How can ELT publishers and teachers support inquiry-based learning?

  • ELT team

Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is a teaching method centred around exploring real-life problems and answering related questions. For example, students might research global pollution and propose a series of solutions. Unlike a more traditional approach, where a teacher presents facts and knowledge, students in IBL classes take an active role in their learning. They explore topics in depth and learn through investigation and collaboration. Learners are encouraged to be curious, to ask questions and to share their ideas. The role of the teacher is as a facilitator, who provides input, support and guidance. Learning through inquiry is often closely associated with science and maths. However, with the right resources, ELT classrooms can benefit from IBL too.

A model for inquiry-based learning

There are many IBL models but all feature similar stages.

Stage 1: Proposal

After initially exploring a topic, students formulate their questions and hypotheses. What do they want to learn and how will they find this information?

Stage 2: Investigation

The class carry out their research. They answer their questions and prove or disprove their hypotheses.

Stage 3: Collaboration

This is a group work stage in which students create a final product based on their findings, such as a poster, a written report or a multimedia display.

Stage 4: Reflection

Students reflect on what they have learned, including the methods they used and the actions they took, and think about further investigation.

Stage 5: Sharing

Students share their findings, their final products and their conclusions with one another, their peers or the wider world.

A model like this may seem complex but getting started with IBL can be straightforward. The key is to select appealing topics and achievable tasks. Topics could be familiar to students, or they might be less well known. Consider ideas like popular music apps for teens or the life and works of William Shakespeare. Many standard ELT classroom tasks will work well in inquiry-based lessons. Interviews or polls can be completed in a single lesson, whereas more demanding tasks, like creating a newsletter or a video presentation, may require a series of lessons to produce.

What are the benefits for ELT?

Inquiry-based learning motivates and engages learners in all types of classroom. It leads to a deeper understanding of new content as students explore topics in detail. Additionally, an IBL approach promotes life skills and builds digital literacies.

In an ELT classroom, there are further advantages, which include:

  • opportunities to learn new, authentic language
  • integration of the four skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking
  • development of linguistic and communicative competencies
  • less teacher talking time (TTT) and more student talking time (STT)
  • time for independent learning and for collaborative group work.

Challenges for teachers and learners

If inquiry-based learning is a new approach for teachers and learners, there will be some initial challenges to overcome.

Topic choice: The right topic is one that's suitable for the age, level and interests of the students. Coursebooks provide a rich source of ideas, so they can be a good starting place.

Research questions: Although yes/no questions are common in ELT classrooms, deeper questions are needed for effective IBL. Learners may need additional support to come up with ideas for their investigations.

Unexpected language: Working with authentic materials will expose students to new language, especially more complex vocabulary. Teachers can introduce dictionary skills to prepare students for this, as well as discussing active and passive vocabulary and memory load.

Assessing learning: Formal assessment in the form of tests and exams is replaced by informal assessment. This could include classroom observations, student presentations, journals and self-evaluation questionnaires. A focus on assessment criteria such as participation, collaboration and project work may be new to learners.

Resources and materials: Perhaps the biggest challenge for teachers is finding the best materials for their lessons. Using IBL does not mean that teachers just send their learners to the internet. At each stage of the lesson or lessons, teachers need a variety of resources and teaching materials. Let's consider what these might be.

Print and digital resources for IBL

Before embarking on inquiry-based learning, teachers need to know about the approach. For those working with a coursebook, guidance can be provided within the teacher's guide. An introduction to IBL, background notes and teaching ideas will help teachers get off to a good start.

Stage 1: Proposal

A useful tool for teachers is a topic list inspired by the themes in the coursebook. This can suggest research questions for teachers and learners to select from.

A simple way to start with inquiry-based learning is with a KWL chart: a simple worksheet or digital template in which students list what they Know about a topic, what they Want to know, and later, what they have Learned.

Worksheets that review and practise question forms are useful. Learners also need input on the language of speculation and hypotheses. Students will benefit from practice tasks and exercises that extend their knowledge of language, such as modal verbs of deduction or conditionals.

Stage 2: Investigation

Learners consult multiple sources of information online and offline at this stage. These might include fiction and non-fiction content such as books, magazines and articles, videos, podcasts and websites.

Teachers will welcome curated content to use in lessons or to deliver via a Learning Management System (LMS). This could range from a pack of themed articles or a collection of audio and visual material to a list of recommended websites.

WebQuests are invaluable for inquiry-based learning. They provide a gentle introduction to IBL, with questions and resources already in place. A set of ready-to-use WebQuests linked to coursebook topics will be an excellent resource.

Digital skills are a vital part of research. Worksheets or a short training module dealing with topics like internet safety, evaluating evidence, checking facts and identifying reliable websites can help teachers prepare for this stage.

Stage 3: Collaboration

Successful group work requires participants to take turns, clarify answers, involve others, agree and disagree. It is worth considering an endmatter section in the coursebook, or even an additional component, dedicated to communication strategies and functional language. It could feature video and audio work with short dialogues that focus on key expressions and follow-up roleplays.

Learners need to deal with data, facts and figures and represent their results. Worksheets that show how to display information visually in charts, tables and diagrams can be effective. Examples of infographics and templates that students can use to produce their own could be provided.

Teachers will value model texts that students can follow to produce a final product, such as an article, an essay or a script. Useful examples highlight the features and language that students should incorporate in their own texts.

Stage 4: Reflection

Questionnaires that focus on learning, language and the different roles that learners have undertaken in the lessons are useful. These can be very simple at primary level, with students awarding themselves a smiling face for participation. At secondary level, learners could give themselves a numerical score.

Stage 5: Sharing

This is an opportunity to give feedback and evaluate one another's work. It's also when teachers may undertake assessment. Useful material here could include rubrics – documents that list the criteria for feedback and assessment and an evaluation scale. These could be provided as print or digital templates that learners and teachers can edit and adjust to fit the topics and tasks.

There is also scope at this stage to work on interpersonal skills and to talk about giving feedback in a positive and encouraging way. Discussion tasks around these sensitive areas are always welcome.

In conclusion

Inquiry-based learning is a useful approach for teachers who want to go beyond learning based on memorising facts and figures. IBL offers the opportunity to go deeper into subject matter and include additional work on language, life skills and digital literacies. An IBL approach will also encourage learners to be more curious and more creative. Providing print and digital resources as part of the overall suite of components for an ELT series is essential if IBL lessons are to be a success.

How Haremi can help

At Haremi, we specialise in developing print and digital resources to support ELT teaching and learning. We help ELT publishers all over the world to create adaptations of existing material, new editions and brand-new content. We design and produce books, interactive content, media assets and apps, and can offer dedicated in-house CELTA-qualified team members with many years of industry experience in the creation of pre-primary, primary and secondary ELT learning resources.

Specific services we offer include:

  • management of complex, multi-component projects
  • authoring
  • Americanisation
  • Anglicisation
  • language level reviews
  • curriculum mapping or remapping
  • native language content (e.g. Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin)
  • cultural sensitivities review
  • photo research
  • rights and permissions clearance
  • copyediting
  • proofreading
  • typesetting.

If you'd like to find out more about our ELT Publishing Services, or how we can support inquiry-based learning, please contact us.