Tuesday / June 25

3 Words to Guide Explicit Instruction in an Inquiry Classroom

Can I explicitly teach knowledge and skills in my inquiry-based classroom? Do I need to frontload everything before my students can be successful in our inquiry? Knowing that learning through inquiry is the basis of a three-dimensional Concept-Based Literacy classroom, teachers often wonder about the role of explicit skill instruction. If you are wrestling with how explicit and inquiry-based instruction work together to develop students’ conceptual understanding, here’s an idea to try boiled down to three simple words: Contextualize, Pause, and Zoom-in.

Step 1: Establish the Context

First, immerse students in an engaging context. The key is to connect with students’ hearts and minds so that there is no need for them to raise the “why are we learning this?” question. Context situates the lesson so that the value and relevance of the learning is clear and motivating. In Designing a Concept-Based Curriculum for English Language Arts: Meeting the Common Core with Intellectual Integrity (2012), Lanning offers the following criteria to help us think through the context for learning:

  • Does the context represent real-life dilemmas, thought-provoking ideas and genres that will capture kids’ attention and curiosities?
  • Does the context build on and challenge students’ existing knowledge rather than represent content they need to “get through”?
  • Does the context provoke inquiry and new perspectives?

Using inviting subject matter as a vehicle for literacy learning helps students find meaningful connections to content and brings relevance to the knowledge, key skills, and understanding they will be learning (Lanning, 2012). Student motivation increases when they feel that the learning is worthy of their time and attention.

Step 2:  Design the Learning Experiences to Reflect Inductive Inquiry

Next, design a learning experience using an inductive inquiry based approach. This promotes student choice and allows students to be actively engaged in the construction of meaning through the exploration of rich text examples across a range of genres. When working with a conceptual focus, students do not need to all read the same text or explore the same example! What separates Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) from other approaches is that teachers use clear, important, transferable conceptual understandings (generalizations) as specific targets of instruction and, through the use of strategic questioning, guide students to construct these understandings on their own. The generalizations give relevance to skills and support the retention, ownership and transfer of learning.

In an inductive, inquiry-based learning experience, students:

  1. Investigate multiple examples for a specific purpose guided by a conceptual focus
  2. Draw out or identify concepts from the examples
  3. Collect evidence and notice patterns across examples (which will serve as support for the generalization)
  4. Build a transferable understanding that transfers either within the discipline or beyond the discipline
  5. State the understanding in their own words by completing the phrase,. “As a result of this study, we/I understand that …

The power of inductive inquiry in a literacy classroom shouldn’t be underestimated. Not only do students think critically, conceptually, and reflectively, but because they are emotionally and cognitively engaged in their learning, students also get that “need to know” feeling. This sense of urgency helps students to see the value and the relevance of the skills to be developed throughout the instructional unit.

Step 3: Leverage the power of the Pause & Zoom-in

Finally, once a context is set in an inductive inquiry based learning experience, it is time to tap into the Pause and Zoom-in. Concept-Based Literacy is aligned with the best practices associated with balanced literacy, which include opportunities for explicit instruction before, within, or alongside the inquiry process.

There are times when processes, strategies, and skills require separate, sequenced, and direct (explicit) instruction. In other words, even a single lesson plan can incorporate inquiry AND explicit instruction. To provide explicit instruction, teachers may temporarily Pause the inquiry process, and Zoom-in on the specific knowledge, skill, strategy, or process critical to students’ literacy learning.

There are many reasons why a teacher might Pause, but below are three prevailing practices.

  • A Planned Pause for Daily, Small Group Instruction: Sometimes explicit instruction occurs in small groups that meet regularly for short strategy lessons. These students Pause and step out of the inquiry work briefly for instruction that deliberately targets, or Zooms-in on, their skill development. Students then jump back into the larger classroom literacy community to actively participate in an inquiry tied to the Concept-Based Curriculum.
  • A Planned Pause Within an Inquiry Lesson (Whole Class): Teachers can also purposely plan parts of an inquiry lesson where instruction will Pause & Zoom-in for the whole class, because there are key skills and knowledge (learning targets) that are foundational to the inquiry and require explicit instruction. The key here is knowing when, during the inquiry process, the focus of instruction requires a shift to a specific skill without letting students lose the flow of the inquiry process.
  • A Spontaneous Pause for The Whole Class or A Targeted Group of Students: In another case, a Pause within an inquiry process can be spontaneous, because an unanticipated learning need surfaced. In other words, while students are in the midst of solving a problem or responding to an inquiry question, the teacher notices several students struggling with a particular skill or lacking the appropriate background knowledge important to the inquiry. He quickly Zooms his teaching in and explicitly addresses the identified learning need.

In each description above, a Pause is just that, a temporary pause. The word “pause” implies that there is something greater going on in the classroom that is paused in order to Zoomin and address a specific skill or knowledge that needs to be further developed.

In a three-dimensional, Concept-Based classroom, explicit instruction is alive and well and purposeful, but student learning goes beyond facts and skills. In each situation, students are developing skills that are meaningful, relevant, and immediately applicable to their literacy learning. However, conceptual understanding is never out of sight for long. The teacher simply Pauses & Zooms-in, then allows students to continue with their larger inquiry. This contextualized skill development promotes a deeper understanding of literacy concepts and the ability to transfer the newly learned skills to different contexts. It’s that easy! When providing explicit instruction in an inquiry classroom, just remember the three simple words: Contextualize, Pause, and Zoom-in.

Interested in learning more? In Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer (2019), co-authored with Dr. Lois A. Lanning, we provide step by step support to guide teachers in the process of designing lessons to systematically support the transfer of students’ conceptual understandings. This includes an in-depth look at the strategy of Pause & Zoom-in, tips for inductive learning, model literacy lesson plans, sample instructional units, and 16 snapshots of Concept-Based Literacy classrooms.

Written by

Tiffanee Brown, MS SpEd, is a National Board Certified English language arts teacher and a certified Dr. H. Lynn Erickson and Dr. Lois A. Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Presenter and Trainer. In addition to facilitating professional learning and collaborating with teachers regionally and internationally, she works full-time as the English Language Arts Consultant Teacher for the Burlington-Edison School District in Washington State. Connect with Tiffanee on Twitter @BrownTiffanee or visit her website at

Latest comment

  • This article speaks directly to my heart. Teachers should take time to build a teaching philosophy. My philosophy is grounded in inductive inquiry. Thanks for sharing your article!

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