Enquiry-based learning for languages

Date: 26 June, 2009
Location: University of Durham - Elvet Riverside 2 room 206 and 207
Event type: Workshop


students in class

Past event summary

Enquiry-Based Learning for teaching languages has only recently been applied to language learning. However, a growing interest for this method has appeared in the past few years among language tutors in British universities. After the success of the EBL in languages conference held at CEEBL (Centre for Excellence in Enquiry Based Learning), Manchester in September 2008, it clearly appears that there is a need for further investigation and diffusion of knowledge about EBL. We would like to offer a frame for reflection on this method through the presentation of case studies and practical sessions where participants will be able to discuss EBL issues and also exchange ideas and experience. To this will be added the opportunity to gain advice to create one’s own EBL project, for instance with the creation of scenario. We would like to offer sessions on the creation of tasks for the residence abroad, for interdisciplinary projects, teaching grammar, peer assisted learning, specialized language course (business and medical).

We will also discussed themes essential to the EBL method such as the autonomy of the learner, problem solving and critical thinking, transferable skills and employability, facilitation and the role of the tutor and assessment and monitoring. This workshop will be offered to all those involved in language teaching at university level in order to familiarize themselves with EBL or for those already using this method, to exchange ideas and best practice. This event will take place in Durham and we hope to touch upon tutors and lecturers in the north of England and in Scotland.

This event is being organised by Theresa Federici, at Durham University and Catherine Franc at University of Manchester under the Subject Centre's Workshops to go scheme. Please email t.j.federici@durham.ac.uk or C.franc@manchester.ac.uk for more information.

Refreshments and catering will be provided.

Workshop fee

There is a £10 registration fee for this event. After registering online, you will receive a confirming email confirming your place and details on where to send the £10 registration fee.

Programme for 26 June 2009
Time Session
09.30 - 10.00 Welcome and registration
10.00 - 10.15 Introduction to EBL
Norman Powell
Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning,
University of Manchester

Powerpoint Slides

10.15 - 10.45 EBL for a Year Abroad Project
Catherine Franc, University of Manchester
10.45 - 11.15 EBL for Speaking & Listening – a case study with mixed results!
Graham Webb, Leeds Metropolitan University

Powerpoint Slides

11.15 - 11.30 Break
11.30 - 12.00 EBL for Grammar: The PAGES project
Annie Morton, University of Manchester

Powerpoint Slides

12.00 - 12.30 Integrating EBL within assessment in HE
Christine O’Leary, Sheffield Hallam University
12.30 - 13.15 Lunch
13.15 - 13.45 Individual EBL projects in the language teaching programme
Theresa Federici, Durham University

Powerpoint Slides

13.45 - 14.15 EBL for EAP
Steve Kirk and Louise Greener, Durham University

Powerpoint Slides

14.15 - 14.30 Break
14.30 - 15.00 Facilitation: the challenge of a different role for tutors
Julie Lawton, Consultant in Enquiry-Based Learning
15.00 - 15.30 Use Language to Change the World
Susana Lorenzo-Zamorano, University of Manchester
15.30 - 16.00 Round table and close

Event report: Enquiry-based Learning in Language Teaching

by Katalin Egri Ku-Mesu

Introduction to EBL

Norman Powell, Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-based Learning, University of Manchester

Norman started his presentation by outlining the aims of EBL, which he identified as ‘to expand and enhance the practice, understanding and profile of EBL, institutionally, nationally and internationally, with the result that everyone engaged in […] EBL will become capable, committed, curious, collaborative, scholarly and life-long learners through enquiry.’ He then outlined the areas EBL draws on, these being problem-based learning (PBL), where the exploration of scenarios drives the learning experience; small scale investigations, which include fieldwork and case studies; and projects and research, where the emphasis should be on the encouragement of a research-based approach to projects and processes.

Norman emphasised that EBL is student-centred. Learning is driven by the process of enquiry, which demands action from the students, who, thereby, can take charge of their own learning. The understanding why they are learning also provides motivation for the students.

