than we think. Over and over I saw the proof, but still looked askance at this principle. How could it be true? Because I was wrangling with this principle, it was always on my mind. Without intentionally doing so, I began to collect my own bank of evidence.
What I thought I knew was that spelling was about pronunciation. I grew up being told to sound out words if I asked how they were spelled. As a teacher I’ve told hundreds of students to do the same. Sitting back and reflecting on all of the times a word couldn’t be successfully spelled in that manner – by sounding it out, was Exhibit A. If spelling was there to represent pronunciation, why were there so many exceptions – so many words that couldn’t be spelled correctly by being sounded out?
Exhibit B was the nagging sense of failure I felt in 18 years of teaching for not being able to provide my students with any real understanding about spelling. Every book I used, every piece of curricular material I was handed focused on spelling and its correlation to prominent vowel sounds in words. I always ended up saying, “No one knows why words are spelled the way they are. You’ll just have to memorize them.” Dictionaries were dreaded resources in my classroom. No one wanted to tackle one of those. Students begged me, “Just tell me how to spell it. Please?” When I asked colleagues for help, I was made to feel as if I was the problem – I wasn’t teaching the spelling curriculum as presented – with fidelity. But I read through the teaching guide many times. The understanding I longed for wasn’t there.
The third piece of evidence (Exhibit C) was something pointed out to me. (And ever since, I can’t un-see it). It was the fact that pronunciation in word families shifts all the time. Just think of how we pronounce courage and courageous; demonstrate and demonstrative; real and reality; heal and health; please and pleasure. If spelling was primarily supposed to help with pronunciation, why wasn’t each pair of these words spelled differently? A suffix was added and the pronunciation changed! Take note that the basic part of each word in these pairs is spelled the same regardless of that change in pronunciation. This particular exhibit of evidence is compelling to me. It reminds me of the genus and species names that scientists use. There are common names for most organisms on this earth, but those vary from location to location (kind of like accents and dialects with language). By using the genus and species name for an organism, scientists have a common language. They know which organism is being referred to with certainty. The fact that we don’t shift the spelling of a word every time we shift its pronunciation is heavy duty proof that the spelling represents something other than pronunciation. It represents the meaning that we (no matter where we live, no matter what our dialect or regional peculiarities) seek in order to communicate with one another.
Of course, there is more evidence out there. Exhibit D might be the Homophone Principle which states that when two words are pronounced the same but mean different things, wherever possible they will have different spellings to represent those different meanings. Think of the homophones blue and blew; right and write; flower and flour; see and sea; poor and pour. We recognize that although each set of words has the same pronunciation, the two words are not spelled alike to mark their different meanings! I’ll say that again. Their spelling indicates to the reader that they do not share meaning.
These days when I am explaining this principle to others, and they give me that look that I recognize as hesitance, I present the above evidence. Because it is the most compelling to me, I make sure to present what I have explained as Exhibit C. I use examples such as the word family for <sign>. There is the obvious lack of pronunciation of the <g> in family members <sign>, <assignment>, and <signer>, but then the <g> IS pronounced in <signature>, <designate>, and <signal>. Beyond that, the <s> has an unexpected pronunciation as /z/ in <design> and <designate>. Once more, the spelling is the consistent piece because it is representing the sense and meaning of the base! All of the words in this family have a sense and meaning of “a mark with some special importance.”
2) The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry.
The first time I read this principle I was ready to accept it. I was almost relieved. For years I had been hoping that English wasn’t as illogical and unpredictable as people kept saying (continue to say). You see, I love words. I always have. I just haven’t understood them in the way I do now. Now I have images and stories and depth and connections that I never had before. In the same way that I delight in turning that first page of a new book, I now delight in looking at a new word or finding out something new about an old word.
Knowing that English spelling is well-ordered and reliable enough to face the rigors of scientific investigation brings an amazing sense of calm and eagerness to my classroom. There is no dread in knowing we are studying words on a certain day. There is only joy and anticipation. The frustration and distress disappeared because the judgement regarding being right or wrong about a spelling disappeared. It may sound weird to hear me say this, but the focus with structured word inquiry isn’t completely on the spelling. As we are understanding the spelling, as we are seeing these reliable and well-ordered conventions of English spelling over and over, it feels to the student as if their spelling has significantly improved without them having to focus on it specifically. They are never asked to memorize the spelling of a word, yet they are able to spell words that they haven’t been able to spell before. For some it has felt effortless. That ability comes from the fact that they now understand the word’s spelling. In the past, when they have been asked to memorize spellings, there was no rhyme or reason for them. It was a string of letters. Words with several vowels were particularly hard because no one could satisfactorily explain their order.
