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  • Dulcie Crowther

Dwarf - A Structured Word Inquiry

In my mind, I’m famous for my blogs being full of wit and humor while also enlightening my thousands of readers as to why words are spelled the way they are. I picture a scene from a movie that has a camera focused on one such reader laughing with delight followed by eyebrows furrowed in concentration and ending with their mouth formed in the shape of an “Oooooohh!” demonstrating their enlightenment. There might be some upbeat music in the background during this 15 second shot. To the four fans I actually have, I apologize for the dryness of the following blog. It’s a response to a question from a teacher new to Structured Word Inquiry when teaching about dwarf planets in a 5th grade science class. She did not know how to help the students who misspelled <dwarf> as <dorf> or <dorph>. Below is my response with some light editing.

Dear Teacher,

You don’t have to have the answer to a word’s spelling right away. Kids love that you don’t know everything, and they love learning with you. If you don’t know the answer, and you cannot take the time during class to research it, here are some responses you could use when asked,“Why is it spelled that way?”

  • Huh? I never thought about that word. I don’t know why it’s spelled that way. Let’s check that out later.

  • Gee. That’s a great word. I wonder why it’s spelled with <xx> instead of a <yy>?

  • I’m not sure. (I/someone in the class) can investigate that later and get back to (you/us).

  • That’s a tough one. I’m learning about spelling right now, and will share when I know the answer.

At this point you could add the word in question to a dedicated section on the chalk/white board for future Structured Word Inquiries. Or, make a Wonder Wall that is equipped with a pen and sticky notes to have a student quickly jot the word down and stick it on the prescribed space. This is not a word wall where you put the word up and it stays there for the remainder of the year undiscussed, used solely as a place to look when a student needs the spelling. While it will function to help spelling in the short term, it’s there just until you can study the word and make sense of it. These investigations could be bell work, or whatever you call the first 5-10 minutes where kids are supposed to come into the classroom, sit down, and work on something right away. They can choose whatever word is on the Wonder Wall and share out their findings.

You said you were unsure of how to perform a Structured Word Inquiry. The easiest thing you or your students could do as part of a simplified SWI is make a list of all the words that have <dwarf> in them. You can do this by going to word searcher and typing <dwarf> in the “search pattern”. I also look at the “see more nearby entries” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. If you can recognize the affixes for each base, you could go to the mini matrix maker and plug in word sums (e.g. <dwarf + s → dwarfs> or <dwarf + ism → dwarfism>).

Here’s the great thing: if the kids are finding the words and making the lists, they are writing down the word several times as part of a research question, not writing it repeatedly or tapping it out with no end game all in the name of “multisensory learning”. For some kids, those tactics don't help improve spelling.

<dwarf> is an interesting word. When I went to etymonline, there was no immediate Aha! moment where you say, “Spelling really makes sense now!” <dwarf> had a few different vowels throughout history. <a> only shows up in present day English. I decided to do my own investigation of <dwarf> and write it down so you could see what an investigation might look like. It probably took me about 10 minutes. Writing definitely took longer, but was a labor of love.

Question: How do I help students who misspell <dwarf> as <dorph> or <dorf>?

Answer: Use Structured Word Inquiry (SWI).

SWI Four Questions: There are four questions asked when performing a Structured Word Inquiry. The “meaning” question is always first. Questions number two and three are interchangeable. Question number four in regard to how the pronunciation is represented is always last. This is in sharp contrast to phonics programs in which pronunciation is considered primary. As you read below, it is important to know that anything inside angle brackets <> represents letters, not sounds. Anything written between two forward slashes // are part of the International Phonetic Alphabet and represents sound.

  1. What does it mean? <dwarf>: a significantly smaller person, animal, plant, or celestial object

  2. How is it built? <dwarf> is a free morpheme meaning there are no prefixes or suffixes that can be peeled away, and it can stand alone as a word. This is in comparison to bound morphemes which must take affixes to be a word.

  3. What are its relatives? Words sharing the same <dwarf> base: dwarfs, dwarfed, dwarfing, dwarflike, dwarfish, dwarfishly, dwarfishness, dwarfism. Etymological relatives: There’s interesting stuff in It was spelled a bunch of different ways, but none helped me, personally, as to why there is an <ar> in dwarf. Maybe if I knew more about Old English?

  4. What graphemes (letter/s that correspond to a phoneme) are used to represent the sounds (phonemes):

  • <dw> To me, the <dw> seems pretty straight forward, but obviously not for some of the students. Taking a class from Rebecca Loveless taught me to ask the kids, “What do you feel in your mouth,” rather than “What do you hear?” I can feel the lip protrusion and lip rounding for the /w/, but that’s tricky because you also have lip rounding for the /ɔr/ (sounds like “oar”) that follows it which may be why some kids left it off in their spelling.

  • In this word <f> represents /f/. This is the juicy part in the entry where it specifically mentions the use of <f> in the second to the last paragraph of the entry. Why not <ph> as some kids hypothesized? That is typically a spelling used in Greek words. If that is not part of your knowledge base, just type in <ph> in etymonline and read the entry. Etymonline has entries not only for free bases, but affixes, connecting vowels, and letters as well.

  • <ar> represents /ɔr/ (sounds like “oar”). This is not how we would typically spell /ɔr/ which your students obviously knew. As Mary Beth Stevens noted, they spelled phonetically which is what kids will do when they are taught to sound it out without any other considerations. Structured Word Inquiry aims to reduce misspellings by placing phonology as the final consideration in how a word is spelled. So, I went to Word Searcher and searched for words that had a <Car> pattern (C=consonant). I was interested if <ar> represented /ɔr/ in other words. I read through the list and pulled out all the base words in which <ar> represents /ɔr/. Here are the words I found:


ward (not the suffix <-ward>, except maybe for some people in <toward> as in /təˈwɔrd/ where the accent is on the second syllable if producing this word as a two syllable word)





sward (according to etymonline: “grass covered ground”)









quarantine (how timely!)

All of these words can take affixes, and some compound (e.g. <warlord>). If all those words were added, this list would be much, much longer.

Look carefully at those words. What do all the words have in common in regard to what came before <ar>? Think about it. Cue the Jeopardy music. (Look what I did. I added one bit of wit and humor just when your eyes were starting to cross.)

Here’s the pattern I see. <ar> can represent /ɔr/ when following /w/ or /-w/ consonant clusters as in /kw/ (pronunciation of the <qu> words), /sw/, and <thw>. Now I’m wondering how often <or> represents /ɔr/ following a /w/ or /-w/ consonant cluster. I went back to word searcher and entered <wor> into the search pattern. A sum total of 10 words came up across two families. That’s it. No more.

wore/worn (outworn, careworn, shopworn, timeworn)

swore/sworn (foreswore, forsworn)

So, my evidence reveals that <ar> is more likely to represent /ɔr/ than <or> when following /w/ or /-w/ consonant clusters.

Final Thoughts

Students may still spell it wrong. There’s no magic pill. It’s hard work, but it’s truthful and it’s scientific and it’s an honest way of understanding a word’s spelling.

You will not have time to do this every time. You have a whole science curriculum to get through. Once you do know something about a spelling, it’s also okay to just say, “It sounds like it should be spelled <or>, but <ar> tends to represent /ɔr/ after /w/ more often than <or>, like in the words <warm>, <warn>, <swarm>, <thwart>, and <quart>,” and just move on. The kids might not digest it the first time or second time, but just plant that little seed each time you come to it and you may not have to explicitly teach that word.

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