Published 14th October 2016

guided discovery

Guided Discovery – We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: teaching English as a Foreign Language is not the same as teaching in a mainstream school. Teaching any other subject is different to being an EFL teacher. If you think back to the way you were taught in school, understand that your EFL lessons will be totally different. You might even be relieved to know this is the case – no doubt you have memories of at least one teacher who was boring as!

So, how is being an EFL teacher different?

What you WON’T do as an EFL teacher:

  • Stand at the whiteboard all lesson
  • Ask all the questions
  • Answer all the questions
  • Talk all the time
  • Tell your students to be quiet

What you WILL do as an EFL teacher:

  • Walk around the classroom during the lesson
  • Allow your students to use the whiteboard
  • Give your students space to ask the questions – and answer the questions
  • Speak as little as possible so your students can speak as much as possible
  • Encourage your students to talk
Guided Discovery
Cute Caucasian woman teaching her kindergarten students from home using a smartphone

Can you see the difference?

We’re not saying that the teaching methods and techniques we use in our classrooms are any better than traditional methods but we will say that our methods and techniques are very effective in teaching English as a Foreign Language. Many people have years of foreign language lessons at school but graduate without knowing more than the basics. EFL lessons, in contrast, seem to be much more successful. This is largely due to the communicative nature of our EFL lessons, as well as the level of autonomy we give our students. This is reflected in the methods we use to teach, which are essentially what makes our lessons so different.

One major technique that we use in our classrooms is that of guided discovery. 

What is guided discovery?

Guided discovery, also known as the inductive approach, is a technique where a teacher provides examples of a language item and helps the learners to find the rules themselves. 

The British Council

As you can see, this is very different to traditional teaching approaches. Instead of standing at the board telling the students about a particular grammar point or vocabulary item, the teacher leads the students to “discover” the meaning, rules and usage patterns themselves. 

Of course, while the students are given the space and independence to figure things out for themselves, there is still the element of guidance – hence “guided” discovery. If we were to leave our students to clarify everything for themselves, we may as well not be there! This introduces one of the many roles of EFL teachers, that of guide rather than dictator. But how does it actually work in practice?

How does guided discovery work?

The first step is exposing the students to the language item in question. This is usually done by introducing the students to a text. This could be a written or spoken text. The language may be highlighted in the text or not, depending on the level of the students and the difficulty of the language. The teacher will then ask the students questions in order to help them understand the language fully. 

These will be questions regarding the structure of the language item, the meaning and the usage. The students can then consider the questions and discuss them with a partner before the teacher elicits answers and provides clarification. The teacher will also use concept checking questions to make sure the students understand the concept fully. The practice activities will further demonstrate the students’ level of understanding to the teacher, so they will know what needs to be dealt with in more detail.

Why does guided discovery work?

It is argued that the major reason guided discovery works is that it is memorable. For the same reason our Maths teachers made us do endless calculations and our Science teachers made us do the experiments ourselves, the theory is that if you do something yourself rather than just being told about it, you will remember it better. 

Furthermore, working collaboratively is another way to solidify knowledge. In EFL classrooms we spend a lot of time manipulating situations so that our students need to talk to each other to solve a problem. This helps them think out loud and troubleshoot the issue with their classmates.

Finally, the crux of guided discovery is that it is student-centred. The students drive the lesson. How the lesson progresses depends on the students and their comprehension – which is how it should be. As teachers, one of our main jobs is to make sure our lessons are aimed at the right level for our students. This is the level of difficulty one step up from our students’ capabilities, otherwise known as the zone of proximal development. 

The zone of proximal development is the difference between what a learner can do independently and what they can do with help and guidance. This is the optimal zone for learning to take place. If a language structure is too far out of a learner’s zone of proximal development, the learner won’t be able to learn and will become frustrated and demotivated. If a language structure is too easy, the lesson will be a waste of time and again the learner will become frustrated and demotivated. Our EFL lessons strive to teach language in the zone of proximal development and provide the scaffolding necessary for learning to take place. 

Read more: The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding

What’s more, if we spoon-feed our students we are not totally aware of whether or not the language is too easy or too difficult for the students. However, if we let them lead, we can see what they understand and what they need more help with by the questions they ask. If we realise that they already know the particular language you can easily move onto something more suitable. Alternatively, if you see the language is too difficult, you can step in more to scaffold for them. 

Read more: How Can I Make My Classroom More Learner-Centred?

Even though guided discovery is just one of many teaching methods and techniques which we utiliise in the EFL classroom, it is one of the fundamental ways we make sure our lessons are engaging, communicative and effective. 

Do you use guided discovery in the classroom? Let us know in the comments!