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Inquiry-based learning works across multiple disciplines. It encourages learning through personal experience and guides understanding through practical application. These ten activities can be used in your classroom to explore the many uses of inquiry-based learning in high school English.
Throughout these activities, we’ll use the Future-Focused Inquiry Learning Process. Here’s a brief breakdown of how it works.
The Inquiry cycle: An Overview
The Global Concept
The Global Concept is the “big idea” or focus of inquiry. This is usually summed up in just a few words or even only one (e.g. Sustainability, Inclusion, Tolerance). Learners should be encouraged to pursue these concepts in ways that speak to them personally, creating a stronger connection to the material.
The 4 Cs
- Curious: This is about the concepts embedded in the content that learners can think about and discuss to drive their curiosity forward.
- Connect: Bringing the content to learners by making relevant connections to different concepts inspires real learning.
- Communicate: Here we state precisely what message and essential learnings we want our students to gain.
- Create: This is what learners will present to demonstrate their understanding of, and appreciation for, what they’ve learned.
It’s important for students to find their own ways of expressing themselves in any grade, of course. The earlier we encourage this in their formative years, the better. However, reinforcing this idea in high school with inquiry-based activities like these is always a good thing.
For all of these activities, we’re going to make things easy to help you get your feet wet with the process. We’ll be using the overarching Global Concept of “Voice.” We chose this one because you’ll find each of these activities exercises student voice in its own unique and relevant way.
Secondly, we’ll provide an all-inclusive line of inquiry using the 4 Cs for you to consider. You could easily create a 4 C line of inquiry for each of these tasks, but this one covers all of them:
Learners are inspired to be curious about how text structures can be used in innovative ways by different authors. They connect the choice of language features, images, and vocabulary to the development of individual style and voice, and communicate how the selection of language features can achieve precision and stylistic effect by experimenting with language features, stylistic devices, text structures and images. They will be creating a wide range of texts to articulate these complex ideas.
As you go through the activities, think about what would be worthwhile Global Concepts and lines of inquiry for each one. This will give you some decent practice in formulating ideas for how to express your own insights. Now, onto the activities.
1. Sensory Writing
This poses a real challenge for students. They must describe a setting you provide with only sensory information—dialogue is not allowed. For example, if the background is an abandoned graveyard at night, your students must write about it without using any characters or conversation.
They must describe the sounds, sensations, tastes, sights, and smells that are present. For example, they can talk about the sound of dry branches rubbing together in the wind or the feel of damp earth between their fingers.
They should paint a picture that makes you feel as if you were there. The students will all have the same setting, but each will interpret it differently and describe sensory information without a character speaking it.
2. Mad Libs with a Twist
Even in high school English, reinforcing the parts of speech is essential. This gives your students a chance to take it to the next level. Divide your class into 6 or 7 small groups and provide each group with their own unique Mad Libs page. If you’re not familiar with Mad Libs, it's a word game where one player prompts others for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story. The result can be hilarious!
Commonly used parts of speech like nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives aren't allowed here. Instead, students will improve their vocabulary and understanding of the language by coming up with nuanced versions of frequently-used terms.
Students should find different ways to express a common word. For example, appalling instead of awful, bewildered instead of confusing, or effortlessly instead of smoothly. Have each group read their finished version to the class and vote on which one showed the best use of creative terms.
3. Genre Bending & Blending
For this activity, your students will have to take a book excerpt from one literary genre and re-write it to fit into another style. For example, if you provide your students with an excerpt from a fantasy book, they may re-write it as science fiction.
This means they will have to ponder plausible ways to re-create the material. As an example, if a character uses magic to make themselves invisible, your students will engineer a credible, science-based approach to make him invisible instead.
This activity can be used with any two genres. Fiction can be re-written as a biography, romance can be converted to horror, and non-fiction can be turned into humour. Be creative in selecting the excerpts for this activity and encourage learners to be bold in contrasting their pairings of genres.
4. The Old-School Game of Taboo
This activity will force your students to rethink the way they see the things around them by making them think of new ways to describe each item. It’s based on the popular game Taboo. The objective is for a player to have others guess the word on their card without using either that word or five other additional words listed on the card.
