Friday, August 30, 2019

An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry

An Introduction to Structured Word Inquiry
By Maura Baker

After attending and giving a speech at Glassboro’s 6th Annual Dyslexia Conference on August 29th, I have become very interested in the idea of Structured Word Inquiry (SWI). This conference has a different theme every year, and this year it just so happened to be structured word inquiry, which is an intriguing subject. Dr. Peter Bowers at this conference talked about structured word inquiry as the idea of breaking down a word’s history and meaning to understand how it is spelled. It explains that a word cannot be irregular if there is a history as to why it is spelled that way. It explains why, for example, the word ‘they’ cannot be spelled ‘thay’. It helps with spelling, but reading as well, after all, most of the time, if you can spell a word, you can read it. This method of spelling is very commonly used to help dyslexic students because of how explicit it is and how deep the concept actually goes. There are four questions that you ask when using structured word inquiry, so as an introduction to structured word inquiry, I am going to be analyzing these questions and how they can help you to understand not just the spelling of the word, but also the meaning and history of the word.

Question #1: Meaning?

Before you try to spell a word, it is important that you know it’s meaning. This is because, especially with homophones, words can sound similar but have different spellings to indicate that there is a difference in meaning, for example, the words ‘see’ and ‘sea’. It also helps if you can use the word in a sentence. For this example, let’s use the word unhelpful. A good sentence for this word to insure that we understand its meaning is: When it came time to clean up, she was very unhelpful, as she did not pick up her toys.

Question #2: Built?

First, see if you can find a base in the word. This can be a free base, (a base that is a word on its own, for example, help) or a bound base (a base that is not a word on its own, and is bound to be with a prefix or suffix, for example, the base sci, which means to know). In the word unhelpful, we can see the base which is ‘help’. Now, let’s make some word sums to see if we can identify any prefixes or suffixes, and possibly build other words with the base ‘help’. 

Target Word
Word Sum
un + help + ful = unhelpful
help + ful = helpful
help + ing = helping
help + ed = helped

So as we can see from the word sum, the word unhelpful has the prefix ‘un’ (not) the base ‘help’ and the suffix ‘ful’ (full of). So we can see that the word unhelpful literally means ‘not full of help. 

Question #3: Relatives?

Another great way to learn how to spell a word and other words that are related to it is to find its relatives. Words can have 2 kinds of relatives; Morphological relatives, which are words that share a base, therefore ‘unhelpful’ and ‘helping’ are Morphological relatives. Words can also have Etymological relatives, which means they share a historical root and meaning, for example ‘them’ and ‘they’ are Etymological relatives because they both relate to talking about a group of people. This concept of relatives can explain why words that seem irregular such as ‘they’, are actually spelled correctly in the context of their meaning and history. For example, ‘they’ is not spelled ‘thay’ because its Etymological relatives, ‘them’ and ‘their’, are spelled with an ‘e’, so spelling ‘they’ as ‘thay’ would strip it of its meaning. The word unhelpful has many morphological relatives, such as helping and helpful, which all share the same base ‘help’. 

Question #4: Pronunciation?

As we can see, the word ‘unhelpful’ most of the graphemes (the letters in the word) are spelled how we say them, however, the suffix ‘ful’ is a swcha, because we do tend to say ‘fl’ instead of ‘full’. This means that pronunciation will not be a problem with words with the base ‘help’. However, there are words that are not spelled as they sound, so for these words, it’s best to find their origin to make sense of the irregular spelling. For example, the word ‘sword’, seems to have an irregular spelling, but if you look at its origins, it comes from the Germanic origins, and is a relative of Dutch zwaard, and zwaard literally means blade. So now it’s easier to understand this spelling that seems irregular in English

Structured Word Inquiry is very interesting and unique because of how explicit and deep it is. Finding the origins of words is a great way to understand their spellings, especially when the spelling is irregular. It also helps to be able to find a word's relatives to understand its spelling and definition. It really shows that there is a reason behind irregular spellings, which as a dyslexic person, that is very comforting to know. Of course, there is so much more to SWI, as this is just an introduction. If you would like to learn more on SWI, Dr. Peter Bowers wrote this great book on SWI called Teaching How the Written Word Works that explains in depth how to break down a word and it’s meaning using SWI. So next time you find yourself asking why a word is spelled so weird, try finding its origins and relatives, then its spelling will become obvious and actually make sense. 


  1. This is fantastic--so informative!

  2. Maura, we were so grateful that you took the time to join us in Glassboro for our Dyslexia Conference. You did an amazing job sharing your DYSLEXIA JOURNEY!!! I'm so glad you enjoyed the conference and content. Love your blog and recent post!!!


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