October 30, 2015

Growing up, Pete Bowers always struggled with spelling. Even after he became a teacher, the difficulty continued.

As he sat in his office in the Mansion at the Hillsborough Campus, Bowers recalled one afternoon many years ago when he couldn’t remember if the word “really” had one “l” or two. He was writing in a student’s homework book and didn’t want to misspell the word, so he looked it up in the dictionary.

When he closed it, he thought to himself, “If I have to write the word tomorrow I’ll have the same question.”


He continued to struggle with spelling until he came across structured word inquiry — a revolutionary, linguistically sound approach to language instruction that teaches the way written English really works.

“It’s about understanding the world and scientific inquiry,” Bowers said.

He is now a renowned expert on the subject, and this year he is Nueva’s scholar in residence. He is collaborating with Lower, Middle, and Upper School faculty and students.

Bowers first learned about structured word inquiry while teaching abroad in Indonesia. He attended a 45-minute conference session about English spelling in which the presenter argued that, with almost no exceptions, it is a coherent system.

“I went to see this thing. I thought it had some trick to it because I thought it was crazy,” Bowers said. “Within 10 seconds, it made sense.”

After the conference, Bowers convinced his school to buy the toolbox. During the next academic year, Bowers taught with the resource Real Spelling for a year.

He was blown away by what he witnessed: students fought over dictionaries and other spelling resources because they were so enthusiastic about the program. His wife, also a teacher, had never seen anything like it either.

“We just kept being knocked out at how fascinating it was for the kids and for us, and so the key thing was that I always thought English spelling was this crazy, irregular thing that in schools all you could do was memorize it,” Bowers said. “There are some patterns you’d learn, but they all had exceptions. What got kids excited is that they could develop a hypothesis and test it.”

When he returned to his home in Canada after teaching abroad in Ecuador, Romania, and Indonesia, the first reaction people had to this concept was “that makes sense, that’s so cool.” Principals or school board members would follow up with, “Where’s the research?”

Bowers didn’t understand the question, but he continued teaching. He used Real Spelling in his fourth and fifth grade classes, and he compared his students to those who weren’t taught with the resource and published his research.

Originally, Bowers — who taught elementary school for ten years — planned to return overseas to continue teaching, but a supervisor encouraged him to earn his PhD to give him more knowledge and credibility.

While earning his doctorate from Queens University, Bowers started WordWorks Literacy Centre in Ontario, a literacy consultancy. He has presented at scientific and educational conferences, and has given professional development workshops at prestigious private schools overseas; he has presented on every continent but South America and Antarctica.

His research on instruction about word structure — and subsequent research by others — contradicts decades of untested assumptions about the nature of instruction that young and dyslexic students need.

After meeting fourth grade teacher Matt Berman at a summer course for word inquiry, Bowers learned about the Nueva School. Within a couple of months, Real Spellers — a resource for people to use and learn more about orthography, morphology, etymology, and the Real Spelling Toolbox —was created, and Bowers was asked to present at the 2011 Innovative Learning Conference.

Bowers returned to present at the next two ILC conferences, and also to teach Nueva students inside the classroom. After visiting multiple times, Bowers agreed to teach full time at Nueva this year as a scholar in residence.

“From my world, this is like an overseas post,” said Bowers, who is from Wolfe Island in Ontario, Canada. “I taught in three countries. My family was loving the idea of coming here, so we’re delighted to be here for a year. It’s going to be my first time since about 2002 actually being in a school.”

Head of Lower School Emily Kolatch said students have enjoyed working with Bowers this year, and their ability to think about how they learn has grown tremendously since they began using structured word inquiry.

“Pete is one of the most gifted educators I’ve ever met,” Kolatch said. “The way I know that is because the way he works with adults and kids is exactly the same. He’s just absolutely himself with every audience, and that is such a sign of a gifted teacher. He’s just a natural, gifted teacher.”

With Bowers’ help, the Lower School has developed a way to teach literacy at a really high level that aligns with the school’s philosophy.

“Everyone used to dread spelling,” said Kolatch, who has worked with Bowers for the past four years. “So much so that people just stopped teaching it. And now, this is something the kids look forward to, the teachers look forward to. It’s exciting, it’s engaging.”

Megan Terra, director of the Innovative Teacher Development Program, added that Bowers, whom she described as warm and friendly, is an ideal ambassador for structured word inquiry.

“For people who learned a more traditional approach to language, SWI can be challenging because you have to unlearn some things you learned, and Pete is so positive and encouraging,” Terra said. “He can help people feel at ease when they need to unlearn and learn something new at the same time.”

He is also extremely talented at reaching students of all grade levels in all divisions.

“He is able to have such expertise while also being so open it brings so much to a class,” Terra said.

In his time at Nueva this fall, Bowers has been equally impressed with how well Nueva students understand SWI, and their passion for the topic.

“For me, it’s a totally amazing gig,” Bowers said.



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