Inquiry puts students in touch with the original works and with the actual activity of practitioners. That is why it is so exciting, and that is also why it works.

Jeffery Wilhelm


One of the best ways to engage students in reading is to move beyond it. Reading inquiry allows for student-led exploration of ideas and issues in literature. Every student is invited to apply their experiences and their talents to the exploration of big questions.

Inquiry can be defined as the process of addressing problems expressed by guiding questions. The questions are key and they drive the activity of the inquiry group as students learn to use problem-solving tools to construct understandings.

Critical inquiry allows students to:

  • make new connections to ideas stemming from their reading

  • fill gaps in their knowledge

  • gain insights into what is already known

  • revise and extend their understandings

  • find applications for what has been learned

  • reflect on and use knowledge in new ways

Reading to prepare and fuel an inquiry is a way of situating the text within big questions the student cares about. It allows readers to draws out socially significant information, promotes authentic conversations and encourages collaborative problem solving.

Adapted from Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry by Jeffrey Wilhelm


In this video, Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm describes his use of inquiry-based learning to engage his students in Romeo and Juliet. Wilhelm’s question, "What makes or breaks relationships?" situates Romeo and Juliet within an inquiry that all readers can explore.

Practical Applications:

There are many ways to get creative with inquiry. Here are a few ideas.

Text Sets: A text set is a compilation of texts from different genres, readability levels and perspectives that share a common theme, inviting students to explore a range of resources in answer to an inquiry question. As students approach the inquiry question from many angles, their understanding is aided by the variety of texts they read and discuss.

Youth Participatory Action Research: YPAR invites students to develop and implement research projects that confront personal experiences and community perspectives, especially those that are often silenced. The culminating event should allow students to share their research to advance social justice, which can be done through a variety of forms. Texts sets, as described above, can be used to support student research.

Play: Inquiry should be about intellectual play, where students are encouraged to have fun with their ideas and are given the room to explore on their own terms. To this end, why not invite students to recreate an era by personifying historical figures of their choice, for example from the the 1920’s, imagining how they would interact with each other at one of Gatsby’s parties? A research assignment like this promises opportunities for personalization.


Edutopia offers resources for encouraging student-driven questions.

This Teaching Channel video explores inquiry-based discussions in the ELA classroom.

Coombs, Dawan and Bellingham, Devery. “Using Text Sets to Foster Critical Inquiry.” English Journal, 2015. 105.2: 88–95.

Mirra, Nicole, Filipiak, Danielle, and Garcia, Antero. “Revolutionizing Inquiry in Urban English Classrooms: Pursuing Voice and Justice through Youth Participatory Action Research.” English Journal, 2015. 105.2: 49-57.

Quinlan, Ann Marie. “Discovering the Guest’s at Gatsby’s Party.” English Journal, 2015. 105.2: 13-14.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey. “Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry.” Scholastic, 2007.


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