Inquiry-based learning with readers

Inquiry-based learning might be the best answer to many challenges of today’s classrooms. During topic or book discussions we fear the presence of silence in our classroom, and we would like see many hands in the air wanting to answer our questions.

Instead of telling children and teens that they should read a book, we can ‘get them’ to read books. I was talking to a 16-year-old high school student, who gave me good advice: ‘You cannot tell us to read a classic without making us understand why we should read it’.  She made a valid point.

So how  can we help our students understand why they should read a book and how do we encourage them to concentrate on them?

One solution can be using inquiry-based teaching. Laurel Schmidt in Secret 5 of Classroom Confidential: The 12 Secrets of Great Teachers discusses the inquiry-based method. She explains that ‘Socrates was one of the first educators to conclude that learning cannot be delivered.’ (p. 93) The inquiry-method uses open-ended questions to initiate discussion, elicit students’ thoughts and examine their thinking. There is not one right answer to the teacher’s questions, and it ‘stimulates talking, puzzling, risking, and debating.’ (p. 94) The exact processes we would like to see in the language classroom. It should be easy for us, language teachers, as we have been using open-ended questions for a long time to avoid the typically easy and unchallenging yes/no answers from language learners. Remember, that open-ended inquiry questions go beyond the typical ‘wh-questions’. Here are two great examples from Schmidt that will help you develop your own questions:

Instead of asking ‘What shape is this leaf?’ ask ‘What do you notice about this leaf?’, or instead of ‘Who invented the first writing system?’, ask  ‘Why do you think people invented writing?’ (p. 94)

So how can we introduce readers using this approach?

Every course book unit focuses on different topics from the curriculum: family, natural world, environment, history, art, science, society, fashion, games, politics and technology, just to mention the most common ones. Every student will have a certain reaction to these topics – either interest or lack of interest. What’s great about inquiry-based teaching is that your students’ lack of interest can be turned into a challenge – you have to show interest in their ‘lack of interest’ and constantly challenge them with more questions. If you create a dialogue around a topic and find a book or a collection of books that is connected to that dialogue, you will be able to create a context for the books and consequently raise interest in them.

Schmidt defines The Three Basic Moves:

  1. Ask initiating questions.
  2. Ask questions to respond and follow-up.
  3. Insert information at key points.

The following steps can work with readers:

  1. Choose titles you would like your students to read within a month. Make sure they are connected to the topics you are covering in the course, and make sure that the levels are right, too.
  2. Write open-ended questions for the selected books to introduce them to your students.
  3. Take a copies of the books to your class. It might sound strange, but books, especially illustrated books work perfectly as artistic objects today. Students are used to reading without the actual contact with paper, and touching and folding a ‘real’ book can raise some interest.
  4. Show a selection of books to your class. Share something inspiring about the stories and ask an initiating question. Remember to ask questions with ‘What do you think’, ‘Why do you think’, ‘How would you describe’, How would you react’… For example, if you would like to talk about The Secret Garden, you can ask: ‘Do you know anyone who lost someone? How would you help this friend feel better?’ or ‘How do you imagine a ‘secret garden’?
  5. Schmidt suggest that we keep asking questions, asking for clarification, points of view, assumptions, reasons or evidence and implication and consequences.
  6. You can insert information to motivate further discussion and get your students’ attention. (Schmidt 99).
  7. After this discussion you can ask your students to read the book together or alone.
  8. Give your students questions to answer during reading. The discussion boxes in Helbling Readers work very well, but you can also hand out questions ahead.
  9. Always make sure that you give your students time to reflect on their reading experience. Sometimes they are shy to ask for clarification or express their opinions because they might think that they will sound ‘stupid’ or they will say something wrong.
  10. Be patient with them. Schmidts point out that ‘researchers studying wait time discovers that when teachers ask a question, they get nervous if they don’t hear an answer within three seconds … They simply can’t wait.’ (p. 103)

Here are some questions you can use during your reading lessons.

*Language point: you might have to teach and practise the modal verbs ‘might, could and would’, as well as ‘Why do you think…?’ questions. They are worth the effort as these are the most challenging and inspiring conversation starters that will make your students reflect.

These questions were inspired by Schmidt’s inquiry-based questions for literature lessons (p. 107):

  1. Which character would you like to be in this book and why?
  2. Which character would you like to know as your friend and why?
  3. Tell the story from the villain’s point of view.
  4. Imagine that this story is set in our country today. What would be different?
  5. What would you change in this story?
  6. How would you react if your friend told you that he or she saw some ghosts?
  7. What is the cruellest thing that people do to each other?
  8. What would you do if a stranger asked for help at your house?
  9. What do you think of the main character’s behaviour?
  10. What do you notice about the setting of this story?


Schmidt, Laurel. Classroom Confidential: The 12 Secrets of Great Teachers. Heinemann. 2004

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