Sunday, May 13, 2012

Videos of Structured Word Inquiry (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. He has investigated how morphological awareness contributes to various aspects of literacy, especially spelling and vocabulary knowledge. As a regular contributor to Vocabulogic, Pete has authored several posts, including Structured Word Inquiry and Meta-Analysis of Morphological Intervention Studies.  Visit Pete's website: WordWorks Literacy Centre.

Current research has converged on the finding that literacy instruction should address morphology from the beginning of instruction and that this is especially important for less able students (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010; Carlisle, 2010; Goodwin & Ahn, 2010; Reed, 2008). 
Given this evidence, the question facing educators and researches is not whether we should teach morphology, but how to teach it. 
Structured word inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) is an instructional approach that targets exactly this goal. I regularly receive anecdotal reports from teachers and tutors reporting examples of this effect, such as this account of a student-led investigation of the word condensation. As well, our controlled intervention study using this approach (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) showed that morphological instruction using the structured word inquiry approach brought significant vocabulary gains for words that were not explicitly taught, but which shared a base with explicitly taught words.
It is a challenge to explain what structured word inquiry is clearly and to convey how it operates in classrooms in writing. For that  reason, I am delighted that Susan has invited me to share a few videos that provide a big picture of this instruction and which illustrate this instruction in action in real classrooms. 
  • This public lecture on structured word inquiry provides a useful "big picture" of this instruction. The video is from a talk I gave for the J.P.Das Centre on Developmental and Learning Disabilities at the University of Alberta.

  • This video shows an investigation of the spelling of the word does in an elementary classroom.

  • This video shows a lesson introducing the central linguistic tools of structured word inquiry, the morphological word sum and matrix to a kindergarten class.

To explore other videos illustrating this instruction in action in classrooms around the world, visit this YouTube channel. 
My hope is that these videos will motivate Vocabulogic readers to have a go at morphological analysis using matrices and word sums. There are many free resources available at to help you get started.  
At this link, you will learn about a new piece of software called The Word Microscope (that is currently free to download) that you can use to start these types of investigations on your own and with your students. 
You may also be interested in the Teacher Resource Book based on the Bowers and Kirby (2010) intervention and the Word Works Summer Courses. Also consider joining my live on-line broadcast on “Structured Word Inquiry and the Scientific Study of Words” on Lexercise on June 14th. 

Finally, if I were to recommend one article that lays out the underlying principles of how English spelling works that are revealed through structured word inquiry with the matrix and the word sum, it would be Carol Chomsky's seminal 1970 paper, "Reading, writing, and phonology" in Harvard Educational Review.

Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Nagy, W., & Carlisle, J. (2010).Growth in phonological, orthographic, and morphological awareness in grades 1 to 6. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 39, 141–163.

Bowers, P. N., & Kirby, J. R. (2010). Effects of morphological instruction on vocabulary acquisition. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23, 515–537.

Bowers, P. N., Kirby, J. R., & Deacon, S. H. (2010). The effects of morphological instruction on literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 80, 144–179.

Carlisle, F. (2010). Effects of instruction in morphological awareness on literacy achievement: An integrative review. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 464–487.

Chomsky, C. (1970). Reading, writing, and phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 4(2), 287–309.

Goodwin, A.P., & Ahn, S., (2010). A meta-analysis of morphological interventions: effects on literacy achievement of children with literacy difficulties. Annals of Dyslexia, 60, 183-208.

Reed, D.K. (2008). A synthesis of morphology interventions and effects on reading outcomes for students in grades K–12. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(1), 36–49.


  1. Professor Peter Bowers My name is Silvia. I am a psychologist and educator and I am in a doctorate in psychology at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Study the role of morphological awareness in Portuguese, because this language is to have an irregular spelling as the English. I devenvolver an intervention study of morphological awareness in children in order to improve reading.
    I saw your site and enjoyed it

  2. Hey Silvia,

    Thanks for your interest in this work. I'd be very curious to know if you can make use of it to understand better how Portuguese orthography works, and how it can be taught.

    I know almost nothing about Portuguese. However, I bet it evolved to represent meaning to native Portuguese speakers, and that ordered conventions have developed to meat that purpose.