The following model of EBL by Louise Goldring and Jamie Wood was used by Norman to illustrate the processes at work in EBL:

The reasons why one should consider using EBL were identified as follows: EBL facilitates transition into and through higher education; it creates an environment for knowledge, cultural and social integration; it is effective in creating lifelong learners; it facilitates inter-professional and interdisciplinary learning; it links teaching, learning and research; and, through the skills it develops (e.g. team-working, leadership, communication, organisation, information retrieval and appraisal), it enhances employability.

Norman brought his presentation to a conclusion by offering the following points:

  • [At the Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-based Learning] we believe that EBL is the most natural, creative and enduring method of learning;
  • EBL is conformable to nature; it creates learning situations that replicate those encountered by people in everyday life.
  • It is creative because the spirit of enquiry releases the individual and group power of learners to seek imaginative responses to problems;
  • It is enduring because autonomous control of processes ensures a deep engagement with every stage of learning.

EBL for the Year Abroad

Catherine Franc, University of Manchester

Catherine gave an account of the year abroad project for students specialising in French at the University of Manchester.

As part of their degree programme, students spend a compulsory 8 weeks to one year in France engaged in different activities which include language schools, dissertation research, studying at university, language assistantship and work experience. Currently there is no compulsory accreditation, and, on their return, the students need to present only a proof of stay and a learning log consisting of  compulsory questionnaires and two voluntary exercises. The result is a disappointing final year with little progression. This comes as a consequence of culture shock, leading to the students’ isolation and formation of English speaking cliques, which prevents the students from actively engaging with the language and culture.

EBL has been envisaged as a likely solution to the problem as it contains a research element, allows for flexibility, prepares students for final-year independent research, allows the students some freedom, has been adapted to languages, and, through the development of soft skills, enhances employability.

The year abroad project aims to engage students in the research of language and culture, so it is suitable for all languages, not just for French. The topics included in the Manchester French project are anglicisms, slang and regionalisms, linking the project to the final-year language programme and some of the module choices, and encouraging not only research in language, sociolinguistics and culture, but also direct communication and academic learning. Uncertainties around the assessment of the project still remain due to constraints on the tutors’ and lecturers’ workload and exam procedures, and because no firm decision has been made on the timing and the value and type of the assessment.

The piloting of the project started in April 2008 and is in progress to be concluded in July/September 2009. The results so far are mixed. Students seem to have shown moderate interest in the project - out of about 200 second -year students only 9 volunteered for the pilot study, and retention, as Catherine put it, is ‘very disappointing’, with only 5 students still left in the project. There also seem to be communication problems. Despite this, the first student presentation has been very encouraging. It is believed that, in spite of the teething problems, the project offers excellent potential for the whole School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures’ residence abroad programme. It, however, needs to be tested on larger numbers of students and, possibly, in collaboration with other UK universities.

EBL for Speaking and Listening: A case study with mixed results!

Graham Webb, Leeds Metropolitan University

Graham recounted the details of the Eurofone Project for second year students who, in their third year, go abroad as part of their study programme.

The project involved the use of Web CT voice tools, namely, voice board (an audio-enabled discussion board) to link students in the UK with students in France, Spain and Germany to provide practice in speaking and listening skills. As Principal Lecturer in Spanish, Graham focused on the links established with students in Murcia, Spain. The UK students and students in Murcia were linked in groups of four and could communicate in their own or in the target language to find out about everything they needed to know before going abroad. The task for the UK students was to produce a short document containing information, guidance, vocabulary, suggestions, etc. that would be of use to future students going abroad.

It was envisaged that the students would

  • gain improved listening and speaking skills;
  • have increased confidence in the use of the target language;
  • engage with peers;
  • be able to assess their own needs.

The benefit to the students was expected to include

  • help with integrating when abroad;
  • personal contacts;
  • gaining skills in how to be ‘coached’ and how to ‘coach’ others in language learning;
  • engagement in effective technology-enhanced learning;
  • learning how to set objectives.

The findings highlighted the students’ attitudes to Eurofone as a resource. First of all, there were no problems getting volunteers for this project. However, the students ignored the guidelines and the EBL focus, asked very general questions, and, instead of gathering information, they tried to find a friend and asked them questions personal and pertinent to themselves. They used the voice board for their own purposes, avoiding what they felt a ‘constraint’. They saw the opportunity provided and exploited it, and, eventually,  they also gathered some cultural information. In the students’ opinion the technology worked fine and the resource was extremely flexible. They, however, felt that the EBL focus was ‘too constraining’ and to stick to it seemed ‘false’.

