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On a journey to think critically

students critical thinkingColin Ward looks at how to support students to think critically in the language classroom. Colin is a Professor of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, Texas. He is also a co-author of Q: Skills for Success and the forthcoming Trio Writing, both published by Oxford University Press.

As teachers, it’s not always easy to embrace uncertainty.  There is comfort in knowing exactly what a lesson will cover, what questions are going to be asked, and how students are supposed to respond.

However, a paradigm shift often occurs when teachers push students toward thinking critically.  By its very nature, critical thinking brings teachers and students to a much more ambiguous place.  There is no single correct answer—but many.  Teachers are asked to adopt a “pedagogy of questions” instead of a “pedagogy of answers.” 4  They might not have all the answers, and answers might themselves be in the form of questions.

Managing such ambiguity in the classroom is no simple task, yet many researchers continue to cite the benefits of teaching students to think critically.  Evidence suggests that teaching critical thinking in the language classroom improves both speaking and writing and increases motivation.11  Kabilan goes so far as to suggest that foreign language learners are not truly proficient until they can think critically and creatively in the target language. 7

In addition to embracing ambiguity, teachers must grapple with what “critical thinking” actually is, for there are countless definitions in the literature.9  Is it making decisions independently? Developing criteria for analyzing one’s own thinking? Evaluating different perspectives, forming opinions, and taking action?  Making inferences?  Challenging assumptions?  Withholding judgment?

In fact, critical thinking has become an umbrella term encompassing all of these skills.  In looking at the literature, it also becomes clear that critical thinking is not a one-off task, but a journey, where students must discover and evaluate what they believe, why they believe it, and how new evidence challenges or supports what they believe.  It is a journey, but one that requires several stops along the way.  Part of our role as educators is to scaffold this journey of inquiry for our students.

In class, the first step of this journey often starts with a thought-provoking question.  What does it mean to be polite?  Why do things yourself?   Does advertising harm or help us?  Questions such as these allow for multiple viewpoints and set a trajectory. Questions also motivate students because they become a puzzle to be solved. 3

At this stage, teachers must consider students’ abilities, and scaffold appropriately. 8 Before asking students to share their opinions, for example, instructors may first need to give them the language necessary to do so.  This may involve teaching basic chunks such as I believe that or One reason is because before a discussion.

Teachers can also reinforce critical thinking skills by paying careful attention to the language they use in class.  Using higher-level terminology from Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as compare, predict, analyze, and recommend, will help students acquire the meta-language needed to understand what critical thinking is and what it does.

There is also art to asking questions.  A student may say, I think that advertising helps consumers.  It is natural for teachers to follow-up with Why? to encourage critical thinking.  Too often, however, the Why? question can feel like an assault and lead to uncomfortable silence.  Instead, rephrasing Why? to Can you explain that? can result in less student anxiety, and a more immediate and relaxed response.

Once the journey of inquiry has been established, new content helps to keep the momentum going.  However, interacting with the content will require careful pauses.  After a reading text or a listening, for example, students often need opportunities to stop and think, considering how the new information has modified their understanding of the question.  Here teachers can scaffold new perspectives by adding on to the initial question. What does it mean to be polite….at work?  At school?  With family?  With friends?

Students may also be encouraged to challenge or support their initial beliefs based on new evidence from the text.  When mediating such discussions, teachers must be mindful of their students’ cultural backgrounds.  Atkinson, for example, points out that in some cultures, the nature of critical thinking as an act of self-expression is not encouraged. 1  In culturally sensitive contexts, a lighter approach could involve asking students to think about how their experiences connect to those explored in a reading or listening, rather than demanding an outright opinion.  This can still lead students toward re-evaluating beliefs, but in less intrusive way.

Often the journey must be messy in order to allow disparate elements to come together in the discovery of something new.  That “aha” moment may come at one stop or another, but more often than not, it appears at the final destination.  This is when students synthesize what they think with the knowledge they have gathered through a formal speaking or writing task.   Students’ answers to the question may take a new direction, or several directions.  Graphic organizers that help students organize their ideas can help scaffold this process of discovery.  For example, when answering the question, Does advertising help or harm us?, students could use a T-chart to list reasons that support “yes” and “no” answers.

Another way to support critical thinking at the end of the journey is to ask students to reflect on their responses to the question when revising.  When students revise the final assignment, for example, they could directly compare how their response of the question compares to their response from the beginning of the journey.  To scaffold, teachers could offer chunks of language to frame the comparison: Originally, I believed that…but now, I think that…because…  This kind of reflection will push them to see and summarize the journey as a whole and could be added to their concluding remarks.

