By Kathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina

20 May 2016 - 05:54

'In our experience, children who are curious seem destined for success'. Photo ©

Mat Wright

Kathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina, whose course, Oxford Discover, won the 2015 ELTons award for course innovation, suggest ways to use inquiry-based learning in the ESL (English as a second language) classroom.

What is your favorite quality in a young learner? Here is ours: curiosity

In our experience, children who are curious seem destined for success. A curious child is motivated to ask questions, seek answers, and apply those answers to his or her personal experience. The good news is that, given the right conditions, every child in our classrooms can demonstrate curiosity, an attitude of wonder, and a desire to discover.

Curiosity and motivation lie at the heart of inquiry-based education. This approach to learning has turned traditional classrooms into high-energy learning centres, where children are excited to learn and participate. And now, inquiry-based learning has entered the field of English-language education. Teachers have discovered that this approach, along with rich content, can boost a student’s receptive and productive English-language skills.

Inquiry-based learning follows a three-step process that you can incorporate into many curriculums. Students ask themselves three questions about any new subject being introduced:

1. What do I already know about the subject?
2. What do I want to know about the subject?
3. What have I learned about the subject?

A KWL chart (What I know, what I want to know, what I’ve learned) is often used during these three steps to follow students' progress.

Starting with a big question

Inquiry-based learning normally begins with an open-ended 'big question' that has many possible answers. This question acts as a catalyst to get students thinking more deeply about the subject. You might pose questions such as the following (from Oxford Discover):

- How can we make music?
- Where does energy come from?
- How do we know what happened long ago?
- How do animals communicate?

Finding out what students already know

After you introduce the big question to the class, get students to consider what they already know about the subject matter. They can do this first in small groups, then as a whole-class activity. In this first step, students become active participants in the process of learning, drawing from their own personal life experiences to share previously learned knowledge. As students discuss what they know, you can record this information in the What we know section of the KWL chart.

As students begin to express what they know, they use their productive (i.e., speaking and writing) language skills. In early primary ESL classrooms, this can be done simply, with students drawing pictures of what they know and then using simple vocabulary to describe or explain it. As students become more experienced at explaining what they know, their productive skills grow.

Finding out what students want to know

Establishing what students know is essential for them to begin the second step: what do students want to know? This step allows students to freely wonder about the world around them. In a classroom discussion about 'Where are we in the universe?' (Oxford Discover, Student Book 4), students may come up with many compelling questions about our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe. Get students to do this 'wondering stage' first in small groups, then as a whole-class activity. You should record the questions on the What we want to know section of the KWL chart.

As teachers, we can help to elicit interesting questions from our students by being 'wonderers' ourselves. In the topic above, we might say out loud, 'I wonder why people weigh less on the moon than on earth' or ask 'How far away is the closest star to our sun?'

Embarking on a discovery phase in the learning process

Students, with your help and guidance, now embark on the discovery phase of the learning process. In Oxford Discover, for example, we provide a variety of fictional and non-fictional content (readings, listening activities, and more) for students to learn about the subject. When students feel motivated to find answers to their questions, they read and listen with a strong sense of purpose. As they do so, it's important to provide a variety of reading and listening strategies to make their receptive skills more effective. You should also introduce additional vocabulary words and grammar structures in each lesson to boost learning.

Finding out what students have learned

Finally, after a series of lessons in which students explore a subject, they are ready for the third step: discussing what they have learned. Students often work in small groups at this stage to share what they have learned through the lessons. As students discuss and write down their knowledge and experience, they use their productive skills of speaking and writing while applying the new vocabulary and grammar they have learned. When the discussion moves to a whole-class activity, students have the confidence to speak out about their learning experiences. You can record this on the What we have learned section of the KWL chart. This is often followed up by a project, in which students work together and use what they have learned to achieve a goal.

Summing up

Essentially, inquiry-based learning is a natural way to learn a second language. It allows students much more control of their learning experience, while teachers help and guide them along. It encourages our children’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder about the world around them.

Find out who's on the shortlist for this year's ELTons awards, which take place on 2 June 2016. 

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