An Inquiry Approach to Learning Content with Newcomer Students

By Laura Alvarez and Lucinda Pease-Alvarez

 When trying to support their newcomer students who are also new to English, teachers often wonder if they can even address content area learning in English.  Based on our experience, an inquiry-based approach to content learning in English can be very effective. This approach involves students in actively constructing knowledge and doing work in the disciplines.  We have found the following instructional practices are helpful when structuring inquiry-based content units.  Many of these practices can be adapted when planning for remote instruction.

  • Articulate clear and strategic learning objectives
  • Engage students’ curiosity and wonder
  • Facilitate and make meaning of hands-on learning experiences
  • Involve students in accessible and relevant ways of applying and communicating what they’ve learned.

Articulate Clear and Strategic Learning Objectives

When planning for a class with newcomer students, it is important to be clear about which grade-level learning objectives are most essential to address.  Because you are teaching both content and language, you may not be able to cover as much material with newcomers.  This will often require taking a “less is more” approach and making some judgment calls about which standards or content objectives are most important to focus on with your newcomer students.  In making these decisions, consider the following questions:

  • What content is most foundational for future learning?  For example, understanding the phases of matter (i.e., solid, liquid, gas) is foundational to a great deal of science learning later on. We would want to dedicate time for students to develop a strong understanding of these phases, as opposed to trying to expose them to a lot of science standards. When we focus on covering as many standards as possible, we might expose students to a lot of material that they don’t fully grasp and can’t then use or apply as a foundation for future learning.
  • What content or phenomenon will be most relevant or engaging to students? For example, in the case of history, can we study content through looking at a local case study or example in their community? This is important as history learning is often most meaningful when we can help students make connections between historical issues and contemporary issues. For example, a class might study the concept of national borders by looking both at how borders were expanded and established in a few historical case studies and then investigating how and why the U.S. has established and tried to secure its border with Mexico and the impact of these efforts.

Engage Students’ Curiosity and Wonder.

When launching an inquiry-based unit, it is important to pique students’ curiosity and wonder about a topic. One way to initiate a unit is to have students view an image, video, or artifact using a See-Think-Wonder protocol (see below) (Ritchhart, Church & Morrison, 2011). You can use this protocol to engage students in observing and describing all the things they notice. Students then make and discuss inferences based on their observations. Finally, they generate questions, brainstorming all the things they’re wondering about after looking at the image. These questions serve as a springboard for and frame their inquiry throughout the unit. 

Example See-Think-Wonder Chart

I see…I think…I wonder…

Facilitate making meaning of hands-on learning experiences

In all content areas, it’s important to engage newcomers in different types of hands-on learning activities, instead of relying solely on text and verbal explanations. These activities entail relying on different modalities to make meaning, including visual, auditory, kinesthetic and technological. Examples of this kind of learning includes:

  • Examining and interpreting visual texts characteristic of particular disciplines (e.g., scientific models or diagraphs, diagrams, mathematical graphs, historical maps, images, artifacts, and videos). 
  • Engaging in hands-on investigations and/or explorations that involve students in experiments and/or examining alternative explanations. For example, when engaging in a unit on energy, students may conduct several scientific experiments to learn about how energy moves through different materials and to determine if materials are conductors or insulators. 
  • Involving students in computer simulations representing a real-world phenomenon that is difficult or impossible for students to observe first hand. Computer simulations can represent interactions between actions, objects, organisms, and events. They can help students understand how change unfolds under different situations or contexts, including, for example, differences in time, temperatures, or weather conditions. For example, a teacher may show students a simple computer simulation of a scientific phenomenon, like molecule movement at different temperatures. This simulation, which may be accessed via a computer link and projected on a screen, demonstrates how molecules vibrate at different rates based on temperature (i.e., molecules vibrate more at higher temperatures and less so at lower temperatures).
  • Engaging in kinesthetic activities that, for example, involve students and teacher in enacting a particular phenomenon. For example,a teacher may use kinesthetic activities to solidify students’ understandings about how heat affects molecule movement by displaying a simple thermometer on the board and engaging in actions (e.g., shivering, fanning herself) to indicate changes in the temperature on the thermometer. Students can also enact changes in the temperature.

