Introduction to Inquiry Kindergarten Animal Unit Grade 1 Water Pollution Unit Grade 2 Weather Unit


We Are Researchers

For students, this method of learning ends the listen-to-learn paradigm of the classroom and gives them a real and authentic goal [and] challenges to overcome. For the teacher, inquiry-based education ends their paradigm of talking to teach and recasts them in the role of a colleague and mentor engaged in the same quest as the other younger learners around.” (

Click here to watch Kindergarten students at Pate Elementary, Darlington, SC, explain what it means to be a researcher.

Facilitator Notes
Interview Transcripts
Characteristics of Inquiry Teaching
Benefits of Inquiry Units
Structure of an Inquiry Unit
Student Preparation
Suggested Readings


Irby DuBose, Kindergarten
Darlington, SC
Apryl Whitman, Grade 1
Richland 1, SC
Philippa Haynes, Grade 2
Spartanburg 1, SC

Tabbing down a strict definition of inquiry is probably less important than understanding the characteristics of this approach to learning. Harvey and Daniels (2009) talk about “growing a definition” that includes the following characteristics:

  • problem or question driven;
  • encourages collaboration;
  • makes kids into explorers and discoverers;
  • requires kids to think;
  • puts teachers in nonconventional roles.

In this module, we use the terms “research” and “inquiry” interchangeably, while recognizing that distinctions could certainly be made. Harvey and Daniels (2009) explain that with an inquiry approach, research is conducted differently than the traditional “coverage” of information on a topic. Among a longer list of differences between “inquiry approach” and “coverage approach,” they include:

Inquiry Approach
Coverage Approach
student voice and choice teacher selection and direction
questions, concepts, strategic thinking required topics, isolated facts, memorization
collaborative work, interaction and talk solitary work, quiet and listening
student as knowledge creator student as information receiver
teacher as model and coach teacher as expert and presenter
cross-disciplinary studies one subject at a time
multiple resources reliance on a textbook
real purpose and audience extrinsic motivators
performance and self-assessments filling in bubbles and blanks

As expressed in the teacher commentaries above, the teachers you will see in the lessons in this module are clearly undertaking research with their students through inquiry.

BENEFITS OF INQUIRY UNITS: Our emphasis in Nonfiction Inquiry is on organizing instruction through inquiry units to support students in both learning how to comprehend informational text and best learn content in science, social studies, or other areas. The teachers in the videos you will watch have come to recognize that student growth in both areas – building reading capabilities with informational text and building content knowledge – are enhanced when they are combined through inquiry.

Benefits of Inquiry UnitsImmersed in the study over time, at their own pace, and searching for answers to their own questions through a choice of resources, students are able to develop their thinking and gradually synthesize their understandings in a way that is consistent with how authentic learning happens. This leads to motivation, engagement, and appreciation of learning. Children internalize the reading comprehension strategies we want them to use because they are purposefully applying them to gain knowledge about the topic.

Therefore in these video clips, we see children using text features to help them understand and to communicate their understandings, not simply to identify them for the teacher. We see them stretching out a word to spell it or revisiting the text to verify information so they can hold their new learning on a sticky note. Rather than jumping from one day reading about dinosaurs and the next about the seasons, they have time to build the background knowledge that research shows is critical to comprehension (Cervetti and Hiebert, 2015). They call upon that knowledge to make inferences and draw conclusions, and they think critically to challenge misconceptions they may have brought with them. They acquire literacy skills and strategies because they are applying them for real purposes.

InquirySimultaneously, the inquiry units lead students to a much deeper understanding of the content than they usually attain when the teacher presents tightly sequenced bits of information. The children’s exploration of the topic through multiple resources (digital and non-digital) that they have chosen themselves leads them to explore a topic with genuine interest, to spend extended periods of time engaged in reading, viewing, talking and note-taking, and to delight in sharing their discoveries with others. Many teachers find that almost all of the specific information they are expected to teach in a content unit is discovered (with the aid of appropriate conferring) by the children themselves through inquiry units – as well as a great deal more that makes the content meaningful and memorable for them.

As evidenced by the South Carolina Inquiry-Based Literacy Standards, understanding how to conduct their own inquiries is an outcome that children need to deal with the demands of twenty-first century literacy. Living in the digital age, children need to learn to navigate and evaluate the abundance of information that surrounds them. Understanding and using the process of inquiry prepares children to learn in their constantly changing world. Second grade teacher Philippa Haynes puts it this way:

I think [it’s] really important for them to understand as well… that information is changing. As scientists keep learning new things, new books are going to be published, and some of them – especially some of the number information they learned, like tornadoes spin at 300mph, may not be like that if there’s a tornado in another month or two that spins higher. It just depends. So I think they need to be open and flexible with that. They need to understand that’s what research is all about.

