Sunday, January 3, 2010

Structured Word Inquiry: Critical Thinking and Word Learning through Studying Spelling (Bowers)

Peter Bowers contributed the following post. Pete is a doctoral candidate at Queen's University, Canada, with expertise in orthography and morphology, as well as critical thinking. Visit his website: WordWorks Literacy Centre.
I’m delighted to accept Susan’s invitation to post an entry on her vocabulary blog. My goal is to illustrate the (perhaps surprising) view that studying spelling offers students one of the richest contexts for vocabulary learning and the development of metalinguistic awareness. Along the way I will point to examples of student work, a free lesson for teachers to try, and videos of this instruction coming alive in the classroom. 

In my 9th year as a classroom teacher I had little interest in spelling instruction. I was teaching Grade 4 and wanted to engage my students with ideas, not help them memorize facts. Regardless of the subject, I did my best to design my instruction to support curiosity and independent problem-solving skills to foster generative learning skills and attitudes. Why would spelling hold any interest for me? I could hardly think of less fertile ground for developing curiosity and generative learning. Then, in my 10th year, I started working with Real Spelling resources and was introduced to the fact that, contrary to what I had always been told, English spelling is an extremely well organized system.

Investigating how the spelling system really works through an approach I have come to call “structured word inquiry” turned my assumptions on their head. We started to use word sums and the word matrix to disassemble and reassemble words into their constituent elements of meaning (bases and affixes) like pieces of Lego. Learning to use these tools turned us into a team of “word detectives”. We constantly noticed potentially meaningful cues in words, and we got better at investigating how those cues worked. Our investigations revealed surprising and fascinating connections between words. Students regularly encountered new words they wanted to investigate because they might hold answers to hypotheses they developed. Consider the following examples of structured word inquiries sparked by student hypotheses. (Click links for more detail.)
  • Our hypothesized word sum for condensation (con + dense/ + ate/ + ion) suggests dense is the base. If that's right, the dictionary should show these words share a root and underlying meaning. 
  • While investigating whether there is a link between secret and secretary, our Word Stems Dictionary pointed to the word discern and a twin base cret/cern for ‘separate, distinguish’. I need to work out how all these words are connected in structure and meaning. If the word sum is se + cret + ary + y → secretary, I need to prove a prefix se-.
  • It seems like wise and wisdom must be connected, but the dropped e is confusing. Don’t forget about etymology! Hey, etymonline says both wise and wisdom share the same O.E. (Old English) root ‘wis’ with wizard. Cool.
    Spelling became the richest context I could find for instruction which drew on and refined critical thinking skills. I worked hard in science to create the circumstances in which students independently identified and tested hypotheses. This kind of student directed investigation happened naturally all the time when we started to study spelling structure. When I introduced a new term like photosynthesis in science, the students’ reflexive response was to suggest we build a word sum to make sense of its meaning. When students are offered a tool for learning that works for them, they choose to use it. The experience of discovering how words work and how to investigate them revolutionized the learning in my classroom like nothing I had previously experienced. 

    Several videos are posted on YouTubeThe clip above shows the teaching of structured word inquiry, from WordWorks Literacy Centre. Notice the video clip titled Ruptured Investigation, where students are refining their understanding of word structure and problem-solving skills by testing a hypothesis about ruptured, a word they encountered while investigating a set of 48 words built on the bound base rupt (‘break’), collected from the Word Searcher, including disruptive, interrupt, corruption, bankrupt, eruption, rupture, etc. (For more background on the context for this short clip, see Pete's second comment below. The discussion with Susan helped me illustrate the explicit vocabulary instruction that preceded this short clip of an hour long class.)

    (Click images to enlarge.) The whiteboard image shows the word matrix we developed as a group from the list of words with the base rupt.  

    The next image shows a student from that same class working through the morphological structure of each of the 48 words, and building her own matrix. 

    The last image depicts a group working together through the structure of all these words built on the base for 'break'.  

    Download a free lesson here that teachers can use to investigate the structure of imagine and morphologically related words. Before you do, think if you can peel off any affixes from this word and arrive at a base that has a plausible, meaningful connection. Can you picture it? 

    First grade? Yes! The video below shows Melvyn Ramsden introducing first graders to the word matrix and word sums that began with working on the spelling of the word helpful. Go to this link to see a series of videos from this lesson. Imagine a classroom of students that never have to shed the assumption that English spelling is crazy and frustrating, but instead engage critically and joyfully with this kind of structured word inquiry from the very beginning of their experiences with print.

    Explore more videos of this type of instruction here and lots of free resources and classroom examples here.
    Happy Spelling!


