Discovery Learning: Guiding Language Discovery

Discovery Learning

Discovery Learning

Discovery Learning (DL) draws its principles from the constructivist theory of learning. It is informed by the findings of learning theorists and psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky.  According to this approach, learning occurs when learners try to solve problems, on the one hand, by relying on their own experience and prior knowledge and, on the other hand, by interacting with the data available to them and the environment where they interact. For these reasons, DL is also referred to as experiential learning.

Learners in Discovery Learning are actively involved in the learning process. The role of teachers is to guide and encourage them to discover rules from carefully chosen examples of language. Richards & Schmidt (2002) describe the approach as one where:

“learners develop processes associated with discovery and inquiry by observing, inferring, formulating hypotheses, predicting and communicating” (Richards & Schmidt 2002, p. 162).

That is, learners are involved in activities where they have to identify recurring patterns in contextualized language and formulate hypotheses about the rules governing these patterns using an inductive type of reasoning. This process is mediated by some sort of external intervention consisting of guided activities designed by the teacher to invite learners to develop their own knowledge of the target structures. These activities may take the form of a worksheet where, on the one hand, data is gradually exposed and, on the other hand, carefully designed exercises are provided. The fact that learners may work in small groups to figure out how the target language works – through processes that involve formulating hypotheses, checking their viability, and thus developing an improved version of their interlanguage system – demonstrates perfectly well the connection of the approach with Piaget and Bruner’s constructivism and the constructivist and sociocultural model of learning developed by Vygotsky.

Guiding students to discover the target language

Teaching grammar using DL involves going through specific steps towards developing grammatical awareness of the target language. These steps include: contextualizing the target structure, consciousness-raising, appropriation, and production.

Contextualizing grammar

In the DL approach, teaching grammar involves providing contextualized instances of the target language. Presenting grammar in isolated sentences does not allow learners to see how language works. An easily analyzable language is normally used in stretches of discourse.  Consequently, grammatical structures should be contextualized through dialogues, texts, videos, audios, etc.


Using the contextualized target language provided to the learners, the teacher proceeds to raise the learners’ consciousness through specific guided activities. These activities engage the learners to notice and get an understanding of a particular grammatical point in a definite context. Rutherford and Sharwood describe CR as a:

“deliberate attempt to draw the learner’s attention specifically to the formal properties of the target language.” Rutherford and Sharwood (1985, p. 274)

CR activities are designed to raise the learners’ language awareness by inviting them to do specific tasks. The aim is to develop conscious language knowledge.

In accordance with the DL approach described above, one way of raising the learners’ consciousness is by involving them in discovery activities. The teacher may draw learners’ attention to recurring patterns and invite them to notice and figure out a grammar rule. Here are the different phases involved in CR (adapted from Ellis 2002):

  1. Representative and contextualized target language is provided to the learners.
  2. Specific features of the language are isolated for focused attention.
  3. Learners make an intellectual effort to notice the target structure, compare it to their own interlanguage grammar, try to understand it and formulate hypotheses.
  4. In case learners’ hypotheses are not confirmed, more examples are provided and more guiding tasks are assigned.
  5. Learners are invited to integrate the target language by formulating the rule describing the target grammar structure (e.g. they are invited to fill a chart, slots, match, complete a rule, etc.)

At this stage, learners are not required to produce language accurately. They are simply invited to discover the language and develop formal knowledge about it. Put differently, the aim of CR is fundamentally concept-forming: the tasks assigned are meant to assist learners in building their conscious knowledge of how the target language operates in specific contexts.


While CR aims at developing a formal knowledge about language, the appropriation stage (also called the practice stage or skill-getting stage) is meant to train learners to produce the target structure accurately. Literally speaking, appropriation, means to make something your own.  This can be achieved through practice exercises, the aim of which is to develop and automatize the grammatical knowledge analyzed in the CR stage. To do so, learners need multiple exposure to the target grammar point. They may start with mechanical practice, where the focus is not on meaning but the form, and end up with more meaningful practice, where they are encouraged to use the target language in specific contexts to produce expanded output and fulfill communicative purposes (i.e., the production stage).

The appropriation stage involves four principles:

  • It focuses on the target structure.
  • Learners are required to produce correct forms of the target structure, i.e. it is success-oriented.
  • There is some feedback, be it immediate or delayed.
  • There is a sequencing of the practice tasks, from easy to difficult.


This stage is also known as the skill-using stage. After training the learners to automatize the use of the target structure, the learners are invited to use the target language in meaningful situations. The teacher has to devise production activities that abide by the following criteria:

  • The focus should be on meaning: learners’ primary concern is to get their message through by using the target language.
  • These activities should involve some kind of information gap: the idea is that learners have to talk to find out about some missing information necessary to complete a task or solve a problem.
  • Successful performance is measured by whether the task was completed or not.
Discovery learning lesson stages

Discovery learning lesson stages


Some of the merits of DL are listed below:

  • DL is an approach that promotes active learning.
  • Rules discovered by the SS themselves easily fit their mental structures and hence become more memorable because of the effort deployed.
  • It is an experiential and natural approach.
  • It promotes problem-solving.


Despite the above benefits, DL critics think that:

  • The preparation of DL lessons is time and effort-consuming.
  • The organization of the data and the guiding activities are not easy tasks for new teachers.
  • Not all grammar rules are easily inferable.
  • Discovery learning and inductive reasoning may frustrate the learners who prefer simply to be told the rule.


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

Rutherford, W., & Sharwood-Smith, M. (1985). Consciousness-raising and Universal Grammar. Applied Linguistics, 6(3), 274-282.

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