Inductive vs deductive approaches to teaching - what’s the difference?
As we have noted on this blog many times, the majority of language teaching in the world is performed by teachers working in a diverse range of different cultures of education. Primary and High school classrooms the world over may differ in the type of content that they deliver, but one thing is true for the majority of classrooms worldwide: they tend to be teacher-centred, focused on the presentation of grammar structures and phrases, and use restricted tasks with limited correct or incorrect answers (according to the teacher and the textbook).
In this model of learning, it is the teacher’s job to provide students with the ‘knowledge’ that they need to complete tasks ‘correctly’. This is an effective way of increasing learner awareness of structures and phrases, and how they work in individual sentences. However, limiting students to getting ‘the right answer’ in a list of sentences, and moving on to the next language to be taught can prevent flexibility with language, and stops true application of what students are learning in their own ways.
This familiar model is known as a deductive approach to learning - one where students use given rules to complete tasks in the way that they are instructed. A deductive approach is useful for early application of new language, as a lot of different aspects of a structure can be imparted to students and applied in a controlled setting. In a deductive approach, however, students may develop a dependence on the teacher’s instruction and the ‘correctness’ of their responses.
By contrast, an inductive approach to language work involves more student-centred discussion about the structures they are learning, and (and this is where the terminology seems to contradict itself) more deduction based on prior knowledge and the contextual cues which appear around where the language is accessed.
Rather than relying on teacher-centred presentations and careful explanations about details of meaning and form, an inductive procedure will give students access to the forms being studied in the context of a sentence, paragraph, dialogue, or longer, top-end stretch of text without much, if any, prior teaching. It is then up to the students to deduce the meaning and use of the language from other, known information that they can see around the new structure or vocabulary.
An inductive approach develops a more critical approach to language study, with students working out meanings from context, experimenting with their responses, and applying their existing language knowledge to construct meaning independently. This fosters several communicative skills which can be valuable in other areas: the confidence to try out different theories about meaning, promoting more in-depth discussion about their study. It also develops autonomy and independence, building skills that can be applied in other situations where students encounter new language, to guess meaning and process forms which have not been explicitly taught.
There are also risks to using an inductive approach, which means that inductive presentations of language should be planned carefully: if there is too much new information in the text, as well as the set of unknown forms which are to be studied, it will be impossible for students to deduce anything, as the level of challenge will be too great.
Another risk is that students who are used to working deductively with language, based on teacher support and textbook answers may feel adrift after being asked to work with new language independently. In this case, autonomy should be scaffolded, and teacher support withdrawn slowly to build confidence in students’ ability to work with new language themselves.
Next time you are preparing to teach a new piece of language, think about whether your students would benefit more from a detailed presentation from you, or if they might be ready to access the forms you are teaching directly in a text or audio recording, and looking independently at the structures in context. Most textbooks have detailed presentations of language before texts or listening activity, so try switching the order of the lesson and starting with the reading text, getting the students discussing specific forms which appear, then doing the language work afterwards, to clarify meaning. It can save a lot of time, and gauge more effectively where students need more work in target areas.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.