Sound it Out?

Picture this; you are in a Grade 2 Journal Writing class and your student asks you how to spell action. Your first instinct is to respond with “sound it out”. You’ll end up with some variation of spelling that looks like akshun. Another student asks how to spell the number eight. Next thing you know, your student is writing about how he ate ate chocolate bars… confusing, right?

So let me ask you this – Does “sound it out” really work? Are we teaching our students to be strong writers and spellers by teaching them the only way to spell is by sounding it out? Is there another writing structure we should be using to teach our students about spelling and writing?

Last month I blogged about how my students are eager to write. They want to write blog posts, journal entries, short stories, tweets… the list goes on! As an elementary school teacher, I have become very good at being able to read the creative ways that 7 and 8 year olds choose to spell unfamiliar words – but what if I didn’t need to use that talent of mine? What if I could teach the students how to spell words like action and eight – without forcing them to sound it out first.

This is where Structured Word Inquiry comes in.

Pete Bowers (2008) defines Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) as “scientific word investigation”. Bowers shares 3 guiding principles of SWI on his website;
“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 a learning community can safely accept or reject hypotheses about how spelling works.”
(principle #2 blew my mind!)

SWI professional development session with Sharon Reichstein

Last winter, I participated in two sessions on SWI with Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Education, and I am intrigued, blown away, and slightly frustrated that these principles and this method of teaching spelling was never taught to me as a student!



This is where I come in.

I believe that elementary students should be learning to spell words through this scientific word investigation known as Structured Word Inquiry. By teaching my students how to investigate and understand the reasoning for words being spelled the way they are, they will become better spellers.

As I have shared in the past, all of the teachers at my school complete a Professional Growth Plan (PGP) as part of our Teacher-Led Evaluation process. My PGP for this school year is to develop a unit of Spelling in Grade 2 anchored in Structured Word Inquiry. My Head of School tasked me with identifying at least 3 spelling rules that will guide my Spelling Unit. After researching the principles of SWI and watching videos of elementary teachers sharing their experiences and methods, I have decided not to identify 3 spelling rules. At this point in my research, I feel as though the word investigations should be organic and student driven. For example, I may notice that my students are often writing the word have like hav. This could lead to an investigation of the many jobs of the single silent e. Or, like in this video , one of my students may ask why park ends with <k> and pack  ends with <ck>?

While I am not prepared to identify 3 main spelling rules at this time…. What I know for certain is that I will launch SWI in my classroom with a deep dive into investigating Prefixes, Base Words, and Suffixes. This aligns with the 3 guiding principles of SWI because it will help my students start to develop the necessary skills it takes to understand the meaning of words by looking at the word family, along with the prefix or suffix that is attached.

I encourage you to join me on my (long) journey into the world of Structured Word Inquiry. You can subscribe to my blog to stay in the loop with future blog posts on SWI or you can follow my journey on Twitter. I am by no means an expert (it’s actually quite the opposite),  but I would love to share what I am doing and connect with other educators who are inspired to start teaching spelling this way! If you are already deep into your SWI journey, please leave a comment with any feedback, ideas, resources, etc. We learn better together!

One thought on “Sound it Out?

  1. Looking forward to learning with you as you share your journey into SWI. May give me some ideas for Hebrew too…. 😉

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