Guided Discovery in Teaching Essay Writing


A lot of work has been done on the benefits of inductive versus deductive teaching in ELT, especially when it comes to teaching grammar points. An inductive approach basically provides learners with input, i.e. examples of the target, and requires them to find the rules for usage, that is to infer to usage of a form from examples of its use. It is inductive teaching that forms the basis for Discovery Learning, which adds in the element of ‘guidance’.


Scott Thornbury, in his blog post “G is for Guided Discovery” explores what the ‘guided’ part of ‘guided discovery’ means – mainly the teacher grading the input to suit learners’ current level of undestanding, and often formulating targetted questions to getting them thinking about the particular elements we want them to discover. He also discusses the relation to consciousness-raising activities, which are often used in teaching vocabulary and grammar points. But can Guided Discovery also be used for teaching essay writing? Since Scott Thornbury states “Guidance is typically mediated by questions, each question challenging learners to advance their understanding one further step”, I’d argue yes!


Guided Discovery is generally accepted to be effective in the long term because the learners are more actively involved in acquiring knowledge, which aids memory. As Scott Thornbury explains, the approach can be seen to fit in with a Sociocultural model of learning, where learners are encouraged to enter/work in their ‘zone of proximal development’, i.e. working on something just above their current level of understanding that enhances their natural learning curiosity and progress. It also basically assumes that we learn by making, testing and adjusting hypotheses on the basis of input – and in Guided Discovery the teacher guides the input on which learners will base their hypotheses and prompts them with questions that scaffold the testing and adjusting stages.


So here’s (a suggestion of) how to do it, focussing on teaching paragraph structure:

– Provide students with (a) good example(s) of (a) text(s) which follow(s) the structural pattern(s) you would like them to adopt and will be understandable to your students, taking account of their current level of language competence.

– Provide students with questions about the example text(s) which guide them to discover its key structural features.

– Discuss in class, or encourage students to discuss in groups, what they have discovered, and check that everyone is on the same page.

I have done this recently to introduce the concept of a paragraph by giving students an example paragraph (one that functions as a stand-alone text) and an example essay. I then simply asked them to figure out:

  • What is a paragraph?
  • Why do we use paragraphs in writing?
  • What is the typical function of a paragraph’s first sentence?

You can also do it on a more specific level, for instance looking at the structural features of a paragraph/essay with a specific function. Here’s an example of a task I gave my students, which is looking at compare/contrast writing:

There is a ‘strong’ version of the communicative approach to foreign language teaching and a ‘weak’ version, which differ because of their understandings of language acquisition. The weak version, which has become more or less standard practice in the last ten years, stresses the importance of providing learners with opportunities to use their English for communicative purposes and, characteristically, attempts to integrate such activities into a wider program of language teaching. It tends to address the conditions needed to promote second language learning, rather than the processes of language acquisition. The ‘strong’ version of communicative learning, on the other hand, advances the claim that language is acquired through communication. In contrast to the weak version, then, this version assumes that it is not merely a question of activating an existing, inert knowledge of the language, but rather of stimulating the development of the language system itself through active communication. If the former could be described as ‘learning to use’ English, the latter rather entails ‘using English to learn it’. [Adapted from: Howatt, A.P.R., A History of English Language Teaching (O.U.P.: 1984), p. 279.]
  1. What two items are the topic of the paragraph?
  2. Is the paragraph mainly a contrast (showing differences), a comparison (showing similarities), or both?
  3. How does the Topic Sentence give you the answers to questions a and b?
  4. What information is given about the first item? What information is given about the second item?
  5. What transitions are used to move between the two items, and/or between the points of analysis?
  6. Would you say that this paragraphs simply consists of two descriptions joined together? Why (not)?
  7. What information is given in the concluding sentence?

Another activity often used in teaching academic writing is giving students two or more versions of a text and asking them to discover the differences and assess which one is better and why. I often use this kind of task when teaching formal expression or hedging/cautious language. Here’s a task I’ve borrowed from Purser, E., Studienbegleiter Academic Writing Anglistik-Amerikanistik (Cornelsen, 2004), chapter III:

Order the following versions of a text from the most conversational to the most academic, and note down your reasons (e.g. features of the language that support your ordering).
1. By 1861, as many Americans lived west of the Allengheny-Appalachian mountains as east of them, largely in the valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries or along the shores of the Great Lakes; for until the railroads came, waterways were the key to the advance of settlement and the movement of goods.
2.  Back when the American Civil War began, just as many people were living to the west of the Appalachian mountains as to the east of them, and people on the west side mostly lived near water because there weren’t any trains in those days and so people had to use the rivers and lakes to get around, so they tended to live along the Mississippi or small rivers running into it, or around the Great Lakes.        
3. Prior to the advent of rail transportation, the Mississippi and its tributary valleys, and the shores of the Great Lakes, attracted the highest concentrations of a population just as dense west of the Allegheny-Apallachian mountain chain, by 1861, as east of it.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this kind of teaching will put all the responsibility onto the students and you’ll be able to sit back and relax, though! Finding suitable “input” and composing the right questions to guide students’ discovery can be time consuming – and you also have to ‘do’ the task yourself to be prepared for questions and discussions afterwards. If you think these tasks are nothing new, and very similar to what you’re doing already, then you’re already applying this effective form of inductive teaching to your essay writing classes – but maybe now you have the terminology to give a name to how you teach! Maybe you’d like to share other Guided Discovery activities you’ve used for teaching essay writing in the comments below 🙂


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