The Science of Spelling with Pete Bowers, PhD (The Exceptional Educator, Ep. 3)

Have you ever heard a teacher say, “Just sound out the word,” to a struggling young speller?

Or maybe you’ve said those words to a student yourself?

This simple strategy frequently backfires, especially for kids with dyslexia. Why do students end up spelling words like “jumpt,” or “advenchur”?

In this episode, Dr. Pete Bowers reveals why “sounding it out” isn’t enough. He demonstrates how sound-symbol correspondence is a key principle in literacy instruction, but often we miss crucial components of our writing system: orthography and morphology. What’s more, research shows that this type of instruction is most powerful for struggling learners.

Using Pete’s methods, teachers can revolutionize spelling instruction into a dynamic opportunity to foster logical thinking, vocabulary development, and deepen literacy skills.

Pete Bowers
Dr. Pete Bowers

Pete Bowers is the founder of the WordWorks Literacy Center in Ontario, Canada. In his career, he’s worked as an elementary classroom teacher, researcher, writer, and worldwide presenter. He’s a sought-after speaker in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

This summer, I had the pleasure of attending a conference Pete presented here in California, and it transformed my understanding of spelling and inspired my teaching. I know you guys are gonna love this one!

Listen to this episode, subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, or stream the episode below:

You can right-click here to download an mp3 of the show.

In This Episode, Pete and I Discuss:

How Experts Are Getting Students Psyched For Spelling

  • How neither whole word nor phonics instruction addresses the whole picture.
  • Why meaning-representation is the primary function of spelling in the English language.
  • We discuss orthography and why should we care about our writing system.
  • What to say to struggling readers instead of “Just sound it out.”
  • The age when teachers can begin teaching morphology.
  • When sounding out words fails e.g. “react” vs. “reeked.”
  • Why avoiding morphology instruction could be hindering students with dyslexia.
  • How to introduce morphological concepts in a Pre-K or Kindergarten classroom.
  • The benefits of pairing spelling instruction with scientific inquiry.
  • Empowering students with the tools to shed their false spelling hypotheses.

Links and Resources Mentioned in This Podcast:

  • Beginning To Read – by Marilyn Jager Adams. Adams makes a terrific argument for sound-letter correspondence. She also asserts that teaching morphology could be a mistake for younger kids, but this premise isn’t supported by research.
  • Word Matrix
    The Word Matrix allows students to see the base morpheme and affixes. This reduces the working memory load and helps kids make connections between related words they might otherwise miss.
  • Beyond The Word – A fabulous blog by classroom teacher, Lyn Anderson. Anderson shares the journey of her inquiry into English orthography.
  • Mary Beth Steven’s 5th Grade Class Video on Orthography – You’ll love this video!
  • Mini Matrix Maker – A web-based tool for creating work matrices.
  • Word Microscope – Computer software for breaking up a word into its individual parts. PC only.
  • Word Microscope Tutorial – This video Pete created, shows you how to use Word Microscope.
    Real Spellers Website – A community of spellers deepening their understanding of orthography.
  • Word Sum
    Using Word Sums, students generate words by combing prefixes, bases, and suffixes. A powerful tool for improving spelling and decoding skills.
  • WordWorks Newsletter #76 – A great resource for teachers just getting started with morphology in the classroom.
  • Teaching How The Written Word Works by Peter Bowers. Pete’s book provides lessons for educators who want to include morphology in their teaching.
  • Pete’s Website – The WordWorks Literacy Center is Pete’s main website. Explore the site for more instructional videos and links to Structured Word Inquiry blogs.

Thanks For Tuning In!

If you’d like to know when new episodes of the Exceptional Educator are published, you can subscribe to the show on iTunes or Stitcher to get automatic updates.

My students love discovering the etymology of words, finding connections based on morphological patterns, and becoming critical thinkers. I hope your student find this literacy approach equally engaging.

Help us spread the message about Structured Word Inquiry. If you enjoyed this show, please share with a friend or leave us a review in iTunes. Not sure how to leave a review? Here’s a quick video we made for you.


13 Replies to “The Science of Spelling with Pete Bowers, PhD (The Exceptional Educator, Ep. 3)”

  1. So awesome! I am so excited to start integrating this into my word study work. I think it will actually work to make the Derivational Relations word sorts I do from Words Their Way much more robust and meaningful. Thanks!