    1. Hey Susan,

      Your questions is an important one that I imagine many of your readers will be wondering about. A productive response, however, requires some untangling of assumptions. My response may challenge some views, so let me say off the bat that I’m quite happy to be challenged in return! I grew up in a family that loves to argue & debate. Testing one’s own assumptions strikes me as a necessary step for moving forward in our understanding of any sphere of knowledge. Such conversation seems an appropriate use of your blog!

      If your are asking whether phonology can be investigated through structured word inquiry, “yes” is my simple answer. I frequently do structured word inquiries on phonological conventions (e.g. when to use the letter 'c' for /s/ or /k/, the roles of the digraph 'ea' or the trigraph 'igh'). The process of structured word inquiry that I describe (see link in my post) is one that can be used to investigate any feature of how English spelling works. The only prerequisite I can think of for structured inquiry is an ordered, understandable system to investigate.

      However, I understood your comment to ask whether teachers could use structured word inquiry with resources that only reference “phonetics”. This is where we get into trouble. Such resources ignore the basic principle that English spelling represents meaning elements (bases and affixes) consistently despite pronunciation shifts. This principle explains why the base (do) maintains its spelling in (does) with the structure (do + es). Similarly, the spelling of the base (sign) is used in all of its derivations (e.g. signal, signature, designate...).

      So to respond to your question, I will ask another:

      Let’s assume we are talking about a teacher who has not had the opportunity to develop basic background knowledge about how morphology, phonology and etymology work together in English spelling (like me after 9 years of teaching!). What result should we expect when that teacher designs instruction from a spelling resource that presents phonology as though it is based solely on letter-sound correspondences?

      I expect the result to be exactly what we see in schools today:

      - Generations of students and teachers that encounter many spellings that don’t meet the letter-sound correspondences predicted by their resources.
      - Those “exceptions” are treated as evidence of the irregularity of English spelling.

      If those conclusions hold, the prerequisite of structured inquiry - an ordered, understandable system - is not available to those who rely on a resource that limits itself to one part of an integrated system.

      Any suggestion I can offer about instruction about the written word begins with three assumptions:
      (a) English spelling is well ordered;
      (b) students have a right to accurate instruction about how their writing system works;
      (c) teachers have a right to training and resources that accurately represent how the writing system works.

      So what to do? The best suggestion I can offer to teachers who want to try using structured word inquiry in their classroom is that they become inquirers of the writing system themselves, and that they make that learning experience explicit with their students.

      Nothing like structured word inquiry occurred in my classrooms over 9 years of working with the resources that were available to me. Although I didn’t have a name for it yet, structured word inquiry was unavoidable the first time I taught with a matrix and word sums. We couldn't resist investigating the glimpses of order in the writing system revealed by these tools. That order, and the possibility of inquiry, had always been hidden beneath the surface patterns we had been trained to look at.

      Let me hasten to add that I do not recommend that teachers stop using any resource that they currently find useful in their practice. Instead, why not see what happens if you start to play with the word matrix and word sum as a way to add the element of morphology to your instruction?

    2. Yes, English orthography is morphophonemic. To ignore the morphemic cues in word instruction is illogical. We need to exploit the morphemes and the phonemes and show how they work together. Teachers do not know enough about this. Researchers like Moats and Foorman have revealed a knowledge gap in teachers in this area. I concur with your three basic assumptions. Well said!

      In my view, your blog post is more geared towards spelling than vocabulary learning. That was your intention, so all good.

      To boost vocab, teachers could also make a stronger connection with meaning, with context, with examples and nonexamples, etc.

      Example: Melvyn could eventually have children talk about the opposite of unhelpful (helpful) or he could discuss how unhelpful and helpless may appear to be morphologically equal in meaning, but the nuance is quite different.

      Same for your rupture video. The students could verbalize synonyms for rupture: to break, to crack, to split, to burst, etc. Use the word in varied student-generated statements. Discuss the difference in nuance and common usage between rupture and erupt. Discuss how -rupt- refers to 'break' in a family of words: disrupt, interrupt, erupt, corrupt, bankrupt, etc.

      Perhaps you do this in another lesson. We only saw a snippet, of course, and again, your first goal was spelling. Yes?

    3. Anne Schneider1/05/2010


      My name is Anne and I am working at the American School of Qatar in Doha. Pete came to work with our staff this fall and I was lucky enough to have him teach a lesson with two of my fifth grade classes.

