Guided Discovery Unleashed: 3 Classroom Strategies
Guided Discovery Unleashed: 3 Classroom Strategies
By Pilar Capaul
What is Guided Discovery?
Guided discovery is an approach where teachers provide learners with carefully designed tasks, prompts/cues, and questions that guide them as they discover the underlying mechanisms that govern the language they are learning. Rather than directly presenting information, this approach immerses students in activities that require them to analyse, compare, and manipulate language, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of how English -or whatever language they are learning - operates. However, considering the time needed for preparation, the possibility that students may not always arrive at the right conclusions, and the fact that many of them expect teachers to explicitly explain the way certain structures work, guided discovery can be a challenging technique to apply in the classroom.
Still, based on the idea that the advantages of guided discovery outweigh its disadvantages in many ways, this article aims to provide teachers with ideas and strategies to facilitate its successful incorporation into their lessons.
1. Grammar Banks
If we want to design a guided discovery task (in a few minutes!), the first thing we are going to need is a good grammar reference book. We might want to check out sources like "Grammar for English Language Teachers" by Martin Parrot or "Practical English Usage" by Michael Swan, or - to make sure we only cover aspects that are relevant to our student’s level and needs - we could start by checking the grammar bank that most coursebooks come with today. We have to remember that the mere task of discovering how a structure works is already quite demanding on our students; we have to make sure we don't expect them to focus on too many aspects at the time to avoid overwhelming them (To read more about this, I recommend Stephen Tarbuck’s article, “They can do it when you CCQ it” in Issue 50 of the IH Journal. Although it doesn’t look at guided discovery per se, Stephen’s approach to limiting the scope of our grammar point is a useful tool for us here).
Once we have the information we want to cover in class, we have to reorganise it in a way that will allow students to do something with it other than just read it: most grammar banks come with a list of rules together with a set of examples that illustrate them. We are going to start by providing example sentences up front, putting in bold or italics the sections we want to draw our student's attention to (what comes after or before a verb, for example) and we are going to turn the rule into a multiple choice activity by adding some extra terms to each statement. Here's an example:
First, here’s the original information covered in the grammar bank of a coursebook (Gold C1 Advanced, Pearson):
And this is part of a guided discovery activity we can create in a few minutes:
This approach encourages students to revisit the example sentences, analyse them, and only then select the option that conveys the right information. This dynamic method fosters a deeper understanding of the language structure.
To make the most of this task, we can ask students to work individually, to make sure they can process the information in silence, and then share their conclusions with their classmates. As they compare their answers, stronger students will support weaker ones.
As teachers, our role here is to monitor and diagnose problem areas to cover during whole-class feedback. It's important to make sure the students are the ones who do all the talking and who use the information they have gathered to “teach us” how the rules work. This is a key moment: if we take control now or overcorrect them, some students may feel intimidated and won't share their conclusions. Instead of correcting them by giving them the right answers, we can ask them to go back to the examples and reconsider their ideas.
Although this platform is best known for being a great site to check the pronunciation of words in different varieties of English (and other languages), Youglish can also be used to understand verb patterns in English. Let's suppose our students keep misusing verbs like "recommend" or "suggest" and just correcting them in class doesn't seem to be enough. These words can be particularly tricky for learners whose L1 is Spanish or Portuguese because of their similarity to the verbs “recomendar" and "sugerir", which look and sound similar, but are followed by different patterns.
Shall we keep on correcting them hoping one day they will remember what the right pattern is? Why don't we give them the chance to figure out how these verbs work in English by themselves? We can ask them to head to Youglish.com in pairs or groups, type the word "recommend" in the search bar and listen to the many examples the site will provide them with. Their task is to pay attention to the words that come before and after it and take notes. Depending on their level and how much help they need from their teacher, we can even give them some prompts such as "Is this word preceded by an object or an action?" or "Is this word followed by a verb in the infinitive or a verb with -ing?"
After some minutes, they have to take a look at what they have written down and draw some conclusions on how this word works in English: have they noticed that "recommend" is usually followed by a verb with -ing? What examples did they hear? Can they use that rule to come up with their own examples? We can then recycle a recent topic (e.g. travelling) and ask them to share recommendations using the pattern they have discovered.
This simple activity fosters independent language analysis skills and equips learners with valuable strategies they can use to explore language resources in the future.
3. Spot the differences
The aim of the last task in this article is to encourage students to dive deeper into the understanding of what makes commonly confused structures, words or phonemes appropriate in different situations by identifying differences and similarities between them.
Let's imagine our students are having some problems pronouncing the word "would'' - they tend to pronounce it was /ɡʊd/. We are going to start by writing /w/ and /g/ on the board and asking them to think about whether they are similar or different in sound. They can take some time, pronounce them aloud, and then share their conclusions (which can be as simple as “they are different, they sound different”).
Once this is clear, we’re going to write down pairs of words that have subtle phonemic differences, like "would'' and "good," and we’re going to ask them to think about the pronunciation of these two words, the sounds that make them different, and the meaning of each one. The aim here is to encourage them to pay attention to the way /w/ and /g/ contribute to that difference in meaning and realise what the correct pronunciation of each is, instead of just correcting them each time they say it wrong.
This is a simple example, but depending on the items we want to focus on, we may want to organise more rounds that progress in complexity: If we see there is some confusion regarding the use of the past simple and the present perfect, we can either explain to them how these two tenses are different (but we’re not going to do that, of course, because we want to guide our students to their discovery!), or we can write some example sentences on the board and ask them to think about the focus of each one by asking questions like “What's more important in each sentence: the action itself or the moment when it was completed?”, or to consider its connection with the present, “Is one of these actions important now?”
The students can analyse the examples and look for the answers to the guiding questions we’ve provided them with, and then we can have a brief discussion on how the structures contribute to the overall meaning of each utterance. As they progress, we can repeat this activity and vary or reduce the amount of guiding questions we give them to allow them to focus on different aspects until they spot some key differences between the provided items themselves. This can be a nice way to train them to analyse language independently.
Guided discovery can be a motivating approach to allow learners to develop their understanding and use of English. And while it is true that some students may come to the classroom expecting their teacher to share rules with them or might find this whole discovery adventure a bit frustrating if they can't come to the right conclusions, the best thing to do (I think) is to get to know our students and - even if some of them expect to be spoon fed - look for the right moments to challenge them.
Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching, Pearson.
Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage, Oxford.
Tarbuck, S. (2023) They can do it when you CCQ it, International House Journal #50
Thomas, A., Burgess, S. and Maguire-Karayel, I. (2018) Gold C1 Advanced New Edition Coursebook, Pearson
Parrot, M. (2010) Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press.
Pilar Capaul is a 23-year-old teacher and student teacher from Argentina. She teaches English at International House Buenos Aires and Spanish as a Foreign language at Porteñisima. She passed her CELTA at Grade A and her IHC in Teaching Spanish as Foreign Language with Distinction. She has delivered talks for International House and TESOL in the last couple of years. She´s also the creator of @TeachersofEnglish_ on Instagram, a blog where she shares her daily teaching experience and useful ideas.