Infusing Inquiry Learning into English and Language Arts Planning


Subjects like English, language arts, and grammar aren’t often associated with inquiry learning. Typically, these subjects are taught using a direct teaching method whereby teachers explain grammar rules and follow up with examples of the rules being applied in sentences. However, making students more active participants in their learning can make the subject more interesting. Inquiry learning in English also reduces the chances of students becoming bored and passive.

Making students more active learners when teaching English, language arts, and grammar involves using inquiry learning strategies. For example, presenting English topics as problems to be solved, incorporating student-centered topics in your planning, encouraging students to think in a cross-curricular way, and using a sociocultural approach are all great strategies to use to bring more relevance and meaning to your ELA classes.

The inquiry strategies offered below will work with students in elementary and secondary English classes. They can also be applied to general ELA classes. In addition, some of the following ideas can be used in more topic-specific classes. These include media studies, writer’s craft, and literature studies. Some links are affiliates. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.


How does language connect to inquiry?

According to the Ontario Language curriculum, students begin building inquiry skills from early on in the form of asking questions. Using books and other sources to explore possible answers builds these skills. When students move into elementary-level grades, they expand on these skills by being more selective about the sources they consult. As they progress through the grades, they become more attuned to the kinds of places they should be looking for answers to their questions. This is where skills like locating relevant information, checking for bias, and recognizing point of view.

By high school, students will likely be able to evaluate sources, taking into account their validity, relevance, and credibility. But these skills will have developed over several years of practicing the art of asking questions. By this point, it is clear to see that foundations for inquiry learning in English are usually laid early on!


Strategy #1 – Introduce a problem-solving component to ELA lessons

No matter what age your students are, everyone loves to try and solve a problem. Beginning an ELA unit with a question can intrigue students and introduce subjects in new ways. Some thought-provoking questions and problems for students to focus on include:

  • How can we use storytelling to help solve everyday problems?
  • In what ways have books been catalysts for change?
  • How has language evolved through the ages?
  • What responsibility do authors have to create change?
  • How do we define the concept of home? 
  • What universal themes are applicable to all societies and their literature?
  • How do people tell their stories?
  • Why are some books banned in certain countries?
  • What makes a good book a “classic”?

Using a question from the list above can open up an entire unit based on themes such as persuasion, global change, racism, gender, politics, responsibility, and several other important topics. Expanding an ELA unit from being book-based to one that is theme-based offers students more choice to explore a topic that is relevant for them. We wrote an article on How to Make Learning More Relevant for Students if you’d like more information on this.

Incorporating problem-based learning challenges students to solve authentic problems through investigation and decision-making, and is based on real-world issues. Therefore, it offers students a unique opportunity to contribute to something meaningful and relevant in their lives. Whereas traditionally, students are given the information they need to know, introducing a problem-solving component helps students identify the information they’ll need to approach the problem, then apply workable solutions as they solve the problem.

Related: The Difference Between Inquiry and Problem-Based Learning


Strategy #2 – Incorporate student-centred topics in your planning

Using student-centred topics means emphasizing student choice, ownership, and collaboration. Offering students the choice to read in a social way helps students feel that their learning is personalized. One way to do this is by intentionally setting up a student-centred environment. There are some simple ways to do this in your classroom:

  • Showcasing a variety of books that include different genres, authors, and perspectives
  • Encouraging students to ask questions and have conversations with others about what they are reading or writing
  • Including books from different time periods that are appropriate for the grade level
  • Allowing students to read by themselves or to someone else
  • Giving students the flexibility to work on specific components of Language Arts that they feel they need to practise
  • Offering work stations or inquiry tables to inspire a love of reading, writing, poetry, or any other component of language

Tying literary texts to conceptual themes is another way to incorporate students in your planning and to make learning more interesting for them. It also helps with “main idea abstraction” which is the ability to understand and abstract the message in a text. For example, students reading Animal Farm should be able to abstract the idea that the book is an allegorical representation of the abuse of absolute power amongst the backdrop of the Russian Revolution.

Making reading more 3-dimensional

When planning for English, it’s tempting to pick texts that tick all the boxes and cover most of the curriculum. However, it might be worth considering choosing a book that will yield higher engagement, even if it only ticks *most* of the boxes. Chances are, there will be more opportunity for cross-curricular learning, as well as generally higher engagement. This means that more thorough learning can occur. When learning is more thematic, students are more likely to make stronger connections, consider multiple perspectives, and be more experimental with their learning. Here’s a high-school inquiry unit that combines history with the autobiographical text Man’s Search for Meaning.

Related: Powerful Inquiry Examples to Use in the Classroom


Strategy #3 – Encourage students to think in a cross-curricular way

Sometimes students see reading or writing as a boring chore that they’d rather not do. Utilizing their interests and getting them to think outside the box is a way for them to make explicit connections that they hadn’t considered before. The goal of cross-curricular teaching is to bring together different subject areas by incorporating main ideas and skills from more than one subject simultaneously. This can be done in many ways, but should be explicitly planned for in advance.