      This work is very new to me but in my opinion it seems more accurate and less confusing to the students to use the term “structure word inquiry” when we are analyzing words and trying to understand how they are built. I am not sure how you could teach spelling and vocabulary separately. It is impossible to ignore the meaning of the parts of the word, wonder about the meaning of the whole word and other words that are related either by meaning or structure when we are attempting to read or write words correctly. The beauty of emphasizing the inquiry process is that it is really the same no matter what we are investigating. This idea has had a huge influence on my students in all subject areas.

      Although I had tried in the past to help them to see how important words are it was the process of structured word inquiry that really made this concept concrete. For the first time ever my students really see why words are important to them personally not just to me as their teacher. We now have the tools we need to unlock words and they understand that words allow us to acess knowledge and share our own experiences with others. The only difficulty I am faced with now is providing my students with the time they need to conduct their own investigations. I have found that when they are allowed to have the choice of what topics to pursue the amount of enthusiasm and persistence is endless, they are incredibly fervent and really enjoy the struggle to understand the English language.

    4. Hello Susan,

      Thanks for offering this forum. I teach Junior students in Kingston, Ontario. For years I taught in a school which typified the kind of vocabulary impoverishment highlighted by Hart and Risley. Currently I teach in a highly diverse school in terms of poverty, language background and ability. For years I struggled with the futility of spelling programs. None seemed to have much lasting or "generative" effect (that is, learning the spelling of one word did not necessarily impact on whether the learner would be able to spell a subsequent word).

      You are quite right, but understated in my view, in observing that “teachers do not know enough about this”. I would argue that very few teachers have any real understanding of English orthography. How could we, for the most part schooled in the same system which hasn’t taught this subject comprehensively for decades? (What is the reason for this? You likely know better than I). I used to begin my year with a half-joking apology on behalf of the English spelling system. “Sorry, it doesn’t make sense, but we’ll do the best we can.” What I now see is that it was as if I was teaching cello, and I should have instead been saying, “Sorry, I have had no meaningful instruction in this subject myself. Good luck to us all!” Melvyn’s Real Spelling resource and my work with Pete have acutely highlighted (and largely corrected) this for me.

      And so I must quibble slightly with your assessment of Pete’s last posting. This is not just about “spelling.” I think the point Pete tries to make is that there is little distinction to be made between good spelling instruction and vocabulary learning. The latter flows naturally from the former—in fact, like any good model of instruction, it is circular. The suggestions you make for the two videos are exactly the kinds of discussions which naturally flow from our studies in spelling. In fact, I don’t ever call it “spelling” anymore, as this term is too loaded and too limiting. I just call it “Word Work” and it goes in all directions (sometimes at once).

      Having students engage in the kind of “word structure inquiry” (my stubbornly quibbling adjustment of Pete’s term) that they are doing in the “rupt” video could be seen as “just” spelling. But it is through the strong understanding of the structure of words—bases, affixes, connector vowels—that students are more confidently able to identify the meaning of new vocabulary in their reading. Understanding the structure of the word "interrupt" will allow them to better remember that there are two Rs when they have to write it. But it is the meaning understanding which allows them to know that this is not simply a “double R” (as in “jarring”) but a joining of two morphemes whose meaning they can see in a myriad other words. These kids will not be flummoxed by the new word "corrupt" when they encounter it.

      Some of the work Pete and I have done together has highlighted the important role that “spelling” instruction can have in supporting kids’ reading. For a student to decode the word "innate" in text, they need to have a sense of what the structure of the word is, so they can isolate the base. If they have already studied both the structure and the meaning in the word "natural" then they are prepared to identify "nate". However, knowing that a double consonant is quite often a structural sign of a “join” between morphemes nudges students to look for the base "nate" even if they haven’t previously studied it (“What’s the base?” is a fundamental question in my students’ vocabulary investigation during reading). This may in turn lead them to a new understanding of the word "nature" and "nation". One leads to the other regardless of the starting point.

      In my class, and any other working with Pete or with Melvyn, word investigation is a multifaceted, multilayered web of learning which is both self-reinforcing and generative.

      Hope this makes sense and is helpful.

    5. This comment should be first. I accidentally deleted it and had to repost it.

      Thank you, Pete, for sharing such a wealth of information with us. These ideas are sound, but most spelling programs that schools purchase are not morphologically based. Instead, they are phonetically based. Yes? Do you have any thoughts about using any given spelling program in a manner more conducive to structured word inquiry?

      PS...Good luck finishing up your doctoral studies!

    6. Thanks Anne and Skot. Glad you are carrying on such important work in your schools. I know Pete's stuff is good! I am a fan, believe me! I love the critical thinking that goes on.

