Yes, Inquiry-based Learning and SIOP® Are Compatible

Inquirybased learning is an approach that emphasizes the student’s role in the learning process. Students learn by doing which allows them to build knowledge through discovery, experience, and discussion. In many ways inquiry-based learning resembles what researchers do: formulate a question about a topic that piques interest, collect data, analyze the data and draw conclusions, write a report about the findings, and present the findings to peers. Of course, inquiry lessons don’t necessarily follow a particular process, but most inquiry-based activities share at least some characteristics of research. Inquiry is most effective when it permeates the classroom culture; students routinely think deeply, ask questions, share opinions, and research topics.

“By allowing English learners to tap their curiosity, follow their instincts, and learn through discovery, they grow and develop as independent learners.”

Not surprisingly, inquiry-based learning has its roots in science education but has application to and is used across the curriculum. With the right supports in place, inquiry lessons have the potential to level the academic playing field for English learners. In many cases inquiry lessons, or lessons with an inquiry activity, reduce the language demands on English learners by providing opportunities for exploration with hands-on materials and peer discussion. By allowing English learners to tap their curiosity, follow their instincts, and learn through discovery, they grow and develop as independent learners. Working with a partner or small group scaffolds English learners’ participation in the reading and writing aspects of the lesson.

For readers familiar with the SIOP® Model, you undoubtedly recognize many shared characteristics between SIOP® and inquiry-based learning. In classes with English learners, teachers using an inquiry approach need to be mindful of several linguistic considerations and instructional supports for these students. 

Content and Language Objectives

Research shows that establishing clear learning objectives that are relevant and understandable to students can lead to improved student motivation and higher academic achievement (Dean, et al., 2012). Thus, the SIOP® Model promotes having both content and language objectives for every lesson since English learners are learning new content and a new language simultaneously. Teachers sometimes misinterpret objectives as being incompatible with an inquiry approach when in fact all lessons, inquiry or not, have expected outcomes for students. We have seen in science, for example, that some teachers say providing the objectives at the start of the lesson gives away the inquiry process. We have worked with those teachers in two ways:

1. Improving how they formulate the objective.

For example, the content objective, Students will investigate what factors influence plant growth, is better with an inquiry lesson than, Students will investigate the effect of water on plant growth. A language objective such as, Students will fill out an observation report using complete sentences, doesn’t reveal what students will discover. However, Students will describe, using complete sentences, the effects of water and light on plant growth, gives too much detail.

2. Considering when to present the objectives.

Some teachers have their students do an introductory activity or experiment at the start of the lesson and then present the objectives after that. The exploration aspect is preserved yet the purpose of the lesson and learning outcomes are clarified for students.

Content objectives are based on content standards and are typically tied to curriculum or pacing guides. Teachers have more latitude with writing language objectives and can connect language learning specifically to each lesson.

Learn more about the SIOP® Model for your School or District Today >

Language Supports

Teachers using an inquiry approach need to provide sufficient language supports so that English learners aren’t at a disadvantage. There are innumerable ways to provide language supports with inquiry-based learning.

1. Introduce key vocabulary. At a minimum, English learners need to understand the essential vocabulary and procedures necessary to participate in the lesson. From the sample objectives above, words such as investigate, factors, influence, and plants would need to be explicitly taught or reviewed and an observation report form would be shown so English learners clearly understand what they’ll be doing. During the lesson, students likely will become frustrated if they don’t understand the key terms their peers are using when talking about the activity. Previewing key vocabulary and posting it for reference increases English learners’ full participation.

2. Teach students strategies for finding the meaning of words. With guidance, they can discover the exponential power of identifying roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) to derive word meaning. Also, students might explore resources for defining words and their meaning.

3. Use vocabulary in context. After the inquiry portion of the lesson, additional vocabulary terms that students need to learn are highlighted or explicitly taught (if needed), discussed, and identified in the product created during group work. This kind of reinforcement of vocabulary in context makes the words more relevant and meaningful for students — and more likely to be retained.

4. Provide language frames so students can talk about what they’re discovering. To advance students’ English proficiency, be sure to connect the language frames to a language target such as language functions, e.g., compare, predict, explain, or formulate questions. For example, When I observe _____________ I notice ___________. My prediction is that _________________.

5. Incorporate language skills. Many of the skills needed for inquiry lessons can be taught to English learners and other students who need instruction in, for instance, how to read research and take notes, how to write up observations, how to write a summary, and so on. 


An important aspect of inquiry-based learning is teaching students how to ask the kind of questions that elicit higher levels of thinking such as analysis or evaluation. Teachers need to think about the kinds of questions that get students to think more deeply about a topic, and then model those questions. Otherwise, students likely will rely on lower-level questions during exploration that can be answered with a Google search. One of SIOP®’s Features (#15) is to, Use a variety of questions or tasks that promote higher-order thinking skills. Provoking complex thinking is an explicit goal in both inquiry-based learning and SIOP® lessons. 


Inquiry learning is characterized by a classroom environment that allows students to learn through exploration and discovery. It is student-centered and encourages independent learning. SIOP® teaching also recognizes each student’s background, culture, language and interests and considers each one an asset that can be connected to learning.Here are several ways that both inquiry and SIOP® are student-centered:

1. Build background. Teachers can make lessons relevant by connecting, for example, historical documents to students’ lives. Asking students to think about how the Bill of Rights might be different if it were written by people of color allows them to think deeply about the issues from their own perspective. Student-driven inquiry connects students’ interests and curiosity to the lesson by encouraging them to ask their own questions and seek answers. SIOP® Feature #8 asks teachers to link students’ background experiences to the lesson’s concepts. Teachers encourage students to use what they know and have experienced to make sense of information and may guide them to see the connection between the two.

2. Develop expertise. A goal in many inquiry lessons is for each student to become an expert in an aspect of the content being studied. As students present the results of their inquiry, their understanding of the content is deepened and their knowledge is expanded by the presentations of others. SIOP®’s Practice & Application Component encourages hands-on experiences, grappling with content, and applying it in meaningful ways including presenting their findings to peers. There are many SIOP® activities that encourage students to become experts on a topic.

3. Provide meaningful activities. Inquiry lessons need to be meaningful and relevant to students to be effective. A topic or question is unlikely to spark curiosity or enthusiasm if it isn’t of interest to students or if the activities aren’t motivating. SIOP®’s Feature #6 suggests that lessons include meaningful activities that integrate the lesson’s concepts with opportunities to practice and develop reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. In this way, English learners gain proficiency in English while participating in interesting, relevant learning. 


An important aspect of being a good researcher is to reflect on your outcomes. Ask students to reflect on both what they learned and how they learned it. SIOP®’s Strategies Component promotes the use of learning strategies such as metacognition or thinking about thinking. Similarly, students should reflect on what worked and what they might have done differently. Here is an opportunity to bring in the lesson’s content and language objectives. Students can assess whether the outcomes gained from their experiences met the objectives, citing evidence like good researchers do. 

In looking through SIOP®’s Features, its alignment with inquiry-based learning is clear. A proponent of inquiry-based learning said, When teachers design inquiry-based learning activities, they should integrate them with the curriculum, relate them to students’ past experiences and promote them with lifelong learning and critical thinking skills. –a description completely compatible with SIOP®.

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


About the Author

Jana Echevarria

FOUNDING SIOP® CO-AUTHOR & Professor Emerita at California State University