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Ways to facilitate language development through concept-based inquiry

Evelyn Galan, Deputy Principal and PYP coordinator, MEF International School, Turkey

Educators today are commonly working in multilingual classrooms and face the challenge of engaging a linguistically diverse population through concept-based inquiry while simultaneously supporting language development for the language of instruction. These students enter the classroom with funds of knowledge on which new learning can be built. This article brings together effective practices for language development and concept-based inquiry to simplify some important principles all educators should consider.

As an international educator, most of my action research questions have focused on the needs of language learners. I have been driven out of a desire to meet their needs and help my students achieve their full potential. Questions about how language works, how to teach literacy skills efficiently and effectively, the role of home language, what tools and systems will help, and finally how to both foster and capture conceptual understandings drove me to read, research and attend professional development courses. Through research I have discovered a few fundamental learning principles that are relevant to all international educators no matter the context or language of instruction. These learning principles can positively impact the learning for all students. Conceptual understandings can both deepen and become visible to the learning community. Their self-efficacy and sense of agency will grow as they reflect on learning that was relevant, engaging and comprehensible.

Principle 1
Give sufficient time for exploration through experiential learning. Use it for pre-assessment, to identify misconceptions, to draw out questions and to cultivate curiosity while making language development relevant.

The mathematics process of developing conceptual understandings applies to all learning (Van de Walle, Lovin, Karp and Bay-Williams, 2014).

Piaget and Vygotsky have shown that learning is constructed through tangible, concrete, social experiences (Woolfolk, 2014). The more concrete, hands-on experiences our students can have throughout the unit of inquiry, especially in the first couple of weeks, the more powerful and meaningful the inquiry will be for them (Fahey, 2012). Using concrete learning experiences fosters language development by making the content comprehensible (Hamza, 2016). It makes learning tangible, which in turn fosters the curiosity needed for questioning. Through experiential exploration, students can make connections to their funds of knowledge, and identify relevant local issues alongside deepening questions for the investigation stage (Custance, Dare and Polias, 2012).

During “where we are in place and time”, our central idea was about settlements and landforms. Through research, I discovered scripted process drama (Barnes, Johnson & Neff, 2010). After giving my students time to cultivate some curiosity through listening to short stories read aloud, listening to guest speakers share stories about migration, observing pictures of early settlements and a field trip to the Citadel, I was able to facilitate the scripted process drama to engage their imagination, pre-assess understandings and draw out some questions for our investigation such as:

  • How did people build homes in the past?
  • How did people survive in the past?
  • How do people find a spot to start a town?

Through the weekly use of learning stories, I was able to monitor developing understandings as students reflected each week. Reflections showed developing understandings.

“We learned how people in the past were working to get water and food to survive. They need a home and wood to make a home.”

Principle 2
The learning environment as the third teacher is where learning takes place and should be a stimulating, anxiety free space where mistakes are seen as opportunities and where the voice of the child is heard as a social environment.

All learning—is itself linguistic activity. Whatever you learn, you are engaged in language; learning involves ’languaging’ — M. A. K. Halliday (2016)

Foster a learning environment that meets the students where they are and cultivates a culture of curiosity, growth mindset and social construction of ideas within their zone of proximal development (Dweck 2016; Woolfolk, 2014). The environment should honor learning and provide resources to make learning accessible. According to Loris Malaguzzi, the learning environment is the third teacher as it represents our values and beliefs about children, delivering the unspoken messages about children’s rights (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998). John Dewey wrote about the power of an environment and its role in social function for bringing about change and social improvement over perpetuating the old behaviors that benefit a few (2015). Value home identity and culture through the strategy of translanguaging to foster understandings by using home language to make meaning at critical times (Garcia & Kleyn, 2016).

Make home language welcome in the classroom from the first day of school by honoring the student’s identity through language profiles. Translanguaging used thoughtfully, at critical learning moments enables students to converse in their home language to make meaning (Garcia, & Kleyn, 2016). Use the think-pair-share strategy for a translanguaging moment. Visual scaffolding connects pictures with text for meaning making (Harrel, & Jordan, 2015). The environment in my classroom became a visible language rich resource and my students could easily refer to the displays to support making connections and language needs.