      This is my concern: There is minimal context provided for rupture in the video and there are no examples and nonexamples. No discussion of usage: We use rupture for a broken balloon but not for a broken door, typically. There is no student generated definition. No verbalization/peer discussion of the word. However, I only saw a snippet, so maybe Pete did some of this.

      If these elements were added, students would be more likely to assimilate the word into their own mental lexicon, and USE it. It's all about getting the kids to own and use the word, especially for academic words like rupture.

      So, I think this approach is a great beginning, but not the end. Yes?

    7. Anne,

      I guess my comment would be that this is neither a beginning nor an end. It is a piece.

      Rest assured that the nuanced meanings and context of word usage is one component (again, neither a beginning nor an end)of many of our discussions. While the videos you see are highlights of brief visits from Melvyn or Pete, the work on an ongoing basis is highly contextualized. Both Melvyn and Pete's websites give evidence of how it is the words which are generated by our reading or other learning which most often form the focus for investigation. In my class we have an area for word questions--some of them structural, some to do with usage, etymology and so on. Kids become trained--as in Anne's class, clearly--to go to the resources we've introduced to investigate their questions and theories.

      I might do a discrete lesson on, say, "rupt" if we had just come across the concept of bound bases and this was a good one for delving into the concept. This is kind of what happened this year in my class. We kept coming across words that seemed to have a prefix "pro-" but the kids weren't sure about this prefix because they couldn't make sense of the apparent bases: produce, process, professor. We kept a list. In the end, I used a different base (I think it might have been rupt or struct) to get at the mystery, because it suited my purposes. (I didn't do "produce" for instance, because I didn't want to muddy the waters with twin bases at just that moment.

      You know how it goes. Once the concept was out there, all these other words were now revealed to have bound bases that could be investigated, that unlocked the deeper meaning and linked words which they already knew, and that gave them a new tool for confronting words for which the base was unrecognizable.

      Later I'll share with you an investigation of the word that happened in my class full of "dead end kids" a couple of years ago.

    8. Hey all,

      Great to have so much discussion!

      Susan, you are right that in the video of the class investigating the word (rupture), there is minimal discussion of the meaning of the word. As you suspected, this was only a small part of an hour-long class. More background is needed to clarify how the study of spelling generates vocabulary learning.

      I started the lesson shown in the video by presenting the class with the words (eruption), (corrupt) and (interrupt) and asking if they could see any connection. We used word sums to see what affixes we could peel off to look for a common base and arrived at the hypothesized base (rupt).

      I reminded the class, however, that a plausible word sum is not enough to prove a base. For words to share a base, they MUST also share an underlying meaning. I use the example of the word (corner) to illustrate. We can hypothesize the word sum (corn+er), but it doesn't pass the meaning test. Kids always laugh when I point out that (corner) is not one who "corns" (e.g., teach/teacher), nor is it "more corn" (e.g., big/bigger). To conclude that (rupt) is the base of our three words, we had find a meaning connection.

      We discussed these words and hypothesized a common meaning to do with "breaking up". We tested our hypothesis by looking up the words in the dictionary. Students were delighted to find the common Latin root 'rumpere' for "to break" for all three words.

      We proved the morphological structure of these words, but more importantly we established that investigating word structure requires testing hypotheses with BOTH word sums and the meaning. Also, when was the last time you’ve seen a whole class anxious to look up Latin roots in a dictionary?

      With this background established we went to the word searcher to collect the larger set of words you see the students analyzing in the video. Of course students still need much more practice discussing and using these words with there specific meanings, but this spelling lesson provided the scaffolding to help students make sense of words like (abrupt), (bankrupt), (corrupt) and (rupture). Instead of studying those words one at a time, this lesson used the interrelationship of meaning and structure to investigate a whole set of words.

      The scene in the video shows the engagement about working with the structure. As you point out, Susan, more context was needed to illustrate the vocabulary connection clearly.

      Perhaps the best example in my post about building vocabulary with English spelling knowledge can be found in the link to the investigation of (condensation). If you read the story at that link, you will see an amazing student-driven vocabulary lesson that relied heavily on the fact that this class had resources explaining that English spelling avoids letting words look like plurals if they are not. While it may seem like an arcane bit of information, it turned out to be instrumental in motivating this class to dive into a dictionary in an investigation deepened their understanding the science concept and their love of studying words.

      A final critical point about the teacher-led investigation of (rupt) and the student-led investigation of (condensation) is the fact that these experiences are helping students gain independent word-learning skills. Susan, I agree with you wholeheartedly that we need to provide students with multiple experiences discussing the meaning of new words and using them in rich contexts. It is exactly that kind of experience with words that is magnified by investigating how English spelling really works results. Understanding how to investigate words and meanings by testing their structure and meaning builds student interest in working with words, and their long-term independence as word-learners. As someone wise pointed out, “the ultimate goal of the educator is obsolescence".

