Somewhere along the way, I'd stumbled upon a webcast in which a gentleman, Pete Bowers, was giving a presentation on Structured Word Inquiry (SWI). I was intrigued by the very nature of Inquiry Based instruction since we were, at the time, an IB World School and his method of teaching the structure of words appealed to my small group environment, but I was too immersed in the new training and teaching with my students to put a lot of energy into understanding more about SWI. I did however, identify with the concept that many words were built on a base word and so I taught my phonics-based units along with the concept and fun sing a-long phrase of, "It's all about the BASE, 'bout the BASE, no trouble", to the tune of a very popular song of the times. My students were engaged and intrigued with finding the base of many multi-syllable words--that were obvious to us at the time.
For the next few months, I enjoyed seeing the gains my students were making with the combination of these two types of instruction --phonics and meaning of bases. One major problem with the phonics lessons we kept encountering however, was spelling. While some people are fortunate to have a large memory-fund for spelling, most of my students do not. I didn't realize how much I, myself, had built my own skills on "tricks and memorization" until I learned this new phonetic method of developing literacy skills. I had always "said" words in my head the way they should look-- for instance, if I wrote <sincerely>, I would say, /sin--cer--e--ly/ to remember the letter <e> before the <l y> or I'd say, /ques-t-i-on/--while quickly imagining the last place I'd see that word written in a book or something. Although this method seems quite lengthy--it served me well at a rapid pace--I had a large visual memory. I actually took pride in my ability to remember spelling patterns and mneumonic trickery with words. But, soon after the phonics training, my own spelling began to decline. Because they taught us, in their unique approach, that there are 7-8 ways to write the long vowel sound /e/ and 17 ways to write /sh/, I had too many options in my repitoire to draw from! It became taxing and unreliable. If this was causing me problems, I knew it was not going to help my students enough and I feared it would cause them more harm in the long run. And so the search for a better method of teaching literacy skills continued.
During this same time, I found myself immersed in an epic battle with researchers, educators, professors and scholars from around the country in an online Listserve group who were debating the merits of teaching English as a phonetic vs. a morphophonemic language. I was enjoying the view from several perspectives; and as I sided with the phonics crowd, I was very intrigued by the morphology arguments. It was within this battle that my mountain of knowledge and research about the phonetic system began to crumble.
Outside of that listserve, a very nice lady named, Gail, had begun a conversation with me about SWI and my phonics theories; she asked very pointed (and poignant) questions of me and my evidence-based phonetic method. I answered them, wisely I thought. She asked for evidence to support the phonetic theories of words or letter patterns. I had consistent answers with rhyming words or so-called 'word families' but many times, the only answer I had was the one I'd heard echoed across many lips, "Well, English is crazy!" She led me to some interesting queries of my own and to a trail that if I chose to follow, promised a deeper understanding of the structure of English orthography. It felt a bit like Hansel and Gretel being led by a trail of bread crumbs, only very welcoming, kind and open-minded. I trusted this new friend and the trail she led me on so I spent the long, early morning hours while my children slept, researching these trails she'd led me on. Wow--was I amazed at what I learned: English is NOT crazy! It is very orderly, well structured and deep ingrained in connection of meaning and history. I was shocked, dumbfounded, and baffled at how this understanding could have been kept from me and my teaching & tutoring friends around the country for so long.
At one point along the way, an epiphany struck that caused my 20+ year career in the world of explicit, systematic phonics to shift. I could finally see that SWI fully embraced the importance of sound in our language -- only placing it where it belongs, AFTER morphology, meaning and history. So I decided to fully immerse my students in SWI without the explicit, systematic phonics lessons -- this was a gamble because I was alone on this journey. There were a few small pockets of teachers approaching literacy with SWI around the country and world, but not in my district or school, maybe not even anywhere in my state! I could find no others. I am used to being the one out on a limb but if this failed, the kids would be the ones to lose, not just me. I didn't take this decision lightly and lost a lot of sleep over it, but I couldn't be happier that I did! My students are soaring. They are making gains in their reading and writing abilities and their confidence in their own ability to use the brains God gave them to think - not be told an answer or to memorize something without purpose.
