How to Teach Spelling With Structured Word Inquiry

individual letters


What is structured word inquiry?

Simply put, structured word inquiry (SWI) is an investigation of words. It investigates how words are connected through their origins, structures, and parts. Through inquiry, students explore the history of words and their spelling. SWI also focuses on understanding patterns shared across word groups, such as their shared roots or families.

Through SWI, students investigate and learn new vocabulary by looking at a word’s structure to understand it in new contexts. They analyze words based on their bases, prefixes, suffixes, and much more. This in turn helps them identify patterns and similarities between words to build written language proficiency.


How does SWI work in the classroom?

SWI, at its core, is an inquiry process that follows a structure:

1) Asking “what does this word mean?”

2) Examining the word structure

3) Exploring the word’s history and etymology

4) Making connections

5) Representing findings

Planning SWI with the end in mind

To start, students need to understand that English spelling (English orthography) is an ordered system based on meaning. There is a high degree of order. Students need to learn these structures because understanding language makes them better listeners, speakers, readers, and writers. Furthermore, learning the roots and etymology of English words is a great way of developing critical thinking skills. Inquiry helps a great deal with this! 

Using backwards design with spelling instruction helps guide teachers into planning a clear and complete understanding of the desired outcomes in structured word inquiries. The intended outcome of SWI’s is that students understand that English spelling is reliable. The goal is that students’ understanding of the patterns and principles in words and word families deepens.

In terms of planning, teachers should consider planning lessons that arrive at “answers” to questions they know before class even begins. Understanding and practicing the scientific process of inquiry is important to teach a successful SWI. In addition, building in time for students to practice their own orthographic knowledge and skills is equally important. Vocabulary building, class discussions, and skill development (such as developing a hypothesis and testing it) should be strategically weaved into lessons.

Classroom Tools

Consider using online tools, such as the Online Etymology Dictionary or the Word Searcher Tool that produces a list of related words to the one you type in, in your lessons to provide your class with a bank of new words to investigate. These provide perfect opportunities for students to find connections between words and deepen their inquiry skills.


What should students know?

Throughout your SWI, students should be exposed to new vocabulary and have had ample opportunity to explore word structures, word families, and patterns among words. Here are a few key takeaways students should be comfortable with by the end of the SWI:

  • Letters have more than one job. For instance, sometimes their job is to make sounds (even if they are not always the same).
  • The English language is spelled according to meaning, not sound. Meaning trumps sound (consider words that don’t even make a sound, like the “w” in two).
  • Phonemes and graphemes mean different things. A phoneme is a speech sound. It combines with other speech sounds to make spoken words. A grapheme is the spelling of a sound in a word.
  • Analysis of word structure is incredibly important. It can help deepen understanding of concepts and terms in other subject areas, such as math or science.


Practical SWI activity ideas:

  • Before the lesson, cut up words that belong in the same family (e.g player, playful, playground) and put them in a bag. Include words that do not belong in the family as well. Introduce the base word “play” and discuss what that means. Grab a word from the word bag and students think-pair-share if that word belongs in the word family “play”. Continue to do this, asking “Do they belong or not? How do we know?” Create a family word chart.
  • Provide students with a list of words with a shared suffix (e.g “-ed”) and sort the words into categories depending on the sound they make:
  • Backwards word family: Show students a selection of words from the same word family and have them guess what the root word is (for example, the word “please” might include words such as “displease”, “pleasing”, “pleasurable”, “unpleasant” etc.)
  • Create a matrix to investigate the prefixes, base, and suffixes of each word and break each part into the correct box:
  • Go on a phoneme hunt: Once you have introduced simple sounds, go for a walk and encourage students to write a list of things they see that contain the sound you just taught. For example, on a long E hunt, students may note a tree, a bee a key, or a baby. When you have returned to class, make a master list with your class.
  • Create word journals that show understanding of concepts through writing, pictures, or diagrams. They can be used as little or as often as you like, and makes a great assessment piece.
  • Word showcase: Students compile their own page of a class “word book” that shows their conclusions and what they learned. Then they teach the details of their investigation to an audience (e.g another class in the school or parents).


Assessment opportunities

There are plenty of assessment opportunities in SWI to assess both consolidation of learning as well as depth of learning. Students should be assessed based on the journey they take and not necessarily based on a test. The process of asking questions about words, investigating them, and showing their findings is the focus in a SWI. Collecting evidence via journaling, matrices, word sums, and other tools should provide sufficient proof of a students’ strengths with their SWI. Asking a student to spell specific words provides an opportunity for teachers to observe how the student is constructing the word and what strategies they are using (sounding out, using word patterns, etc.) Finally, having 1:1 discussions with students, or giving students the opportunity to present their findings to other students, classes, or parents, helps to identify which conclusions they are confident about and what further questions they have.


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5 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    I loved reading this article, thank you so much for sharing. Do you have anymore on SWI? I’d love to see some pics of your word journals or word showcase that you mentioned above or any other work you’ve done. Thank you for this :0)

  2. Van says:

    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.

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