From the teacher’s point of view, with Eurofone the EBL framework was seen as flexible. It was, however, found that where there existed a robust and flexible resource, students would exploit it for their learning, but they might engage with the opportunity provided to set their own agenda. So, in this instance, the EBL framework was not seen as sufficiently engaging. In the future, students may need to be given greater freedom in deciding how they use Eurofone. If guidelines are given, they need to be phrased differently and need to be flexible. As some students need more guidelines than others, perhaps, a range of discussion boards can be offered on accommodation, university life, lifestyle, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll and sport.

The overall conclusion was that the students put themselves in the centre of learning and they empowered themselves. The results were not what was expected, but they were very positive nonetheless.

EBL for Grammar: The PAGeS project

Annie Morton, University of Manchester

An EBL approach to language learning was adopted in French Studies at Manchester for students in the first-year compulsory core language module after it was established that students perceived learning language rules as dull, and considered additional independent learning and practising of French boring and/or unnecessary. The question was how to encourage and engage them.

It was felt that the requirements of language accuracy called for the employment of a task-based mode rather than pure EBL, but that this mode still allowed for independent enquiry in the form of research.

The phonetics and pronunciation project was planned for two semesters only. The preparation in semester 1 was followed, in semester 2, by two weeks’ research done by the students in groups on their given topic. The students prepared a presentation in which they explained the problem to their classmates, presented exercises form existing sources and also created exercises to demonstrate that they had understood the problem. The peer teaching was done in French. The students also produced a dossier with exercises, self-reflection sheets and an annotated bibliography. They received feedback both from their tutor and peers. Guidance throughout the project was given through consultation with language tutors and in designated EBL consultation hours. Guidance was also available through Web CT as all the necessary information on the project was posted there and the VLE was also used for overall reinforcement lessons. The students’ experience was globally positive, while the tutors worried about students being taught incorrect facts, the uncertainty about their role as facilitators and the extra work imposed upon them. However, they found the overall positive outcome for the project was reassuring.

Peer-Assisted Grammar-revision (ebl) Sessions (PAGeS) were introduced following the success of using EBL for phonetics and pronunciation. PAGeS were planned as voluntary ‘bolt-on’ sessions, pairing final and second year students to facilitate small group grammar revision for first year students, using scenarios created by Senior Language Tutors based on the first-year grammar programme. The focus was on solving the problem through discussion and informal presentation. The facilitators always had the answers, but they were not to provide them, but to facilitate discussion in which 1st-year students would learn. Tutors were also available at particular times for consultation/facilitation. The project was evaluated at the end of the year and when someone dropped out.

All first-year students participating said found that they had a better understanding of grammar points covered because they had to explain the rules to others. The resources were innovative, and they found the experience fun and motivating. They worked in a relaxed, collaborative small group environment and they all thought they also gained things not related to grammar: presentation and communication skills, working methodically and not giving up and confronting weaknesses. In addition, they learnt how they themselves and others learn.

The facilitators had multiple benefits, too: they participated in CEEBL facilitation training, learnt grammar, and developed organisational skills.

Integrating EBL within Assessment in HE

Christine O'Leary, Sheffield Hallam University

In her introduction Christine offered the following insights into assessment:

  • Assessment influences the decisions students make about how as well as what they learn (Boud, 2002; Ramsden, 2003).
  • Assessment practices which demand self-awareness, reflection  and peer learning empower learners to take more responsibility for their own learning thereby increasing their engagement which, in turn, leads to improved motivation and more effective learning (Bandura, 1977; Feuerstein, 1991).
  • An enquiry-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment which demand a more student-centred pedagogy that promotes self-awareness, reflection and collaborative learning can therefore enhance student learning.

She then spoke about the case study of the ULS stage 6 (final year) assessment programme in 2007/8, which took the form of a portfolio including negotiating activities, group translation and interpreting tasks and associated self and peer evaluation, activities selected by the learners based on their needs, and a reflective piece of writing; a time-constrained translation; and interpreting tasks. The assessment criteria focussed on planning, reflection, performance and progression. 

