A Language Inquiry

Thinking aloud here, as part of my own inquiry… 

Inquiry learning includes questioning, wondering, experimenting, learning from mistakes, discovering, uncovering, solving problems, seeking clarification, finding out, constructing meaning… in authentic contexts.

Can this apply to language learning?

My friend Greta, keen to teach English through inquiry at a PYP school in Argentina, shares her frustration with the system in an email:

“Would love to know your thoughts on teaching grammar out of context! I understand that sometimes you need to focus on plain structure… but it’s frequently done in such a meaningless way in traditional English language teaching. What I notice is that kids that learn that way do wonderful ‘fill in the blanks’ activities but when they need to talk or write they can’t! Are we teaching kids to communicate in English or are we teaching them prepositions, tenses…?”

As a second language teacher myself,  years ago, I taught grammar out of context because I used to think that was the right way, and then I wondered why kids often couldn’t apply what they learned in an authentic writing or speaking situation…

My daughter’s partner Paul, a new immigrant to Australia, is fortunate to receive 500 hours of free English classes and, let’s just say, some sessions are more relevant and engaging than others.

‘What did you learn today?’ I ask. ‘More irregular verbs,’ he replies.

Here’s a snippet from another conversation, as I think more about language learning…

me:  Does one learn/retain the stuff one fills in on the worksheets..?

Michael: I think ‘filling in’ helps after one uses the language in (close to) real life.

me: Yes, but second language teaching often has the ‘filling in’ BEFORE you have an authentic context..

Michael: Yikes! No context, no learning! 🙂

I recall a workshop with Jay McTighe, some years ago, in which he used a sporting analogy. You can’t expect kids to just do the drill and never play the game. They need to have some drill, then have a go at the game, then be coached in the skills they need to work on, then back in the game. Otherwise, as McTighe says, some kids spend their whole school life in an endless series of sideline drills and never get to play!

Paul and I chat, with occasional help from Google Translate. (I pick up quite a few Spanish words in the process!) He has a go, makes mistakes, learns from them… In between, he asks questions to help build his understanding.

‘What’s the difference between listen and hear’? He needs to know for the current context. I’m thrilled when I later notice him applying what we’ve discussed in other contexts.

I introduce Greta to Cristina, who teaches English via inquiry at a PYP school in Italy. She says of teaching and learning a language, ‘It is a very complex topic… It varies according to age, culture, school system…’

In my search for clarity, I sometimes oversimplify things in my posts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t realise the complexity…

I’m back where I started.

Inquiry learning includes questioning, wondering, experimenting, learning from mistakes, discovering, uncovering, solving problems, seeking clarification, finding out, constructing meaning… in authentic contexts.

It’s the way young children learn, before they are subjected to the limitations of a school system. I notice Paul’s progress as he instinctively adopts this approach, in the two week break from his formal classes.

Isn’t that simply the way learning works?

And, if it is… why does second language teaching so rarely look like that?

Hoping for discussion and comments from ESL and other language teachers as well as inquiry teachers…

About whatedsaid

Teaching and Learning Coordinator at an IB PYP school in Melbourne, Australia. I'm a teacher, a learner, an inquirer...
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6 Responses to A Language Inquiry

  1. I speak three foreign languages and have to say I didn’t learn any of them at school. I did a lot of “filling in” in classes but was struggling with using the right grammar during common conversations. It wasn’t until I used the languages in real life that I truly adopted the rules and could start focusing on the subject of communication rather than “how do you say…”.

    They say you have to hear a word four times and use it two times yourself before it becomes part of your common vocabulary. Learning a language is a lengthy process, indeed.



  2. Loved this, Edna! ” It’s the way young children learn, before they are subjected to the limitations of a school system.” Exactly! and that’s idea behind the Granny Cloud facilitators interaction with the children….


  3. lizfewings says:

    Good stuff. Sadly if teachers are too tightly bound by targets and learning objectives they are unlikely to stray from the safe illusion that children are learning from filling in work sheets.


  4. Anne Devrell says:

    Absolutely spot on!!! It’s about communication in its widest sense; it’s about immersion, motivation, application and context. We do and then learn for a reason… need, interest, experience. Lifelong learning is real but I also like to consider it as learning for living as well as living for learning. A page (of words etc) is limited by its edges… let’s listen and question each other…. if it’s meaningful it will happen!!!!


  5. When I taught two girls under 10 French some years ago (as their mother was French and wanted them to be able to speak to their grandparents in France), I gave them expressions and questions in various tenses to use. It was the same when I taught adults who needed to be able to communicate when they travelled to France. At school, however, we want students to master one tense before we start another.
    With regard to making mistakes, I have always felt that students should use correct expressions that we have given them and should not hear incorrect expressions, if possible, as these will stay in their mind. However, I have read that making mistakes does help one learn.


  6. Thanks for pointing me to this great post Edna. I’m a non-native speaker teacher of English. There are still many of us who teach de-contextualised irrelevant language and fail to realise that – like technology – language learning should be seen more as a tool than an ends. This shift in perception would change the way we teach and our students acquire language. Revealing what they can achieve with it is the best motivation students can have. Teachers have very little excuse for not doing this these days, when the walls of the classroom are disappearing and there is a whole world the students can explore using their new tool: a foreign language. I have always felt the luckiest of all teachers to be an English teacher. No one else has the whole world as their subject matter to be picked and chosen as and when you need it to empower your students and give them opportunities to use their new tool in the process.
    Why there are so many teachers who still teach a language rather than bring the world into their classrooms and explore it using the language?
    Many reasons but the most important is that we have been made to believe that completing one exercise after the next would make students learn whatever we want to teach them.
    Another important reason is that it’s labour-intensive to find materials and see how they fit or can be tweaked to fit the learning situation. Why would you want to do that when there is a billion dollar industry churning out materials that “make language learning easy” and provide you with “everything you need from detailed teaching notes to photocopiable, downloadable, ready-to-consume” teaching resources?
    It’s also messy to let the content drive the learning instead of the curriculum (which is almost always a coursebook).
    Of course, there are fantastic examples to the contrary and great things are being done by fantastic educators but I’m afraid the general picture is still closer to the one you described, that’s what is expected by the administration, the parents, and the learners themselves who have been brought up thinking that teaching the tenses and giving long lists of new vocabulary is the way to teach languages but there is a new generation of self-directed learners who demand the kind of education that gives them the opportunity to learn by experimenting and interacting with the language and each other.


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