Why You Should Be Using the Inductive Approach to Teach ESL

Chris Parker
The inductive approach is one of the most effective yet underutilized approaches for teaching English

When teaching ESL to your students, regardless of their age, you have many different techniques and approaches available for your use. The inductive approach is one of the most effective yet underutilized approaches for teaching English (or any other language), and not only is it a great way to improve your students’ language skills, but it’s also downright easy to carry out.

With this approach, you’re doing less work as a teacher while your students are doing more mental work as learners. This is where its strengths lie, as your students are thinking harder about grammar or other topics while engaging more in your lessons, leading to quicker English acquisition as the end result. So, here’s why you as a teacher should never overlook this approach and how including it regularly in your ESL lessons can benefit both you and your students.

What is the Inductive Approach?

An inductive approach, simply put, is any teaching approach that allows students to notice the rules of language and how they’re used without you having to explicitly explain this to them. You can provide your students with a text, such as by showing it to them or reading it to them, and it’s then up to your students to decipher how the rules of grammar are used within the text.

A Basic Example of the Inductive Approach

An example of this approach would be where you:

1. Write multiple sentences on the board that all include a verb in them (or any other part of speech).

2. Ask students how the sentences are similar or how they differ. Students would then typically analyze the sentences and look for similarities or differences, at which point some may notice that each sentence contains a verb, which normally follows a noun.

In this example, your students have learned a grammatical rule about verbs and how they interact with nouns, and by doing this all on their own, they may be more likely to remember this lesson than if you were to explicitly explain this rule to them.

Of course, this is a very basic example, as you can use the inductive approach in much more practical or complex ways to fit just about any scenario in the classroom.

How Can I Use this Approach?

One of the best things about this approach is that it’s versatile, meaning you can use it in the following types of activities or materials:

  • Stories
  • Games
  • Songs
  • Videos
  • Worksheets
  • Flashcards
  • Conversations
  • and many more

What are the Advantages of Using this Approach?

It Enhances Student Engagement

Activities that incorporate the inductive approach tend to be more fun for students and can spark their curiosity and interest, all of which lead to better engagement. Even when the activity itself isn’t a game, challenging students to use inductive reasoning can often seem like a game or puzzle to them.

There’s More Focus on Grammar Usage

When you’re explicitly explaining grammar rules to students, they can often become distracted by the instruction itself because there are usually a lot of new terminologies to learn and things to take into consideration. With an inductive approach, your students are focusing on the grammar itself, while gradually discovering on their own how rules apply to this grammar.

It’s Great for Teaching Context

Teaching semantics (the meaning of the words being said) is normally much easier for most teachers than teaching pragmatics (the meaning of the words within a certain context) because in some cases, words or phrases can have double meanings, and students need to learn how to “read between the lines.” Using inductive reasoning is the main way they can do this, by drawing inferences from the context to make meaning of something.

Example: “The window was open and Mary said, “I’m cold.” Semantically, this sentence simply suggests that Mary is cold, but by using inductive reasoning, students notice that a window is open, and they realize that the utterance, “I’m cold” actually means, “Can you please shut the window?”

It Immerses Students in Learning

When things are learned through first-hand experience, they are much more memorable for learners, and knowledge is more easily retained. By using inductive reasoning to figure something out, your students are actively involved in a lesson by analyzing a given text and discovering grammar rules within it, which is a first-hand experience that is likely to enhance English acquisition.

Multiple Grammar Skills are Strengthened

While exploring a problem by using inductive reasoning, students may be analyzing all parts of speech available to them, whether it’s nouns, verbs, prepositions etc, as well as punctuation. While only one of these parts may be the target word or phrase you’re trying to teach to your students, they’re also subconsciously learning some or all of these other parts, which can lead to quicker language acquisition and make your future lessons easier for all.

Inductive Approach Activities You Can Use     

Activity #1: Basic Inductive Strengthening Warmup

Step 1. Provide your students with a sentence that is presented as factually true.

Step 2. Provide an additional sentence that will later serve as support for inductive reasoning.

Step 3. Provide a third sentence where some of it is omitted and they must draw inferences from the first two sentences to complete the third.


All dogs eat food.

Spot is a dog.

Spot eats ____.

While the example seems overly simple and is designed mainly for younger learners, this is a classic inductive reasoning framework that can be expanded upon with more complex concepts to fit students at just about any learning level.

Benefits: Serves as a simple introduction to any inductive-based lessons so students can quickly understand that you want them to use inferences to complete tasks.

Activity #2: Inductive Fill-in-the-Blank

Step 1. Read a brief one-page story or tell an anecdote to students about something that happened to you. The point of this is simply to introduce some new words and phrases to students, along with the context in which they’re used.

Step 2. Print out worksheets for students that have target words or phrases omitted from the story. These will be any words or phrases that you’d like the students to learn. Instead of simply omitting these structures and having students try to remember what words you’ve read, place them in a box directly above the story so they can pick and choose which ones to use while focusing on grammar and not having to worry about remembering what they heard.

Step 3. Read the story back to students again a second time, but this time, do not say aloud the omitted parts of the story. Pause for a moment to let students think about which words or phrases belong in each omitted space, based on the surrounding context. Have them write down the correct words or phrases that belong in these spaces.

Benefits: This lesson strengthens listening, reading, and analytical skills, and allows students to use inductive reasoning to decipher context.

Activity #3: Inductive Listening with Tenses

In this activity, you’re using adverbs of time (now, yesterday, earlier, later, today, tomorrow) to help your students understand verb tenses (going, went, will go, am going).

Step 1. If your students are unfamiliar with adverbs of time, you’ll need to first teach these to them, preferably in a separate lesson where they can focus entirely on learning these.

Step 2. Once your students understand adverbs of time, write a group of sentences on the board where each sentence contains an adverb of time, plus a verb that uses tense.


Now, I am going to the playground.

Yesterday, I went to the market.

Later, I will go to the store.

Today, I am going to school.

Earlier, I went to the restaurant.

Tomorrow, I will go to the park.

Step 3. Hold a discussion with your students where you ask them what they notice about each sentence. They should eventually recognize a pattern where the adverbs of time dictate which verb tenses are used. As they start to point out this pattern, you can begin to see inductive reasoning taking place.

Benefits: Not only does this activity teach your students to use inductive reasoning, but it’s a flexible activity that can be used with virtually any age group or level of students since you don’t necessarily have to use adverbs or tenses as the two main components in each sentence.

Final Tip: Always Scaffold the Introduction

As a final piece of advice, you should always start any inductive reasoning-based lesson by pointing students in the right direction, such as by telling them that two different sentences are similar in some way. This is a form of scaffolding and provides the initial support they need to understand the task at hand. You should then step back and allow them to find those similarities on their own, which is where the magic of inductive reasoning begins to take place.

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

One comment

  • Nishat Meer says:

    Thank you for this article, it is very helpful for our EAL students.

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