How to Incorporate Inquiry into an English Classroom

Are you looking for a way to dig deeper into your ELA work and incorporate more inquiry into your ELA classroom?  Like many of you, I was too!  My province is implementing a new curriculum and much of it is focused on INQUIRY.  I’m super excited about all of the possibilities and know I have to work on more of it into my English classroom.  Over the last few years I’ve managed to find several ways to build inquiry into what we do on a regular basis. I use the following steps to help guide my students and me through the inquiry process and try to build the vocabulary and understanding into our daily work.

The idea of WONDER seems like a lost art in my high school students – with a quick Google search it seems everything my students could possibly want to know is at their fingertips.  Whether you’re reading a short story or learning about new figurative language ask students as much as possible what they wonder.  Use the term wonder whenever you can and incorporate an element of wonder into your lessons. Instead of giving students all of the information, give students just a tid-bit and ask what they think it is they’re going to learn about.  Here’s an idea - show students examples of a type of figurative language and ask if they can see the similarities between the examples.  See if they can figure things out before giving them all the answers.  Talk about the title of a poem or a short story before jumping in.  Encourage your students to come up with three questions they have based on the title alone.  

Having students develop their own questions is part of the inquiry process so we work on developing “good” questions throughout the year.  QUESTIONS that encourage wonder rather than questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.  I use this handy Q-Chart to help guide students in creating “good” questions. The chart guides students to create deeper questions than the simple questions they tend to think of first. The chart is a perfect way to keep them on track.   Grab a FREE copy here!

One of the big projects we complete each year is an Inquiry Project based on a novel my students have read in class.  I have done it with a whole class novel (To Kill a Mockingbird) and with an independent novel study and both times it’s worked well.  Students dig deep into a bigger issue they’ve wondered about while reading and must RESEARCH a topic of their choice related to the book.  I’ve had students delve into the modern-day role of geishas after reading Memoirs of a Geisha, investigate the Hollywood Blacklist after reading The Crucible and dig deeper into the history of the civil rights movement after reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  The possibilities are endless!  Check out my Novel Study – Inquiry Project for ANY Novel! Everything you need to create your own inquiry project during a novel study is included.  

Explain & Create
Typically, in an ELA classroom we have asked our students to write about their thoughts, their ideas and their findings. AND… I absolutely think that students need to learn to write and write well, but I also believe they need to learn how to present their ideas orally, visually and using a wide variety of media.  As much as I can, I give my students choice in how they EXPLAIN their work in my classroom. What they can CREATE as an example of their learning often boggles my mind! When given the chance, their creativity shines though!  But… don’t worry… they’re still writing!  A big part of the inquiry process is to present their ideas to their peers or others.  I've upped the ante by having students present to their principal and vice-principal - as stressful as it can be, the students are excited that the administration is willing to listen.

The last step in the Inquiry process in my classroom is to REFLECT on the inquiry process.  What went well?  What could they improve upon for next time?  What did they learn?  This process of reflection can be applied to so much of what we do in an ELA classroom and I inject reflection into much of what I do.  A quick exit slip or bell-ringer question is the perfect and easy opportunity to have students reflect.  

The more I incorporate the elements of inquiry into my classroom, I find the easier it is for me to complete a bigger inquiry project.  Whether it's a guided inquiry with teacher created questions or a full student led inquiry like a Genius Hour project, the more exposure students have had with the process the easier it will be for them and for you!

Looking for More Ideas?  Be sure to check out these resources from other members of the Secondary English Coffee Shop!

Teaching in Room 213 - To Kill A Mockingbird Inquiry Project
Nouvelle ELA - Research Project - Real Life Utopia Project


  1. I love this Q-chart! This is so helpful in guiding student-generated questions. Love this!

  2. I love using inquiry questions and projects in high school English. The kids get far more engaged. Thanks so much for sharing your helpful tips and resources!

  3. This was a fun post to read - thank you for the awesome FREEBIE!!

  4. I love the idea of giving students examples of figurative language and having them determine the similarities! It is such a simple twist, but you are right that it makes them do the thinking rather than spoon feeding them the content. I also love that you bring your administrators in to see the students present. Awesome suggestions and a great free resource! Thanks,

  5. This was always a challenging topic for my students! Thank you for creating a resource that will help students think beyond the text! <3

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