    1. Combining Structured Wordy Inquiry with Words Their Way Derivational Relations sounds absolutely brilliant, Diana. I could see the Word Matrix and Word Sums translating especially well.

  2. Many thanks for the nice lovely responses. I know I already passed on too many links for you that Anne Marie has kindly posted. In case that is just not enough, I couldn’t resist passing on a link to a short (three page!) more recent Newsletter. The two stories of structured word inquiry are specifically about scientific inquiry. In particular, I encourage readers to follow the link to the 12-year-old student’s investigation of the words “truce” and “true” and the new tool for investigating word structure he created and that I share. Here’s the link:

    By the way, I have to commend Anne Marie on her introduction in the audio to the interview. People often don’t describe this work this well. Nicely done Anne Marie!

  3. I perceived Mr. Bowers’ passion for the science of spelling from this informative podcast (on another good listening walk). My colleague, also with a passion for spelling, will appreciate the information.

    1. I think that might be one of Pete’s most valuable contributions — his enthusiasm for the subject. Usually, spelling is relegated to such a dry, irrelevant part of the curriculum. Sharing a bit of our own zest for this type of learning can be infectious.

      1. Many thanks for the kind comments Jo and Anne-Marie. It may sound ungrateful, but I would like to suggest that, while my passion and enthusiasm for this work is deep and real, I would argue that it is not the key contribution I have to offer — but merely the result of what I has been offered to me by Real Spelling, and which I do my best to pass on in kind.

        Believe me. As a terrible speller for almost my entire career as a classroom teacher, I understand why passion for spelling stands out. I had zero interest in spelling instruction for 9 of my 10 years in the classroom. The passion and enthusiasm that I now have and share, and that I see in the students and teachers I work with is the result of one thing only — being introduced to a coherent understanding of spelling.

        If we (falsely) teach children that English spelling is irregular with many exceptions — there is no possibility for it to generate the enthusiasm you are kindly celebrating. The reason this distinction between enthusiasm and the source of the enthusiasm (understanding) is key is that teachers and students cannot make use of my enthusiasm without accessing the understanding that drives it. Enthusiasm for spelling stands out because it is so foreign to every other frame we have for spelling instruction. I hope my enthusiasm and passion functions to grab teachers; attention — but we have to be careful not to let it become a distraction. If my enthusiasm grabs the attention of Bay Tree Blog readers, I hope that it is a way of sparking the next question — what is it that drives that surprising enthusiasm?

        The answer is simple — nothing motivates learning like understanding. The reason we are not used to teachers or students being excited about studying spelling is because they have not been working with training or resources that could possibly build a generative understanding of English spelling.

        For more examples of the understanding that drives my passion, I do recommend this link to the “About WordWorks” page on my website. It includes links to this interview with Bay Tree Blog and a number of webcasts / presentations targeting this understanding. My published research is linked there too.

        Thanks again Anne-Marie for letting me share my understanding on your wonderful venue for educators.

        1. Pete — I’m so glad you left this comment. Your feedback gives me such a great chance to refine the writing in my comment and clarify my thinking. (I’ve been telling students about this interchange — nothing like normalizing the revision process! I also admitted to them that I probably wrote my last comment too quickly!)

          I think your point is spot on. I wasn’t particularly clear in my last comment. At least for me, your (and my) enthusiasm for the subject comes from a respect for the elegance of our writing system. This enthusiasm is not a disingenuous rah-rah cheer for a disordered subject. Rather it’s a recognition that our orthography is understandable and meaningful. It’s so much richer than I could have ever expected.

          I’m working with a wonderful fifth grader right now. She came to me with a deep antipathy for spelling. Her latest frustration was the spellings for “write” and “right.” Her classroom teacher’s solution was for her to write the words over and over again. She was DELIGHTED to discover the etymology of the words. The spelling isn’t just random and weird. Noah Webster wasn’t trying to trick her. The “wr” consonant blend and the “gh” represent centuries of history. COOL!

          Thanks again for joining us in conversation!

          1. Well Anne-Marrie, this is further evidence of why your work is worthy of respect. Going out of the way to share the need to revise one’s own thinking / writing is not the way most people operate. Hats off!

            The story about your 5th grader delighting in learning from etymology rather than being punished with memorizing randomness is inspiring — and exactly what this work is about.

            Great stuff!

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