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How to Engage Your Students with Shared Inquiry

Using Shared Inquiry in Language Arts

As every teacher knows, learning begins with engagement. Engaged students read thoroughly, write thoughtfully, and grapple with content. But how can we get our students to engage?

Shared inquiry helps students engage. This teaching approach requires a team effort. Instead of imparting knowledge, we work with our students to ask questions, sort through evidence, and draw conclusions. Shared inquiry requires students to communicate, collaborate, solve problems, and think critically and creatively.

Here's how you can use shared inquiry to teach writing, grammar, vocabulary, and reading.

Discover Persuasive Strategies

Think About It

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. . . . Read! You'll absorb it. Then write."

—William Faulkner

Instead of telling students what they should do in their writing, let them discover for themselves. Let them read and learn "how they do it." In “Exploring Inquiry as a Teaching Stance in the Writing Workshop,” Katie Wood Ray outlines one way you can use shared inquiry in a writing workshop:

Op/Ed Shared Inquiry

Gather a handful of high-interest opinion/editorial articles and distribute them to your class. Ask your students to read and discuss each piece. Once students complete their reading, ask them to study the texts more closely, answering these questions:

  1. What is the purpose of op/ed writing?
  2. What are some of the common features in these op/ed articles?
  3. How do these features help the writer achieve the purpose?

Here are the types of answers your students might discover:

  • Op/ed writing gives an opinion.
  • It tries to convince readers to agree.
  • Writers often ask questions to introduce their topics.
  • They repeat important ideas to emphasize them.
  • After long sentences, they use very short sentences to punctuate ideas.
  • Interesting quotations share the thoughts of people involved.
  • Some pieces end with a personal comment that connects with readers.

On the white board, list answers your students discover about op/ed writing. Then have them create their own pieces, using similar features to achieve their purpose. Shared inquiry helps your students take ownership of effective writing rather than simply trying to meet your expectations.

View minilesson: "Discovering Narrative Strategies"

Discover Grammar Rules

Think About It

"You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else."

—Albert Einstein

Flip your grammar instruction. Instead of giving a rule and having your students apply it in practice sentences, provide sentences that illustrate a rule and have your students discover it. Have them analyze the sentences—especially the patterns the sentences share—and seek a rule to explain the concept. If your students discover the rule, they will remember it.

Here’s a shared-inquiry activity that you can use to help your students discover a rule about subject-verb agreement with singular indefinite pronouns.

Subject-Verb Agreement Shared Inquiry

Provide your students with a list of sentences with singular indefinite pronouns as subjects:

  • Everyone has dreams.
  • Everything smells great.
  • Somebody likes my profile picture.
  • Something looks different.
  • Nobody is missing.
  • No one has any objections.

Ask your students to analyze the sentences, using questions like these:

  1. What similarities or patterns occur in these sentences?
  2. What do the subjects have in common?
  3. Are the verbs singular or plural, and how do you know?

List observations on a white board and lead a discussion, helping students formulate a rule for subject-verb agreement with singular indefinite pronouns (e.g., Use a singular verb with subject pronouns ending with –one, -thing, or –body).

View minilesson: "Discovering Rules for Their, There, They’re"

Discover Vocabulary Definitions

Discover Vocabulary Definitions

Think About It

"Having different people come together and be on a team and win a world championship is literally, I think, the definition of being American."

—Abby Wambach

Instead of defining terms for your students, have them discover definitions themselves. Ask your students to define a familiar term such as "American," and you'll soon find them discussing citizenship, history, responsibility, culture, and freedom. You can also have your students define an unfamiliar term using context clues.

The following shared-inquiry activity can help students discover definitions by analyzing prefixes, roots, and suffixes:

Word-Parts Shared Inquiry

Present your students with an unfamiliar word with interesting word parts (prefix, root, suffix). Prompt students to analyze the word:

  1. Pronounce the word out loud (hydrophobia).
  2. Divide the word into parts (hydro-phobia)
  3. Compare each part with other words that have that part (hydro is part of hydroelectric, and phobia is part of claustrophobia)
  4. Define each part (hydro must have something to do with water, and phobia must have something to do with fear).
  5. Combine the definitions into a new definition (hydrophobia must mean "fear of water").
  6. Check the discovered definition against a dictionary definition.

View minilesson: "Discovering Word Origins (Etymology)"

Discover Ideas in Nonfiction

Think About It

"Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours."

—John Locke

As you know, close reading is a thoughtful process:

  • Previewing a text before reading
  • Actively thinking about the text while reading
  • Reflecting on the text after reading

You can use shared inquiry to guide your students through this process. The following activity helps you use shared inquiry to analyze nonfiction.

Nonfiction Shared Inquiry

Provide an engaging nonfiction article to your students. Guide them through the process of close reading by asking deeper and deeper questions as you move through the reading process:

Before Reading

  • What do the title, headings, and illustrations tell you about the topic of this article?
  • What do you know about this topic already, and what do you hope to find out?
  • Who wrote this article, and why do you think the person wrote it?


  • What does this passage mean?
  • What evidence backs up that idea?
  • What are the key parts of this text, and how do they relate to each other?
  • What is the main point or theme of this text?

After Reading

  • What surprises or confuses you about this text?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the ideas here?
  • What is the value or importance of this information?
  • How could you use this information in your own writing?

View minilesson: "Sharing Fiction with a Partner"

Teacher Support:

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Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.