If you have a set of Taboo cards, they will work perfectly. If not, you can make your own by choosing random items and making cards that contain words that are commonly associated with that item. These words can’t be used when a team member is trying to get their team to guess the word on the card.
As they play, students will realize how much we depend on words to convey our meaning in all our interactions. They will also begin to incorporate less common words into their vocabulary as they expand their understanding of the English language.
5. Random word strips
Cut pieces of blank paper into strips and write random words on each piece. You should include words from each part of speech that are required to form a proper sentence. Mix these words together randomly and separate them into 6 or 7 different groups. Place each group of words in a sealable bag.
Next, divide your class into 6 or 7 groups and give each group a bag of word strips. Their job is to come up with as many plausible sentences as possible from the random words they’ve received. This activity encourages creativity and more profound thought as students try to organize words into sentences that make sense.
Provide students with a few lines from a poem or a brief excerpt from a book. Ask them to read their piece and ponder how the author is making use of symbolism.
Have them create a list of possible meanings for the symbols and why the author may have selected them. With only a small part of the author’s work, it may be hard for the students to determine the overall picture being created, which presents the opportunity to paint one of their own.
Have students share their interpretations with others to discuss possible meanings. This activity utilizes inquiry-based learning as your class explores how symbolism is used to represent the main themes found throughout human existence regardless of race, culture, or beliefs.
This activity works well with nursery rhymes or fairy tales. It requires a student to re-phrase a story in the form of a news headline. For example, “Three Blind Mice” can be turned into “Trio of Visually-Impaired Rodents Injured During Encounter With Bride of Agriculturalist.” Perhaps “Little Red Riding Hood” could become “Brave ‘Girl in Red’ Survives Attack by Wolf Masquerading as Her Grandmother.”
Students will create several headlines based on different stories and then trade papers with classmates to see if they can guess the original title. This activity once again pushes students to find new ways to express an idea through a unique arrangement of words. It also encourages vocabulary expansion as students discover new terms to replace commonly-used words.
8. Figure of speech
Give students a list of familiar figures of speech such as “raining cats and dogs” and “a howling wind.” Talk about how we use these phrases in our everyday conversation without thinking about where they originated. Have students write down what they believe each figure of speech means and speculate on its origin. Then have students look the phrases up to see if they’re hypotheses were correct.
Have students come up with some figures of speech of their own and share them with the class to see if anyone can guess their meaning. This inquiry-based activity encourages students to think consciously about the words and phrases that are often used carelessly in conversation.
9. Gossip Game
This elementary school game can teach a valuable lesson about word usage, and also the importance of listening in proper communication. Split students into groups of at least six individuals each. Provide one person in each group with a written phrase. You can be creative with similar-sounding words or repeating letters.
Allow the person to read this phrase to themselves before turning and whispering it to the person sitting beside them. Each person can only hear the phrase once before passing on to the person next to them. Compare the phrase spoken by the last person with the one originally written on the slip of paper.
Have students evaluate how the phrases changed and what new meanings might have evolved from the original. This activity helps students understand that word choice affects both the purpose of the sentence and the understanding of the listener.
10. Crossword puzzle
This activity is actually a great inquiry-based learning opportunity. Crossword puzzles require logic and knowledge as well as an understanding of word usage and spelling. They can also be created on almost any topic imaginable and are a great way to combine two different subjects. For example, a crossword puzzle can be created on science concepts or vocabulary.
In this activity, students will be creating their own crossword puzzles and connecting the words they use to reveal a specific concept or subject. Next, have them partner up with a classmate. They will then do each other’s crossword puzzles to try and determine the message hidden within.
Students must first correctly identify the word or concept and then accurately spell it on the crossword board. This type of learning activity involves multiple thought processes and can pose a challenge if students answer incorrectly or misplace words. This is a great activity to use when reinforcing vocabulary from any subject or when introducing a new concept.
Though it may seem that inquiry-based learning is an approach that only works in the sciences, the examples above show it’s a perfect method for instilling an intelligent approach to the English language as well.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published May 14, 2019, updated Dec 18, 2021