How inquiry-based learning can enhance your ESL lessons

Chris Parker
A step-by-step guide that explains how to apply the inquiry-based learning approach to ESL lessons, with tips for selecting materials

Einstein once said that instead of teaching his pupils, he simply provides them with the right conditions for learning to take place. This is the essence of inquiry-based learning, a powerful tool that you can use to set the stage for learning without actually standing on that stage yourself as the teacher. If you haven’t been using this effective approach in your lessons, here’s what you’ve been missing and how it can easily benefit both you and your students.

What is inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning, which has also been called exploratory learning, is an education approach where students can learn English by researching topics and concepts in a self-directed way. Instead of directly teaching English directly to your students, you can simply provide them with materials and then encourage them to research things on their own while supporting them with any assistance they might need.

How does this approach work?

When using inquiry-based learning in an ESL classroom, your students will typically think about a topic, come up with questions that they have about the topic, and then cooperate with others to research the topic in an effort to answer these questions.

While doing this, they’ll be immersed in the English language through the materials you provide to them, and if you choose your materials carefully, this can be a great way to teach virtually all the essential skills they’ll need to know (i.e. reading, writing, listening, speaking, etc).

The three questions of inquiry-based learning

Whenever implementing any inquiry-based learning approach in a classroom, there are three main questions you’ll want your students to ask themselves: “What do I know?,” “What do I want to know?,” and “What have I learned?”

“What do I know?”

What students already know is called prior knowledge, and you can’t have them carry out an inquiry-based learning task until they have a base to start from. Their prior knowledge serves as that base, and this can be knowledge based on things they’ve learned before either your lesson or course or it could be something that you teach them at the very beginning of a lesson while introducing a topic.

“What do I want to know?”

The core question your students should be asking during any inquiry-based learning endeavor is, “What do I want to know?” Your students will ask this question and then conduct research to find the answer.

“What have I learned?”

It’s always a good idea to have your students review and reflect on what they’ve learned after completing their inquiry-based learning tasks. “What have I learned?” is the question they should be asking themselves at the end of the process.

Tip: utilize KWL (Know-Want-Learn) charts
While you can provide guidance to help your students ask these questions, most of it should be self-directed. A KWL chart is a tool that’s commonly used that allows your students to ask these questions and then write down the answers. This is not only useful for your students by helping them keep track of their thoughts and progress, but it also allows you as the teacher to observe both of these things as well to ensure that they are learning what you’d like them to learn.
Download a free KWL chart

Steps to promote inquiry-based learning in ESL classrooms

1. Introduce the topic

With an inquiry-based learning approach, you’ll start by introducing the topic to your students. This should be a topic that is appropriate for your students’ level and age, as well as something that will generate their interest.

Regardless of whether your overall goal is to teach grammar, new vocabulary, or other English-language concepts, you’ll want to introduce these within a general topic. How you go about doing that is your choice, as just about any topic will work, such as a discussion about planets, a video about animals, or a quick read-along story about any other topic.

2. Pair or group students together

The next step is to pair or group your students, though in some scenarios you can have students work alone if you feel that’s more suitable for your class. There are, however, some clear benefits to placing them into groups, such as peer-to-peer scaffolding, which is where your students can share information or ideas and learn from each other.

When creating groups, it’s your choice how large you’d like each group to be, and this will normally depend on how many students you have and your classroom layout.

3. Allow students to pick a problem or question to answer

Based on the topic that you introduced earlier, you’ll now allow your students to pick a problem to solve or a question to research, and this can be done through the following steps.

Discuss students’ prior knowledge

You should guide your students in a group discussion by getting them to talk about the topic and what they already know about it first (their prior knowledge or a review of what you taught them during the introduction).

Leading into the inquiry process

You’ll then start the inquiry process (hence, “inquiry-based learning”) by having them discuss what they’d like to know about it, and you can normally initiate this process by simply asking the entire class, “OK class, now that we’ve talked about what we already know about (topic), what else would you like to know about it? What questions do you have?”

While your students may have many different questions, you’ll want to identify some of the more commonly asked ones that all or most of your students are curious about and choose one or more of these for them to work on.

A few examples of problems or topics:

If your topic is about modes of transportation, you could ask “How were the ways we traveled in the past different from how we travel today?”

If you’re trying to teach your students about animals, you might ask, “What animals live on land, and what animals live on water?”

4. Supply your students with materials

The research phase comes next, though your students can’t carry this out without having the proper materials to do so. You should provide materials that allow them to work together (or independently if you’re unable to put them into pairs or groups), and the types of materials you provide will depend on the topic, how you want your students to research that topic, and what skills you’re trying to teach to them.

Example 1: reading comprehension skills

If you want to improve your students’ reading skills, you could provide them with books and encourage them to find specific vocabulary words or analyze the context in which specific words are used to guess what their meanings might be and provide them with paper to write down their thoughts or the words themselves.

Example 2: speaking, listening, and writing skills

If you want your students to get in lots of speaking practice, as well as listening and writing practice, you can provide them with surveys, where they can ask each other questions about a particular topic while recording responses.

Example 3: listening, reading, and observation skills

You can provide your students with videos to watch and can ask them to pay attention and write down things they observe or hear in the videos if you’d like to help them sharpen their reading and observation skills.

Some material suggestions:

  • books
  • videos
  • surveys
  • KWL charts
  • worksheets
  • computers

5. Support, observe, and provide feedback

While your students are working together to investigate their inquiries, whether they’re writing down responses, reading, watching videos, or doing something else, you’ll want to walk around the room to observe them, so as to make sure that they’re carrying out the tasks in a productive way.

You’ll want to provide some basic support if they have any questions, though it’s good to encourage independent thinking by leading them to answers with clues rather than directly answering them when possible.

If you see them doing something that’s either counterproductive or leading them astray from the task at hand, you should provide feedback, though it’s better to do this in a suggestive way rather than simply saying they’re doing something wrong. (e.g. “You’re doing good, but what if you were to do things this way instead of this other way.”)

6. Wrap up and review

After your students have researched the answers to their questions, you can wrap up your lesson by holding a class discussion where you’ll ask them what they learned and how they went about researching the topics or concepts.

If you provided KWL charts during the lesson, the students should have completed at least the first two sections (“What do I know?” and “What do I want to know?”) by the end of the lesson, and you should now ensure that they complete the last section (“What have I learned?”) if they haven’t already done so.

What are the benefits of this style of learning?

Inquiry-based learning helps students learn English by:

  • generating interest in topics through self-discovery
  • motivating students by making it fun to find things
  • fostering independence through research and inquiry
  • improving critical-thinking skills through questioning
  • strengthening the comprehension of specific content
  • enhancing peer-to-peer learning through collaboration

Parting advice: always guide but never show

Inquiry-based learning can be extremely effective at harnessing your students’ natural desire to learn new things, but it’s crucial that you provide them with enough space to be self-directed in their learning. Always remember that your role as a teacher in this approach is to guide the way and support, but you should also do your best to resist the natural inclination we all have as teachers to jump into the process and show them things.

Written by Chris Parker for
Chris has been studying linguistics academically for several years and has taught ESL in both primary and secondary schools.

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