The portfolio was chosen as the form of assessment because it allows the teachers to have an idea of how the learners address their problems, provides opportunity for the teacher to suggest other ways of addressing the problems, and records the patterns of the learner’s problems and solutions.

A qualitative analysis was carried out on 21 French e-portfolios, including audio/ written peer feedback and self-evaluations for recurring themes relating to student learning. The main focus of the analysis was to identify the characteristics of student learning in this context, ascertain the implications for practice in terms of scaffolding/tutor intervention, and linking the findings with existing literature. Thus the analysis focussed on (a) the impact of affect and affective strategies, examining the students’ awareness of others’ emotions/reactions, their ability to deal with their own anxiety, feedback to others on affective strategies, and the affective impact of collaborative work on the individual; (b) cognitive and metacognitive strategies such as self-evaluation and feedback to peers; (c) personal and group time management; (d) team-working skills and cognition within a social context. When linking the findings to existing literature, Christine emphasised the importance of affect in the learning process and suggested that in addition to developing the students’ cognitive and metacognitive abilities, their emotional intelligence also needed to be developed. She linked the development of cognition/metacognition in a social context with the development of autonomous language learners, pointing out that autonomy in language learning required the capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision making, independent action and responsibility for one’s learning. The role of assessment in an EBL approach centred around involving students in the assessment process through self, peer and group assessment strategies for three main reasons: (i) these strategies can contribute positively to student learning; (ii) feedback from peers may be expressed in a more accessible language than feedback from tutors and, as such, may be easier to accept; (iii) learners require a greater amount of self, peer and negotiated assessment to reflect lifelong learning in a learning society.

After demonstrating the module site Christine concluded that portfolio-based assessments could facilitate enquiry-based learning as the students were given the opportunity to

  • develop their interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence through working collaboratively;
  • record, analyse and reflect on their learning through the portfolio activities;
  • develop their understanding and knowledge  of the course content and related skills through “doing”;
  • develop and use their capacity for autonomy in managing their learning, facilitating a ‘power shift’ in learning towards the students.

She also added that ‘successful implementation depends upon a shift from a receptive-transmission approach to a co-constructivist approach’ and that the effectiveness of such an approach depends on a well-defined design and purpose.

Individual EBL Projects in the Language Teaching Programme

Theresa Federici, Durham University

Theresa talked about using EBL in the teaching of writing. In her introduction she summarised the benefits of enquiry-based learning, then described the three phases of  the research process: pre-writing (reading, research, creation of thesis/hypothesis, more reading, drafting and editing), writing (redrafting, editing, peer feedback, alterations, structuring, final draft), and post-writing (discussion, publications, conferences, dissemination, debate, further research). Using an EBL approach allows for a student driven content at each phase of the writing.

The writing project is enquiry-based and process driven. The students are presented with scenarios. The teacher acts as a facilitator and provides guidance and support where needed. The students are placed at the centre of the learning process and they work collaboratively to generate ideas. As a result, they develop a sense of creating reader-based texts and a sense of responsibility towards their final outcome. At the same time, the students develop transferable and professional skills, too.

The project work is integrated into the 2nd-year advanced Italian programme. The students will have done some EBL in their 1st year. The 2nd-year advanced Italian course elements comprise current affairs and culture, preparation for the year abroad, a reading course and a personal project. The actual task is to write a 2000-word proposal for one episode in a television series, using the right register, right level of linguistic complexity, etc. This is the largest piece the students will have written as their other essays are in English. The project is completed in 8 lessons. The summative outcomes are the final project submission and an oral examination discussion. The students assess their own work and reflect on their own assessment. The collaborative groups of peer reviewers enhance the concept of genuine readership. The facilitator’s assessment is not centred on a grade but on action points.

The outcomes of the process writing and enquiry-based learning project can be summarised as follows:

  • The students are actively involved in creating their learning process.
  • Core language skills are developed.
  • A collaborative learning ethos is developed.
  • The students also learn transferable and professional skills.
  • The students have a sense of achievement and empowerment.
  • There is a complete shift in the students’ self-image and self-belief.


Steve Kirk, Durham University

Steve looked at the Durham pre-sessional EAP programme through the prism of enquiry-based learning and focussed on a loop-input literature review task.

