#6 Teach English Writing – Inquiry Approach to Thinking and Writing

Teach English Writing – Inquiry Approach to Thinking and Writing

Main Idea

This English lesson helps ESL students learn specific critical thinking and logical writing skills. The lesson objective asks students to begin with a question, look for relevant evidence, make inferences and draw conclusions.

It’s an inquiry approach to learning and writing because students start with a question and then present evidence and conclusions. This approach is unlike the traditional five paragraph essay format which requires students to begin with a thesis (i.e. the conclusion) before the supporting evidence has been presented.

This lesson produces two benefits for ESL students: 1) it helps them communicate more logically, and 2) it develops thinking and writing skills that are far more meaningful in terms of the way problems are presented and solved in everyday life, both academically and professionally.

Activity – Explain Key Concepts

Task: Students will solve a murder mystery and write a report.

Background: The story involves a husband (the dead person) and his wife. The wife told the following story to the police.

“My husband and I had a argument this afternoon. He went out in the afternoon to drink with his friends. I went out to meet my friends. Later that evening, I asked my friends to come to my house for a drink. I arrived home at 1 am. At that time, I saw my husband. He was drunk and was walking down the stairs with a drink in his hand. He fell down the stairs and hit his head. Then he died. My friends came to my house about 1:10 am. They called the police.”

A few days later, the police checked the dead man’s body. The police confirmed that the man was drunk when he died and that he died from an injury to his head.

Question: Is the wife telling the truth? The students’ job is to look at the picture of the accident and decide if the woman is lying or not. This is an exercise in evidence and inferences. There is no guessing.

Look at the picture of the crime scene There is lots of information but not all of it is useful. Students need to find the useful informationand use that to build evidence that tells us if wife is probably innocent or guilty.

Activity – Format and Flow

Step 1. Instructions

In order for students to get this lesson, they need to understand the thinking format. I usually begin by explaining the pattern.

  • begin with a question, collect evidence, find a rule and make a conclusion.

In this exercise, the question is given: is the wife telling the truth.

Evidence is information that is related to the question. Not all information is relevant so students need to learn how to find the important stuff, a useful skill in itself.

The rule is a statement of probability that connects the evidence to the conclusion. Here is an example. It is used in just about every US TV crime drama.

  • Evidence: We found your fingerprints on the murder weapon.
  • Rule: Every person has different finger prints.
  • Conclusion: You were at the murder scene and, probably, you killed the man with this gun.

To help students understand the purpose and benefit of the RULE, I encourage them to use this sentence pattern: Usually when …….

The conclusion is a statement of probability that comes from the evidence and rule. Conclusions are rarely 100% true so they need to be hedged with words like probably, possibly or likely.

Step 2. Hints and Prompts

Most students have a hard time getting started. Once they recognize and understand the pattern, a flood of answers will come forward.

So, after giving students time to think, I point to the cup in the dead man’s hand and ask them to describe the cup. Some students will notice that it is not broken. Then I connect that fact with the wife’s story – the man fell down the stairs with a drink in his hand. “Is that possible?” I ask. Now the ideas start to come. Eventually, I guide students back to the format.

  • Evidence: The dead man is lying on the floor with an unbroken cup in his hand. The wife said he fell down the stairs with a cup in his hand.
  • Rule: Usually when people fall down the stairs, they drop what is in their hand to protect themselves as they hit the ground.
  • Conclusion: It’s unlikely the man fell down the stairs with a cup in his hand. The wife is probably not telling the truth about the man falling down the stairs.

Step 3. Continue the Thinking

By now, most students will understand the thinking process and pattern. In my classrooms, we uncovered two other relevant pieces of evidence: the handrail and undisturbed mirror and candle holders on the wall.

Step 4. Write Up

Thus far, most of the work has been with pairs or with the whole class. Now students have to write their report. The report should have short introduction which describes the background and question. The body will have two paragraphs written in the specific format that presents evidence, a rule and a conclusion. Each paragraph is one piece of evidence. The final paragraph summarizes the evidence and answers the question in the first paragraph.



This lesson comes from a terrific George Hillocks Jr book called Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12. For a more complete treatment of this exercise by the author, read the publisher’s online sample chapter.

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