“Creating the Visual Journal” Class


In the beginning of the pandemic, I read a NY Times article that was subheaded:  

                 “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives” 

I was engulfed in the feeling that all we had taken for granted- toilet paper, hand sanitizer, our daily lives- could be taken away.  Looking at Lissa Jensen’s beautiful pages that captured, in words and drawings, the minutes of her life made me want to capture mine.

Lissa taught an online asynchronous class called, “Creating the Visual Journal” but there was one problem: I can’t draw- at all.

I needn’t have worried because Lissa is a gifted artist but also a talented teacher.  Each themed week of her 8-week class was filled with techniques, suggestions and examples of things we could try.  Under her guidance, I started to focus less on what I couldn’t do as an artist and more on what I could do!  There were some techniques that she showed us through videos that were just a delight: Collage!  Painting over pictures! Drawing without looking!  She also made us feel that all mistakes can be fixed: Paint over them!  Collage them!  Add tissue paper!  I started to see my mistakes as opportunities to try something else.

Each day, I would turn off CNN and try out an idea from Lissa’s website.  I had selected a small journal (8” x 5 ¼”) and that was a good decision because the cozy size felt manageable to me.  Lissa invited us to share a page (or pages) from our visual journal each week and would give such detailed, kind and thoughtful feedback that I went into each new week re-energized!  Besides being able to look at Lissa’s beautiful pages each week, my classmates’ pages were another source of inspiration.  There were so many stunning interpretations of each week’s theme!  We also created pages to help us process the pandemic, the death of Floyd George and the civil unrest.  During a time of relative isolation, this class gave us all the gifts of creativity and community.

Due to popular demand, Lissa will be teaching a Part II (Dates TBD)!  2020 may be one of the must tumultuous but, amid the chaos, these are still many moments to cherish and, in my visual journal, I have a record of the strife but also the beauty.

For more information:

Jensen, L. (2020, July 23). Creating the Visual Journal. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://writers.com/classes/creating-visual-journal

Sethi, S. (2020, March 23). Why Mundane Moments Truly Matter. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/smarter-living/why-mundane-moments-matter.html



Reflections: NGA Summer Institute

             National Gallery of Art Online Summer Institute for Educators

Art and Thinking

July 6-10, 2020



In the middle of the pandemic, I received a glorious package of cardstock, collage papers, watercolor markers, glue, crayons and a craft knife.  These materials would be used during the National Gallery of Art “Art and Thinking” Online Summer Institure.

The goal of the Summer Institute was to empower teachers to teach critical thinking using works of art in an exemplary online format.   There were daily live synchronous events, both large and small group, and asynchronous self-paced components.  The 163 participants ranged from early career to veteran teachers, including K-12, College, Art and Museum educators, administrators and consultants.

It was an incredible learning experience, with workshops guided by master teachers and researchers.  I learned so many new thinking routines, became familiar with amazing works of art and explored new modes of creative expressions.

A few highlights:


Arzu Mistry showed us how to make accordion books using paper bags and and covers. These books become magical tools for recording, reflecting and adding to our thinking.  Arzu showed us how to create books that adapt and expand to our thinking through added flaps, pockets, extensions and pop-ups.  As I documented my thinking throughout the week, my accordion book grew in all directions and became a treasured map of what I learned during the week.  Arzu also shared some ideas about how to revisit an accordion book and code thinking using a personalized legend and visual metaphors. 

Arzu has also generously shared a series of instructional videos for accordion books here.


Shari Tishman of Harvard Project Zero and the author of Slow Looking, shared the Artful Thinking palette that was the framework of the week.  (The thinking dispositions of observing and describing, reasoning, questioning and investigating, exploring viewpoints,  comparing and connecting, and finding complexity are explored through various thinking routines over the course of the Summer Institute week with a different thinking disposition highlighted each day.)

Shari guided us in looking fast and slow at the image, Winged Ones, by Joanne Leonard.  She asked us (from an activity by Ruth Slaven, University of Michigan Art Museum)  two questions about the image:

What does your heart know?

What is your body telling you?

Shari also gave us a framework for designing learning using art:

  1. Set expectations and time frame.
  2. Use simple observation strategies.
  3. Give time to dwell. (describe/experience using words, sounds, tableaux etc.)
  4. Discover how others see things.
  5. Discover how you see things.

