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Peter Bowers: Scholar in Residence

Peter Bowers

“Nothing motivates learning like understanding.”

That adage appears on The WordWorks Literacy Centre website, for the company that Peter Bowers (B.Ed. ’92, M.Ed. ’06, Ph.D. '12) founded and manages. It’s a sentiment that is close to Peter’s heart, the idea that understanding a concept is an essential ingredient to motivate the effort for ever deepening learning, particularly when it comes to spelling and literacy.

“I was always a terrible speller and I never really saw the value in trying to study spelling.”

Peter’s attitude about spelling took a dramatic turn when he was teaching in Indonesia and discovered a new learning resource, Real Spelling, which “turned his understanding of spelling upside down.” Instead of studying lists of words, or spelling patterns with countless exceptions, he and his students used scientific inquiry to investigate the underlying structures and conventions that link related words with consistent spelling despite changes in pronunciation.

“My class became a team of engaged word scientists. Spelling was no longer experienced as a frustrating exercise with endless “irregular” word to memorize. Words like <does>, <rough>, and <business> became launching pads for discovery.”

It was this revelatory teaching experience that launched Peter’s graduate work at Queen’s. Under John Kirby’s supervision, Peter did a morphology intervention on a Grade 4/5 class, testing the effect of into the use of “structured word inquiry” in the classroom. Peter says:

“John Kirby was a brilliant supervisor, there’s no way I could have done it without him. He’s demanding, no question, but he treats his students with respect, like colleagues.”

He was confident in his research because he “knew he would not get anything that was not solid by John Kirby.”

Peter’s paper (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) was published in Reading and Writing, the interdisciplinary journal that publishes articles pertaining to the processes, acquisition, and loss of reading and writing skills. Encouraged to continue his research into this revolutionary teaching method, Peter went on to earn his Ph.D. even though he had no intention of becoming a professor. His heart is, and always was, in teaching young people and he continues to do that all over the world.

“The Ph.D. has given me more knowledge and credibility, and I’ve been able to build WordWorks, which is being recognized all over the world, from Kingston and beyond. The only continent I haven’t taught WordWorks in is South America and Antarctica. My goal was to help the world understand that we can study spelling as a science.”

A woman and her daughter, a student at Nueva

Currently, Peter is Scholar in Residence at Nueva School in the San Francisco Bay area, where he’s teaching many children of Silicon Valley parents. During his year-long residency, he’s teaching both teachers and students the theory behind structured word inquiry, with amazing results.

“By far the richest learning experience comes when you can draw the line back to the point where a student asks a question the teacher doesn’t know the answer to.”

Peter has witnessed these learning experiences many times at Nueva and elsewhere at one of his workshops that he offers all over the world.

Peter’s groundbreaking research and his success as a harbinger of literacy training continue to surprise him – and his family.

“It’s a funny joke in my family. No one would guess from my high school days that I would become “businessman” let alone that my job would have anything to do with spelling.”

For a guy who went from wanting to teach children in the classroom to becoming a researcher, Peter is a living example of his own philosophy: nothing motivates learning like understanding.

Explore the WordWorks website. To see examples of the learning going on at Nueva this year, see the growing archive of structured word inquiry investigations on the Real Spellers website.

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