Determining the “big ideas” of your topic or inquiry is the first step in the planning process. Once this is done, create a map with your driving question and find connections to other subject areas. When I do this, I think about the three most relevant subjects that relate to the content I’ll be teaching. Here’s an example of how I recently approached the book Animal Farm in the English classroom:

Sometimes, consulting with other teachers in different subject areas might be necessary to create a multi-faceted unit of inquiry. This is referred to as conceptual collaboration – when two different subject teachers collaborate together to create activities and inquiries that feature cross-curricular concepts. For example, an art teacher and history teacher can collaborate to design projects featuring a combination of significant events in Renaissance history and art pieces that are unique to that time period.

The benefit of this cross-curricular approach is creating learning environments where deep learning can exist. Students who make connections between concepts in new contexts usually experience a deeper level of understanding. They are better able to retain information, make better observations, and ask more useful questions about the world around them.


Strategy #4 – Use a sociocultural approach

The environment in which learning takes place has a huge impact on student success. If a classroom is dull or lacks a variety of resources (material or otherwise), student learning is limited. However, in a class that values variety, contribution, and collaboration, learning will thrive. Using a sociocultural approach allows students to understand what they’re learning through the intrinsic process of socializing and communicating with others. This may look like an informal chat with a partner, a group discussion about a topic, or a class debate.

Using a sociocultural approach in language arts, English, literature, or writing classes means allowing students to make sense of their learning through observation, listening, and talking through their tasks with a partner, mentor, or the teacher. This is important because children learn from interactions by processing them and exhibiting similar behaviours with minor changes. This is all connected to Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory and his zone of proximal development. We’ve written about applying his theory in the classroom (tip #2).

Utilizing a sociocultural approach in a language arts class creates room for a variety of activities at different levels of challenge. It also features a collaborative culture that provides students with the space and encouragement to share their ideas, get feedback, and make improvements to their work. For example, your classroom can have a story writing workshop alongside a table where other students are working on vocabulary acquisition with the teacher. While the teacher is assisting students with their vocabulary work, students can be inferring definitions, sharing new words with their story writing classmates, and vice-versa. This mutual exchange of ideas can help bolster creativity and solidify the idea that reading and writing are fluid, creative, and interconnected.


Strategy #5 – Emphasize the skills, not the content

When students are introduced to inquiry learning in the English classroom, it might be a challenge at first. Shifting their thinking and getting them to focus on the process as opposed to “getting it right” or “getting it done first” will take time. It’s important to think of inquiry like a puzzle, regardless of the course or subject being taught. Reframing learning in this way helps remove some of the stigma, anxiety, and anger that some students feel about learning something new or challenging.

Skills-based instruction might seem counterintuitive to inquiry-based learning. However, for students to ask high-quality questions and think critically about what they’re learning, they need to practise the skills of metacognition and be given opportunities to think at more complex levels. For example, asking a good inquiry question doesn’t just happen (usually). Instead, it takes time and practice to reformulate questions, learn how to open a question up, and how to express more sophisticated ideas on their own.

The content in each course is going to be different, but the skills required to make sense of that new information are largely the same. In this way, making time for skills-based instruction helps students move toward independence and critical thinking. Some skills that can be explicitly taught in a 1:1 manner in short bursts include:

  • Skimming and scanning skills
  • Uncovering bias and motivation in writing
  • Understanding text features
  • Learning the difference between literal and figurative language
  • How to use a library catalogue

As expected, it takes time for students to understand that the skills they master can be applied to all areas of their learning. Simple ways to reinforce these habits include verbalizing your thoughts, using positive language, and using authentic praise in the classroom.


Key Takeaways for Inquiry Learning in the English Classroom:

(1) Beginning an ELA unit with a question can intrigue students and introduce subjects in new ways. Incorporating problem-based learning challenges offers students a unique opportunity to contribute to something meaningful and relevant in their lives. 

(2) Using student-centred topics means emphasizing student choice, ownership, and collaboration. When learning is more student-centred, students are more likely to make stronger connections. They are also able to consider multiple perspectives and be more experimental with their learning.

(3) Using a cross-curricular approach helps create learning environments where deep learning can exist. Students who make connections between concepts in new contexts usually experience a deeper level of understanding, and are better able to ask more useful questions about the world around them.

(4) Using a sociocultural approach allows students to understand what they’re learning through the intrinsic process of socializing and communicating with others. This mutual exchange of ideas can help bolster creativity and solidify the idea that reading and writing are fluid, creative, and interconnected.

(5) Skills-based instruction helps students focus on the process as opposed to “getting it right” or “getting it done first”. Reframing learning in this way helps students build concrete skills that can transfer to other courses at school.


Have we missed any inquiry learning strategies for English? Comment down below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

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