Shari also reminded us about the skill that is needed to manage information, response and feedback.  My own experience with using art to teach critical thinking has also highlighted the need to carefully plan enough time for each phase of the lesson, when to give background information and use a variety of response modes (oral, written, think-pair-share, whole group, drama etc.)

One question that she asked was, “What does (this element) mean to you.”  Such a powerful question to explore viewpoints and metaphor!  Shari also gave some tips with exploring metaphor with younger children by asking:

               If this artwork was a flower, what flower would it be? 

              If this artwork was an animal, what animal would it be?

I also realize that one of the benefits of the Zoom experience was that everyone was able to respond at the same time and that we had a front-row seat to the artwork.

Shari emphasized the simple yet profound key tenet of Artful Thinking and using artwork in the classroom: slow looking: “taking the time to notice that there is more there than meets the eye at first glance.”  


                                                                  Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Liz Diament, NGA Educator, guided us through the Looking 5 x 2 (Far and Near) as we explored The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole.  I have used this activity before, where you ask students to name 5 objects they see and then look again; naming 5 additional objects but I loved how Liz used the zoom tool on the NGA website to slowly scan over a close-up of the work before we named 5 new objects.  She further guided us to “step in” to the artwork and tell her something that we might…hear…smell…touch…taste…see…here.

I loved two questions that we were asked that encouraged me to think metaphorically and plan on using these questions with my students:

     1. Choose one main element.  What might this mean or symbolize in the painting?

  1. What if this element was a metaphor for our hopes for this week together?  What might that mean to you?

Jessica Ross, Harvard Project Zero, and Deirdre Palmer and Dina Rappaport, NGA Educators, explored recognizing perspectives using art.  One of the ideas Jessica highlighted was for us to see observation and interpretation on a continuum:


Observation                                                                                                       Interpretation

This is so important because as human beings we sometimes think we are just making an observation when we are actually making an interpretation and it is important to know the difference for ourselves and our students.

I was most excited about thinking routines that Deirdre and Dina used shared using an incredible image by Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson (1942):

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                                            Gordon Parkshttp://www.usda.gov/oc/photo/01di1383.htm

First, we took time to just look at the image by asking,

What do you see?

We took time to list the people and objects in the image.  It was so interesting to see how much there was to see and notice and one of the benefits of our Zoom chatbox was that we could instantly read other’s observations.

Then, we were given the title of the photograph and just a little background information on Ella Watson, Washington D.C. and the photographer, Gordon Parks.  You can read some background here.

Next, we participated in a thinking routine, Step In, Step Out, Step Back, that is designed to nurture cultural perspective taking responsibly.  We were also asked to make personal connections and share a headline after small group discussion.  We also took time to make a sketch of the artwork which helped us slow down and really see the image.

This was such a timely activity because it highlights the importance of context and asks us what we know and what we may never know.  This activity resonated with me because it emphasized taking the perspectives of others responsibly.

I am looking forward to exploring more of Gordon Parks’ images and the Gordon Parks Foundation (Pleasantville, NY), with the Step In, Step Out, Step Back routine.  I would also like to explore more of Gordon Parks’ powerful images with other Artful Thinking routines.


Mary Hall Surface, playwright, director, author and educator,  guided us through an amazing sequence of activities based on Pablo Picasso’s, Family of Saltimbanques during her “Monologues from Art.”  We started by slowly looking at the image and then choosing a character from the artwork for our focus.  She then showed us how to do word sketching, where we did quick sketch of the selected character and then labeled our sketch with what we saw and later, our wonderings.  We explored the character through a series of dramatic activities and explored our interpretations of the character’s feelings.  Through a series of whole group and small group exercises, we “wrote out loud” and then acted out  a “3-emotion, 2-turning point” monologue.  The depth of the interpretations, the quality of her instructional sequence and graphic organizers was so exciting that I can’t wait to recreate this lesson in the future.  We were also invited to draft a monologue after the experience and here is mine:

Boy with barrel speaking to his mother (red skirt):

I am so alone here.  In this world no one cares if I live or die.  Anything I eat, everything I do depends on the sweat of my brow.  The days are so long; my burdens heavy.  It wasn’t always like this.  Mother, remember when you were here with me.  I took laughter and ease for granted then.  Remember when you brought me to the circus for a lesson with the acrobats?  After we spent the day with them and they showed me their secrets, I said it must be a hard life for them, always on the road, and you said,  “They are following their hearts, Andre, and that is the best thing any of us can ever do.  There will be hard days but always, my dear son, follow your heart.”  I think of your words, Mama, and they give me all the energy and hope that I need to take this next step.

