teaching through inquiry

this is the third posts in a series on ways to vary the “teach” part of your mini-lesson, and this one will focus on using inquiry as a teaching method.

inquiry requires a bit of a longer mini-lesson or an entire writing workshop period, which can feel hard to devote time to very often, though teaching through inquiry is often really engaging and also gives your teaching more traction. so, our feeling is it’s worth the time that it takes! to try and balance the time demands with the benefits of inquiry, we often have the goal of including at least one day of inquiry in our writing workshop during each unit of study, and most often use inquiry when studying mentor texts (which could fit into any part of the writing process)  and punctuation.

there are a few ways using inquiry as a mini-lesson teaching method might go. one is to give students something specific to look for – how an author writes character description or when the author uses a semicolon, for example. another is to have students study a text and come up with things they notice on their own. the first is a little bit more guided because you’re already naming the work for the students, and then asking them to find examples of it. the second is more open ended, and requires students to do both the finding and the naming, and won’t be as focused in what students are looking at (i.e. there will be a greater range of what students pull out of the text). we think that there’s room for both types of inquiry in writing workshop, and depending on the purpose of the inquiry, you can choose which type you want to use.

sometimes, the inquiry might be more open ended for the class, but more guided for a group of students. if we anticipate certain students will have difficulty pulling out parts of a mentor text that could be mimicked in their own writing, for example, we might do that part for them (have lines from a text already listed on a chart for them) and then have them work on the naming of what the mentor is doing. here’s an example of a chart completed by a small group in this way:


we pulled out lines from mentor texts before the small group left – those are listed in the left hand column. these were lines that we thought students would be able to name some writing work for, which they did in the right hand column. many of these lines used craft moves we had discussed as a class, and we were confident students would feel more familiar with them and recognize them as craft moves they knew a name for.

alternatively, we could list out things that we know the mentor does in the piece of writing – name the craft moves on the right side of the chart – and then ask a group of students to read the mentor text and find examples of those craft moves.

in these two ways, students are still participating in an inquiry, but it’s a little bit more guided. of course, there would be times it makes sense to approach the inquiry in this way for all of your students, maybe depending on the time of year and their familiarity with inquiry or the focus of the inquiry.

for the purpose of this post, we are using the same teaching point as we did in both the mini-lesson that used demonstration for the teach method and the mini-lesson that used explain and example as the teach method. (remember that we would never teach all three of these mini-lessons in a single unit since they have identical teaching points. we’d choose the mini-lesson teaching method that we felt was most appropriate for the majority of the class, and make that our mini-lesson, and then maybe use an alternative method in small groups to provide students with additional support.)

for a this inquiry mini-lesson, the connection, teaching point, and link could stay the same (pretty much, if not exactly). when we teach through inquiry, we demonstrate how the work will look that students will be doing when they leave the carpet to do their own inquiry.

if you’ve read the previous posts in this series, you’ll notice that the teach for this mini-lesson is almost exactly the same as the teach during the demonstration mini-lesson, except that we leave out the part of trying it out in our own writing. that is, the focus for this inquiry mini-lesson is only reading mentor texts and naming the writing work (craft moves) that we notice the author is doing. we might have students try something they noticed and named during the inquiry in their own writing for five minutes during the share or for homework that night or have that be the focus of the next day’s mini-lesson.

the teaching point we’re using for this series is: writers can reread a familiar text – a mentor text – and notice things that the author did to make plans for revision in our own writing.

teach: i’m going to show you how this might go in my personal narrative story. the first thing i need to do is re-read a mentor text – i’m going to use fox – and notice a part that stands out to me as interesting writing. next, i’ll name what the writer is doing in that part. i’m going to put my thinking on a t-chart so that i can use it later when i revise. the left column of my t-chart says “lines i wish i’d written,” and the right side says “writing work” or “craft moves.” 

let’s look at this part here, when fox first arrives to dog and magpie:


watch me as i re-read this part, and notice something the writers do that really stands out to me…

hmm, i’m noticing this part here: dog beams, but magpie shrinks away. it seems interesting to have the characters respond to fox so differently – dog smiles, but magpie moves away. i think it’s interesting to have your characters react to the same thing so differently.

so i’ve re-read a part of a text i know, and noticed a part that stands out to me. i’ve done my best to name the writing work that’s happening there.

my next step is to put it on a chart so that i have a record of my thinking. (we would use large pieces of chart paper for this, and also have pieces of chart paper for our students to use when they leave the carpet during the active engagement to try this in small groups.)

here’s how it might look on the t-chart as we’re modeling:Screen Shot 2016-12-07 at 3.14.29 PM.pngdo you see how i re-read a familiar text – a mentor text – and noticed a part that stood out to me? i  named what it was the author was doing in that part. i’ll keep doing this work many times so that i have a collection of things that this author does that i might try in my own writing for revision. 

for the active engagement, we have a few options:

  • we could send our students right off to do this work in small groups (we usually pair two partnerships together to make a group of four). in this way, the active engagement becomes an extension of the mini-lesson and lasts for most of the rest of writing workshop time. this is a good option when we feel confident that our students are ready to do this work. during this time, we’ll circulate and support the small groups.
  • we could have our students try what we just modeled, which is a more traditional active engagement. we might have them read on in fox with their partner and choose which line(s) they want to name writing work for, and then have a few partnerships share out the work they did OR read on and name the line that everyone will be focusing on together, and have them practice naming the writing work to their partner. both of these options give them some more guided practice with the work before they go off to try it more independently. it also gives you a chance to see who is struggling and might benefit from some more support during the inquiry.

during the share, we also have a few options:

  • hang the charts that small groups are making up in the classroom and do a gallery walk, during which small groups walk from chart to chart and read the things that their classmates noticed and named in the mentor text. we have students take their writer’s notebook with a t-chart like the ones they made on chart paper, and write down at least 2 lines from the text with the craft moves along with it (essentially, just  copying 2 lines from the charts that stand out to them) that they’re making a commitment to try in their own writing during revision.
  • pair groups up and have them teach what they put on their chart to the other group. we’d ask students to do the same work as during the gallery walk, of copying something into their notebook that they’re making a commitment to trying in their own writing.
  • gives students 5-10 minutes (or more, if the inquiry didn’t last for the same amount of time as they’d normally be writing independently) to use the work they did in their small group and go back into their drafts to revise using the mentor text. this would be an option if students already have experience doing this work of mimicking a mentor text in their own writing. if it’s less familiar, it’s probably important to do some explicit modeling of how that might go, like we did during the demonstration mini-lesson, before they try it.

this mini-lesson could also be taught as an immersion mini-lesson, and tweak the teaching point so that it doesn’t mention revision, something like: writers can reread a familiar text – a mentor text – and notice things that the author did so that they, too might do them in their own writing. when we’ve done this, it’s been really powerful to pull the students’ charts out a week or two later, once they’re ready to revise, and have them revisit the charts to inform their revision.

when you’re ready to plan your next writing unit of study, consider marking the possible teaching methods on your unit of study planning calendar. maybe use a system like coding the days as “d,” “e&e,” and “i” to show what your teaching method will be during the teach of the mini-lesson that day – demonstration, explain & example, or inquiry. the appropriateness of the method you choose will likely depend on what you’re teaching, how much time you have, and the familiarity of the concept for your students. being intentional in this way about how you’re teaching, not just what you’re teaching, will give your  teaching more traction and also make it more engaging for students.



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