An especially liberating truth inherent in this principle is that calling words irregular, oddball, tricky, devil or the like doesn’t make them so. Every time I hear someone call a word tricky or say something as ridiculous as “This word is misbehaving and needs to be put in jail,” I shake my head. Here we have adults who don’t understand the spelling of a certain word, making fun of the word for that. It’s as if they are saying, “I don’t understand your spelling. It doesn’t fit what I’ve been taught about words.” So instead of questioning what they’ve been taught, they single out the word and call it names. I’ve been in the classroom a long time. Think about what some children do to other children who are in some way different than themselves. Instead of trying to understand the difference, one child makes fun of the other. Isn’t that just what is happening here?
3) Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.
The idea of investigating words as a scientist might is so appealing to me! After all, I have organized our school’s fifth grade science fair for 25 years now. I know a thing or two about using a consistent framework for a scientific investigation. A scientist wouldn’t dream of drawing conclusions based on someone else’s say so. A scientist conducts their own research, and keeps careful notes to track their investigation. A scientist is thorough and looks at a problem from many angles, seeking to have a broad understanding before zeroing in on a specific aspect. By using the four questions of structured word inquiry, spelling scientists follow a similar deep dive to understand English spelling.
The importance of this principle must not be underestimated. If it is true that scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works, then I want my students to be able to use scientific inquiry to see it for themselves. I need to teach my students which tools to use and which questions to ask. They need to know how to use the relevant information in the resources to provide evidence to either support or falsify their hypotheses about English spelling. This is where boxed programs or scripted curriculums fall short. Completely and unfortunately short. The questions are already posed … by the creators of the program. The students are walked through the lessons and asked to answer questions they didn’t ask. Such programs are not designed to accommodate the unpredictability of a child’s path of thinking. Structured Word Inquiry on the other hand embraces and celebrates that unpredictability. Teachable moments present themselves every day and in meaningful ways. The students are engaged and fascinated because they are part of what drives the learning. They are not passive receivers of lessons who are told what to think and then given time to memorize things that don’t make sense to them.
A huge part of my learning community is my classroom. In this room I am a passionate learner. I think out loud at times to model the types of questions that might help my students during an inquiry. I guide the students in the right direction when I can see they are stuck. And as often as possible, I turn the “figuring-out part”, the “decision-making-based-on-the-evidence-collected part” of the investigation back on the students. The inquiries carried out by the students yield learning for all of us. When that happens, we all feel exhilarated.
Students find it refreshing that I don’t have a teacher manual and as a result, don’t always know the answers. I often tell them that my very favorite questions are the ones I can’t answer. In a very big way, it lifts the burden that most children feel about guessing what the teacher wants you to say in a given discussion. It lifts the burden of having to have a right answer when joining a discussion. Students no longer worry about being embarrassed for giving a wrong answer because if we use scientific inquiry, there is no right or wrong answer. There is no judgement attached to a thought shared. Instead, students propose hypotheses about word structure or other aspects of English spelling. There is only what we can prove, what we cannot prove, and what we can falsify. This is an amazing difference from what is experienced in other classrooms (from what was experienced in my own spelling classroom prior to 2012). It provides an atmosphere in which there is a willingness to participate and ask questions. You see, so much of the learning takes place during those classroom discussions and during presentations of a particular investigation. THAT is when information is settling and synthesizing with other information, forming or strengthening an existing understanding. For the last two years, this has been our classroom mantra:
When you are looking for answers, you are looking to settle your question. Once you find that answer, you are done with the question. You don’t go back and ask it again. You move on. This principle of using scientific inquiry demands that we not seek answers. We seek to understand something. The question remains open. Even when we are satisfied with our understanding, we are open to noticing something that will bring that question back to the foreground. We will reconsider what it is we understand and how the new information affects it. With other programs, children are filled with facts as if they are buckets. There is so much the student is asked to memorize whether it makes sense to them or not.
Structured Word Inquiry gives the student the consistent procedure, the framework of these principles, and the opportunity to see for themselves – to prove to themselves – to build that understanding for themselves. There is no program or approach or preset curriculum that can do that. This principle of using scientific inquiry is what sets Structured Word Inquiry apart. It is what disqualifies it from being called a program or an approach. It is simply scientific inquiry. It is the same scientific inquiry that led to us finding out the world is round. It is how we found out about gravity, germs, volcanoes at the bottom of the ocean, the mating dance of Sandhill cranes, the phases of the moon, the layers of the atmosphere, and the biodiversity of the Amazon Jungle. Each discovery or understanding began with a question and a scientist who pursued it. And the pursuit was teeming with scientific thinking.
It is the way we can learn about English spelling too. Just make sure your toes are soundly buried in the sands of these three Structured Word Inquiry Principles before investigating anything.