During “how we express ourselves”, we deconstructed traditional stories to identify the elements while creating a visual display for accessibility of information.

A class concept map of materials and matter that we constructed and extended each week through discussion on “how the world works”.

For “sharing the planet”, we used concept maps throughout the entire unit of inquiry. Team Frayer Models were used to develop definitions of a living thing.

To foster a social learning environment, recognize that all learners benefit from time to learn together as a whole group through modeled thinking and instruction, in small groups and in pairs (Custance et al, 2012). Students need opportunities to deconstruct things such as a genre or process and to construct as a whole group and in small groups before you can expect them to try it alone (Custance et al, 2012). That is why transdisciplinary learning is so beneficial for the inquiry-based classroom. Language reading and writing skills can be taught and developed throughout the inquiry process within a relevant context as they learn to read and write about what they are learning through the transdisciplinary theme. Integrating the targeted genre via a summative assessment task, gives the genre context for meaningful engagement with the language strands (IB, 2018). Below are some examples of genre integration.

Sharing the planet How we express ourselves How the world works How we organize ourselves
Living things depend on their natural environments for survival. Traditional stories tell about cultures and beliefs from around the world. Materials behave and interact in certain ways, which determine how people use them. People create organizations to solve problems and support human endeavor and enterprise.

Prepare a non-fiction text about the living thing investigated. Provide visuals, graphs, maps, and interesting details. Use headings, sub-headings and captions.


With your partner, write a retell of a favorite folktale, fairytale, legend or myth complete with illustrations.


Write the procedure for conducting a science experiment that helped investigate the answer to a question. Include a list of materials and steps to follow.


Interview a person who overcame a significant challenge. Write a Human Story including the elements (before, the problem, overcoming the problem and now)

Principle 3
Explicitly teach, model and construct generalizations together throughout the inquiry process. Give more time for thinking and synthesizing.

During “how we organize ourselves”, we organized the concepts we learned about organizations in the first weeks of inquiry together on the carpet.

We worked together as a class to generate a statement of understanding about organizations.

Our understanding was including on the classroom display to refer to as the unit of inquiry continued.

Hattie and Yates suggest that concepts serve as mental “coat hangers” allow our students to organize their learning to make sense of it (2014). Just as we take the time to explicitly model and teach literacy or mathematics processes and skills, it is essential to teach and model the skill to make generalizations. Generate-Sort-Connect-Extend is an example of a visible thinking strategy that encourages students to make connections between concepts by drawing a line to connect concepts and identifying a new generalization (Ritchart et al, 2011). It extends the concept map to facilitate transfer. Hexagonal thinking is another way for students to organize their learning visually and then create generalizations to state why the concepts are connected to each other.

The IB Prmary Years Programme (PYP) approaches to learning now include the skill of “information transfer”, which recognizes our role in facilitating transfer (IB, 2018). There are many tools that you can use to help students make connections to the concepts while also making their thinking visible to the learning community. Begin to explore this area of instruction. Our language learners can participate in concept-based inquiry while learning a second or third language if the supports are in place. Language learners develop understandings and language simultaneously when provided the support, tools and a language rich environment.

Hexagonal thinking where students write a concept or idea they learned on each hexagon and then begin to sort them. Make generalizations afterwards.

Sorting macro and micro concepts to generalize. Generate all the concepts learned, sort the macro concepts (those that affect many) to the top and the remaining micro concepts stay on the bottom. Make generalizations.

Visual scaffolding of the unit vocabulary, the class questions organized on the iceberg and a graph on sugar from our choices unit on “who we are”.


Barnes, M K, Johnson, E C and Neff, L. 2010. Learning through process drama in the first grade. Social Studies and the Young Learner 22 (4) 19-24.

