Can students inquire in a foreign language?

***Re-posted with permission from the author, Alison Yang.  Original post on the Collaborative Learner Blog.

“Can students inquire in a foreign language?” This question is asked very frequently among my conversations with foreign language teachers. My answer is YES! If we observe how toddlers learn, we often find that toddlers who are curious are constantly asking questions by using their limited range of vocabulary and grammar structures, body language, gestures, realia, etc. My 3-year-old daughter is asking more than 15 questions a day and she asks questions in three languages: Thai, English and Mandarin. Through the process of negotiation of meaning, her questions were answered and her understanding was clarified. Simultaneously, her language skills are also increasingly developed and becoming slightly more complex each day.

When students just begin to learn a foreign language, isn’t the process similar to the toddlers acquiring their first language? One of the major differences is that students are more cognitively developed. Foreign language learning and teaching can be and should be inquiry based. In my previous post, I mentioned that many of us learning a foreign language for a sustained period of time are sometimes struggled to have a conversation with native speakers. Based on my personal experience, I believe it is because that language learning has been taken out of the contexts and provided learners with no purpose for their learning. The learning materials are neither authentic nor meaningful to students. People ask questions and want to seek for answers only when they feel curious and involved. By the same token, teachers should provide an environment where authentic content is provided to pique students’ interest in the target language and help them to acquire receptive, productive and interactive language skills, as well as develop their intercultural understanding.

But, how can we help students to inquire in the target language when they don’t possess substantial linguistic knowledge?  In order to help students to acquire their second language, extensive exposure of the target language is unquestionably needed. To what extent, do we allow students to communicate in their first language or mother tongue to facilitate their learning? Will we sacrifice too much instruction time on inquiry-based learning instead of on foreign language learning? These are the questions that usually come to teachers’ mind when promoting second language acquisition through inquiry-based learning.

In my opinion and personal experience, if the learning environment and lessons are well structured, students at different language proficiency levels and ages can be engaged in the inquiry-based learning while acquiring the foreign language. Here are some strategies that I used with my Mandarin students and you probably use them in your classroom already.

1.   Activate students’ prior knowledge: K-W-L chart is a good strategy to investigate what students already know and what they want to know before their quest for the unit. At the end of the unit, students can reflect on what they have learned. THE K-W-L chart can be created in Google doc that allows students to share their prior knowledge and questions. Alternatively, teachers can also useWallwisher to collect data. An anticipation guide is another strategy that can be used prior to reading to identify students’ understanding and misunderstanding of a certain topic as well as provide a purpose for reading.

2.   Provide vocabulary and grammar guide: It is important for teachers to provide students with a vocabulary and grammar guide for each unit. Therefore, students are aware of what target vocabulary and grammar they are expected to master at the end of each unit. It doesn’t mean that students cannot inquire when they don’t have the vocabulary. They think in the first language or mother tongue and if the vocabulary guide and grammar guide is provided, it not only facilitates students to use the target language for authentic communication, but also help students to refine their language.

3.   Use graphic organizers: Second language learners usually find it hard to convey themselves and share ideas in a logic order. Graphic organizers help students to “visualize their thinking” and provide a structure to organize their ideas and opinions. In addition, being able to use graphic organizers is a transferrable skill that enables students to learn how to learn. Here are some graphic organizers that can help students understand different concepts: frayer model,concept map (concept definition map), venn diagram, QAR (Question, Answer, Relationship) and so on. All of these graphic organizer templates can be downloaded from the Internet. Alternatively, Edistorm is a free web tool that allows students to brainstorm and planning collaboratively on line.

4.      Create a question wall: In order for foreign language students to ask questions, we must model how to form questions. A bulletin board is allocated in my classroom with question words and different types of questions. For warm-up, I sometimes have students ask each other questions to find out more information about each other or about the topic. During reading, students can form a variety of questions by using different question word to clarify their understanding of the text and compare the complexity of different types of questions. This website provides many useful printable templates for classroom displays, including question word templates. Toondoo is a website that students can make short comics. I have my beginner level Mandarin students use this web tool to create a dialogue and practice how to ask questions in different situations appropriately and correctly.

5.   Use story-telling: Everyone love stories and many questions naturally arise in this process. However, it does take some time for teachers to adapt and revise the story in order to meet the linguistic needs of the students. Through the story, the teacher can guide the inquiry further, for example, by having students come up with different endings and justify their reasons. Students can use Storybird to create a story. I have never used this web tool as it does not support Mandarin script yet. However, it looks interesting and definitely save students’ lots of time on illustrating for the story!

6.   Structured note-taking strategy: I use this a lot when students are reading short passages or watching short video clips. Structured note taking strategy provides a purpose for students in the learning process.  3-2-1 note taking strategy can be used easily. Teachers can modify 3-2-1 for different purposes, for example, 3 main ideas, 2 key words and 1 question or connection. Accessing change is another structured note-taking strategy to help students generate discussion in response to a topic. This link provides an example how to use this strategy. Students are more likely to share their findings and thoughts when they have a chance to think about it.

7.   Design authentic assessment:  Assessment should allow students to demonstrate their understanding and use the language in real context. Instead of asking students to simply make an oral presentation, we can create situational problems to engage students in the learning process and keep them motivated performing the assessment. When I did a unit about Chinese cuisine, I organized a Top Chef competition, which is a simulation of the TV show “Top Chef”. Students worked in groups and each of them was responsible for one dish. After cooking, they had to explain to the judges what ingredients they used, what Chinese cooking technique they used, how Chinese people usually ate this type of dish, etc. Students loved this unit and it was truly a valuable experience for them to speak and interact with Mandarin speakers outside of classroom.

The list of strategies can go on and on. Inquired-based learning promotes collaboration, communication and interaction. There are certain obstacles that we have to deal with, especially when instructions are delivered in a foreign language classroom rather than in an immersion language classroom. However, it doesn’t mean inquiry-based learning is impossible in a foreign language classroom. We, as teachers, need to provide comprehensible input, encourage students to ask questions in the target language, and use our best professional judgment to decide how we can help students to “learn language, learn about language and learn through language” (Michael Halliday). “Students develop language as a means toward an end and not as end in itself.” (Schwarzer, 1996).

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10 Responses to Can students inquire in a foreign language?

  1. Pingback: This what answered my wondering… | Life and Learning

  2. Pingback: This answered my wondering… | Life and Learning

  3. Catherine Lihanda says:

    Hi, this was very informative! May ask if this is pyp or myp?


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  8. MARTA says:

    Hello, Thank you for your article. I am a foreign language teacher (Spanish). I would like to have your opinion about how does a foreign language class look when you do EBL with Lower and Elementary school kids?

    You mentioned ” In my opinion and personal experience, if the learning environment and lessons are well structured, students at different language proficiency levels and ages can be engaged in the inquiry-based learning while acquiring the foreign language”. Do you know EBL activities for Lower and Elementary scholars? Thank you.



    Hello, do you have any samples of inquiry lessons, videos available?


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