George Lucas Educational Foundation
Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning in English Classrooms

A look at how teachers can create projects that encourage students to collaborate and deeply engage in their work—even during distance learning.

August 16, 2021
Allison Shelley / American Education

When our Ontario school district told us we’d be continuing remote learning until the end of the term, I turned to the most student-focused, engaging assignments I could focus on to rekindle some kind of life in my ELA students—inquiry-based learning (IBL).

The IBL projects turned out to be a resounding success. One ninth-grade English class went from a third of the students failing to only two. Students really connected with the conference-focused structure of the unit, and they finally seemed to be enjoying our time together. IBL projects were my Hail Mary pass, and they paid off.

Inquiry-based learning projects fit well with all English curriculum skills: reading, writing, oral communication, and media. Additionally, these projects nurture personal responsibility, abstract thinking, organization, and collaboration. 

IBL and English Language Arts

IBL projects in the English classroom have five steps: project proposal, research and learning, creating or doing, reflecting, and sharing. Depending on the ability and level of your students, as well as the topics you may want to guide them toward, these steps are quite malleable. The projects can focus on general, student-centered topics (e.g., inquiry question) or more teacher-directed topics (e.g., understanding the world and language of Shakespeare).

Regardless of the level of inquiry, teachers should strive to use IBL projects as a method of engaging students in active learning, while becoming the guides on the side.

Step 1: Project Proposal

Offer students the opportunity to shape their focus questions(s) and projects via a project proposal. Here are two examples in past courses: What is the easiest way to build a computer? What are the best fitness apps for teens?

At this point, I usually do a series of short lessons about asking good questions, as well as talk through formulating my own possible IBL project questions via a completion of a project proposal of my own. One example I often use is from my experience as a coach: How can I train high school–level middle blockers more effectively?

I conference with each of them about their ideas, and we work through any possible kinks. If, after a couple of days, students don’t have a proposal, I’ll start working with them from scratch to move them into a direction that holds some engagement and purpose for them.

Step 2: Research and Learning

The next step is the research and learning phase, which fits beautifully into any language curriculum, as mini-lessons on proper research techniques, bias, gathering and documenting sources, etc., can take place at a grade- and skill-appropriate level.

Offer students parameters regarding the number and types of sources appropriate for their project, as well as specifics about documenting information and sources. I often give students a simple handout to help with organizing information and support them with documenting sources via a website such as Citation Machine.

Teachers should once again conference with students, supporting them with finding or evaluating sources.

Step 3: Creating or Doing

This is where IBL projects differ from traditional research projects. Ask students to either create, experience, or do something with their learning. The beauty of IBL projects in English language arts is that the project topic and physical result don’t have to have anything to do with English class. It’s the process that effectively reflects multiple ELA curriculum expectations, such as listening and/or reading and summarizing, documenting and assessing research sources, writing, and so on. This past term I had a student build a bicycle from used parts, another create a Twitter account of instapoetry, and a third attempt to fabricate a mechanical heart.

Conferencing is once again an essential part of this step, as many students will require teacher support to see what possibilities exist in terms of an “action” phase of their project.

Step 4: Reflecting

The goal of this step of the IBL project is to have students reflect on their methods, research, actions, and next steps. This process can take place in a variety of ways. I try to focus the medium on something I need to assess in my curriculum, whether it’s a writing task, media product, or oral communication presentation. 

Regardless of the medium of communication, I give students a bulleted list of items they should complete as part of their reflective process:

  • Discuss your project focus question and why you chose this topic or why it was important to you as a learner.
  • Review the research you conducted regarding your focus question, as well as the most important or interesting things you learned.
  • Explain how you used your research to create an action or experience, and the process of that experience and its result.
  • Reflect on whether or not your project was a success in your eyes, as well as what—if anything—you would have done differently.
  • What are your next steps regarding your project?
  • Will you continue working with your driving question or some aspect of that topic?

Step 5: Sharing and Assessment

The final step of the IBL project is for students to share their entire project with their teacher, peers, and/or the world at large via social media as a video, post, or website.

Once again, depending on the age or skill level of students or the teacher needs regarding assessments, students can complete this step of sharing the project overview through writing (a written report), media (a video or infographic), oral communication (conferencing with their teacher), or a combination of all three (a multimedia project overview).

Final Step: Reap the Rewards

I started using IBL projects in my language arts classes some 10 years ago in a number of different grades (7–12), and I’ve never been disappointed in the results. Time and time again, students tell me that it’s been their favorite part of the course.

Make it your own, and give it a try. You’ll reap the rewards of student engagement, project completion, and the sneaky assessment of a variety of language curriculum expectations associated with the four key strands of any ELA course: reading, writing, oral communication, and media.

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Filed Under

  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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