Word Inquiry: It's a Structured Language Approach


Dyslexia typically disrupts reading and spelling at a word level. In contrast, language (listening) comprehension and critical thinking are typically not disrupted (or not as disrupted) in dyslexia and are often a relative strength, so a method that uses structured conversation to understand words and word parts is particularly suited for dyslexic learners.  Research confirms that understanding the meaning of word parts is a key to reading comprehension (Deacon, et al., 2014). Further, it is clear that, while word-level processing weaknesses tend to continue across the life span, they can be significantly improved using structured literacy methods.  For example, compensated adult dyslexics differ from uncompensated adult dyslexic in how able they are to do word analysis (Mellard, et al. 2015). 

The Word Inquiry method uses a Socratic, shared inquiry approach to explore the meaning and structure of individual words.  With a clear, procedural structure and a focus on meaning, Word Inquiry is a structured literacy (aka Orton-Gillingham) methodology.

Students can benefit from using the Word Inquiry method from the very beginning of Structured Literacy instruction. The Word Inquiry method begins with selecting a word for study and creating a Word Sum for the word.

A (unabridged) dictionary that includes word history information is a necessary tool when building a Word Sum. Dictionary.com has this kind of detail and, with support, children can learn to navigate this online reference. 

It is all about the process!    Pete Bowers explains the process in his recorded Lexercise Live Broadcast.

Since the Word Inquiry method is a shared inquiry method, it generally requires minimum of two people (and parents and kids can be great team-mates!) working together to arrive at data-supported answers to the following questions:

  1. Does the word have any prefixes? [If so, write the prefix(es) in the far left box of the Word Matrix and specify the meaning of each prefix.] 
  2. Does the word have any suffixes? [If so, write the suffix(es) in the far right box of the Word Matrix and specify the meaning of each suffix.]
  3. What are the word’s base(es)? Write the base(es) in the center section of the Word Matrix and specify the meaning of each.

Word Inquiry is the main vehicle for explicit teaching about word parts (morphology) in Lexercise's Structured Literacy tele-therapy. The most common prefixes and suffixes are introduced systematically, across the Lexercise Levels and then practiced using Word Inquiry.  Suffix spelling patterns (e.g., doubling the last consonant letter before adding a suffix as in <running>)  are also introduced systematically throughout the Lexercise curriculum using a Word Inquiry approach..  Word inquiry is a powerful vocabulary builder since it helps the learner make connections between related words (e.g., port, transport, import, report, etc.). and it is used in Lexercise Structured Literacy therapy along with other practice routines (e.g., Descriptor) to develop vocabulary skills.

Using the same principles as the scientific method Word Inquiry does not put a heavy burden on working memory or processing speed, so students who might otherwise resist word study often enjoy it and excel at it.

See the handout attached below from a professional conference where SLPs were learning how to apply this method to "hook kids on words":   NCSHLA - 2014-Using Scientific Word Inquiry to Hook Kids on Words



Don't feel like you have to master this methodology!  Your Lexercise clinician will guide you in how to use it one step at a time to meet your child's unique needs!   But just for illustration, below are a few examples of Word Inquiries from early, middle and advanced stages. 




A beginning word sum: popped


A more advanced word sum: symphony




Word Inquiry with "irregular" (aka "sight") words

Some very common words have unexpected letter-sound elements.  For example the word <does> is hard to sound out. Words like <does> are commonly taught as a "sight words". Students are told they will "just have to memorize" the word since the letter-sound patterns are "irregular".  But struggling readers and spellers are typically not great at memorizing. The idea of "just memorizing" violates the principle of explicit teaching, which is a guiding principle of structured literacy methodologies. Word inquiry can help explain unexpected spelling patterns and make the reasons for them explicit. The word inquiry matrix below make clear the relationship between <do> and <does>.  But why is the vowel in <does> pronounced like "uh"? 

The words <do> and <does> are really old English words, and English has changed a lot over the last few hundred year.  When Shakespeare wrote his play, Hamlet, he had Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother say:  "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."  That sounds weird to us, but that's how people talked back then.  What used to be "doth" is now "does".  The suffix has morphed but the vowel sound has not.




More advanced word matrices

This is advanced example of a  Word Matrix of the bases <duct/duce> was created by Pete Bowers.

For other examples, check out Pete Bowers' You Tube Chanel videos here. (Schools can be noisy places, and the audio on this video has a lot of background noise but you can still  hear the  Word Inquiry discussion.)


This is advanced example of a  Word Matrix for <curiosity>.


But what happens to the <u> in <curious> when adding the <-ity> suffix to spell <curiosity>? 

Who knew!?  (We said it was advanced!)





Barrie Blackley, S. (2014). Using Scientific Word Inquiry to Hook Kids on Words, invited presentation to the spring conference of the North Carolina Speech, Hearing and Language Association.  NCSHLA-2014 Spring Conf.-Using Scientific Word Inquiry-v1.pptx.pdf

Deacon, S. H., Kieffer, M.J., , Laroche, A.(2014). The Relation Between Morphological Awareness and Reading Comprehension: Evidence From Mediation and Longitudinal Models,  Scientific Studies of Reading, p. 432-451.   doi: 10.1080/10888438.2014.926907

Carter, M.D., Walker, M.W and O'Brien, K. (2015). The Effects of Rate on Single-Word Reading Assessment, American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, Vol. 24, 13-23. doi:10.1044/2014_AJSLP-14-0021

Kirby, J.R., Deacon, S. H., Bowers, P.N.,  Izenberg, L., Wade-Woolley, L., Parrila, R.  (2011). Children’s morphological awareness and reading ability. Reading and Writing, 25(2):389-410.

Mellard, D.F., Woods, K.L. and McJunkin, L. (2015). Literacy components model for at-risk young adults enrolled in career and technical education. Journal of Research in Reading, 38: 249-271.



Please sign in to leave a comment.