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Editorial NRInglês

Uncovering understanding: an inquiry mindset in language learning

What does it mean to investigate something? According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, synonyms to “investigate” include: examine, explore, inquire into and research. At the same time, the Cambridge Dictionary says that “investigate” means “to examine a crime, problem, statement, etc. carefully, especially to discover the truth”.

From the definitions above, we can infer that Language Learning (LL) is a work of investigation, and this requires educators to go further each lesson, thinking that the information their students discover today may be the springboard they need to analyse a new topic and move forward in the following class.

Based on this assumption, this article discusses English language teaching as an opportunity for students to explore different meanings, experiencing a kind of approach that goes beyond a grammar-translation-repetition-exercise model. It is grounded on the Inquiry-based Learning theory, which can lend us an interdisciplinary view as well as techniques to be applied to the language teaching practice. It can also provide learners with the tools necessary to help them become investigators of the language in context, explore topics more deeply, and learn from first-hand linguistic experiences that arise from them.

Teaching English from an inquiry perspective

As Friesen and Scott (2013, p. 6) outline, Socrates – in Ancient Greece – had engaged with a long questioning process when he came up with the notion that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. After all, that was how he would “[…] discover basic truths about the inner workings of the natural world and ethical questions related to such enduring concerns as the nature of justice”. Strongly influenced by the Socratic method, the term “inquiry” has become more and more used in Education nowadays, especially in projects related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). So, why not apply it to language teaching?

Before coming up with suggestions for that, we need to reflect on what kind of learner we want to educate. Maybe we could start by asking ourselves, “Do we really want to educate our language learners, or do we want to provide them with what they want and pay for?” If the rationale behind your teaching philosophy is the first one (education), then inculcating this inquiry mindset in your students might help them see how relevant it can be to become more curious about how the language works, and use it in meaningful situations.

As said in the introduction, investigating has different facets and can lead us into unknown paths. Thus, conceiving LL as a work of investigation requires us to understand how far we and our students are willing to go in terms of teaching and learning. Are learners ready to investigate? Are we, teachers, prepared to embark on this journey – not only in terms of qualification and tools to teach, but also to deal with all the situations inherent to this process? Another point that is worth mentioning is that implementing inquiry-based language teaching can lead students to learn valuable things that can range from language and life skills to other kinds of content related to different areas.

According to the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Inquiry-based learning promotes:

  • Social interaction, helping learners develop attention span and reasoning skills, and encouraging them to come up with ideas in group discussions. These characteristics can develop their agency, ownership and engagement in their own learning.
  • Exploration, allowing learners to imagine, investigate, explore and design, pushing their curiosity, resilience and optimism towards the process.
  • Argumentation and reasoning, creating a safe and supportive space to encourage learners to discuss and debate any topic. Moreover, it encourages learners to generate questions, decide on their positions and make decisions, also showing their agency.
  • Positive attitudes to failure, recognising that failure is an important part of solving a problem. This is a healthy attitude that encourages reflection, resilience and stimulates continuous improvement.
  • Exploring, discussing and reasoning enable students to act and have their voices heard, because they become the ones in control of linguistic events that empower them to use the language in social interactions. So, once learners notice their failure or mistakes and recognise that these are part of the learning process, they get the chance to redesign their linguistic productions (Fettermann, 2020).

Thus, not only will inquiry-based language teaching be helpful to develop students’ language awareness, but it will also contribute positively to the development of other skills that lead to learning in a more holistic way, allowing different meanings to be built.

Ideas for the classroom

When it comes to an inquiry point of view, language becomes an object to be investigated and, thus, uncovered by those curious and eager to learn more about it and through it. Take some time to imagine an object covered by a piece of fabric. You are probably curious about it. Firstly, you might wonder what is there, and perhaps you ask yourself questions, trying to guess. Then, if you are allowed to, you just uncover it.

Uncovering meanings is removing layers of information that words and phrases might hide in sentences, paragraphs and longer texts. So, researching new vocabulary-in dictionaries or language corpora, for example-can help in this process. The Corpus of Web-Based Global English ( provides researchers with examples, frequency of uses of terms and varieties of the English language in certain words (and certain texts) may be easy or difficult when used in the context of language learning” (McCarthy, 1990, p. 66). Other elements equally important in this sense are: range, lexical density, lexical variation and concordances. Looking at these features can provide learners with much more information and allow them to understand different meanings and connections for the words and phrases in contexts of use.More importantly, learners should be different contexts, allowing users to create personalized collections of texts related to a particular area of interest.

Figure 1: Run out Source:

McCarthy (1990) highlights important features to keep in mind when using language corpora. The first one is frequency. This is usually observed when researchers confront amounts of vocabulary to state how often, when and where they are normally used. As Figure 1 demonstrates, GloWbE found the high frequency of the phrasal verb run out in 18,226 occurrences in less than half a second, showing that it is frequently used on the internet around the world. It also brought uses in context, translations, occurrences on Google, videos that focus on pronunciation and examples from books.

Understanding the frequency in which varieties of words and phrases are found globally will help language learners have a better idea of “[…] why encouraged to create their own sentences and texts to put all this into practice. It will enhance their possibility to explore language in a more dynamic and investigative way.

Other techniques that can complement it are:

  • Working with mind maps (on the board, using post-it notes or an online collaborative board, etc.);
  • Chunking a text into smaller pieces to make comprehension easier;
  • Engaging learners in dialogues about the text to uncover deeper understanding and provoking new questions and ideas;
  • Asking students to prepare questions for what they want to know about a text they will study in a future lesson as a way to flip the classroom, and much more.

We should see these techniques as an opportunity to check how we can help students regarding language support, confidence to participate, their understanding and takeaways. Finally, a writing task will provide us with data about the thinking process of those who preferred not to speak during the lesson.

Final thoughts

Final thoughts Investigating a language is not only for linguists. Teachers and students play an important role in this,
and should be accountable for this more often. As we research in class, a world opens with a lot of possibilities that will help us understand how different languages work.

Using corpora in a lesson may seem to be a difficult task, but as you understand the group you propose it to, the activities you want them to develop, and start inculcating the value of questions about language uses in your lessons, students will soon become more interested in the different information they can get from this kind of tool. Thus, by combining research with language learning, you will help students adopt a more inquisitive and critical approach to learning, which in turn will allow them to be even more eager to learn.


Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Inquiry-based learning. Australian Government. Available at: . Access on: Feb. 22, 2022.

Fettermann, Joyce Vieira. (2020). Redesign como teoria de ensino voltada para os multiletramentos na formação de professores de inglês. Dissertation (Doctorate in Cognition and Language) – Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense Darcy Ribeiro. Campos dos Goytacazes, RJ, Brazil.

Friesen, Sharon; Scott, David. (2013). Inquiry-Based Learning: A review of the Research Literature. Alberta, Canada: Ministry of Education.

McCarthy, Michael. (1990). Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About author

Joyce Fettermann is an academic consultant at Troika. She holds a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in Cognition and Language from UENF. She has been involved in different research groups and has worked in language teaching for over 15 years. She's also the author of books, book chapters, and articles in this field.
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