Inquiry is a flexible approach to learning that is driven by the natural curiosity of students to question, explore and make sense of their world. Talk is an essential component of this process. In fact, the competencies in the Québec English Language Arts programs are so inextricably intertwined that reading, writing/producing, thinking and talk are all enriched when students are engaged in inquiry.

The inquiry process is a key part of the Talk competency. Through inquiry, students are engaged in authentic learning experiences where they can build on prior knowledge and understandings, and work with peers to explore authentic questions, issues and problems. The process is dynamic, reflective and recursive. As students work through the process, they:

  • tackle real-world questions, issues, problems

  • develop questioning, research and communication skills

  • solve problems

  • collaborate with peers and others

  • develop skills and deepen essential knowledge e.g. in literacy

  • move beyond simple memorization

  • adapt and apply what they have learned

  • share new ideas and knowledge with others

Inquiry allows us to provide open-ended experiences and investigations that enable students to enter at their own readiness levels. It is a flexible approach that ranges from the creation of a classroom Wonder Centre to problem-based projects, to action research and ethnography. There are many inquiry models that can be used or adapted by the teacher. Although the teacher’s role is different from more traditional models, the teacher plans and guides the learning, providing support as needed.


If we reframe what we are already doing in our classroom around a guiding or essential question, we are moving into inquiry. The essential question generates a real purpose for learning and fuels purposeful talk.

Essential Question Criteria

An effective essential or guiding question:

  • is relevant and interesting to the students

  • leads to powerful conversations that build understanding

  • is open-ended and multilayered, allowing for multiple perspectives and possible answers

  • is concise and clearly stated

  • can be researched through a variety of resources that are available for students to use (books, media, primary sources, etc.)

  • may lead to new questions posed by the students

Adapted from Wilhelm, Jeffery D. (2007). Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry. Scholastic.

Types of Essential Questions

Essential questions are often stated in one of the following ways:

  • Which one?

  • How?

  • What if?

  • Should?

  • Why?



Once you have an essential question you can ask yourself the following questions to determine the next steps.

  1. What should the student have learned prior to starting the inquiry?

  2. Do they have enough prior knowledge or do I need to fill in some gaps?

  3. What activities will help students come to new understandings as they work toward the answer?

  4. What strategies will actively engage the students as they work toward the answer?

  5. How will I know that the students are learning?

  6. How will the students demonstrate their final answer to the question, e.g. create a PSA, write a picture book, etc.

Essential Question Suggestions

It is possible to reword essential questions to suit the age of the students.

  • How can advertising affect our choices?

  • How do nonfiction books work?

  • What makes a good home?

  • Are photographs ’real’?

  • How do people reveal their inner character? Which behaviours shown by the main character were evidence of strong character and which ones showed weakness?

  • What problems do we have in our community and how can people influence others to make change or improvements?

  • If you could change your neighbourhood, how would you make it better?

  • What makes a good relationship? What messes up a relationship?

  • What does it mean to be a good friend?

  • How does rap or spoken word poetry work for/against social change?

  • Can a story (fiction) be true? What is the relation between fiction and truth?

  • How does what I'm reading influence how I should read it?

Download the Inquiry Process here.


Primary Sources

A primary source is an original object or document — the first-hand information or source material that is closest to what is being studied. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of an experiment, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, and photographs.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. Secondary sources may have photographs, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Examples include textbooks, magazine and news articles, histories, websites and encyclopedias.


Students engaged in collaborative action research begin with an inquiry into topics raised by issues of personal and social significance. They acquire research skills and produce an action plan. In secondary Cycle Two, their research skills expand and they enter into an inquiry whose purpose is to be a conduit for social change.

Action research projects are grounded in the personal and social issues that are relevant to students.

Through collaborative group work and discussions students:

  • select and negotiate a topic, audience, and genre with the teacher (e.g., How can spoken word poetry create social change? How can adolescents work to promote diverse books?)

  • develop a working plan and identify the steps that need to be taken

  • follow an inquiry process to research their topic

  • select their methodology and create their timeline for the project (e.g., will they use primary and/or secondary sources? Where will they find information?)

  • collect data using observations, interviews, written cases and accounts, etc.)

  • analyze the data and formulate an action plan

  • present the action plan to peers and teacher

  • prepare the action plan for presentation to a wider audience

  • reflect on the process taken and decisions made during the project


Ethnography is research that is centered on the study of people and populations. Student researchers explore the lives of groups or communities found in their own social spheres and document the milieu.

As they follow an ethnographic inquiry process students:

  • generate topics and inquiry questions

  • collect data in a natural setting (the community, the classroom, the school)

  • act as participant/observer

  • become immersed in the everyday lives of the group or community (field research)

  • select from a variety of research methods (observations, interviews, surveys, artifact collection, historical and contemporary texts, participant journals, etc.)

  • use an inquiry process to plan and implement their research project

Ethnographic research projects can be presented as graphs, maps, timelines, photo essays, audio and video clips, along with written and spoken texts. The projects should shed light on different social contexts and inspire social change within the social world of the students.


There are so many possibilities for creating classroom inquiries. The following resources can help you find out more about inquiry as well as provide additional classroom examples.

Galileo Educational Network. What is inquiry?

Getting Started with Student Inquiry

What Makes a Question Essential?

The Inquiry Process website offers a wealth of resources geared towards exploring inquiry-based learning in Québec classrooms.

Share information on gathering data from primary and secondary sources with students during the planning stage of the project.


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