Involve students in multiple ways of applying and communicating what they’ve learned

Although newcomers can and should work toward age-appropriate content standards, they will often need to show and apply their learning through modified tasks. Here are some approaches to modifying tasks that are particularly suitable for those who are just beginning to learn English:

  • Creating visuals: Students can create visual representations to show their understanding of key ideas or concepts. For example, in science, newcomers can create a visual model or diagram with labels and short explanations in English. In language arts or history, students can draw the main events of a text or historical situation, labeling key actors and writing a short explanation.
  • Sequencing: Often, students are learning about different types of processes—scientific processes, historical events, or events in a story. Newcomers can take illustrations of key events in a process and sequence them. For example, a teacher can give a newcomer illustrations of each step in the water cycle (e.g., evaporation, condensation, precipitation) and ask them to put the pictures in order and use arrows to show how the elements transform.
  • Sorting: At other times, content learning may be focused on understanding important categories, such as types of living things or causes vs. effects of an historical event or scientific concept. Newcomers can be given images, realia, or cards with names of phrases to sort, demonstrating their understanding of disciplinary categories and relationships. For example, in a first-grade class studying insects and spiders, newcomers can sort photos of different creatures and use what they’ve learned to classify them as either insects or spiders. In a middle school class, after learning about the difference between chemical and physical changes, students can sort labeled images of different types of changes (e.g., cutting an apple, cooking an egg, dissolving salt in water) and use what they learned to decide if they are chemical or physical changes.
  • Writing: Writing in English with supports can be easier and feel safer than trying to speak in English. Some newcomers, particularly those who are literate in their native language, can show much more understanding by writing than through oral expression. 
  • Using the native language: Most second language learners comprehend much more English when listening or reading than they can produce. If you understand students’ native language, you can have students use their primary language to express what they have learned. If you don’t understand your newcomer students’ language, you can still have the children write in their native language and use colleagues and/or translation software such as Google Translate to interpret whether they comprehended the content they were studying.
  • Connecting content to relevant social issues via drama. One way to make content more meaningful for all students is to connect it to issues that are relevant to students’ lives and their community. In this way, learning becomes a tool to understand, address, and take action aimed at solving urgent problems that students are experiencing. Further, when the curriculum focuses on issues of social justice, students come to realize the role they can assume in fostering a society that is committed to the wellbeing and equality of all its members. This can be particularly relevant for newcomers who have lived through the many social and political issues that are facing the world today, either in their home countries or in their neighborhoods in the United States, such as climate change, migration, and civil war. 

The arts can engage newcomer students in analyzing and acting on social issues. For example, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed (TO) (Boal, 2002), which is grounded in Paulo Freire’s perspectives on democratic education, provides participants with opportunities to reflect and act on the oppression they experience in their lives. In the case of what Boal terms Image Theater, participants are asked to create or enact an image that exemplifies a social issue. For example, students engaged in a unit on immigration civil rights can be asked to create an image of what asylum seekers at the border are experiencing. Students then create a frozen image by assuming the characters’ poses as if they were statues. They then discuss their image, including what the characters are doing, why they are doing what they’re doing, how they feel, and what they could do differently.


Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K.  (2011).  Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Boal, A.  (2002).  Games for Actors and Non-actors.  London: Routledge.

Laura Alvarez and Lucinda Pease-Alvarez have both worked as teachers, researchers and teacher educators focused on enhancing the educational opportunities available to immigrant youth.  Their most recent book, Supporting Newcomer Students: Effective Advocacy and Instruction for English Learners (written with Katharine Davies Samway) will be available from Norton in May 2020.

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