Mary Hall Surface also shared a wonderful way to give feedback when we read our colleagues’ monologues.  She said, “Respond by asking the character a question you are curious to know the answer.  Then, offer a wish or hope for the future.”

Mary Hall Surface also guided us to use the wonderful See/Feel/Connect routine to become familiar with Sigmar Polke’s, Hope Is: Wanting to Pull Clouds, explore feelings that emerge and frame a response that helps us connect to the work and each other.  We were skillfully guided through a series of questions, a freewrite and then given the title of the artwork and a sentence frame to “talk to the painting.

My “talking to the painting”:  I see hope in your beautiful colors on the horizon because, I, too, try to clear away the clouds of today to reveal all of tomorrow’s possibilities.  

I am excited to use this routine with some of the other recommended works of art.  As educators, we are look for ways to deepen thinking and this routine is a powerful way to encourage connection and inferential thinking.


Nathalie Ryan, NGA Educator and Manager,  guided us, after looking at artwork by Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, through a visual metaphor drawing/writing activity that asked us to consider our roots, strengths (trunk), connections/impact (branches), and what we need to survive and thrive.  It was a very moving and powerful exercise and though it was targeted for teachers, could be adapted for any setting.  Nathalie shared her process of creating a visual metaphor and  I am interested in exploring more visual metaphors as it spurred thinking and connections. 

Over the course of the week, the presenters grounded us in the research behind the lessons, shared ways to adapt lessons for diverse populations and made available a wealth of additional artwork and lesson resources.  I have participated in several courses in Artful Thinking/ Visible Thinking but this Summer Institute was one of the most meaningful and enjoyable professional development experience of my career.  

Consider this a brief overview- there were so many other incredible workshops.  We also received access to view workshops we did not attend and revisit resources until October, with the option of staying in touch with attendees throughout the year on an informal basis.

 My deepest thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Summer Institute, the incredible presenters and the facilitation team: Sophia Howes, Amanda Beck, Genesis Flores, Heather Hinish, Jessica Metzger and Julie Carmean.  

For more information:

Summer Institute for Educators: Art and Thinking (Overview)

Information about the Institute.  Check back here in February 2021 to sign up.

National Gallery Online Course: “Teaching Critical Thinking Through Art”

This free online self-paced course is an excellent introduction to Artful Thinking.

I have taken in once but am retaking the course using an accordion book to document my thinking and revisit this wonderful course.

National Gallery of Art: Educator Resources

Download images and explore these incredible lessons from across the curriculum. 


Spelling Makes Sense!

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Image from https://www.thepoke.co.uk/2016/02/17/english-pronunciation-poem/

A family member recently emailed me the poem, “The Chaos”  by Gerard Noist Trenité (1922), about the vagaries English spelling and lamented the unpredictability of the English language.

As a lover of the Structured Word Inquiry approach (Bowers, 2010), I could not help but respond that English does make sense if you consider not only the sounds and the letters but the meaning and etymology of the word.  He countered with the word <debt> because someone had recently asked him why there was a <b> in <debt>.

Working through the 4 questions of Structured Word Inquiry,  I found out that the <b> in <debt> was actually an etymological marker letter that was included by scholars to represent the connection to the Latin root debitum.

See my full exploration here.  It was so interesting to see that both <debt> and <debit> are derived from the same Latin root.  Even more exciting was how amazed my family member was to learn that the <b> in <debt> was not random but meaningful.  I was happy to share with him that Structured Word Inquiry has been such a positive approach to help my students, especially dyslexic or English as a New Language students, because it helps them make meaningful connections between spelling and language.

So, do you have any questions?  Feel free to email me or explore Structured Word Inquiry for yourself here or here  .

SWI: The Story of “Remember”

As part of our study of the poem “Remember” by Jo Harjo , we used a Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010) approach to study the word <remember> using 3 of the 4 questions:
1. What is the meaning?
2. What are the morphological and etymological relatives?
3. How is the word built?
The students were quickly able to locate, using Etymology Online or our Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto that the deepest root of the word <remember> was the Latin memor which means “mindful of.” They also were able to quickly brainstorm words that were morphological (sharing the same base and the same meaning) relatives to <remember>: <remembers> <remembering> <remembered>.