    9. Thanks, Pete. I had a feeling there must be more to your lesson, in order to call it vocabulary. The video does not tell our readers this info, so I am glad you have elucidated. I like your deductive process of word reasoning. I like Skot's description of this as "a piece" of the vocabulary-learning puzzle. I want to echo Anne's statement that this kind of inquiry "has a huge influence on my students in other subject areas" because that is the power of vocabulogic--its generative and it transfers!

      What a pleasure to read everyone's comments! Between the lines, I read your enthusiasm for this work. From afar, I read the eager interest of your students, and predict that self-efficacy is growing along with literacy skills!

      Thanks, all!

    10. Anonymous1/06/2010

      My name is Sharon Reichstein and I teach children with learning disabilities at a private school. This is my third year teaching using Real Spelling. Learning Real Spelling completely changed the way I teach. For the first
      time in my life I had answers to questions like "Why is light spelled like that?" "Why does castle have a t?" "Why is rough spelled the way it is?" Before Real Spelling I wouldn't have an answer, I would simply say, that's
      the way it is but I don't know why. Real Spelling is so much more than Spelling. It's teaching children how to be critical thinkers, how to ask questions, how to investigate and discover. Real Spelling is the best tool
      I've used for enriching vocabulary because now when we come across great words in novels or conversation, we know how to investigate the word. We do
      word sums, webs, build a matrix and find other words in its family. We find the etymology and how it came to mean what it does. As well, we can start with simple words like tend and build really great words like unintentionally and show how they are connected through etymology. We can discover that tend/tent are connected by etymology meaning a stretching out. By students asking questions, so much can be explored by this word. As well, we can then look at phonology and realize that a t next to an i can sometimes be pronounced like the common sound /sh/ but know why we aren't
      using sh to represent that. Letter-sound correspondence simply does not work in English. Telling our students to "sound it out" is simply an injustice. Can you sound out the word eight or goes or sign? Can you explain why they are spelled the way they are? Students of Real Spelling can.

      So all that to I do not believe that the first goal of Real Spelling is spelling. I believe the first goal of Real Spelling is to teach students that the English Orthographic system is completely ordered and structured with Laws and Patterns that don't have a million exceptions. I
      believe that the goal of Real Spelling is to teach students how to think and question and wonder and then how to investigate and prove their theories. I believe that the goal of Real Spelling is to enrich vocabulary and see
      meaning and purpose in words. I believe that the goal of Real Spelling is to help students become better spellers because of the knowledge they learn through the investiagations. It's a true gift and I am so happy that I can
      share this gift with my students and my own children at home. I can't imagine life without Real Spelling knowledge and I wish all students could have the exposure to this kind of learning.

    11. I have found this discussion so enriching; I have learned from you all.

      My background is teaching reading to ELLs. Have any of you had experience using Real Spelling with students who are not fluent speakers of English? If so, how did it work? What did you adapt and how?

      Thanks so very much.

    12. Hey Zoe,

      I'm so glad you have found this discussion useful. Good on you for taking the time to read these lengthy comments!

      A good part of my work with teachers and students is in international schools where a very high proportion of the students do not have English as a first language. Teachers in these schools are particularly excited about discovering that they can use the structure of words to expand the vocabulary of students who have not had the oral language background of a native English speaker.

      As Susan has emphasized, studying word structure needs to be accompanied by explicit instruction of the meaning of words, but learning about a whole family of words provides a rich context for learning about many words at one time. Susan's example of the word (fabric) as an opportunity to teach about (fabricate) in her post that followed mine is a good example. If the teacher didn't know to think about this link, they lose a rich opportunity to introduce the idea that to fabrication can be thought of as a made up story - a fancy word of a lie!

      By regularly making the the study of one word as a jump off point for many words is a way to make sure teachers of second language learners regularly expand the vocabulary experiences of their students. The tools of the word matrix and the word sums are critical to this instruction.

      If you are interested in more, email me at and I can get you in contact with some teachers I know who specialize in this kind of instruction with English Language Learners.

    13. Heerak C. Kim9/04/2017

      Thank you for your insightful article. Your strategy is in line with the thinking of Graeco-Roman philosophy, which gave us rhetoric as well as physics and mathematics. These Ancients prove that math and word are integrally related. Everything in the world can be reduced to math in one format or another. In certain cultures, numbers are assigned to each alphabet. Have you heard of "Gematria"? It is a method of utilizing numbers and letters for interpretation in the Hebrew language.


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