Using Inquiry-Based Learning with EAL Students

By Lorna Caputo

In 2014, I contributed a chapter to a book on the theory and practice of inquiry-based learning, a teaching approach much promoted in international schools. My chapter outlines a method for teaching additional languages in a way that supports both classwork and the development of communicative skills. In this post, I would like to share with you some of the key issues explored in my chapter and a 2014 conference presentation as a means of highlighting how inquiry-based learning can augment language acquisition for EAL students.

Inquiry-Based Learning: A Key Method 

Inquiry-based learning is not new; it was discussed as a learning approach in the 1960s and it has been a central part of the IBO’s (International Baccalaureate Organisation’s) approach to education for the past thirty years. While there has always been healthy discussion on the use of inquiry-based learning as a teaching method in primary education, it is only in the last fifteen years that it has been picked up by linguists and educators who are keen to explore its use in the teaching of additional languages. For example, Making The PYP Happen, an IBO guideline published in 2009, embeds several central tenets of inquiry-based learning into the IBO’s recommended language-teaching methodology.

Understanding Inquiry-Based Learning Using Our Own Language Learning Experiences

In order to fully understand inquiry-based language learning, we have to make a distinction between the sort of teaching techniques normally employed in foreign language courses and the type of support given to EAL students who are learning English while learning in English. Almost all of us can remember learning another language at school, and many of us currently attend language courses here in Switzerland; language learning in such contexts tends to focus on situational communication, i.e. the ability to communicate one’s needs and preferences on a basic level in a variety of common situations. Some of us may also have experienced the necessity to study more advanced aspects of another language in order to perform better at work or complete a university education. In these situations, you may have encountered a range of teaching approaches, from traditional grammar worksheets and language labs (‘listen and repeat’) to more progressive (and fun) methods that employ role play and games. It is important to realise that this type of language learning experience differs from that of EAL students, whose overall education depends on their ability to engage with a curriculum in a language other their mother tongue, a difference that greatly informs our approach to EAL support.

EAL teachers respond to students’ needs by ensuring that their language learning is connected to their experiences and that they are able to communicate their thoughts and opinions as clearly as possible; to do so, during EAL lessons, teachers often include mention of current events in and out of school and encourage students to share their personal viewpoints. By expanding the sphere of reference beyond the classroom, many linguistic elements can be investigated and practised in an authentic and meaningful way. Hence, in order to extend the range of experiences that can be reflected upon and discussed at school, we encourage students, along with their parents, to visit museums and participate in local cultural events, as well as watch movies and read a range of fiction and non-fiction books in their strongest language (indeed, as I discussed in a previous post, the development of mother tongue skills enhances English language development).

As the IBO explains in its publication on teaching and learning language (Language Scope and Sequence, 2009), inquiry-based learning strengthens the language skills necessary for students’ social interactions with both teachers and their peers. Motivated by their desire to interact with others, new EAL students tend to develop social language skills rapidly by copying others’ behaviours as they learn the daily school routines. Social English is indeed essential, but as we know, success in school requires more than just the social use of a language. Proficient knowledge of the language of instruction is critical to facilitate understanding of increasingly complex academic ideas; hence, EAL support strives to ensure that students possess the language skills necessary to demonstrate their comprehension of new concepts. EAL teachers design learning activities that explore the types of grammar and lexis that students will need to access the curriculum, as well as to support the development of students’ more general skills of inquiry, such as the ability to raise pertinent questions, reflect on complex ideas, and initiate independent research. If an EAL teacher is working with a student on a specific literacy skill, for example, hypothesis testing, a key component of inquiry-based learning, can be used as a technique to make learning more engaging and meaningful. For parents of EAL students who are eager to support this kind of academic language development, we encourage discussion that promotes reflection, question-raising, and the exploration of nuance. Again, we recommend that such conversations are conducted in a student’s mother tongue so that his or her cognitive abilities can be fully exercised, a linguistic skill that will take time to develop in English.

Closing Thoughts

EAL students depend on improving their English not only in order to communicate better, but as the linguistic means through which they can nurture their ability to learn. EAL teachers at our school endeavour to apply inquiry-based techniques to the support they provide in a manner that compliments EAL students’ ongoing cognitive development. Whilst it is true that, at times, inquiry-based methods can look very different from traditional language learning methods, it is this difference, in particular its emphasis on responsiveness, authenticity and intellectual-engagement, that makes this approach a useful means of ensuring that students get the most out of their shared learning environment.


[1] Caputo, L. (2014) ‘Using Inquiry-Based Learning to Teach Additional Languages in a High School Context’, in: P. Blessinger and J. M. Carfora (eds.) Inquiry-Based Learning for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences: A Conceptual and Practical Resource for Educators (Innovations in Higher EducationTeaching and Learning, Volume 2), Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 369 – 391.