There was a good deal of discussion about what the base element is in <remember>: <member> or <memb>. I was stumped myself but created matrices with both since students were able to provide evidence of the <er> suffix. On further reflection, my best understanding at the moment is that <member> is the base. (Email me if you would like me to post my thought process as I thought it might be too long-winded to include here.) I could not find evidence of a suffix –abilia so I opted to leave <memorabilia> off of the <memor> matrix. Please contact me if you have evidence of an –abilia suffix. In our class, we have to locate other base words with the same suffix to show evidence that the suffix exists.

That brings me to a crucial characteristic of Structure Word Inquiry: it is a scientific inquiry so a hypothesis is carefully explored, considered and supported by our current understandings. Hence, I can be in a classroom with my students and not be sure of something, like I wasn’t sure of the base of <remember>. We can disagree about whether the base is <member> or <memb> but we do so respectfully by explaining how we support our beliefs with evidence and listening to the differing views of others as they support their views with their own evidence. This may be one of the great legacies of any inquiry approach; the thinking dispositions that students will take with them long after they have closed the classroom door.

Students volunteered that <remembers> <remembered> and <remembering> were in the same morphological family and wondered about the word <memory>. They smiled when, after exploring the first 3 of the 4 SWI questions for <memory>, they recognized the meaningful connection between <memory> and <remember>: these words don’t share a base but share the same etymological root (memor- mindful of) as do <memoir> and <remembrance>.

We put a circle around the <memor> , <member> (or <memb, depending on the class) matrix and other words, volunteered by students, like <memoir> or <remembrance>. The circle shows that the words within the circle share the same etymological root (memor) and meaning. The words within each matrix share the same root, meaning and structure of the base.

Outside the circle, we put words that came up in our discussion or inquiry but do not share the root. For example, the root of <memento> is the Latin memento so that word appears outside the circle.

My next post will focus on how I support vocabulary development with Structured Word Inquiry. Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 12.29.42 PM

SWI Class and Coronation

Just finished taking another amazing 5-session Structured Word Inquiry class via Zoom- this time with Dr. Pete Bowers!  I learned so much more about Structured Word Investigations (SWI), especially deepening my understanding of etymological resources, associated bases and “spelling out loud.”  Dr. Bowers, or Pete, as everyone calls him, developed Structured Word Inquiry (2010, with Kirby) and I highly recommend his online course.  He so generously shares his knowledge, resources and practical classroom applications.  You can email Pete Bowers at peterbowers1@me.com for information about his online classes.  His website is a constant source of inspiration, as well!

One of the guiding principles of SWI is to “start where you are.”  That means that I am always going to just try to do my best when investigating words with my current understandings and encourage others to do the same.  So, yesterday, I met a good friend and she was curious about the word <coronation>.  We investigated this word using the 4 questions.  When we explored the historical relatives, we learned that the etymological root of the word <coronation> is related to the Greek korōnē  meaning “curved.”  

How interesting to connect this historical root to the related Latin corona meaning “wreath, garland” and our understanding of not only <coronation> but etymologically related words like <crown>, <coronary>, <corollary>, <crow-bar> and <raven>!  (Source: Etymology Online by Doug Harper)


Update:  There is a mistake in the matrix suffixing above!  Can you find it?

Update 2:  The base must be <corone>. Do you know why?

Thanks to Pete Bowers for his continuing guidance and scholarship!  See the link at the bottom where I use the mistakes to deepen my knowledge of SWI.  After rethinking my suffixing and then my understanding of the base and suffixing rules, here is the updated matrix.  “Writing out loud” while referring to the suffixing flow chart was key and I will make sure to implement this practice going forward.

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Update:  I realized that I left <corona> off the matrix above!  Below is the updated matrix!

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I could understand that <coronary> comes from the fact that the heart looks like a curved wreath and perhaps <coroner> comes from the doctor who investigates a heart-stopping death but I wasn’t really understanding the connection to <corollary>- an adjacent circle of thought, maybe?  Imagine my delight when I remembered that I have Word Stems: A Dictionary by John Kennedy on my shelf and found this lovely entry for <coron>:

Coron-crown; cornnation (a crowning), coronal (a crown-like top), cornet(a little crown worn by a duke), corner( a crown officer who inquires after the cause of sudden or violent death), cornice (the crowning part of an entablature, or architectural ornament), cor(on)olli (the little flower crown), cor(or)ollary ( gratuitous statement, thrown in like a garland or crown. L. corona

I am so happy that I had the time to puzzle over the connections before remembering about this resource.  I love Structured Word Inquiries because there is such a sense of joy when something new is learned!  Finally, I am able to show my students that written language makes perfect sense!  I am able to invite them to join me on this learning voyage. I love Howard Rosen’s quote, “”Every child has a story to tell.  The question is will they tell it to you?”  Perhaps we can paraphrase that a bit:  “Every word has a story to tell.  The question is will it tell it to you?”  Looking forward to finding the story behind so many words together!

