G is for Guided Discovery

The term guided discovery normally refers to exercises or techniques which draw language learners towards finding out about language through discovery. Rather than being told the answer (as perhaps in a lecture), they have to find out for themselves. This discovery is not a question of the teacher negating all responsibility, but rather a matter of leading the learner to the answer by providing the necessary clues.

Similarly, in training sessions we use the same method of guidance in many ways. When we facilitate discussion, we guide the participants with questioning and direction; we ask trainees questions, paraphrase answers and summarise comments to lead to another point. We can also design exercises that guide trainees to certain conclusions.

The photocopiable worksheet below shows some guided discovery at work. The trainer wants the trainees to draw conclusions about the basics of designing a simple classroom exercise. Each trainee receives a copy of the two exercises and compares them to find the differences between the two. Having found the differences, the class then discusses the reasons for the changes.

The trainer could have lectured on these points and begun a talk with ‘When you design your materials you need to …’. Instead, she chose to allow the trainees to discover the answer for themselves. At the other end of the discovery scale, a trainer may have given no input on materials design and waited for the trainees to teach a real class, use a piece of material and discover its faults. This is discovery without guidance. There are cases when this is valid, but, on initial training course in particular, it can be highly stressful and counter-productive, with trainees left wondering why they weren’t told how to do something properly before they had to teach.

—————————————-this worksheet is photocopiable————————————————————————-

How to design a basic exercise.

Exercise A

Complete these sentences in the past simple or present perfect with the verb in brackets. Last week I _________ (go) to Paris.

 Yesterday I _________ (meet) my friend Bill.

 I _________ (see) Rachel at the party last night.

 I ___________ (be) to Japan twice before.

 I _______ never ________ (play) lacrosse.

 I _________ (work) for this company since 1996.

 I _________ (join) the company in 1995.

Exercise B 

Past simple and present perfect Complete these sentences in the past simple or present perfect. Use the verb in brackets.

1 Last week I __went__ (go) to Paris.

2 Yesterday she _________ (meet) my friend Bill.

3 _________ you _________ (see) Rachel at the party last night?

4 He ___________ (be) to Japan twice before.

5 _______ they ever ________ (play) tennis?

6 We _________ (work) for this company since 1996.

7 We _________ (not/join) the company in 1995.

Now write questions to ask your partner:

Did you _______________________________________?

Have you _____________________________________?

—————————————-this worksheet is photocopiable————————————————————————-

Answer key and commentary:

Exercise B has a title so the students know what the aim of the task is.

The instructions for Exercise B appear as two short sentences rather than one long explanation, as in Exercise A.

Numbers have been added to each gap-fill sentence in Exercise B for ease of reference.

Number 1 in Exercise B has already been done to provide an example.

Exercise A only practises the I form, whereas Exercise B includes the other you, he/she/it, we and they forms, as well as negative and interrogative forms.

The word lacrosse is replaced by tennis for greater relevance to the learners.

The two added questions in Exercise B allow early finishers of items 1–7 to work on something else, provide freer practice and involve students in something more communicative.)

Categories: Teacher Training

Tags: , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Dear John,

    We are a group of university students majoring in English teaching and had big discussions concerning guided discovery in one of our courses, with the direction of Rachel Appleby. We thought you might be interested in the main points of our discussion and in how future English teachers see guided discovery in Hungary.

    First of all, we were very enthusiastic about this method for several reasons. We think that this way students can easily understand the logic of grammatical structures and teachers can design very creative exercises, for which we have seen many interesting examples. The approach encourages students to be creative and open to the language and implies the exclusive use of English in the classroom.

    Due to this method, the language always appears in context, therefore it is more authentic and most of the students have fun while learning through guided discovery and it also makes the teachers’ work more exciting.

    As we are only getting familiar with this method, we also had some doubts concerning its use in practice. For example slower or weaker students might not be able to catch up with others and it doesn’t necessarily suit all the learning styles. Those students who are used to getting all the explanations in Hungarian might not be comfortable with using this technique and the insecure ones would maybe prefer to hear the rules from the teacher, rather than to find them on their own. It can also be hard for the more passive students to learn autonomously, which is not traditionally supported in Hungarian education. It also takes more time for teachers to prepare for their lessons and they need to come up with new ideas for teaching grammar.

    Despite the possible difficulties, we look forward to teaching by using guided discovery – we already had the chance to try it out and it worked well for everyone.

    • Hi there
      Thanks for your comments on this topic. I’d referred to the use of guided discovery with teachers in training but the points you raise apply to both teachers and students. Just to pick up on some issues:
      1 Yes, guided discovery means creative presentations by the teacher though sometimes a teacher’s desire to be creative can get in the way of simplicity. There can be a danger that we spend so much time creating ways for students to ‘discover’ the answer when it would be quicker/more effective – sometimes – to just tell them. This links to the issue of ‘exclusive use of English in the classroom’. Does it? I wonder if guided discovery means only using English. What if we guided students to contrast the difference between – for example – use of a tense in English and the use of a similar tense int heir own language. But I understand what you mean.

      2 I think the comment about learning styles is key. On the one hand students might need time to be introduced to discovering the rule rather than being told. It isn’t necessarily a question of not being able to but more a question of not knowing how to. Especially if the cultural background of education has always been on the teacher as ‘giver of knowledge’.But the argument is that if we train students to discover then we are providing them with long-term skills and helping longer-term memory. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in ELT to the idea that grammar teaching MUST be about guided discovery and this in itself has meant teachers have avoided just telling students the answer sometimes. I think we need a balance and your comments about students who are uncomfortable with GD or prefer to hear it from the teacher are important. My impression is that any lesson should combine both – we can guide students to a conclusion and also tell them as part of the feedback stage where students also want reassurance about their conclusions.