    If I was a native Portuguese speaker and I wanted to develop a morphological intervention study in Portuguese, my first goal would be to see if I could develop word sums and matrices that worked according to Portuguese orthographic conventions. I have seen these linguistic tools in French, and while very similar to English, they have structures and processes that differ from English, so of course these tools need to reflect the conventions they represent.

    You tell me that Portuguese has an irregular spelling like English. I take that to mean that it does not have a very strict sound-symbol correspondence like German supposedly has. (I don’t know German either!) Instead of "irregular" vs. "regular" I prefer the linguistic terms "deep" vs. "shallow" orthographies.

    Word sums and matrices reveal the extremely ordered, reliable and yes "regular" way morphology is represented by orthography at the underlying abstract level that Carol Chomsky (1970) called a lexical spelling. So in English, the word INVESTIGATION has a base with the underlying 'lexical spelling' VESTIGE and affixes IN-, -ATE, and -ION. This is very clearly seen with the word sum:

    in + vestige/ + ate/ + ion --> investigation

    This is why I like the attested linguistic term "deep" orthography rather than "irregular”. There is an extremely regular, reliable structure and order to English spelling -- it is just that it lies under the surface.

    The word sum also helps us see the links between words that share the same base (and thus are related in meaning) even when the pronunciation of that base shifts. I never knew that the the base word VESTIGE with its "soft G" was related to the words INVESTIGATE or INVESTIGATION with their "hard Gs" until a student showed me here:

    I bet you could learn to analyze Portuguese spellings and identify the underlying "lexical spellings" of bases and affixes by representing them with orthographic word sums too. In English it is important to know the the types of morphemes and the suffixing conventions. (Those suffixing conventions are extremely reliable as shown by the flow chart at this link:

    Why not play with Portuguese to see what you can come up with. If these tools work in English and French, I've little doubt that you could not work them out in Portuguese. The key thing is to know that there is an ordered lexical spelling to look for.

    We love to give students concrete representations of abstract ideas in math to help them make sense of how numbers work. Number lines and fraction pieces are useful tools because they are actual physical representations of abstract ideas that children can see and manipulate to analyze and make sense of how numbers work. To me, the word sum and the matrix do the same for our writing systems.

    Please email me at if you would like to discuss this more, and especially if you have any Portuguese word sums and matrices to share!

  3. Anonymous5/26/2012

    Pete, it's wonderful to see these resources and videos being made available to anyone who's dedicated and curious enough to increase their own understanding and scholarship of how English works.

    Silvia: Sou um colega de Pete, um lingüista que trabalha na alfabetização. Eu falo Português - mal - mas sabe bastante para ter certeza de que Pete está correto: a sua ortografia evoluiu ao longo do tempo para representar sentido e significado para falantes de português.

    Eu também sei suficiente sobre o Português para entender que a ortografia faz todo o sentido, desde que não esperamos que as letras individuais será sempre apenas escrever os sons individuais.

    Português, como o Inglês, tem uma diáspora de largura em todo o mundo, e é falado por muitos povos diferentes em muitos dialetos diferentes. Se Português foram sempre escrito exatamente de acordo com o som, qual som debe a ortografia representar? O som de quem? Dos Cariocas? De Lisboa? Da Bahia?

    Como alguém que fala varias línguas, eu sei que suas ortografias são distintos, mas compreender uma ortografia profundamente traz lições importantes para aprender, estudar e compreender outras.

    [I am a colleague of Pete's, a linguist who works in literacy education. I speak Portuguese -- badly -- but know enough to be certain that Pete is correct: its orthography evolved over time to represent sense and meaning to Portuguese speakers.

    I also know enough about Portuguese to understand that its spelling makes perfect sense, as long as we don't expect that individual letters will always simply spell individual sounds.

    Portuguese, like English, has a wide diaspora across the world, and is spoken by many different peoples in many different dialects. If Portuguese were always spelled exactly as it sounds, whose sound would the spelling need to represent? Cariocas? From Lisbon? From Bahia?

    As someone who speaks a couple of languages, I know that their orthographies are distinct, but understanding one orthography deeply holds important lessons for learning, studying, and understanding another.]

  4. Pete, wonderful stuff! Thanks for adding to our growing collection of educational resources. Excellent videos! The microscope tool sounds intriguing, so I will check that out soon.

    Maybe someday, I will be able to attend your Word Works summer courses.



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