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Inquiry-based ESL & Involving Student Choices


Inquiry-based education (have students inquire rather than be told) has been making a big impact on international education, and why not? I think anyone can agree that following a personal line of interest is more enjoyable and makes a lasting impact. Giving students a choice and a voice in how lessons progress is widely accepted as a beneficial and forward-thinking alternative to traditional top-down and linear instruction.

In the wake of inquiry-based education the teacher has become an inquirer or a facilitator. This is a challenge for any subject, but especially so for teaching a second-language. Having students formulate questions, investigate to find answers, and then communicate their findings already requires an initial mastery of language, so these skills just doesn't transfer easily into TESL. There is so much 'set-up' necessary, so much to cover, that it's so tempting just to create a "to-do" list curriculum to get students using English right away. But curriculum is the antithesis of organic personal interest. Having a pre-determined list of what's to be studied does not generally allow for spontaneous piques of interest or digressions into inspiration. But perhaps more flexibility in curriculum could be built-in? Either in topic content or in the order of contents. A reasonable approach might be to add built in choices for students to make which change how lessons progress.

Choice is a major part of child development, and giving student's meaningful choices gives them a sense of control in their lives and promotes autonomy, self-confidence, and to develop their personalities as independent and competent learners. David Elkind (1994) suggests that children who appear strong-willed are actually trying to establish themselves and their identity. So as a teacher, offering students limited but authentic choices, can have positive benefits in student interest and motivation, and also mitigate negative outbursts from dis-empowered and frustrated students.

But teachers have to be careful about what choices they extend as well. By defining what are not acceptable choices, such as sleeping, or talking in class, also helps teachers establish for students how to be balanced and productive students. Too many choices can be overwhelming for students. But giving them meaningful choices such as what song they will learn in class, what game or activity they will do, or the theme or topic used to learn a grammar point might create for them that valuable personal interest connection with the curriculum at hand. Many teachers already take an active and generous teacher-centered approach to this, relating their lessons to pop-culture and subjects they know their students are interested in. But it may be possible, especially in the international education setting, to allow students to make these choices instead, and thus bring a bit of the positivity of inquiry-based education into your ESL lessons.

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