Six Successful Strategies to integrate Inquiry in the ELA Classroom

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Inquiry is a buzz word in 21st Century education. I’ve seen it on mission statements, college banners, professional development descriptions and teacher bios. If you were to Google “inquiry”, you’d get a host of potential definitions, theories, classroom practices and dissertations on the topic. 

Amidst that onslaught of information, let’s pause. What do YOU know about inquiry? What QUESTIONS do you currently have about integrating inquiry into your ELA classroom?

I first learned about inquiry during my master’s in English program, when a peer presented her work with Bruce Ballenger’s Curious Researcher. She touted inquiry as the way to get students engaged with their research projects. I was all ears. 

After a few years of including inquiry in my high school research unit, I came to the conclusion that inquiry … (then integrate in….)

Early on, I saw inquiry as opportunity:

  • It pairs well with Project/Problem Based Learning
  • It opens the door to inviting more student choice, which tends to increase motivation
  • It helps connect class topics to personal experience and funds of knowledge
  • It fosters growth mindset

Bruce Ballenger’s Curious Researcher provided me with more theory and methodology. After reading through his text, my mind was made up: inquiry would drive our research project the next year. 

I soon realized, after a couple years of trial and error, that to teach inquiry, I would need to do more than say “Write down some questions you have about a social issue” to lead students into the research unit. 

In fact, inquiry, like any other educational practice, needs specific instruction, regular practice, and purposeful scaffolding to reveal key thinking moves to students. There are steps we needed to take prior to the research project to lead to asking good questions.

Furthermore, inquiry is more than just a practice of asking questions. It’s the taking on of a certain attitude, a process that needs to be cultivated. Inquiry requires the holding onto of uncertainty, the accepting of confusion, the normalizing of frustration within learning moments. 

Below are ways I’ve found I can integrate inquiry throughout the year – into every unit.

20 Questions

Kelly Gallagher in Deeper Reading explains he designed 20 Questions as a homework assignment “to illustrate to students that it’s normal for good readers to be confused when starting a book”. The assignment is fairly simple: after reading the first chapter, or first chunk of a book, ask the students to write down 20 questions that they have about the text so far.  If you find your students getting tripped up by the instructions “write 20 questions after reading” (mine did!), then watch this video tutorial to hear about scaffolding and gradual release of responsibility.

20 Questions pairs really well with his “Tracking Your Thinking over the Course of a Book.” I especially like using this tool in literary units because it normalizes the “question asking” that good readers do as they read a text. It also shows how good readers sit with these questions, waiting to see if the author answers them. It allows some questions to be unanswered, which allows the continuation of wonder – another key mental skill of the curious mind. 


Gallagher takes the traditional KWL chart and infused inquiry with an additional step: research. Based on what students have learned, compared to what they wanted to learn, he asks them to highlight old questions AND write new ones. They are then responsible to find the information on their own (or in groups, or as a scaffolded class activity – but based on THEIR questions, not the teacher’s). I especially like how this dispels the common belief that “I’ve learned what I needed to” once the class period (or unit) is over.

Reflective Questions:

Similar to “20 Questions”, “Reflective Questions” is a good way to start a unit – any unit. If I start my unit with a problem, I ask students to write down any questions they have about the problem. If we focus on a topic, then they write questions they have about that topic. If we read an article or watch a video, they ask questions about the information presented. As Wiggins and McTighe (1998) say, questions open the door to understanding, and if students practice writing questions down, they can return to these questions throughout the unit to see how they’ve been answered. I found regular in-class moments lead to successful reflective question asking. Periodically throughout the unit, at least once a week, I ask students to return to their original list of questions and write down more, and mark which ones have been answered. I also have them share a few questions with peers, again familiarizing them with various ways people can ask questions. 

Collaborative Questioning:

The practices of sharing questions with peers is another routine of my literature units. When I have students read on their own, or reread a section we went over in class to pull quotes, I ask them to end their journal/notebook work by writing down questions they currently have about the text. Sometimes, I have this question writing as part of a bellringer or “Do Now”. I then break students into small groups (usually, they stick with the same small group through the duration of the novel) and begin their work by asking their most pressing questions. If their group peers are unable to answer the questions, then they can bring the unanswered questions to me – either as I walk around or we come together as a whole class. This activity, when frequently integrated into the classroom, normalizes confusion when reading and normalizes collaborative learning. It says “I’m allowed to ask questions and I’m learning with my peers, not just next to my peers.”

Question Carousel (or Chalk Talk):

Question Carousel is an adaptation of the Feedback Carousel and Chalk Talk discussion protocols. This can be especially useful when introducing inquiry and determining where students are at in their questioning abilities. One way to use this activity is to put intriguing magazine pictures on the walls. Students walk around and use the post-it-notes to write and post questions. Another way is to put a topic or a sentence on a large piece of paper – usually related to a unit of study. Students do the same, writing down questions as they rotate around the room and posting the questions to the paper. One rule I have: the same question can’t be posted twice. After the activity, I collect the questions and we analyze them. I like to use this activity to introduce Costa’s Leveled Questions or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Questions

Water Bottle Activity:

This Water Bottle Activity involves whole class collaboration. Students consider the lowly-yet-ubiquitous water bottle and ask questions in successive rounds. The rules are simple: in each round, every student must ask a question; the question needs to be focused on the water bottle; no repeat questions. 

This video tutorial explains more. 

After the activity, students draft more questions about their chosen topic. We choose keywords from those questions and write down their corresponding synonyms. After one round of research, we return to our questions again. 

I’ve found these 6 practices, when consistently integrated into my classroom, to encourage the kind of attitude necessary for student inquiry.

So now, after looking through these potentials, where are you at in your understanding of inquiry? Have any of your questions been answered? Have more questions been added to the list?

These certainly aren’t the only activities that foster a questioning mind. What do you use? Comment below!

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