      Anyway, good luck with your studies and best wishes to Rachel – you and your fellow students are in safe hands!


  2. Dear John,

    I am writing from ELTE, a university in Budapest, Hungary, on the behalf of a group consisting of 16 students attending an MA course in English Language Pedagogy. Since February we have been thoroughly absorbed in Guided Discovery, as we have investigated and tried it out in peer-teaching in our Language Practice seminar many times.

    Please find below our comments on this approach.
    1. Advantages
    o we have all agreed that G.D. is an extremely useful tool in teachers’ hands
    o exercises using this approach can be carried out with pictures, colourful photos, charts, which all make grammar, ‘the dry grammar’ exciting and varied
    o it is a lot easier to learn through experience and visual aids than from workbooks or coursebooks
    o G.D. is bound to be more interesting for the students: discovering something by themselves will lead to deeper knowledge on their part
    o G.D. is similar to the way children acquire the language: nobody gives them the rules, they have to work them out from the examples, and it seems they are always successful
    o students need to concentrate on the topic and pay attention in order to efficiently get an understanding
    o the more time students spend with discovering rules, the better their understanding and knowledge will be
    o BUT we would emphasize the importance of the stage of clarification of the previously discovered rules because we don’t want our students to make out incorrect or inappropriate grammatical rules—it would be wise to shortly summarize the conclusions after the guided discovery so that the needs of those who prefer explicit explanation (e.g. adults) will be also met

    2. Possible disadvantages
    o students may feel hostility to G.D. at first
    o for teachers, however, we think guided discovery can be a little bit challenging because they have to select teaching materials very carefully
    o it increases teacher’s preparation time to such an extent that many teachers may choose not to try it at all—however, this problem could be solved if teachers were sufficiently trained to use G.D. effectively

    3. Questions
    o Are you planning to write a coursebook on guided discovery which is full of exercises without any explanation, and tasks which guide students to working out the rules?
    o Could you offer some possible ways how to use G.D. with young learners and beginner students?

    Csilla Kálmán and her group from Hungary

    • Hi Csilla!
      Thanks for your list of advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few comments in reply to particular points you mention:
      1 Advantages
      – You seem to suggest that workbooks and course books are not used in Guided Discovery. I’d say they are leading the way in terms of encouraging teachers to use GD. Most modern course books take a predominantly GD approach.
      – The comment about GD being similar to the way children learn language is interesting. Children discover but it isn’t guided in the way that Scrivener outlines in his book Learning Teaching. It’s something much less self-conscious than that.
      – I really like your final comment. I think it’s helpful for the teacher and students to summarise the key rules after the discovery stage.

      – I keep reading that students are hostile to GD but it’s never been my experience. Students always seem receptive to this approach and it makes sense to them.
      – For teachers, I think it’s less work than standing at a board and ‘telling’ students. The danger is that they regard GD as an opportunity to do nothing! (discovery without the guidance)
      – not sure why it increases teacher’s preparation time? – just make sure you are using a decent course book 😉

      – I am currently writing a general English course book for adults at pre-intermediate level. The approach to grammar is guided throughout. However, there is still a grammar reference at the back. This relates back to your final point under advantages and the need to summarise.
      – With regard to your final question: (1) I’m not well-qualified enough to comment on teaching young learners but my limited experience tells me that the approach is different anyway because they still learn like children would their first language which is different.
      (2) With beginner students I think we accept there is more ‘telling’ perhaps than at other levels but essentially the approach is the same – take what students already know and build on it. Even if that means using translation and asking students how similar or different is the rule to their own first language.

      Best wishes to all your group and feel free to add any more comments

  3. Dear John,

    We are another group of ELT students at Eötvös Loránd University who would like to share some ideas about Guided Discovery.


    • Students are involved and they are active mentally – doing the task means real thinking, not like when doing monotonous drills, for example
    • Promotes problem solving skills, recognizing patterns and rules
    • Students see grammar in context with lots of examples
    • Promotes learner training – in the future they will be able to discover rules without guidance


    • Planning takes a lot of time
    • Students refuse to learn this way/they need rules (or they think they do:))
    • Teachers need training adapt


    • Any plans to write a coursebook with GD in mind?
    • Are there any grammar point that are not suitable to be presented with GD?

    • Hi Noemi and the rest of your group!
      In the previous replies I’ve already commented on some of your points but you raise some new ones…
      – yes I think the problem solving aspect of GD is important and what makes it interesting and motivating for SOME (not all) students. There is the issue of different learning styles and past experiences here.
      – the point about learner training is very important
      – as I replies to the previous post, the issue of it taking more planning time just doesn’t seem an issue to me. I don’t think it does. And I haven’t met any students who ‘refuse’ to learn this way. They may struggle at times but they don’t refuse.
      – Your last point under ‘Cons’ is interesting because it suggests teacher training hasn’t adapted. Maybe you need could provide more detail and post it here. People who read this blog would be particularly interested in this point.
      With regard to your last two points, see my answer about writing course books on the other post and ‘no’ I personally have never found a grammar point that cannot be ‘discovered’ – but I haven’t taught very single one (no quite!)

      Hope all this had helped and good luck with your studies!

  4. Hi,
    “G is for Guided Discovery”, reads like a very useful writing. I favour GUIDED discovery: it teaches, using the traditional mother (instruction)-child (action/response) pattern. It also encourages a learning community where scaffolding prevails and individual differences smoothened out. In addition, GUIDED discovery technique makes for solid retention. Guided Discovery also relates to Implicit grammar teaching, which helps learners find out about language by themselves, rather than have the teacher talk at them about language.


  1. efl-resource.com » ELT news feed » Guided discovery in ELT

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