Etymology is your friend: Discovering the Joys of Structure Word Inquiry

December 8, 2019

Words are stories. I don’t mean they tell stories. I mean they are stories. They have histories and dreams, subtleties of character and hidden innuendos. What I’m finding as a teacher in delving into Peter Bowers’ Structured Word Inquiry is that the primary function of words in English is to convey meaning, not to represent sounds. For example, students often ask why is there a “g” in the word “sign.” We don’t hear the “g.” The word is pronounced “sine.” So, why is English so cruel to newcomers, including English Language Learners, who can be heard muttering very meaningful words in their own language after a bout of English blues?

Back to “sign.” It makes perfect sense to spell the word that way when you realize a “sign” is a type of signature. It signals something. Therefore, “sign” means “to signal.” The “g” is silent, as is the “g” in malign (bad signal), benign (good signal), and resign (undone signal) because it comes at the end of the word and doesn’t link into the next syllable as does malignant and resignation.

Bowers takes this to the next level, claiming, despite “phonics,” that there are no irregular or exceptions to spelling. Everything is spelled for a reason and having students try to discover that reason leads to bountiful learning opportunities.

He uses very few leading questions to energize the class to the task of performing an anatomy of any given word:

            1. What does the word mean?

            2. How is it built? (Root or base words, prefixes, suffixes, etc.)

            3. What are other related words? (For example, is “genius” related to “genie,” “general,” or “genus”?)

            4. What are the sounds that matter in the word and related words?

The answers will form the elements of various hypotheses that the class can further research and discuss.

For more on Structured Word Inquiry, see

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