As the workshop was primarily intended for those teaching modern languages, Steve first explained the context, content, values and priorities of EAP. Then he reiterated what the previous presenters had said about the value of EBL in language learning. The specific issues he elaborated on were autonomy through interdependence; emergence of a (critical) voice; discovery learning; self- and peer assessment; empowering learners; the facilitator as the manager of learning; process views of writing, learning and development; group learning; pyramided discussions; collaborative problem solving; transferable skills; the shift from ‘I teach language’ to ‘learners learn languages’.

Then he proceeded to talking about the literature review, where the aim is to get the students from the teacher-led content and process of a lecture on plagiarism through a scaffolded literature review to a discipline-specific literature review, whose content and process are student-led. As Steve explained, the task is heavily scaffolded because non-European students come with very different values and assumptions, for example, about authority in text, personal voice and taking a principled stance in relation to academic reading, so a careful staging is necessary on the road to autonomy. For international postgraduates, the most empowering and transferable aspects of the task is the ownership of processes and the transition from consumer to producer of academic writing.

Steve concluded that the task and the learning were congruent with the principles of EBL, and that many EFL teachers might use EBL-type aprroaches without conscious awareness.

Facilitation: The challenge of a different role for tutors

Julie Lawton, Consultant in Enquiry-based Learning

Julie, now an independent consultant, was the first to formally integrate EBL in a final-year university French module at the University of Manchester. Instead of a formal presentation, she offered her thoughts on and insights into her experience with EBL.

From the students’ perspective the most important effect of EBL is the broadening of the mind.

From the tutors’ perspective the big worry is the losing of control, no longer being in control, and the question of what that does to the tutor’s identity. The tutor has to engage himself or herself in reflection on what he or she is getting out of the whole process in terms of professional development. Julie felt that she had a much more open mind as a consequence of working with the EBL approach. She was more open to ideas and had broadened her own approach by learning from other disciplines. In her opinion, the tutor also needs to value dynamic interaction with the students. At the same time, there is a worry about the students making mistakes and giving the wrong answers. To get round this, what needs to be defined from the outset is what one expects the students to achieve. EBL recognises both product and process and holds that the process ia as important as the product.

Regarding facilitation, it is very important to devote the first week to group bonding and explaining to the students what EBL is about, but without overloading them with jargon. The students need to be allowed to engage in a small task that is not going to be part of the project; this will reassure them that they all know something about the topic and what they think does matter, their ideas are valid. At the same time, it is very important to establish trust between the facilitator and the students. This gives students an enormous sense of empowerment. The dilemma for the facilitator is how to create balance in groups and how to bring about good group dynamics.

EBL does not necessarily have to be group work, but it is ideally suited for it. As far as the actual project is concerned, the tutor can provide scenarios. The group leader is the mini facilitator within the group, while the tutor is available, in the role of the expert, for consultation outside the project. The assessment may have a certain amount of peer evaluation, and the tutor may have different systems of marking. In the classroom the question is what the tutor actually does when the students are engaging in the project. The tutor should walk around and listed, but step back. Instead of providing the answers, he or she should throw the questions back at the students to encourage them to think more deeply and engage more deeply in the enquiry. The facilitation of group discussion is very important because the discussion provides an opportunity for oral practice and communication, which is empowering for the students.

Use Language to Change the World

Susana Lorenzo-Zamorano, University of Manchester

(Workshop session summaries handout)

The purpose of this session [was] to familiarise participants with various examples of experimental teaching and Enquiry Based Learning (EBL) initiatives undertaken in the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the University of Manchester. Apart from the EBL approach, these initiatives also integrate teo fundamental concepts: interdisciplinarity and ESD or Education for Sustainable Development, and they are based on the premise that language may be an ‘agent of social change’ (Kramsch) and therefore has an important, and at present undervalued, role not only in the construction of culture, but in the emergence of cultural change. The doors that the combination of EBL, ESD and interdisciplinary may open are indeed infinite and have hardly been explored in the field of languages.

The […] workshop [considered] the main challenges of these initiatives, [described] their components, and [evaluated] the implications of this blended approach on the students’ socio-cultural, semantic, linguistic and strategic competence.