Guided Discovery

Imagine the following two scenarios:

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Guided Discovery


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Imagine the following two scenarios:

1. You tell your students that, in English, we typically add the suffix -s to the end of a noun to show plurality.

2. On the board, you write the sentence, "I have one book and three pens." You draw a line under book and pens and ask students to explain what's different.

Which method do you think is more engaging for the students? If you said number two, you'd likely be a fan of the benefits of guided discovery. Guided discovery is a teaching method popular in the field of second language learning. The style encourages students to "figure things out" for themselves, leading to higher levels of knowledge retention.

Guided Discovery Learning

In second language teaching and learning, a popular teaching method is guided discovery, aka the inductive approach. Let's look at a basic definition of guided discovery:

Guided Discovery: An alternative teaching method to the traditional "lecture style" that places emphasis on critical thinking, active learning, and self-discovery. In a guided discovery lesson, the students will decipher language rules and knowledge for themselves rather than being explicitly told by the teacher.

As students discover new language for themselves in a way that is personalized and unique to their own learning style, they have a much higher chance of remembering the information — we call this knowledge retention. Learning a new language in this way can also help students, especially adult students, connect new language and knowledge with preexisting knowledge, thus building upon their schemas.


Schemas are the building blocks of knowledge. As we learn, we add new information to the previous information we already know. The activation of schemas is an essential part of language learning. For example, asking students to discuss what they ate last night will activate their schemas on food vocabulary and also the past tense. Once these schemas are activated, students will find it easier to recognize past tense conjugations, etc.

The guided discovery method can be used in several ways in an English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom, such as:

  • Teaching new vocabulary

  • Teaching new grammar

  • Making predictions when reading

  • Making predictions on the topic of a lesson

  • Summarizing a lesson

Guided Discover, Image of students, StudySmarterFig 1. Guided discovery can make lessons more engaging.

Guided Discovery Method

According to the American psychologist and constructivist Jerome Bruner, there are five main principles behind the guided discovery method. These are:

  • Problem-solving - teachers should encourage students to find answers and solutions for themselves.

  • Learner management - teachers should give students the opportunity to learn at their own pace in their own style.

  • Connection - students should be encouraged to make connections between old and new knowledge.

  • Information analysis - students should analyze and interpret new knowledge as it arises rather than remembering facts.

  • Failure and feedback - students should feel free to learn by making mistakes. The teacher provides appropriate feedback to complete the learning process.

Constructivists believe that students build their own understanding of knowledge based on their own lived experiences.

Now we know the principles behind guided discovery, let's look at some teaching styles and techniques.

Guided Discovery Teaching Style

If students are supposed to discover new things for themselves in guided discovery, does that mean teachers can sit back and relax? The answer is, of course not! Guided discovery requires a specific teaching style. Although the goal of guided discovery is to remove the teacher as the main "explainer," teachers must scaffold lessons carefully, providing the correct amount of guidance, feedback, error correction, and motivation.

In the teaching world, the term scaffolding refers to an instructional process whereby the teacher puts provisions in place to support students' learning and then slowly removes the support as their understanding develops. An example of scaffolding is providing students with sentence structures and then slowly removing the structures as the students begin to produce complete sentences themselves.

When planning a guided discovery lesson, the teacher must consider the following:

  • Resources: The inductive approach typically requires a lot of examples, images, videos, etc.

  • The appropriateness of the resources: The language should not be too difficult for their level.

  • What leading and concept-checking questions they will ask

  • A backup plan: Are they ready to switch back to more-traditional methods if the students are struggling?

Concept-checking questions are carefully thought-out questions that check students' understanding of new concepts.

When teaching a guided discovery lesson, the teacher should:

  • Provide guidance

  • Avoid talking too much

  • Error correct

  • Ask leading questions

  • Elicit answers and ideas from students

  • Confirm when students are correct

  • Keep students focused

  • Raise awareness

Inductive vs. Deductive Teaching

One of the best ways to understand the role of the teacher in a guided discovery lesson is by comparing it to the teacher's role in a more traditional class, i.e., one using the deductive approach.

The deductive approach typically involves the teacher providing the students with the rule for particular language use, e.g., the general rule for using the past perfect tense. The students then apply this rule to help them work through worksheets, activities, etc.

On the other hand, the inductive approach involves the students being given a piece of language and then being guided to discover the rule themselves.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Guided Discovery

Now we know the basics of the guided discovery method, let's look at some of its advantages and disadvantages.

