Lower School News

In Structured Word Inquiry, a Word's Meaning is the Key to Unlocking Its Spelling
Rachel Freeman, communications/website manager

Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) is the scientific investigation of words: how parts, structure, origin, and history of a word have come together to tell the story of what words mean, how words are connected and how words are spelled. This approach to language instruction has been integrated in the Nueva curriculum for many years, and PreK–fifth grade SWI coach Rebecca Loveless taught young Nuevans about words for the last seven years. 

Because she is also an SWI teacher and coach for educators all over the world, Rebecca is well versed in the world of online learning. She recently made two SWI videos for the kindergarteners, which are not only engaging for students, we think adults will enjoy them as well. In fact, Rebecca and Megan Terra, Lower School division head, have received a lot of positive feedback from parents and teachers that the adults are learning as much as the students are! 

See below for the video about the word ‘ecosystem,’ and click here for the video about terms related to the water cycle.

We caught up with Rebecca to learn about Structured Word Inquiry and how it has been adapted to this remote learning space. 


Can you explain what Structured Word Inquiry is? 

Structured Word Inquiry is the lens through which we can study the English spelling system. We do this by using the scientific inquiry process, which helps us learn that English spelling actually makes a lot of sense. We often think of English spelling as crazy, that they don’t follow any rules and are based on sound. The reason we may think a lot of spelling is like this is because we aren’t looking at the structure of words. The truth is that spelling is the way it is because of meaning; the history of a word comes first, and pronunciation of a word is actually the last consideration for how words are spelled the way they are. I always tell my students, “The base holds the meaning, and the meaning is the key that unlocks the spelling.”


What is your teaching approach for SWI?

Normally, the inquiry begins with a base word. We focus on the meaning of that base and then we look for other words that have the same base. What was interesting about the water cycle video that I created is that it actually started with a question about the suffix. The students had noticed that '-ation' was in all of the words they were using to describe the water cycle: precipitation, condensation, evaporation, transportation. So, I took the opportunity to first show students what the bases were and where the meaning of the word is held. Then I pulled out the structures of the words and showed them the suffix, and we actually learned that these words have two suffixes! 


How do you decide what words to dive into in a given lesson?

The beauty of SWI is that we often choose words based on the students’ interests or the curriculum that the teachers are working with. We love that we can engage in work that has meaningful context for students because that’s where we’ll get the richest engagement and richest learning. 

For the younger students, we also choose words we think are useful—words like would, could, and should—because it will help them more easily learn the words’ meaning and spelling. We often say that learning to spell is a wonderful byproduct of SWI. 


How does your SWI look different in an in-person classroom?

In the classroom, we can be interactive, students can build ideas and questions off one another—one brings a hypothesis and another student follows up with something that sparks the conversation further. Even given that, SWI lends itself very naturally to remote learning, because we are still able to walk through the stories of words using technology. 

I have been able to join PreK for live classes, and it has been so rewarding and incredible to do word studies with them. You can see their little brains are just fired up, and they have brought forth ideas and questions I would never have imagined. Even over Zoom, we’ve been able to have complex conversations. One student wanted to talk about the fact that the letter Y is a semi-vowel. 

Investigating a word is learning the story of a word, so I think about it as storytelling. So whether I can provide a recorded video, or I can join a live class session, students can still get that same wonder and surprise when something new about a word is revealed. 



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