The inquiry units in this module all integrate science and/or social studies content with literacy skills and strategies. In some cases the content is a major topic in the State Standards; in others it is a spin-off that takes an aspect of content to a deeper level.

In planning an inquiry unit, it is important to create an overview of the entire unit before starting, although changes are sure to occur in the process. Teachers examine their content standards and look for big ideas and understandings that can focus the inquiry. Generally, the unit develops in four stages: Immerse, Investigate, Coalesce, and Go Public (Harvey and Daniels, 2009). These phases are helpful for planning purposes. However, there are no hard and fast boundaries between the phases, and they will flow into each other as the unit progresses. Each phase is discussed briefly below.

ImmerseImmerse: To begin an inquiry unit, students activate and build background knowledge and generate questions. They whet their curiosity about the topic that supports them as they delve deeper into it. Children bring to the table what they think they know, but there is no expectation that the information is correct or complete. Through the process of the inquiry, they will confirm their initial ideas or recognize them as misconceptions. Thus the door is open for every child, regardless of background knowledge, to fully participate and learn. Teachers collect a variety of resources, including trade books, websites, videos, magazines, and photographs so that all children are engaged in wondering and thinking about the topic.

Immersion is also a time to develop or review the structures that will allow students to explore independently and stay engaged and productive for sustained periods of time, (e.g., stations, ways to record thinking.) Because collaboration plays an enormous role in a successful inquiry unit, often teachers review ongoing classroom routines such as turn and talk, working with partners, or speaking, listening and developing conversations while sharing.

InvestigateInvestigate: Investigation is the heart of the inquiry. Students explore multiple resources of their choice on the topic, searching for information to answer their questions or take them to deeper understandings. Having built general knowledge during the Immersion phase, students often break into expert groups to explore specific interests within the overall topic. Utilizing a workshop model, teachers might conduct mini-lessons on an aspect of the inquiry and students spend extended periods of time building their knowledge, individually or with partners. Daily sharing allows children to learn about other aspects of the topic from their peers, and to contribute to the learning of others as well.

CoalesceCoalesce: Students synthesize their learning, focused on the big questions they are trying to answer. How they synthesize is usually related to how they are going to share their learning with an authentic audience in the Go Public phase, so these two phases are closely linked. It is often in the process of figuring out what they want/should include in their final product that they draw meaningful conclusions and solidify their expertise to explain those conclusions to others. Conversation again plays a crucial role in this phase of the inquiry. Children build from each other’s knowledge and piece together how what they’ve learned leads to deeper understandings of the topic.

Go PublicGo Public: Knowledge gained through inquiry is not created simply for the teacher’s eyes and a grade. It is shared with one another and often with external audiences, such as other students in the school, parents, or online avenues. In the examples in this module, kindergarten students wrote nonfiction books for others to read about their animals. First graders developed posters to teach and persuade others about ways to stop water pollution, some of which were featured on the school’s morning news. Second graders created how-to videos about staying safe in a specific type of severe weather that they shared with fourth graders who were also studying weather.

Children use multiple intelligences and collaboration to eagerly design ways to communicate their learning to others. Every child is able to bring something special to the project, which heightens their sense of pride and engagement in the learning.

Learning About NonfictionSTUDENT PREPARATION: Learning About Nonfiction

Most teachers find that it is beneficial, before they begin an inquiry unit, for students to be familiar with characteristics of informational text and basic reading strategies to understand information they read, hear, or view. Students will learn a great deal more about informational text as they research, but some background helps the children be much more independent in their inquiry. In the clips below, the teachers share how they have prepared their students earlier in the school year so that they are most productive in the process of research.

Irby DuBose, Kindergarten
Apryl Whitman, Grade 1
Philippa Haynes, Grade 2
Introducing Nonfiction
Introducing Stations
Nonfiction Reading
Strategies and Features
Nonfiction Reading
Strategies and Features
K Lesson Artifacts
Gr. 1 Lesson Artifacts
Gr. 2 Lesson Artifacts


See Suggested Readings for general support as well as articles and chapters that complement specific sample lessons.


Cervetti, G. & Hiebert, E.H (2015). Knowledge, literacy, and the Common Core. Language Arts, 92(4), 256-269.
Harvey, S. & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann