Lower School Structured Word Inquiry

What Is Structured Word Inquiry?

Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) is a linguistically sound approach to language instruction that Nueva has integrated into its PreK–12 literary arts and English curriculum. It provides a method for understanding the spelling and structure of English words and is a unique, proven method for investigating a word's spelling, meaning, and etymology.

Using linguistic tools like word sums and lexical word matrices, students analyze words into elements such as bases, prefixes, and suffixes. By understanding the spelling of other words in that family, students can create meaningful connections across the language to build proficiency in orthographic analysis.

Structured Word Inquiry Glossary


An orthography is a set of conventions for writing a language. It includes norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation.

Word Sum

The word sum is a necessary tool to allow falsification of hypotheses of orthographic morphological structure. Source here.

Lexical Word Matrix

The lexical matrix specifies the association between word meaning and word form. Each column of the lexical matrix corresponds to a particular word meaning (or concept), each row corresponds to a particular word form (or word image). Source here.

How Does SWI Work?

In its simplest form, SWI is an inquiry process. The process begins by asking “What does the word mean?” Students brainstorm ways to define and interpret a given word.

Words and meanings written in latin and greek

Next, students look at the composition of the word. "How is the word built? What is its structure?"

Students then explore the word's history and etymology to identify and find evidence for the word’s structural elements, such as the base, prefixes, and suffixes.

The next questions asked are: "What related words — that share a structure or historical root — might provide further insights to the word in question? Is anything related to the pronunciation of the word affecting the spelling?"

Using word sums to support or refute their structural hypotheses, students then move on to visually represent their findings. They create a lexical matrix to represent a family of words that share the same base element.

Finally, students consider how their discoveries affect any deeper understanding of the word or word family, and the context in which they found it.

Why Does Nueva Teach SWI?

SWI applies the Nueva philosophy to the study of the English language. It teaches deep, comprehensive understanding of our language and how to investigate it, not memorization of surface patterns or phonics. Investigating words based on structure and meaning provokes a deeper questioning and provides a more holistic understanding of other curricular elements, whether a piece of literature, a scientific principle, a historical event, or a mathematical concept.

Once students realize words are spelled the way they are for specific reasons, floodgates of curiosity open. Through their investigation, students discover patterns, structures, and applications as they learn to play with words in a creative environment.

Through SWI, language becomes another medium to be questioned, tested, and, most importantly, enjoyed. The process is naturally scaffolded for a range of individual abilities and exposes students to rich vocabulary. Its effectiveness, particularly with the youngest learners, is grounded in research.