Structured Word Inquiry has been the single most effective way of teaching orthography and reading with my students. It is not a program or a method per se, it is an understanding of how the written word works that propels an educator to be able to teach effectively, the skills necessary for spelling and reading. This understanding is what empowers students (of any age) to apply logical, meaningful connections within orthography while reading & spelling.
As an educator, I am expected to remediate my students skills as well as provide avenues in which students converse with their peers, regardless of skill-set, developing communication skills for explaining themselves, their thinking and to defend a stance they are taking with clear ideas. This has seemed like an impossible task in a resource room in years past. However, SWI is helping kids discover their own abilities to think, reason and defend the orthographic system because we've discovered that "English is NOT crazy". It is built on structure and meaning.
In a traditional phonics-based instructional setting, we teach phonemes and their grapheme correspondences which, unfortunately, fails quite often.
Think about these words: <ear> <great>, <learn>, & <react>, all of them have the vowel letters <ea> in them, but, they all sound differently. Students have much to memorize without any meaning attachment or connections to other words whose structure and meaning make sense. In a phonics-based approach, we would have spent a lot of time teaching word families with each of these words. We would have studied <ea> words that rhyme and categorized them into charts to discover which spelling or pronunciation was more frequent. We would have looked for quantity vs quality. Spending time with traditional word families focuses on building a phoneme-grapheme relationship only, which is just a memorization task. For those who have great visual memories for orthographic patterns, this works. For those who do not have such a large bucket in their brain, this is a nightmare.
The difference in teaching with SWI, is that it's approach is to teach connections words have with each other via their meanings, history and morphological structures first, then look at its pronunciation. With SWI, we look at how words are related in meaning and history (etymology) to find trails and nuggets of knowledge that lead to a deeper well of meaning and connection. We would study the words that share a quality relationship with one another such as with <ear>, our word list would be: ear, hear, hearing, heard, ears, earring. We would find that the structure, history and meaning connect. We would discover affixes such as <-ing> in <hear> + <ing> but how <earring> does not share that same suffix, it is a compound word: <ear> + <ring> and that the two <r>'s exist to preserve the meaning that an earring is a ring that is placed on the ear. In words such as <react> we would learn that a phoneme does not cross a morphological boundary. The <ea> is not functioning as a digraph in this word. It is made of a prefix and a base word:
<re> + <act> --> react.
There is so much more depth and quality going on in a SWI lesson than memorization. Kids (and adults) begin to make connections to many other words. Their spellings begin to unveil themselves. Think of the way this word sounds: /reeakshun/
If you were a beginning speller, spelling by the sounds you hear, you'd probably spell it something like the way it is pronounced: <reeacshun> or <reeackshin> but when kids are taught that structure of words is based on the meaning and morphological structures, they are likely to recognize the word's relationship to <act>, plus the affixes to build the word in this way:
<re> + <act> + <ion> --> reaction
Programs do not offer what exceptionally well-trained teachers can offer our students (struggling through advanced). There are thousands of dollars of wasted programs buried in the cupboards of many classrooms. With SWI, there is no need for big business to sell a program – teachers just need exceptional training in understanding how the written word works. The classes I’ve taken through Real Spelling and the sources below have minimal costs with maximum education. The hardest part of this transformative journey has been recognizing the fettered years spent in my previous research of teaching students with dyslexia, professional development and university classes and the students who did not benefit the way my current students are.
I am grateful for this community to learn from. This past month I started running a mini-workshop with my colleagues to help others bring this to their classrooms for all students to advance to their potential. This Spring/Summer I will begin teaching educators how to get started with SWI, I am enthused by the growing numbers of educators beginning their learning journeys by attending the classes, presentations and workshops offered by the best scholars in the world. The Whole-Language World has been turned upside-down and the Phonics World is about to be as well – all for the good of the student –to bring up a more literate society. All along, I've been on a journey of transformation in my teaching, only I didn't know it until now, as I watch my students free themselves from the cocoon they've been in and transform into beautifully, literate butterflies.
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance,
it is the illusion of knowledge.”
edited for clarity May2016
To learn more about SWI, the following websites and scholars offer amazing resources and a wealth of knowledge.
Word Works Kingston by Dr. Pete Bowers
LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange by Gina Cooke
DTI: Dyslexia Training Institute by Kelli Sandman-Hurley