Struct +ure/ +ed Word + Inquire/ +y (SWI)

written by: Nancy Martin, Reading Department Chair


Structured Word Inquiry—SWI

Have you ever wondered …?
  • Why is there a <g> in <SIGN>?
  • Why is <two> spelled with a <w>?
  • Why is <healthy> spelled with an <ea>?
  • Why is <react> pronounced as 2 syllables, but <reach> is only 1 syllable?
Teachers in the reading department lose sleep over these types of questions.

Have you ever been told:
What if we told you that written English is an ordered system that is logical and understandable?

At Eagle Hill School, so many of our students struggle with reading in spite of years of phonological remediation. We know that it’s not because our students are not smart, rather that they haven’t been taught the way in which they best learn. Kids who struggle in school are signaling the way we are teaching them isn’t working and we need to give them something else. If a major difficulty is phonological processing, then we shouldn’t be putting all the emphasis on the issue in which a student has a deficit. What if instead we build on some strengths? What if we triangulate and first focus on what a word means, use visual matrices to show relationships between words and strengthen motor memory by writing out word sums? Now the student has methods they can use to inform them and at the same time, be given more accurate instruction on grapheme-phoneme correspondence because words are always taught in context. We can’t blame the spelling system for being wrong. We should blame the way we were taught about the spelling system.

This year in our reading classes we have added another method to teaching reading. Along with Orton Gillingham and other programs, we have introduced our students to Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) as a way of understanding how the written language works. SWI is a linguistically-based approach where words are studied in context versus isolation. Using scientific inquiry to study spelling instruction, SWI always starts with a word’s meaning, and is taught using explicit multisensory instruction. It dovetails well with our educational philosophy at EHS in that it teaches and reinforces critical thinking, and it can be individualized and organic because learning is based upon student interest.

There are four Guiding Principles to SWI:
  1. The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning
  2. The conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry
  3. Scientific inquiry is the only means by which we can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works
  4. Understanding spelling directly benefits reading.
There are four Foundational Concepts of SWI:
  1. Studying a word family is exponentially more powerful than studying isolated words
  2. Starting with a word’s spelling rather than its pronunciation is the only way to make sense of the pronunciation of every English word
  3. Studying morphology (the system by which morphemes - bases and affixes - are combined to represent the meaning of words) and etymology (the study of the origin of words) from day one unlocks meaning of unfamiliar words
  4. Structured word inquiry through scientific investigation reveals the English spelling system and enables life-long learning.
By now you may be asking why we are concerned with spelling when we’re trying to improve reading. Understanding spelling helps with phoneme (sound)/grapheme (written words) correspondence as no sound/letter correspondence actually exists in English. English is morphophonemic; in other words spelling represents the interrelation between morphology (the smallest unit of meaning in a word) and phonology (the sounds letters make in words). It’s more difficult to reproduce or spell than to recognize or read. By studying how words are built or spelled, this will improve reading. When students miscue, they may not have processed the word. We ask them to “spell it out”, which requires them to stop and think about the word.

SWI is one of the three pillars that are the underlying supports used to teach reading. The other two are independent reading and assistive technology. Look for more information on those in upcoming blogs.

In closing, since we don’t want anyone to lose sleep, let’s circle back to where we started with those burning questions:

Q: Why is there a <g> in <SIGN>?
A: <sign> is connected in meaning to the words <signal> and <signature> where the <g> is pronounced.

Q: Why is <two> spelled with a <w>?
A: <two> is related in meaning to the words <twice> <twin> and <twenty>.

Q: Why is <healthy> spelled with an <ea>?
A: <healthy> is part of the <heal> word family.

Q: Why is <react> pronounced as 2 syllables, but <reach> is only 1 syllable?
A: <react> is made up of 2 morphemes: the prefix <re-> which means ‘back, again’ and the base <act> which means <to do>.

re + act → react

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