Here is my complete investigation into <coronation>, including some suggested classroom activities.  I am working on a HyperDoc SWI template and would love feedback!  Let me know if there are words that you would like to investigate!




Family Mystery Reading Nights

One of the most enjoyable home/school literacy celebrations are Family Reading Nights.  Family Reading Nights are organized around a theme or genre, such as “Mystery.”  Our over-arching goal was to cultivate a positive attitude toward reading.  For each individual Family Reading Night, we would also have more specific goals.  For example, for Family Mystery Night, our goal was to introduce students and their families to the elements of a mystery and to share the names of mystery books and series that students in Grades 3-5 might enjoy.

Every Family Reading Night followed the same general schedule as below, except that we didn’t play a games as usual due to the logistics of setting up the mystery..  Here is that schedule that I updated for 2018!  Enjoy!  Here are some pictures from our last Mystery Family Reading Night!

1.      Notify Families Flyer sent home or posted on social media with dates and sign-up info.  We would need a response by a certain date so could have sufficient supplies.
Schedule of Mystery Reading Night Teachers are dressed as detectives.
1﷐  Cafeteria Families would meet in cafeteria.  Teachers would read mystery poems.  Reading Specialist would talk about mystery genre and do several book talks on recommended mystery book series.  Invention of Hugo Cabret” or “The Mysterious Benedict Society” for families looking for read-aloud recommendations
2.      Introduce Mystery Activity

You may want to provide students with props, such as magnifying glasses etc.

The Librarian had purchased a commercial mystery game for groups in 2011.  (If I was doing it now, I may choose a BREAKOUT-EDU or “Escape the Room” activity.)  Librarian explains how families will view an introductory video and then go to different classrooms to gather clues to solve the mystery.
3.     Families visit 6 classrooms in small groups and collect clues, according to a schedule which includes a cafeteria visit for a snack, The principal would sound a bell every 10 minutes so that groups would know when to move to the next classroom.  Teachers would be stationed in each classroom and the cafeteria to assist.
4.      Cafeteria After families have collected all clues, everyone meets back in the cafeteria to discuss/share their solutions to the mystery
5.      Farewell Families receive a list of mystery books, a take-home mystery book and a small gift (ours was a mustache and sunglasses.)

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Response to the the 10/26/18 New York Time article, “Why are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”

Response to the the 10/26/18 New York Time article, Why are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?”and Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?(APM Reports)

Teaching students about the connection between oral and written language is one of several critical components of reading instruction.  Students in Grades K-2 need to receive systematic and explicit instruction, whether analytic. synthetic or other phonic program, in the graphemes (letter or letter teams) that represent the 44 phonemes or sounds of the English language.  Some students may learn to read without this direct instruction but approximately a third of students will not.  Therefore, systematic and explicit instruction needs to be a part of every K-2 core curriculum.  There also needs to be frequent assessments, both formal and informal, that monitor progress so that instruction may be responsive to student needs during these critical grades.

As a Reading Specialist who has years of experience teaching students to read, the question is not if phonics should be taught but how.  How should phonics be taught in the classroom?   In the NY Times article, the answer to “how” seems to be Dr. Lousa Moats’ LETRS program.

I think such programs can be helpful, especially if teachers and administrators do not have a deep understanding of how to teach reading but nothing replaces a teacher’s deep understanding of how written and oral language works together.

We must also keep in mind that teaching reading can be big business for those companies that make money off of pre-packaged programs and teacher training, such as LETRS and Wilson.  A thoughtful, experienced and knowledgeable teacher will always be able to adapt whatever materials or curriculum in order to personalize instruction to meet student needs.

