Deepening Inquiry With Young Learners

Deepening Inquiry With Young Learners

By Lindsey Moses (@drlindseymoses)

My childhood friend went to her kindergarten son’s first parent teacher conference. She came home with this piece written by her son and asked if she should be worried.  Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.39.17 PM

I said she should be impressed with his writing, ability to communicate his honest reactions about writing to a prompt, and his amazingly reflective illustrated representation of a sad-faced student at a desk looking at a word wall and a cheerful teacher at the front of the classroom. I love his spirit and how accurately he summed up the importance of giving students choice and authentic reasons for reading and writing. You’ll be happy to hear that after expressing his learning preferences early in his first year of schooling, he has grown into an avid reader and writer of self-selected topics of interest through his primary years in school. Experiences like this are constant reminders of the value of inquiry with young learners.

Some educators still hold the notion that students are “learning to read” with a strict focus on isolated skills in the primary grades before they can “read to learn.” This can result in instruction that misses out on opportunities to build on students’ curiosities, experiences, and thinking. I have found that even our youngest learners engage in sophisticated literacy practices when related to topics of interest and student-driven inquiry. I had the privilege of working at the University of Vermont with amazing colleagues who facilitated thoughtful, Reggio-inspired experiences with infants, toddlers and preschool-age children at the Campus Children’s School (CCS). You can go to their website to find out more about the vision and Reggio inspired approaches to supporting inquiry with young children. The North American Reggio Alliance website is also a great resource for learning more about Reggio Emilia.

After Hurricane Irene and heartfelt discussions about the effect of the natural disaster, Bread For Irene came to fruition at the CCS. The young children discussed the hardships and critically reflected on what they, as children, could do. They decided on selling the Challah bread they baked weekly to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Irene, and titled and labeled their efforts as Bread For Irene. All ages of students baked the bread, created signs for ingredients and sales, and sold the bread on the UVM campus. Bread for Irene is a beautiful example of literacy rich opportunities grounded in children’s experiences in the natural world and in their community. Literacy is a natural extension of shared experiences, and the CCS does an exemplary job of naturally integrating students’ curiosities, thinking, experiences, and involvement in a community context. Go to to see the video documentation of this project. I am continually inspired by their work, and this piece of documentation is incredibly powerful.

Inquiry-based instruction also provides powerful learning opportunities for learners in the primary grades, and it is particularly supportive of young English learners because they can build on background knowledge and use language and literacy in socially situated contexts that are important to them. While I think inquiry projects, engaging with informational texts and sharing their new learning is extremely valuable, I keep encouraging teachers and students to add the questions of “So what? Why does this matter? What can I do?.”

After a workshop on this topic with an amazing kindergarten teacher, Beth Rogers, she began facilitating meaningful inquiry with her kindergarteners by asking them to generate questions, concerns, and ideas related to their recent field trip to the beach. Her kindergarten students were originally working on independent inquiry projects on sea turtles, ocean animals and habitats when they became concerned about the effects pollution was having on reefs and animals. Moving beyond their original culminating project of independent inquiry posters, they decided to make posters discouraging polluting with an artificial reef to deepen their understanding and represent their learning. The reef they created in the picture below was eventually put on permanent display at The Environmental Studies Center (a Florida Ecological and Educational Center in Martin County). This is a perfect example of how purposeful research with an authentic audience can motivate primary-aged English learners to engage with complex academic texts and scientific concepts.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.39.24 PM


Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.39.37 PMSo,

How did they get here?

It started with oral language, thinking, and discussions about student wonderings. This was followed by the introduction and scaffolding of literacy inquiry strategies. I have found that the following instructional ideas have been helpful in supporting language and literacy development through the inquiry process:

  1. Instead of starting with what we “know” as a finite amount of knowledge, we start with what we think we know. We celebrate the unknown and clarification of misconceptions. Tony Stead’s ideas in Reality Checks are fantastic for supporting work with informational text (see an example we used in the photograph below).
    Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.39.46 PM
  1. Identify curiosities/wonderings and newly learned information. Use language frames to help support our beginning readers/writers and encourage use of images and text. See the inquiry notebook of a kindergarten student documenting new learning and wondering about Christopher Columbus.
    Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.39.58 PM
  1. Explore images, illustrative techniques, and nonfiction text-features for meaning construction and documentation of learning. See the examples of this in the second-grade bilingual student’s research poster.
    Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.40.03 PM
  1. Provide extensive and supportive opportunities for interaction and discussion about questions, thinking, reactions, and new learning. See the image of first graders in Phoenix using discussion group time to share their inquiry in progress.
  1. Provide an authentic audience for their research. Determine with whom they can share their inquiry process/project.
  2. Engage young children in the difficult questions about why their thinking is important, how they can contribute to solutions to problems and participate in their community. Ask them…”Why is this research important? What can you do to make things better?” Encourage children to think and work collaboratively and move beyond the four walls of the classroom.
  3. Share and celebrate their contributions!

Young children bring knowledge and curiosity to our classrooms. We can help support their inquiry, thinking, language, and literacy practices by building on their knowledge and questions. Through deeper inquiry and facilitating connections to possible contributions and community engagement, our youngest learners flourish!

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 8.40.09 PM

TheEdCollab and NBC partnership text-01

Would you like to write for the Community Blog?  We’d love to have you!

Visit Write for Us to learn how!