What is Structured Word Inquiry?

Structured Word Inquiry is an empowering way for students to learn language and the words within it. In many classrooms, students simply learn phonics rules and the definitions of isolated words. Through SWI, also known as Scientific Word Investigation, students study the history of words, the connections between words, and the evolution of language that tells those words’ stories. As the names suggest, SWI makes learning the English language an exciting scientific investigation.

Where Did SWI Come From?

SWI was born out of research conducted by Peter Bowers, literacy expert, and John Kirby, educational psychologist. They wanted to find out how students in upper Elementary grades learn language best. Their findings pointed to structured inquiry as the most effective way to deliver meaningful instruction in morphology (how words are formed and what they mean). Structured inquiry is where teachers provide students with a specific procedure to follow in generating and/or answering questions.

“Scientific inquiry is the only means by which a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.” -Peter Bowers

The SWI Process

When Kirby and Bowers designed this approach to word study, they identified the following four questions as crucial for guiding students’ investigation of words:

  1. What is the meaning of your word?

  2. How is it built? (Specifically, does it have a base/root/affix?)

  3. Can you find any related words that share etymological or morphological relatives?

  4. Do the graphemes in the word make predictable sounds?

Once students are familiar with the SWI process, they are encouraged to use it anytime they don’t know a word.

Why Teach Using SWI?

The most common methods of language instruction involve some combination of phonics lessons and work with root words. Lots of teachers also incorporate affixes and bases into language lessons. They might give students definitions and have them piece together meanings on their own based on word parts. But SWI brings learning language to life. It teaches students the “why” behind the language rules they learn, which makes students’ learning more meaningful and memorable.

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