Inquiring Minds: Harnessing the innate curiosity in our young students

If you teach the primary grades, like I do, then I don’t have to tell you that kids are constantly asking questions. At the beginning of the year, the one I hear most often is, “When is it time for lunch?”

But seriously, children are naturally inquisitive. Without any prompting, they do a lot of wondering. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what we can do in our classrooms to harness this natural curiosity and create a learning environment where inquiry-based reading and writing instruction can occur. Here are a few ideas to consider as you set up your classroom, plan your lessons and select materials.

Create Multi-Use Learning Spaces

I know when I’m working on a project, I like room to spread out and a comfortable place to sit and think. The same holds true for children. When you look around your classroom do you find spaces that invite learners to sit, read, write, think, and talk together? One way to do this is by making little “nooks” where children can work together in pairs or in small groups. I do this in my classroom by arranging my bookshelves in different ways.

As you can see in the picture here this simple design move creates cozy spaces for children to collaborate. If this is not an option in your classroom, you could also consider replacing a few of your students’ desks with tables. Then, you can use tables to meet with small groups or for students to work together on investigations that require more space. Another necessity is an area big enough to sit in a circle as a whole group and have collaborative conversations (even if this means pushing some desks out of the way!) A conversation circle invites students to question and debate each other and with you as an equal participant, rather than leader, in the discussion. Purposeful classroom design plays an important role in making children feel comfortable and in control of their own learning.

As you introduce the different areas in your classroom to your students, it is essential that you collaborate to develop guidelines for accessing and learning together in these spaces. Shared guidelines recorded on anchor charts are helpful and provide students with clear expectations that you can revisit, when needed, throughout the year.

Integrate Learning Experiences

My colleague, Katherine Phillips and I have worked diligently over the years to integrate our literacy instruction so that students can spend more time exploring connected big ideas. We share those ideas in our books Month-by-Month Trait-Based Writing Instruction and Month-by-Month Reading Instruction for the Differentiated Classroom. These resources go hand-in-hand and clearly show the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. Integrated learning experiences help children understand the connections among foundational skills, language skills, reading, writing, thinking, listening, and speaking.

Let’s say the big idea you want to explore with your students is asking and answering questions. When planning experiences for students to understand how asking and answering questions helps them as learners, you might begin by thinking aloud about your own questions as you read a story or informational text aloud. Then, during writing workshop, provide scaffolding and support as students work with a “revision buddy” to ask clarifying questions as they listen to each other’s pieces. Later, young scientists can pose their own queries about a science-related topic and conduct an investigation to find the answers. Experience after experience, children begin to understand the importance of asking and answering questions and can continue to wonder across subjects and texts.

Reach for a Wordless Book

My collection of wordless books has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years because I’ve discovered their unlimited teaching potential. At the most basic level, wordless books provide texts for independent reading for students who are still figuring out how to break the code. As “look alouds,” wordless books offer endless opportunities to question, find evidence in illustrations, develop meaning together, and infer. I tell my first graders, “A wordless book is like a puzzle with some pieces missing.” By inferring, or using our schema along with clues from the author/illustrator we can try to put the missing pieces in place together.

If you don’t have access to wordless books, you can do the same thing with old calendar photos, or interesting, detailed art prints. For a wordless book that combines art and story, check out The Hero of Little Street by Gregory Rogers where the main character finds himself in the of paintings by Vermeer and Van Eyck. This book sparked questions and conversation as we compared the book illustrations to the actual paintings!

What do you do in your classroom to invite inquiry? Inquiring minds want to know!