How Can Inquiry Support and Inspire Language Learning?


During our PD session in September our Inquiry Group discussed certain questions that we would like to find the answers to. One of them was – How can inquiry support and inspire language learning?

Inquiry-based teaching is a pedagogical approach that invites students to explore academic content by posing, investigating, and answering questions. Inquiry puts students’ questions at the center of the curriculum, and places just as much value on the component skills of research as it does on knowledge and understanding of content.

How do we make sure that all our ELLs benefit from this approach? This is a crucial question for many educators.

The role of the teacher in an inquiry-based classroom is not to provide direct instruction to students, but to support students in their efforts to generate their own content-related questions and guide the investigation that follows.

“When teachers choose to use an inquiry-based approach, they commit to provide rich experiences that provoke students’ thinking and curiosity; to plan carefully-constructed questioning sequences; to manage multiple student investigations at the same time; to continuously assess the progress of each student as they work toward their solution or final product; and to respond in-the-moment to students’ emerging queries and discoveries.” (2008, Center for Inspired Teaching. • 1436 U St NW, Suite 400 • Washington, DC 20009 •

The bad news is that our new ELLs may not have enough language to undertake the necessary research and effectively participate in learning experiences. To remedy the lack of language, EAL and mainstream teachers have to provide lots of scaffolding for each activity.

However, the good news is that the inquiry approach awakens natural curiosity in the children and triggers the intuitive process of discovering the world around them, provides an authentic and meaningful context for learning languages. Curiosity motivates our students, and the most challenging task of inspiring and turning them into explorers and knowledge seekers is half accomplished. Now that the flame has been sparked we as teachers need to keep it burning.

According to Jim Cummins, in order to be successful in engaging the ELLs in developing literacy, communication, thinking and transdisciplinary skills, teachers should focus on four main goals:

  • Support the students throughout their learning journey and develop their ability to understand and use academic language through specific instructional strategies (scaffolding) and cooperative learning;
  • Activate their prior experience and current knowledge;
  • Affirm their identities;
  • Extend across the curriculum their knowledge of, and control over, language .

Scaffold meaning and cooperative learning

In ISPP we are lucky to have all the strategies that V. Rojas and K. Murdoch shared with us. Plus we all collaborate with experienced colleagues and are constantly exchanging ideas, strategies and engagements. We use visual, demonstration, dramatization, acting out meaning, interactive and collaborative tasks and the explicit explanation of words, linguistic structures and discourse patterns, various visible thinking routines and complex instruction strategies.

Activate prior experience/build background knowledge

There are numerous activities and visible thinking routines that we all use to help our students make connections to their previous experiences and existing knowledge. Google Translate and Google Earth are being actively used to facilitate discussions, create understanding maps, and activate students’ prior knowledge.

Affirm Identity

Jim Cummins says that affirming identity is crucial for literacy development. “Teacher’s instructional philosophy: everything has to relate to the identity of the students, children have to see themselves in every aspect of their work at school.” (Jim Cummins)

It seems that in this area we could still do more for our ELLs. We should give all our students more opportunities to popularize their cultures, be proud of their languages, share unique valued experiences and promote identities of competence among our students. A collaborative process of working in a team allows the EAL students to explore the role of being an educator and lead certain activities.

Extend language

During our planning sessions with the classroom teachers we discuss unpacking difficult concepts, technical words, sophisticated grammatical constructions. I also use my EFL classes to revise or find another way of explaining the challenging material. With the help of educational videos and Google translate we are often able to focus on the academic subject of the unit and begin to understand and use the meta-language. I carefully choose the strategies and scaffolds (summary frames, substitution maps, various sentence starters, etc) that will make it possible for the student with limited language means to participate in learning engagement and be part of cooperative learning and extend control over language.

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