Benefits of Guided Discovery

The guided discovery method has several benefits, such as:

  • Encourages critical thinking and active learning

  • Encourages communication and gets students talking

  • Likely to lead to higher levels of knowledge retention

  • Knowledge is learned in a way that is meaningful to each individual student

  • Is learning by "doing"

  • Can be more engaging and fun

  • Encourages a scientific way of learning

  • Moves away from rote learning and memorization

Disadvantages of Guided Discovery

Despite its many benefits, there are some disadvantages to guided discovery, including:

  • Lessons losing focus

  • Preparing the correct resources can take longer

  • Requiring specific eliciting skills from the teacher

  • The teacher reverting back to more traditional teaching styles without realizing

  • The method isn't always appropriate

Guided discovery, Image of students, StudySmarterFig 2. Guided discovery promotes communication among students.

Guided Discovery Examples

Before we look at some examples of the guided discovery method in action, let's look at an overview of everything a guided discovery lesson should be:

  • Student-centered
  • Communicative
  • Monitored
  • Task-based
  • Guided
  • Consolidated (i.e., plenty of feedback given)

Let's now look at some ESL activities that follow the guided discovery method. We'll begin by looking at an activity that introduces new vocabulary and then one that introduces grammar.

Introducing new food vocabulary

Begin by placing an image of a burger with its surrounding utensils and condiments up on the board. Ask students what vocabulary they already know relating to the image to activate their schemas. Then, ask the students questions to encourage them to discover new vocabulary, such as:

"I like to dunk my french fries in tomato ketchup (use TPR). Can you find the ketchup in the picture?"

"I hate lettuce in my burger. I don't like eating green food. Can you find the lettuce?"

Students can then do a vocabulary-to-image matching activity to cement their learning. Once the activity is complete, students can mark each others' work, and any mistakes or confusion can be discussed as a class.

TPR stands for Total Physical Response. It is a teaching technique that involves using hand actions to provide context and support for language learners.

Teaching the present perfect tense

Find or create a piece of text that contains multiple examples of the present perfect tense. This could be a dialogue between two people asking what exciting things they have or haven't done in life.

For example:

Person A: I'd love to visit Morocco! Have you ever been?

Person B: No, I have never visited, but I have been to Egypt. Have you visited Egypt before?

Person A: Yes, I have! I went scuba diving there. Have you ever scuba-dived?

Person B: No, not yet.

Next, it's time to activate the student's schemas and set the context with a gist task. This could be done by asking the students what cool thing person A has done that person B hasn't and then by asking the students, "what's the coolest thing you have ever done?"

Now onto the grammar. It's the teacher's job to get students to draw out the important language and sentence structures from the text. This can be done by asking concept-checking questions like "Has Person A scuba dived before?" "Do they want to?" and "Do they still have the opportunity to?" A timeline could also be drawn to show that Person B's life is not over yet, so they still have the chance to scuba dive. Finally, ask students to identify the sentence structure and key words that express the correct tense.

The students can then practice the new tense by completing a worksheet and then asking each other "Have you ever...?" questions.

Guided Discovery - Key takeaways

  • Guided discovery is an alternative teaching method to the traditional "lecture style" that emphasizes critical thinking, active learning, and self-discovery.
  • In a guided discovery based lesson, the teacher should move away from the "explainer" role, and the students should discover new information themselves.
  • Guided discovery is also known as the inductive approach. The inductive approach is often compared to the deductive approach.
  • Whereas the deductive approach gives students a rule and then sets activities, the inductive approach encourages students to find the rule from the activities.
  • Some benefits of guided discovery include an increase in communication, encouraging critical thinking skills, being student-centered, higher levels of knowledge retention, and more engagement.

Frequently Asked Questions about Guided Discovery

An example of a guided discovery activity in the classroom is naming new vocabulary words and encouraging students to find the correct image. This involves trial and error and is student-centered.

The effectiveness of guided discovery often depends on the teacher. A good guided discovery lesson requires careful planning and thoughtful questioning.

Some guided discovery techniques include:

  • Asking concept-checking questions
  • Scaffolding 
  • Proving feedback
  • Trial and error
  • Matching activities 
  • Image circling

The psychologist Jerome Bruner identified the 5 principles of guided discovery as: problem-solving, learner management, communication, information analysis, and failure and feedback.

Arguably, the two main goals of guided discovery are facilitating deep learning and making lessons student-centered. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which approach involves giving students a language rule and then asking them to work through an activity based on that rule?

Which word best describes the role of the teacher in a guided discovery lesson?

A guided discovery lesson is...


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