A knowledgeable teacher could design their own phonics/spelling scope and sequence based on decoding and spelling errors in the classroom. There is also promising research around an approach called Structured Word Inquiry (SWI, Bowers & Kirby, 2010) that layers meaning (morphology) and history (etymology) onto the teaching of the traditional sound/symbol relationships.  SWI rejects the common notion of irregular spellings and sight words and argues that English spelling makes perfect sense.  It also rejects the term “phonics”, preferring to use the more linguistically correct term, “orthographic phonology.” Structured Word Inquiry teaches orthographic phonology – which is the grapheme/phoneme correspondences- but also teaches the “why.”  Why is there a <w> in two?  Why is there not a <tion> suffix?  Hint: act + ion —> action  Why is there a <g>in <sign>.  The answers to these questions emerge through inquiry and the inter-relationship of orthographic phonology, morphology and etymology.

Although impactful evidence for systematic phonics instruction above Grade 2 has not been shown, common sense indicates that instruction continue to be provided in phonics or orthographic phonology, if you are a SWI disciple, as indicated by student assessment (spelling and/or decoding errors).

I would maintain that Structured Word Inquiry could be seen as “systematic and explicit” at all grades.  First, I would administer benchmark assessments to determine reading, decoding and spelling abilities. Since it uses an inquiry approach, I would, as the teacher, “map” what has been taught based on student or teacher inquiry in my plan book or on my living curriculum map.  I would like to develop a digital Structured Word Inquiry curriculum map that gives an overview of what is taught through SWI and that I could attach matrixes, class charts and student work (spelling out loud videos, pre-post writing and spelling samples that demonstrate the teaching and learning.)  Also, it would be helpful to develop case studies of student progress within a SWI framework.

What is to be commended from the article and the documentary is that an educational community came together to better meet the needs of the students learning to read.  Taking time to focus on improving reading outcomes for students through thoughtful inquiry and study is extremely important and should be a hallmark of every school community and teacher preparation program. I can’t agree about some of the claims made about the role of phonics in balanced literacy or the best approach to teaching phonics but we can all agree that sound/symbol relationships must be explicitly taught and that we should work together in our educational communities to thoughtfully inquire, research and update our practice so that we may best teach ALL students how to read.

Structured Word Inquiry: Adding Meaning and History to Phonics Instruction

“Structured Word Inquiry”, developed by Peter Bowers and John Kirby (2010), adds layers of meaning, history and critical thinking to traditional phonics and spelling instruction. It’s also a protocol for deep understanding of content area vocabulary.  Done well, it allows teachers and students to uncover the stories behind words by understanding the history of the word and how spelling and meaning has changed through time.


SWI starts with a hypothesis.  It takes any word or words and begins to explore by asking 4 questions:  (from Teaching How the Written Word Worksby Peter Bowers)


Stuck on a Spelling?

Investigate with these questions…

  1. What does the word mean?
  2. How is it built? (Build word sums.  Can you peel off any affixes?  Refer to suffixing flow charts for suffixing changes.)
  1. What other related words can you think of? Morphological Links: Use the Word Searcher to find word connected by the base. Etymological links: Look up word origins to find words related to the root of your word.
  1. What are the sounds that matter(What grapheme/phoneme correspondences can you find that fit in your hypothesized morphemes?)

There are two types of SWI: Teacher-Led Inquiry(teacher selects topic or concept to investigate and guides students established strategies) or Inquiry-LedTeaching (a question arises during class and teacher models established strategies for investigating spelling questions.) (Bowers, 2006, 2009, 2013).

SWI in Action: A Teacher-Led Inquiry during Guided Reading

Molly (not her real name), a 4thGrade dyslexic student, was reading The Vegetarian Dragon during our individual tutoring session.  During the reading, she miscued on the word <ventured>, pronouncing it something like <vented>. My next step in a SWI-based lesson would be to ask her to spell the word out loud.  This spelling, if Molly was familiar with all the elements in the word would be announced like this: “v-e-n-t—ure—ed.  This spelling would immediately allow me understand what Molly knew about the graphemes, morphemes and phonemes represented in this word.

( Note that letter digraphs would be announced as a unit.  For example, <bird> would be announced “b-ir-d.”  Prefixes and suffixes are announced quickly, as one unit, as in “un—h-e-l-p—ful—ly”, with bases spelled out as in h-e-l-p.)

See the sheet below for a look at how I guided Molly through the 4 questions:

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I hadn’t known that spelling-out-loud could be incorporated into reading at the time, so instead I made a note of the miscue and created the chart above, based on Scott Mill’s Adapted Frayer  SWI Framework, for our next class.

Molly was captivated by the chart and took great delight in spelling-out the word sums and later, writing-out-loud the word sums on a whiteboard.

