The ERWC Approach: Inquiry-based Instruction

At our recent meeting to review ERWC modules in process, one of the issues that came up was explanation-based versus inquiry-based instruction. Robby Ching responded to one of the module writers with the following suggestions, which we thought were so good that they deserved to become a guest post on this blog. These suggestions apply to all kinds of texts–fictional and non-fictional.  Thank you , Robby!

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1. ERWC modules are inquiry-based. Their end goal is to enable students to do the work of understanding and analyzing texts independently. Instead of directing teachers to explain something, whether it is the meaning of a word, the way in which a text is structured, the purpose of a text feature, or a literary interpretation, see if you can set up an activity so that students can figure out answers themselves, either by collaborating in pairs or a group or independently.

2. Much of the inquiry students should be doing is rhetorical. At its most basic level, this is asking them to realize that the text was written by a real person who had an authentic reason for writing and hoped to accomplish something as a result. The module writer should be setting up opportunities in the form of activities in which students ask themselves why the writer chose to do whatever she or he did and what the effect of that choice is. Why did the writer choose the title or create short or long paragraphs or use a particular word or type of words (formal vs. informal, Spanish vs. English, disciplinary vs. familiar). Why did the writer structure the text in a particular way? Why include pictures or a subtitle or headings—or not? Why did the writer tell a particular story or use a particular piece of evidence? What did the writer want us to think? And then how do we as readers respond to what the writer is doing? What do we feel and think? Are we persuaded? At every point from Getting Ready to Read to Thinking Critically, there are “why” questions that can and should be asked. We don’t want to explain things about a text and its writer to students; instead we want to them to discover things—and what they discover may surprise us and enrich our own understanding. We include “possible answers” in italics not because they are right but because they suggest the intellectual bar we want to guide students toward.

3. Academic discussion is central to ERWC and to the goals of the NPD project. Most activities should take the form of a series of questions or collaborative activities that students respond to or work on in pairs or small groups. This then dictates the format: the purpose, the procedure, and the student activity done in pairs or small groups followed by some kind of reporting out, debriefing, or reflection that takes their understanding to a new level. Often this involves further questions for them to consider as a class.

4. Writing during the reading process is important both to get students thinking before they begin an activity and to reflect on what they learned at the end. Quickwrites can be used for multiple purposes, but keep them short. They should be focused on a single question. Reading a few aloud lets students benefit from what their peers are thinking. You can also provide formative assessment guidance to the teacher by suggesting what she may want to look for to guide her future instruction.

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