Skip to content

A Foray into Structured Word Inquiry: Part ‘Satu’

November 9, 2015

It started with an idea and a nudge. I am trying to figure out what to choose for my professional goal at my new school. I want it to be something useful and practical. Something that enhances my teaching practice. I thought hard about what I want to learn and where I need to grow professionally. I’m always interested in inquiry so that’s a start. We’ve recently had some PD on Structured Word Inquiry with Dr. Pete Bowers. This is rather new to me, and so is the spelling programme  we are using here at my school so I thought what a better way to learn so20151107_100935mething new and get out of my comfort zone within a realm of interest.

So..Structured Word Inquiry from my current understanding essentially uses an approach of scientific inquiry to understand words. There is more to it than that but that’s where I start to understand it. I first had the notion that words are spelled the way they are BECAUSE that’s how they are spelled and pretty much taught along those lines (even though I think I knew better and didn’t really believe that). I gave little thought that words are spelled for a reason and because I am a good speller it didn’t really matter. I believed that words that didn’t fit neatly in the rules could simply be labelled irregular words and that was it. I now understand that these oddballs, once you dig a bit deeper are not irregular and that there are no exceptions. These exceptions are actually features that we can find in spelling time and time again.

After  a week of discussion, practice, thinking and being challenged I came away with this.

Top 10 takeaways from my week with Pete:

    • follow the trail to find more about interesting words and going through an investigation (hypothesis)
    • tools to help me understand and find out spelling and meaning connections:
    • Word Sums – how I can use them in my class as a tool to understand (make sure learners understand what base, prefix and suffix mean)
    • spell out graphemes with kids so they encounter them and explicitly expose them to spelling: ‘wh + at’, kn + igh+t
    • use spelling mistakes as a gift for investigation – and know where to look for evidence (
    • identify related words to understand other words and make connections ie: real, really, unreal, realise …
    • words are understood in: meaning (first), built, relatives and pronunciation (last)
    • implant a word you may investigate in class into a sentence/meaningful discussion for context
    • identifying relationships between words helps us gain a deeper understanding of the word and spelling which also generates a large exposure to words in context to deepen vocabulary
    • The JOY of understanding!! 

Things that challenged my thinking

  • that spelling is NOT irregular and there are NO exceptions
  • false word sums are okay- it shows thinking which can lead to discovery (mistakes are good)!
  • going through a scientific word investigation (an inquiry led teachable moment as opposed to a teacher led inquiry moment)  the teacher does not know the answer, you find it together with the learners
  • maybe I don’t know a lot about spelling (I think I’m a pretty decent speller but I really don’t know why- so why am I , and why aren’t others?)
  • that spelling can be inquiry as opposed to something that is memorised (and not boring).

My thinking so far

So I thought that I needed to give this whole structure word inquiry thing a go so my first starting point is that I need to try myself to understand it so this is what I am thinking: 

  1. I need to understand this whole thing before I think about teaching it to others. This is the starting point. I first came up with my own hypotheses: I wondered why people get confused between know and no and the whole silent K – OR is the K really silent? I tried to say and spell it.  I asked myself what the word know meant and found some contexts in which it is situated. I think that K is not silent, we use ‘kn’. I also wanted to test if the word know was a base.
  2. I pulled up a word searcher search using the word know and came with with these words (see below) 
  3. I Investigated a word on my own so I chose know made some word sums and plugged it into a morpheme chart and made a hypotheses is that I can make a word un+know + s → unknows (I tested it and I could not use it) then I came up with a matrix for know using mini matrix maker and came up with this (see below)
  4. I found out that know is a base and kn is not a prefix because ‘ow’ has no meaning so know must be the base word. From the base word I see that I can make a whole host of connected words from the base using prefixes and suffixes. I also found out a whole host of other words in the word family with the base word know

    A Matrix

The Plan (So far…I think) and where to Next? To take this into the classroom, I may use the word Responsibility to unpack and investigate the meaning because we have been talking about this lately. So, I envision it unfolding like this…

  1. Taking the word Responsibility which comes up time and time again as a reference to our class agreements- tie into a meaningful context as a starting point. 
  2. Inquire into the word responsible– plant some ‘strategic prompts’ in real world contexts, discussions, powerful images, a story. Maybe make a Word Bag or a Word Web from the word Responsible to identify word families that share both meaning and spelling. Start with meaning. Tap out the words of some of the words in the word family and spell out loud to make the phonemes/graphemes correspondence less abstract and more concrete. 
  3. Be scientists and create a hypothesis about the word from pre selected evidence. What does the word responsible mean?
  4. Guided testing: Create a morpheme chart (a morpheme is the smallest unit that can construct meaning) to build on as we explore the base word responsible and see what learners already know. Collect data and unlock prior knowledge.
  5. Introduce the matrix and teach how to use it-the rules.
  6. Teach some structure as they arise and get learners to spell the words out loud as a class: know + able –> (which means ‘as written as’) knowable
  7. Build a matrix with a class using the mini matrix maker from our morphine chart
  8. After word sums and matrix developed, introduce simple prefix flowchart to run our words through.
  9. Evaluate. Students either accept or reject their hypotheses as we continue to build our morpheme charts and matrix. Ask students if they can use the word in a way that makes sense.
  10. Practice the words and patterns

NB: So at this stage it is more teacher led inquiry- because I’m still trying to figure out how this works. If it does then I can be a bit of a risk taker and use words learners come up with and make it more learner led.

Hopefully we will go through this process together as a class and then have learners try their own and start thinking like a spelling scientist, making a hypothesis and proving/disproving them.

Further investigation:  So I’m left with these to ponder and push my thinking further…

  • How much do I really know about spelling?
  • How does my knowledge (and misunderstanding of words) affect my instruction?
  • How can we ignore the spoken word and written word? Like why is the G silent in sign BUT has a hard G in signal?
  • How much does knowing the root of a word help us spell? Or is it just something interesting to note to understand the history? (I think that is should but I need to test my hypotheses).
  • How do I better understand when to say e+ e or say double e? This confuses me a bit

In the end, I’m left with thinking wow I’ve learned a lot. At the same time Im thinking wow, I have way more wonderings than I went in with before this week! A lot of things to investigate and understand myself and inquire into with my Grade 3 learners over the year. Stay tuned for Part ‘Dua’.



word serach

Word Searcher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: