'Enhancing learner engagement through inquiry-based learning' by Michelle Worgan

4th September 2023

Imagine you teach a class of seven-year-olds. You provide lots of fun activities: songs, stories, crafts and games. The children appear to enjoy your lessons, but whenever you ask them to do some writing, they become quickly frustrated and bored. Picture these same children a few years on, now aged thirteen. Their lessons are no longer filled with fun and games. They have a fantastic command of vocabulary and grammar but they really struggle with speaking. They’re shy, easily embarrassed and find the topic in their course book dull. This often results in a few of the learners becoming distracted and off-task. You struggle to keep them engaged and find ways of making your lessons interesting.

Achieving and maintaining high levels of engagement is one of the challenges many teachers face in the young learner classroom. We try to stay up to date with the interests of our primary and teenage learners but, of course, they change really quickly. And, of course, our learners can see right through our attempts to reach them through trending topics.

The good news is, there is a solution. We can flip the way we teach on its head by embracing a learner-centred approach. No more spending hours searching the web for relevant topics and resources! No more groans when you hand out your latest worksheet!


With inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is an approach where learners investigate a real world topic in order to find answers to a question. Instead of deciding what learners will learn and selecting materials in advance, we can allow learners to explore their own questions about the topic and take their learning in whatever direction they choose. 

An inquiry is centred around the natural curiosity that children have but tend to lose as they grow older. By focussing our lessons on topics that interest our learners and inviting them to explore them through English, we can ensure that the language we teach is relevant to their interests and needs.

How does inquiry-based learning work?

An inquiry revolves around an essential question. This is an overarching question that we will keep coming back to throughout the inquiry and which learners will aim to have answered by the end of the unit. This is typically a fairly broad question which can be explored and answered in multiple ways. An example question for primary and secondary learners could be:

What makes the perfect home?

With our primary learners, we may want to focus on the more obvious elements of homes including parts of the house and furniture. But with older learners, a more suitable focus could be sustainability in the home or the technology of smart homes.

In order to answer the essential question, we need to break it down into smaller sub-topics that learners can explore. These can be based on the learners’ own questions. Before we start the inquiry, it can be helpful to determine what questions will help learners develop their inquiry and what language they will need, in terms of vocabulary and grammar structures.

We can design research activities that help learners answer their questions and practise the target language. We can provide learners with plenty of resources including books, videos and websites. Once learners have enough information and ideas, they then collate this and produce a piece of work that helps them share their answers to the essential question. This could be a presentation, a poster, a video and much more.  

What are the benefits of inquiry-based learning?

It’s relevant and based on learner needs
The language we teach learners is the language they need to carry out their inquiry, so we’re creating a real need and purpose for it. We can see where the gaps are in their knowledge and focus on emergent language that will help learners find out what they want to know.

It’s tailored to learner interests
You can choose inquiry topics that interest learners and invite them to ask questions about what they want to know. They help shape the inquiry with their questions and they are motivated to find the answers. 

It’s collaborative and fosters future skills
Learners work in groups and develop communicative and social skills, as well as teamwork. They also develop critical thinking skills, presentation skills and digital literacy.

It’s autonomous and self-directed
Learners have agency and autonomy. They get to make choices and decisions and direct their own learning, which is a key aspect of engagement. Because learners will be working independently in different stages, this allows you to provide support to those who need it.

It’s inclusive
You can adapt the level of inquiry that different learners and groups do and therefore provide a more flexible way of differentiating. Each group can work on a subtopic or question that is suitable for their level and skills. This flexibility allows you to adapt the complexity of the language and content of the inquiry to ensure it meets the needs of each learner.

Let’s go back to the imaginary classroom from the beginning of this article but now imagine you’re following an inquiry-based approach. The seven-year-olds are happily working on a poster about the perfect home. They’re writing descriptions of each part of the house and drawing pictures to illustrate them. Every day they’re excited to get started on their work. Fast forward six years and now this class is a confident group of learners who work well together and speak English (most of the time!) as they plan what to do in their project. One group wants to find out about how to build a treehouse and another group plans to design a sustainable home using Minecraft™. 

Inquiry-based learning and other learner-centred approaches are the way forward. At the heart are the learners themselves. Inquiry-based learning appeals to children’s inquisitive nature and allows them to learn and use English in real and meaningful ways. 

To find out more about inquiry-based learning, visit Michelle’s website: https://michelleworgan.com 

IATEFL members can access the recording of Michelle’s webinar (and all other webinars) by logging on to the IATEFL website and then clicking here: https://www.iatefl.org/resources/inquiry-based-learning-primary-classroom

About Michelle Worgan

Michelle Worgan is a primary materials writer and trainer based in Spain. She works with several international publishers and she also develops and runs her own teacher training courses and resources in inclusive approaches. She is currently Joint Events Coordinator for the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers SIG.

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