Mona Voelkel

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Structured Word Inquiry: Adding Meaning and History to Spelling/Phonics Instruction

“Structured Word Inquiry”, developed by Peter Bowers and John Kirby (2010), adds layers of meaning, history and critical thinking to traditional phonics and spelling instruction. It’s also a protocol for deep understanding of content area vocabulary.  Done well, it allows teachers and students to uncover the stories behind words by understanding the history of the word and how spelling and meaning has changed through time.


SWI starts with a hypothesis.  It takes any word or words and begins to explore by asking 4 questions:  (from Teaching How the Written Word Worksby Peter Bowers)


Stuck on a Spelling?

Investigate with these questions…

  1. What does the word mean?
  2. How is it built? (Build word sums.  Can you peel off any affixes?  Refer to suffixing flow charts for suffixing changes.)
  1. What other related words can you think of? Morphological Links: Use the Word Searcher to find word connected by the base. Etymological links: Look up word origins to find words related to the root of your word.
  1. What are the sounds that matter(What grapheme/phoneme correspondences can you find that fit in your hypothesized morphemes?)

There are two types of SWI: Teacher-Led Inquiry(teacher selects topic or concept to investigate and guides students established strategies) or Inquiry-LedTeaching (a question arises during class and teacher models established strategies for investigating spelling questions.) (Bowers, 2006, 2009, 2013).

SWI in Action: A Teacher-Led Inquiry during Guided Reading

Molly (not her real name), a 4thGrade dyslexic student, was reading The Vegetarian Dragon during our individual tutoring session.  During the reading, she miscued on the word <ventured>, pronouncing it something like <vented>. My next step in a SWI-based lesson would be to ask her to spell the word out loud.  This spelling, if Molly was familiar with all the elements in the word would be announced like this: “v-e-n-t—ure—ed.  This spelling would immediately allow me understand what Molly knew about the graphemes, morphemes and phonemes represented in this word.

( Note that letter digraphs would be announced as a unit.  For example, <bird> would be announced “b-ir-d.”  Prefixes and suffixes are announced quickly, as one unit, as in “un—h-e-l-p—ful—ly”, with bases spelled out as in h-e-l-p.)

See the sheet below for a look at how I guided Molly through the 4 questions:

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 5.15.12 PM


I hadn’t known that spelling-out-loud could be incorporated into reading at the time, so instead I made a note of the miscue and created the chart above, based on Scott Mill’s Adapted Frayer  SWI Framework, for our next class.

Molly was captivated by the chart and took great delight in spelling-out the word sums and later, writing-out-loud the word sums on a whiteboard.

Over the next few reading conference and with continued writing-out-loud and spelling-out loud activities, Molly correctly identified not only ventured during reading, but related words like adventurous and venturing, indicating learning transfer.



This is just the briefest of introductions to Structured Word Inquiry and I hope that I have conveyed the promise and the power of this practice so that you may decide to investigate SWI for yourself.

Last year, I took an online class on SWI with Mary Beth Stevens, a talented 5thGrade teacher and SWI practitioner.   It was very exciting to see the depth of knowledge evidenced by her students about not only words but vowel and suffixing conventions.  This year, I am taking a class with the generous and brilliant Peter Bowers. Thanks to the class, I am refining my understandings of SWI, especially related to the power of spelling-out-loud and writing-out-loud.  I highly recommend both classes.  I am getting so much out of Peter Bowers class and I think it is because I had a solid introduction to SWI through Mary Beth Stevens’ class.

Resources for getting Started with Structured Word Inquiry:

Structured Word Inquiry and Pete Bowers has a wonderfully informative website:

This is an excellent article that highlights how SWI combines meaning, history and explicit phonics instruction:…/Teaching_base_words.pdf 

Mary Beth Stevens’ blog, including her thoughtful and highly recommended article, Outer Beauty Attracts but Inner Beauty Captivates:

Geared for younger students, Lyn Anderson’s blog has many wonderful examples of supporting Structured Word Inquiry using word bags and word webs:
















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