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Structured Word Inquiry

If you’ve been reading up on morphology and its importance in teaching our students to read and write well, you’ve been hearing these buzz phrases: structured word inquiry, word matrices, and word sums.

Let me assist with some of the terminology, point to some relevant research, and get you a fantastic free resource to use tomorrow in your classes.

Dr. Pete Bowers coined the instructional procedure, Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) to describe specific techniques to help students understand how morphology (the study of morphemes–the smallest units of meaning) is the one linguistic component that connects orthographic (spelling) patterns, pronunciation, and meanings of words.

Dr. Bowers and his colleague’s research, Morphological Instruction and Literacy (Kirby & Bowers 2017), points to the importance of reframing our approach to vocabulary, reading, spelling, and writing instruction.

Those of us who are into brain research to a certain degree recognize the three features of how we develop sight word automaticity: the orthographical, phonological, and semantic interplay.

Instruction which helps students see how words are formed and helps them practice doing so produces big dividends.

Knowledge of word structure and how words are formed is linked to both greater vocabulary development and stronger reading comprehension (Prince, 2009; Wolter & Green, 2013).

Having a firm foundation in morphology has been shown to predict how well students perform on reading and spelling tasks (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon 2010).

Teachers see how morphological study helps their students understand challenging academic vocabulary. If a student understands a morpheme, such as pre, that student is empowered with a problem-solving skill to gain clues to meaning for a multitude of words ( 1360 according to Word Find) words with that prefix.

How to Use Structured Word Inquiry

Structured Word Inquiry Word Matrix

Structured Word Inquiry

  1. Use a base word in the middle of a matrix–either a free base (stands on its own as a base word) or a bound base (needs an affix to complete a word).

    Grades 4-8 Comprehensive Vocabulary

    Comprehensive Vocabulary

  2. Add prefixes and suffixes, which will add to the base to form multi-syllabic words.
  3. Students print (or with my free program below–drag and drop in Google slides) the affixes to form the words. Stickies work well, too.
  4. Students print (or type in my free program) the word sums. For example, “sub” + “tract” + “ion” → “subtraction.”

About my free program… I developed structured inquiry lessons for one of myComprehensive Vocabularygrade-level programs (grade 4) and included directions for how to easily construct your own interactive Google slide matrices and word sums, just like mine! By the way, myComprehensive Vocabulary programs each include print copy word matrices as shown in the graphic. All five grade-level Comprehensive Vocabulary programs are included in The Science of Reading Intervention Program: Language Comprehension.



  1. Jennifer Hayes
    September 8th, 2023 at 15:53 | #1

    Hi Mark, love these but do not know how to use it. They would be prefect for my intervention groups. I have downloaded it to my google account and then use slideshow but when I click on an element the program just jumps to the next slide. Can you please explain to me how to use it interactively. Thanks

  2. September 12th, 2023 at 06:54 | #2

    Hi Jennifer,
    I did remove the post as a careful reader found seven errors. However, you can certainly use and correct as you go. Plus, the create-your-own works well. You have to share the slides in edit, not presentation mode, so they students can drag and drop. I am now using morphology walls in my reading intervention, which I prefer over the word sums and matrices. Check them out in the preview to my Science of Reading Intervention Program.


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