How guided discovery could transform your grammar teaching

Guided discovery blog post cover image

There’s just no getting away from it. Studying the key grammar structures is an essential part of learning a new language. Without a core understanding of the basics it will be incredibly difficult to communicate effectively – all the right words but in completely the wrong order isn’t a good look when talking to a native speaker.

Yet it can be difficult for language teachers to make learning grammar in a language classroom interesting and engaging for students. After all, these rules and rubrics need to be learnt, understood, memorised and then put into repeated practice. So how can teachers make learning key grammar concepts more interesting? This blog post examines the two main approaches to learning grammar (i.e deductive and inductive) and then focuses on the inductive approach (also known as guided discovery) in further detail.


Deductive vs. inductive grammar teaching

It is widely acknowledged that there are two main approaches to teaching grammar in any language. As outlined above, these are known as deductive and inductive approaches.

  • A deductive approach is when the grammar rule is presented by the teacher and the student produces language based on that rule.
  • An inductive approach is when the rule is inferred by the student through some form of guided discovery. (i.e the teacher provides the students with a way to discover the rules for themselves.)

Notably the former approach is clearly more teacher-centred. But it does allow language teachers to deliberately highlight the item for attention and can also allow more time for actually practising it in spoken or written form. Given that inductive approaches are more learner-centred, we’ll make that the focus for this blog post, although it is worth pointing out that these approaches are usually most beneficial for students who have a base knowledge of the language. It’s clearly easier to work things out for yourself if you already have some knowledge in a subject.


What is Guided discovery in grammar teaching?

According to the British Council:

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

In detail, guided discovery is a way for language educators to encourage students to make their own explanations for grammar / language rules with the support and guidance of their teacher. It’s a powerful alternative to the traditional “chalk and talk” approach and aims to mimic the way most people naturally learn a language i.e by picking up the rules as their learning and experience grows.

Students can be led to identify the use, meaning, grammar and vocabulary of their target language through appropriate guided discovery activities. Students are given the opportunity to confirm that they have correctly understood the rules they have interpreted and are then encouraged to put their new knowledge into practice. For this approach to work best, the teacher needs to create materials and a setting that is relevant and engaging for their students to be interested in. If they’re uninspired then they’re unlikely to go the extra mile to fully exploit the learning opportunity. At its best, guided discovery is a great approach for grammar learning as it combines the chance to learn core principles and how to use them in context.


What is the role of the language teacher in guided discovery?

Although the guided approach is very much student-centred, there is still an incredibly important role for the language teacher to play when a guided discovery approach is deployed. A key part of this work is done before the lesson even starts and has to do with lesson planning. As above, it’s essential that appropriate tasks are developed / selected to meet the level and needs of the students and to manage the lesson so that everyone is engaged throughout.

For this to work, educators need to ask the right questions throughout. They should ideally encourage students to spot, consider and learn the key grammatical concepts they need to study. It’s important not to ask them to identify the point straight away rather the questions should help students reach their own conclusions.

Regrettably without proper teacher involvement, guided discovery lessons can quickly unravel, becoming chaotic and disorganised. It is the educator’s role to guide students in an active partnership which helps learners grasp key concepts and succeed.


Why use the guided discovery approach?

Aside from making learning more student-centred (as outlined above), there are other advantages to using the guided discovery approach in grammar teaching.

  • It makes learning more memorable – Research suggests that having students work out the rules themselves helps them to better retain the information in their long-term memories. For many learners, this approach will also make the learning process more enjoyable and help build their motivation to study.
  • It builds learner autonomy – Students are encouraged to become better problem-solvers through this technique, which is incredibly helpful in language learning when most learning (and problems) tends to occur outside of the classroom.
  • It’s easier to see what students really know by asking them questions and giving them the opportunity to demonstrate rather than just filling them with information.
  • As Scrivener writes in Learning Teaching: “Giving students chances to be exposed to, or to attempt to use, language ‘above’ their apparent level of knowledge of grammar is extremely useful and greatly aids future work on grammar. This approach celebrates what students can do – and clarifies precisely what still needs to be worked on.


Sounds great, but how can I deliver it in the classroom?

Bridge Universe has a great four-step plan highlighting the four key stages of a guide discovery lesson plan. The full plan is here, but our brief summary follows below.

  • Collaboration

Be crystal clear at the start of the lesson that collaboration (in pairs or small groups) is non-negotiable. Students should be expected to work in their target language and to work with each other throughout.

  • Task Setting

Set the task for the students and carefully scaffold the lesson so that all learners get something out of it and all make expected progress. A narrative or a story is often a good way to set the scene and then leave the students to then work out what happens next and why.

  • Monitoring

As above, it’s the educator’s role to cajole, guide, point and support the students as they work through the activity. As Bridge Universe suggests: “If you have set up the activity well, students will work toward the goal while relying on each other for practice and to get feedback.”

  • Consolidation

At the end of the task or at the end of particular sections of it, bring the class back together and see what answers / results they came up with. Are there common errors to address, what did students do well / poorly and ensure that their questions are all answered.


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