WordWorks integrates Structured Word Inquiry with Understanding by Design & the PYP

The PYP and Understanding by Design provide a framework for curriculum of many of the international schools I am working with. Clearly the philosophy of inquiry links those frameworks and the instruction supported by WordWorks.

I have been particularly impressed by the way I saw Understanding by Design help teachers frame their instruction with explicit focus the deeper underlying understandings supported by lessons in any content area. Schools with that instructional framework in place are quick to see that the target of a structured word inquiry lesson using Real Spelling is not the spelling of the word studied. Instead words are investigated to develop (a) enduring understandings about how the English spelling system represents meaning, and (b) strategies for effective problem-solving of any ordered system.

The lesson I am making available for you to download proved to be productive for illustrating these deeper learning goals of structured word inquiry with each audience (student and teacher) that used it. Read on to see some examples of spelling questions and discoveries sparked by just one spelling lesson and related enduring understandings or “big ideas” this investigation sparked.

A Lesson investigating <imagine> and its family members with the Word Searcher:

I prepared this lesson first for middle school children at the school I visited in Sumatra. It provides information and steps to investigate the structure and meaning of the word <imagine>. Click image to the right for a pdf of the document. The students there did an amazing job working through spelling-meaning structure problems that I had planned, but they also identified important questions I had not considered. For example, questions of students lead to investigations in dictionaries that taught me about the suffix <-cy> that I had not considered before. A question about the <-ine> suffix introduced me to the fact this suffix has at least four distinct uses, including marking feminine nouns (think of the word <heroine>!).  As usual a planned “teacher-led inquiry” sparked fruitful “inquiry-led teaching.”
  1. BulletSee this link for more on the distinction between teacher-led inquiry and inquiry-led teaching.

  2. BulletGo to the bottom of this page to see how the inquiry-led teaching with the middle school in Sumatra resulted in our identifying a prefix <su-> which in turn resulted in Melvyn Ramsden revising his prefix chart!

After using an inquiry-led teaching opportunity to learn about these new features of English

spelling with the help of the middle school students in Sumatra, I was able to target some of

those concepts on purpose in subsequent uses of this lesson (back to teacher-led inquiry).

You can see images of those lessons with Grade 5 students at ASD in Qatar, teachers at Riffa

Views International School in Bahrain, and then with 60 elementary teachers at the International

School of Beijing. A video from one of these sessions is posted here, and more are more are

on their way!

A peek at some the lesson and the learning it generated

After working through and testing a
hypothesis for a word sum of <imagine>, this lesson helps you use the Word Searcher to look for a family of potentially related words (see left).

After testing connections of structure and meaning, groups of learners first eliminates unrelated words, then problem-solves ways to represent all the related words on the “starter matrix” provided (on right).

Enduring understandings gained by studying a word and its relatives:


Copyright Susan and Peter Bowers 2008

Some Questions & discoveries sparked by investigating <imagine> and other word families:

Enduring Understandings (“Big Ideas”) from a

Structured Word Inquiry of <imagine>

Some of the “Big Ideas” developed and reinforced

through these investigations:

  1. BulletIs there an <-ation> suffix like the dictionary says or is it an <-ate> suffix followed by an <-ion> suffix?

  2. BulletI can’t seem to make <imagination> work with the         <-tion> suffix.

  3. BulletWhen stuck making a word fit into a word matrix, make sure to use a word sum to carefully look at the structure of that word.

  4. BulletDoes <imagery> use an <-ery> suffix or a <-ry> suffix?

  5. BulletIs there such a thing as a <-cy> suffix? It looks like I need one for the word <bankrputcy>.

  6. BulletWhy is there a <t> in <bankruptcy> when I don’t pronounce it?

  7. BulletCan there be a base <rupt> even though there is no word <rupt>?

  8. BulletIf <spect> is the base of <respect> and <inspect>, is <suspect> related too? Is <su-> a prefix even if we can’t find it in the dictionary or in the Real Spelling prefix list?

  1. BulletScientists search for the most elegant solution. A principle of scientific inquiry is to look for the deepest structure that explains the largest number of cases.

  2. BulletEffective learners are critical thinkers who know to question even authoritative sources with evidence. They look to more than one reference before drawing strong conclusions.

  3. BulletEffective learners have strategies they know to use when they get stuck on a problem.

  4. BulletEffective learners are skilled at identifying and testing hypotheses.

  5. BulletEffective learners are comfortable working with questions that have ambiguous answers. The learning through the process of an investigation is often more valuable than a specific answer.

  6. BulletEnglish spelling is an ordered system that prime function it to represent meaning. It can be investigated and understood through careful problem solving.

Above and left: Teachers diving in to investigations sparked by the <imagine> lesson.

Students and “expert” work together to improve our reference materials:

There is an additional story of learning that grew from the <imagine> lesson at its first use in Sumatra that is worth sharing.

After working on <imagine> someone from this  group went on to investigate <suspect>. They asked about the prefix, and I was stumped for a time. I knew about the bound base <spect>, so my first hypothesis of the prefix <sus-> could not work. Was there a <su-> suffix?

We checked a dictionary and a reference chart on prefixes from Real Spelling and still did not find evidence of this suffix. When we wrote to Melvyn to inquire, he was surprised to find that his prefix chart failed to list the <su-> variant of <sub-> and thanked us for helping him improve his resources with this comment:

Dear Pete,

Here's the revised version. Let me know the instant your beady eye alights on another omission or mistake.


(You can download this prefix chart at this link.)

To be fair, however, the Real Spelling reference did actually already hold the answer we were looking for. In a later correspondence,  Melvyn pointed out that Kit 6B “Prefixes that have variable forms” had a clear example of the <su-> suffix. (See above right.)

This is as screen shot from a video of a teacher working through word structure question.

Students from the American School of Doha move onto their own investigation of the bound base <rupt> using the same strategies learned with the <imagine> lesson.

The powerful learning message, however, for the students in Sumatra, and then in later sessions was that we should question experts and authoritative resources. Our Oxford dictionary didn’t cite the <su-> prefix, a reference from Real Spelling didn’t point to it, but that didn’t mean we should give up on it’s existence. The structure of <suspect> was not resolved for us yet.

By writing Melvyn to investigate farther, we did identify a weakness in one of his resources that he was pleased to amend. I shared this story with students and teachers in the next schools, and pointed out that the Prefix chart I was able to offer them (and now you!) was improved only because  middle school students in Sumatra were intellectually curious critical thinkers.


Students in Sumatra use the Word Searcher on the <imagine> lesson.

This chart grew during our 2-day weekend workshop in Qatar for teachers and literacy coaches.

Click above for a free pdf of the <imagine> lesson