Using Guided Discovery

A brief introduction to Guided Discovery was given in the article on concept checking included in the ELT Glossary. If you haven't read it or aren't fully sure what GD involves, click on the link to see that article before you go on. You'll also need to have a clear understanding of the differences between deductive and inductive approaches to teaching language items - again, if you're not sure what the terms mean, click on the links before you go on with this article.

This article looks at:

  • the principles behind GD
  • its advantages over deductive approaches
  • its advantages over other T-led inductive techniques
  • situations in which a GD approach might not be appropriate

a) What are the principles behind GD?


  • It is a cognitive approach which assumes that learners (Ls) need to “notice” (Schmidt) the language– ie they need to pay conscious and cognitively "deep" attention to the form and meaning of the language items in order to acquire and retain it. The active involvement needed for GD means that the rules are more likely to be “noticed”.
  • It is a constructivist approach (Piaget, Vygotsky et al) which assumes that Ls do not just passively take in information, but work on it to assimilate or accommodate it with previous knowledge. In the case of language learning, the examples and concept check questions which usually make up the GD materials push the learners into hypothesising rules of form and use based on what they already know plus the new information that is a logical interpretation of the examples.
  • It is a problem solving approach which helps the development of higher order thinking skills (Bloom). This is particularly important in situations where the T must be an educator as well as “just” a language teacher – eg with YLs or learners with a low level of general education who need to develop effective learning strategies if they are to succeed on the course.
  • It is a Humanistic technique in as the sense that it helps develop autonomous learning skills. If learners develop the ability to analyse language in the classroom, and then check their hypotheses with reference materials (textbooks often refer Ls to a Grammar Summary at the end of the activity) they are more likely to be able to do it outside with other new items they come across.


b) What are the advantages of GD over deductive approaches?

  • Guided Discovery encourages an active approach to learning – learners realise they have to participate and “do the work” themselves and that the teacher/coursebook can’t do everything for them by giving them the rules (as in a deductive presentation).

  • Guided discovery gives Ls confidence that they can understand the language themselves and is thus motivating.  Deductive explanations leave the ls feeling they only have to “absorb” explanations they are given and that language learning is a matter of memorising rules.
  • Deductive approaches appeal to a limited number of learning preferences – mainly theorist (Honey and Mumford) and intrapersonal (Gardner). Guided Discovery can cater for various learning preferences– theorist/analytic learners; logical-mathematical intelligence; intrapersonal intelligence (if done at least initially individually) or interpersonal intelligence (if Ls then compare answers or work collaboratively from the beginning); etc.
  • If (as is usually done) Guided Discovery is done in PW or GW, it can help improve rapport within the class as Ls are working collaboratively, helping each other understand, and generally “getting to know each other” better,. Deductive explanations are, on the other hand, inevitably processed individually.  


c)  What are the advantages of GD over ii) T-led inductive  presentations.    

  • T-led presentations, as in a “traditional” PPP approach, are done in T/full class mode with the T. asking the concept check questions. If these are left open, it is usually the stronger Ls who answer and the weaker Ls are either just being “told” the answer or, may still not understand. If the T nominates specific Ls this may “put them on the spot” causing negative affect. In either case, only a limited number of Ls are fully involved and engaged. GD activities, being materials based, mean that all Ls must work on them to decide the answers.
  • The learners are fully engaged (whether working individually or collaboratively) in Guided Discovery rather than just listening to the teacher (with the possibility of attention lapsing).  Especially if working collaboratively, the  pace of the lesson is higher preventing boredom, drifting attention etc.
  • Guided discovery activities prepared by the T allow the T to facilitate learning as necessary for individual learners and differentiate the amount of help given in the materials rather than having to gear the presentation to the class as a whole. Stronger learners may need no help other than that provided by the concept questions in the activity. Weaker learners may need the materials to point them towards relevant features in the examples.

d) with what learner types and in what learning contexts might a GD approach not be appropriate? 

  • With young primary age learners who not analytic and are still developing lower order thinking skills, and who are still able to acquire the language through simple exposure rather than needing to learn it formally.
  • With some learners from educational cultures where a deductive approach to learning is normal, and the Ls expect the T. to  “tell” them the information they need – eg traditional learning contexts in Vietnam (though the government is currently trying to introduce more constructivist approaches to education). At the beginning of a long course, it might be best not to break ls expectations in a way that might be detrimental to their faith in the T’s competence. Once this had been established, more inductive methods could be gradually introduced, possibly starting with T-led concept checking before moving on to a "full" GD approach. 
  •  With learners with a low educational level (eg some migrant ESOL learners) who do not have the higher order thinking skills necessay for GD. There is a strong argument for gradually developing these over time (as in the point above) but this would take considerable time, which might not be available on shorter courses.


Photo by brookesb via flickr