Custance, B, Dare, B and Polias, J. 2012. Teaching ESL in the mainstream: language and learning across the curriculum, 3rd ed. South Australia: DECD Publishing

Dewey, J. 2015.  John Dewey: The collected works of John Dewey [Kindle edition]. PergamonMedia.

Dweck, C S. 2016.  Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Edwards, C, Gandini, L, and Forman, G. 1998. The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach – advanced reflections, 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Erickson, H L. 2007. Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Fahey, J. 2012. Ways to do inquiry: Guiding children to deeper understanding. Cardiff: International Baccalaureate

Garcia, O and Kleyn, T. 2016. Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments. New York, NY: Routledge.

Halliday, M A K and Webster, J J. 2016. Aspects of language and learning, 1st ed. Sydney, NSW: Springer.

Harrel, A L and Jordan, M. 2015. 50 strategies for teaching English language learners, 5th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Hattie, J and Yates, G C R. 2014. Visible learning and the science of how we learn. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hagemans, M G, van der Meij, H, & de Jong, T. 2013. The effects of a concept map-based support tool on simulation-based inquiry learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(1), 1-24. doi:10.1037/a0029433

Learning and teaching. International Baccalaureate. 2018. Cardiff, Wales: Peterson House.

Murdoch, K. 2015. The power of inquiry. Northcote, Vic: Seastar Education.

Ritchart, R, Church, M, and Morrison, K. 2011. Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence of all learners. San Franscisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

William, D. 2011. Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Woolfolk, A. 2014. Educational psychology: Active learning addition, 12th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Hamza, T. Stephen Krashen: Language Acquisition and comprehensible input. Retrieved from: 28 January2016.

Van de Walle, J, Lovin, L H, Karp, K S, and Bay-Williams, J M. 2014. Teaching student-centered mathematics: Developmentally appropriate instruction for grades pk-2, Vol. 1, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Pearson.

Evelyn Galan has 15 years of experience in working in international education, having lived in five different countries. She currently works as an international educator, serving as the Deputy Principal and PYP coordinator at MEF International School in Istanbul, Turkey. She is a certified Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) workshop leader. Previously she was a homeroom teacher in an IB PYP multilingual school in Erbil, Iraq teaching grade 2 as well as facilitating English as a Second Language in the mainstream workshops for the faculty. Evelyn began her career in international education in Cancun, Mexico where she served as English coordinator and homeroom teacher in a bilingual school over a period of 11 years. Working with language learners throughout her entire career in education has taught her to seek out best practice strategies in order to meet the learning needs of her students and to support the needs of her colleagues. You can follow her on Twitter @Leona_alegre.





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4 Responses to Ways to facilitate language development through concept-based inquiry

  1. Aicha Aniba 18 May 2019 at 5:38 am #

    This is brilliant, I felt you really spoke directly to my own practice and experience and really appreciated how you embedded your own practice with evidence.

    I almost completely agreed with everything!

    The pictures were tantalizing, but for some the detail not clear. It would be hugely beneficial if you could share the conceptualization and graphic organizers, by breaking down the activity or sharing the lesson plan.

    I look forward to reading more from you. Your style is much appreciated a breath of fresh air in the blogosphere!

  2. Evelyn H Galan 25 May 2019 at 4:15 pm #

    Aicha, Thank you for such positive feedback. This synthesis of research took many years of pursuing the answers to various research questions. I am happy to connect with you and share some of the ideas I have done. In the pictures above, the Frayer Model was one of the graphic organizers used.

  3. WC Sullivan 16 October 2020 at 7:59 am #

    Evelyn we are so proud of you learning and work!! Jennifer and are able to follow you from afar. And are involved in language study systems that impact veterinary medical learning. We love you and would love to spend time with you. So much has changed and you still have a special place in our hearts, Bill and Jennifer Sullivan.

  4. Evelyn Galan 15 January 2022 at 12:52 pm #

    Bill and Jennifer, I would love to catch up with you and catch up on life together. It would be fun to talk language, multilingualism, and language development with you! Yes, so much has changed but the memories of our times together feel like yesterday.

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