G is for Guided Discovery

5 06 2011

A colleague in the Czech Republic emailed me this week, asking about guided discovery – a term he felt was being used rather too freely by his graduate students:

“I’ve had a bit of a hunt round looking for some empirical work on guided discovery. Know you of anything? For I have found a big fat nothing”.

I emailed back:

“Can I clarify – is it the ‘guided’ or the ‘discovery’ that concerns you? That is, do you accept that discovery learning (aka induction) is valid, but your question is about the (degree of) guidance? Or are you questioning the whole notion of discovery learning , whether guided or not?”

My friend responded:

“In answer to your question, I guess it’s the whole notion of discovery learning – where’s the evidence?”

First of all: What is discovery learning – and guided discovery, in particular?

Discovery learning, according to Richards & Schmidt (2002) is where “learners develop processes associated with discovery and inquiry by observing, inferring, formulating hypotheses, predicting and communicating” (p. 162).  Unlike pure, deep-end induction, however, guided discovery implies a degree of external intervention, typically engineered by the teacher, in the form of graduated exposure to data and carefully placed questions. This function could also be assumed by a task-sheet, or sequence of computer commands, each contingent on an assessment of the current state of the learner’s evolving understanding.

The actual degree of guidance can vary a lot. It might simply take the form of such attention-grabbing devices as a conspicuously frequent number of occurences of the targeted item in a text (also known as input flood), or the use of design features, such as enlarged font, to highlight the item in question (input enhancement). These will usually be accompanied by some instruction to search for, extract, and label a grammatical pattern. Corpus concordances, where instances of a word in its context are organised so that the target word (the node) is aligned, are an example of both input flood and input enhancement.

Guidance is typically mediated by questions, each question challenging learners to advance their understanding one further step. Clearly, the notion of asking questions as a means of co-constructing learning  maps neatly onto a sociocultural model of learning, where the teacher is working within the learners’ zone of proximal development in order to scaffold their emergent learning.

In conjunction with the question sequence, or as an alternative to it, new data may be progressively made available to the learners, challenging them to review and restructure their current state of knowledge.  Indeed, Pit Corder went so far as to argue that “teaching is a matter of providing the learner with the right data at the right time” (1988, p. 33).

In recent years, the concept of (guided) discovery learning has tended to merge with the notion of consciousness-raising (CR) – the common ground being that activities are structured in such a way as to invite learners to develop their own hypotheses about the targeted feature of the language. As an example of a CR approach, learners might be given limited information about a grammatical form (e.g. that the past is formed by the addition of the -ed suffix), and are then invited to apply the rule in a communicative context – whereupon they come up against the rule’s limitations. This in turn requires them to restructure their existing knowledge. This technique, known as ‘up-the-garden-path’ teaching, views the testing of hypotheses, and the inevitable error making that results, as an integral part of the learning process.

Does guided discovery work? To answer this question, we need first to know whether inductive (or data-driven) learning has an advantage over deductive (or rule-driven) learning. Reviewing the research Ellis (2008), concludes that “a tentative general conclusion might be that deductive FFI [form-focused instruction] is more effective than inductive FFI (when both involve practice activities) but it is possible that this may in part depend on the learner’s preferred learning style” (p. 882).  Later in the same work, though, he is more equivocal:  “Both inductive and deductive explicit instruction appear to work with no clear evidence in favour of either” (p. 903).

On discovery learning itself, Ellis is less cautious.  In Ellis (2002) he states that “a discovery-based approach to teaching explicit knowledge has much to recommend it” (p. 164). One reason is that, arguably, a rule that has been ‘discovered’ is more memorable than one that has simply been presented. Moreover, practice in identifying patterns in naturally-occurring data, and hypothesising rules from these patterns, is undoubtedly useful preparation for self-directed and autonomous learning.

And finally, as Ellis points out, the exercise of working collaboratively with other students in hypothesising rules is useful communicative practice in its own right: “Talking about grammar might be more meaningful than talking about the kinds of general topics often found in communicative language courses” (p. 165). At the same time, as he points out in the first edition of his 2008 tome, “Not all learners will be interested in or capable of inducing explicit representations of grammatical rules” (Ellis 1994, p. 645).

Indeed, Ellis’s own research in this area has produced contradictory results. In one study this may have been due  to the failure of the teacher in question to execute discovery learning properly, which leads Ellis to warn that “this may reflect an inherent limitation of such tasks – namely, that they require considerable expertise and care on the part of the instructor to ensure they work” (p. 165).

On the same note, Scrivener (2005) advises teachers that “guided discovery is demanding on both you and the learner, and although it may look artless to a casual observer, it isn’t enough to throw a task at the learners, let them do it and then move on. Guided discovery requires imagination and flexibility” (p. 268).

As either a learner or a teacher, has guided discovery worked for you?


Corder, S.P. (1988) Pedagogic Grammars. In Rutherford, W., & Sharwood Smith, M. (eds.) Grammar and Second Language Teaching: A Book of Readings. Boston, MA.: Heinle & Heinle.

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (2002) Methodological options in grammar teaching materials. In Hinkel, E., & Fotos, S. (eds.) New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrenece Erlbaum.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.) Harlow: Longman.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan.

Illustrations from F.T.D. (1923) Método de Inglés: Segundo Libro. Mexico, D.F.: Mexico.