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Activities for Inquiry and Problem-Solving

Currently, many language programs incorporate research classes, problem- solving activities, and other inquiry-based tasks into their curricula. Because students’ cognitive development, more than their language ability, determines learner readiness to participate in inquiry, the examples presented below are divided into two grade-level categories: elementary and secondary/adult.

General language and content objectives for these activities include learning and practicing vocabulary, pragmatics, and grammar such as forming questions and present tense; using descriptive language; scanning and skimming; and determining content and language needs for further study. Each category has one step-by-step example following the guidelines presented earlier and then descriptive summaries for other activities.

Elementary Examples

The Insect World

After several questions from K–2 students about why bees sting,

► Ask the students:

  • What do we know about bugs? Students list the things they know—“They’re icky,” “They help plants,” “Birds eat them,” “They like picnics.”
  • What do we wonder about bugs? Students make another list—“Why do they  sting?” “What do they eat?” “Why are there so many?” “Why don’t  they like cold weather?”
  • How can we find out more about bugs? Work  out a plan of action. For background information, facilitate their use of interactive multimedia websites such as The Bug Club (https://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/), The Virtual Insectary (http://www.virtualinsectary.com/), and Insects at National Geographic Kids (https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/animals/hubs/insects/). Be prepared to provide language or navigational support for students to understand and use these sites effectively. Students can also collect bugs, interview experts, or visit a local insectary.

Plan an event: Celebrate what you learned together. Perhaps go to an insect zoo where the learners are the docents and guides for other students.

Begin the cycle again: Revisit theme, using questions raised from this unit.

SimTown (2014)

SimTown software, which is part of SimCity series, enables students to build and maintain a town, and to ensure that the town thrives, they must balance resources, populations, and other factors. Unlike other Sim software packages, SimTown is appropriate for young children and does not contain adult situations or graphics. Each student in a team of four or so can play a role in this simulation—for example, a housing developer, a parks officer, a parent, a business owner. The software itself is basically free of language, so teachers and students have the opportunity to focus the language learning at the appropriate level and content.

Instant GeoGame (http://www.globalschoolnet.org/geogame/)

This activity, from Global SchoolNet, offers a web-based game for inquiry and problem-solving. In this interactive game, students are asked to submit a location description known as a clue, which is made up of latitude, longitude, time zone, population, January weather, January clothing, land forms, tourist attractions, and what it is famous for. After entering this information on the questionnaire provided on the website, the clues appear in a puzzle about the location that other students try to solve. The game provides a great opportunity for students to learn about geography and meet other students and teachers around the world. The site provides suggestions for teachers, help for students, and choices of puzzles. During the process, learners are exposed to language input in many forms, and they can use skills that do not rely solely on language to accomplish their goal. However, because the goal is cooperative, students are encouraged to interact and negotiate as they proceed through the puzzle.

Wonderful Word of Humanities (2018)

As was mentioned in Chapter 4, Minecraft Education Edition (Version 1.4) provides a world map packaged under the title Wonderful World of Humanities. Students can be sent off on quests exploring and learning about different geographical locations individually and in groups in a safe environment. In addition to using a variety of maps and worlds on the software website, the students can also make their own world using the tools available to them, solving problems in the process in an inquiry-based manner.

Nearpod Field Trip (2018)

Nearpod (http://nearpod.com) is a presentation tool that allows teachers to create slideshows and synch them with students’ portable devices (tablets or cell phones) or computers. The application enables the teacher to blend multimodal content for  rich input, gauge students’ understanding through different comprehension question types, and provide feedback. In Field Trip mode, the application allows the use of VR goggles (see chapter 3) to immerse students in 360-degree images of different contexts, such as exploring the ocean. Field Trip, as the name suggests, takes students on virtual field trips where they can follow the steps in inquiry-based learning to solve a problem. There are a host of grade-specific free materials on the application website (see Shahrokni, 2017, for a review).

Secondary/Adult Examples

Evaluating Websites

Ask: How do I know if a website is trustworthy? Brainstorm definitions of trustworthy, reasons why trustworthiness is important, and how you might determine trustworthiness.

Investigate: Each team member should search the Web for sites that are questionable (urban legend sites are great for this) and for sites that suggest how to evaluate trustworthiness, or teachers can suggest or summarize sites, such as Critically Analyzing Information Sources (https://guides.library.cornell.edu/criticallyanalyzing) at Cornell University.

Create: Summarize the data and make a trustworthiness checklist. Use the checklist to evaluate the questionable sites and come to some conclusions about them.

Discuss: Share the findings within the group and conduct further research as needed. Revise the checklist to satisfy any additional concerns. Reevaluate the original sites have others in the class evaluate sites using the checklist.

Reflect: Think about whether the solution answers the question sufficiently. If not, plan how to find a better answer.

This open-ended task encourages student language use and study as they voice their opinions, discuss current events, highlight their cultural foundations, explore the meaning of words, and create a useful product.

Solving History

“Unsolved History,” a documentary TV series aired from 2001-2005 on the Discovery Channel (http://www.discovery.com) provides a great way to teach and practice inquiry-based skills. In this documentary, a group of explorers tries to solve global unsolved mysteries. A good example of one of these mysteries is The  Assassination of King Tut (Season 1). The video advances the theory that King Tut was murdered and claims that evidence is still available. It provides input from experts to shed light on the problems and solutions, a slide show,  a photo tour, and clues for students to consider. When students have completed some of the examples, they can make their own locally focused unsolved history problems. Because it presents language in many different ways, the site is accessible to an array of students.

Grammar in Use

Not all language programs present language through content, and certainly many students are interested in better understanding target language grammar. When  students have questions about grammar, they have many ways to investigate answers and many resources to use. For example, students can use free concordancing programs such as Corpus Concordance English (see chapter 2) and The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA, https://corpus.byu.edu/coca/) to gather and analyze authentic language data and draw their own conclusions (for more on concordancing, see Flowerdew, 2015). Learners can then share, explain, and compare their results with others.


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Activities for Inquiry and Problem-Solving by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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