Over the next few reading conference and with continued writing-out-loud and spelling-out loud activities, Molly correctly identified not only ventured during reading, but related words like adventurous and venturing, indicating learning transfer.



This is just the briefest of introductions to Structured Word Inquiry and I hope that I have conveyed the promise and the power of this practice so that you may decide to investigate SWI for yourself.

Last year, I took an online class on SWI with Mary Beth Stevens, a talented 5thGrade teacher and SWI practitioner.   It was very exciting to see the depth of knowledge evidenced by her students about not only words but vowel and suffixing conventions.  This year, I am taking a class with the generous and brilliant Peter Bowers. Thanks to the class, I am refining my understandings of SWI, especially related to the power of spelling-out-loud and writing-out-loud.  I highly recommend both classes.  I am getting so much out of Peter Bowers class and I think it is because I had a solid introduction to SWI through Mary Beth Stevens’ class.

Resources for getting Started with Structured Word Inquiry:

Structured Word Inquiry and Pete Bowers has a wonderfully informative website:


This is an excellent article that highlights how SWI combines meaning, history and explicit phonics instruction:


Mary Beth Stevens’ blog, including her thoughtful and highly recommended article, Outer Beauty Attracts but Inner Beauty Captivates:


Geared for younger students, Lyn Anderson’s blog has many wonderful examples of supporting Structured Word Inquiry using word bags and word webs:

















BookJoy: Making a Difference


IMG_4137I had such a hard decision to make recently!  Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Reunion and Bank Street Book Fest were on the same day!  Both offer such amazing professional development opportunities for teachers!  I decided to attend the TC Reunion but only after I realized that I could get a list of the featured “Book Discussion” books for the Bank Street Bookfest here.

So excited to peruse this wonderful list last week and find most of the books at my local library.  Here are my five favorites:

We Rise We Resist We Raise Our Voices

Edited by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson

Have you been wondering how to address the very tumultuous and frequently unkind and insensitive rhetoric that has overtaken the political and news realms? Have you wondered how to address your child’s or your student’ fears about the threats to civility or to to our environment or the many other concerns that are seeping  have into their consciousness from the gestalt of life in 2018?

If so, both you and your children or students will find comfort in this book.  It is a beautiful collection of over 50 letters, poems, stories and gorgeous artworks that will help us all address our present day challenges by pondering the advice offered by those who have lived through their own challenges.

This book is almost too beautiful to describe in its power and its many homages to resilience and perseverance.  It does remind us all about the dark days that people in our world have seen and survived, bearing the scars but also the story about how they found their way.

So many gems here including Pat Cummings, “We’ve Got You,” and Marilyn Nelson’s “It Helps to Look at Old Front Page Headlines.”  This is a book you will savor and reach for again and again because it is so true and so inspiring.  Browse the initial pages here.


Her Right Foot

By Dave Eggers.  Art by Shawn Harris.

If you thought you knew everything about the Statue of Liberty, I bet you didn’t know about Lady Liberty’s right foot!  This is a book for every classroom, especially as we, as a country grapple with immigration.  A light-hearted yet profound book.


Grandad Mandela 

By Zazi, Zibeline & Zindzi Mandela.  Illustrated by Sean Qualls

This biography of the great Nelson Mandela is told in a question and answer format between Zazi, the daughter of Nelson Mandela, and Ziwelene and Zindzi, his grandchildren.  A perfect mentor text for any leadership or biography study.

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe

By Megumi Iwasha.  Illustrations by Jun Takabatake

This charming beginning chapter book begs to be read aloud and shared.  It could kick off a letter-writing unit with great excitement or lead to discussions about how we deal with our own misperceptions and those of others about ourselves.  The title of the first chapter is “A Bored Giraffe Writes His First Letter.”  Need I say more?

Little Leaders

Bold Women in Black History

Written and Illustrated by Vashti Harrison

Vashti Harrison has written a book highlighting the lives of forty black women that made a profound difference in America and the world.  Each two page spread includes a biography of women such as Shirley Chisolm, Rosa Parks or Dominique Dawes, etc. and a charming illustration of each women as a girl.  What a great way to make history accessible!  Each biography includes interesting anecdotes from childhood and beyond and details the challenges each women faced and how they were overcome.  The concise and well-written biographies would be a perfect text for Guided Reading for some students in Grades 2-4.

Hope you find much pleasure, happiness and/or wisdom in these wonderful books!