Seeing critical thinking as a journey with several stops treats it as an essential part of the lesson plan, which explains why critical thinking is often paired with content-based instruction. 3 It also acknowledges that students may not have a complete answer to a question right away, but will build on their answer as they travel through the lesson and encounter additional input.  It is a means to an end.

It is tempting to assume that teaching content and skills will result in higher-order thinking without explicit instruction, but research suggests otherwise.  Fostering critical thinking in the classroom becomes the teacher’s responsibility.  However, when done effectively, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences for students and teachers alike.  There is great satisfaction in witnessing students think about what they think, and taking them through that journey of discovery, one stop at a time.

References

1Atkinson, D. (1997). A critical approach to critical thinking. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 71-94.

2Brookfield, S. (2011). Teaching for Critical Thinking.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

3Crocker, J.L., & Bowden, M.R. (2011). Thinking in English: A content-based approach.  In A. Stewart (Ed.), JALT2010 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

4Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Seabury press.

5Freire, P. (1973). Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: The Seabury Press

6Halvorsen, A. (2005). Incorporating critical thinking skills development into ESL/EFL courses. Internet TESL Journal, 11(3).  Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Halvorsen-CriticalThinking.html

7Kabilan, M. (2000). Creative and critical thinking in language classrooms. Internet TESL Journal, 6(6).  Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Kabilan-CriticalThinking.html

8Liaw, M. (2007). Content-based reading and writing for critical thinking skills in an EFL context. English Teaching and Learning, 31(2), 45-87.

9Long, C.J. (2009). Teaching critical thinking in Asian EFL contexts: theoretic and practical applications. Proceedings of the 8th Conference of Pan-Pacific Associate of Applied Linguistics.

10Mayfield, M. (2001). Thinking for Yourself: Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading and Writing (5th ed.). United States: Thomas Learning.

11Shirkhani, S. & Fahim, M. (2011).  Enhancing critical thinking in foreign language learners.  Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 29, 111-115. Available: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811026759


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Skills for effective communication at work

Skills for effective communication at workRachel Appleby, co-author of two levels of the new International Express, looks at ways to help your students to communicate more effectively at work, ahead of her webinar on this topic on 3rd December.

The other day I had a meeting with a restaurant manager, Anna, about language classes. Her English was passable, but clearly not as good as she wished, and she felt embarrassed that she couldn’t express herself more eloquently. Phrases didn’t seem to come to her mind, and she kept apologizing for the little mistakes she was making. It reminded me of another of my students, who once complained that he sounded like a six-year old in English, and it didn’t help him do a good job at work at all!

What is it that such people need? Anna is adult and sophisticated, and can run a meeting more than adequately in her own language, but in English, it seemed to bother her that she had so many difficulties, and – as a result – little confidence. I really felt for her.

In a nutshell, her passive knowledge wasn’t bad, but she didn’t have those stock phrases we use in conversation to negotiate a topic (for example, how to add information, give an example, or move on.) – those phrases which help us sound fluent, make it easier for the listener, and ensure communication is effective. When she emailed me later that day, her writing illustrated a similar lack in conventions we use in semi-formal correspondence, those phrases which clarify the message, and orientate the reader.

So how can we help these students? They want to be able to function as easily in English as in their own language, even if they’re not at native-speaker level. Our students want to ‘be themselves’ in English, and behave as they would in their own language. The good news is that some work skills are transferable, even if we have to raise students’ awareness of what they are.

So let’s have a look at the main problems are, and what we need to do. Students, especially at lower levels, may have difficulties with grammar, but if we can focus on chunks of language, with an emphasis on intonation and sentence stress, this will help them communicate a clear message. Additionally, students often find that they have the technical language for talking about their area of work, but need help with putting it together. Functional language, phrases which have a purpose, are what they need here.

With writing, obviously we need to highlight standard conventions in emailing, and work with models to help students. I also think when writing that it’s useful to pare down content: it can be easy to write too much in another language in order to try to explain yourself, when it fact you just cause more confusion (I know I do this!) We need to help them keep their writing focused, and avoid unnecessary complications.

In my webinar on 3rd December, we’ll look at some examples of how we can increase students’ confidence, so that they can operate professionally within a work environment. We’ll look at chunks of language to use in meetings, conventions for writing clear emails (in particular, ways of handling difficult emails), tips for creating focused PowerPoint slides, and, finally, how to get your to-do list ticked off – in other words, ways of setting clear work objectives. And I think all these are things which Anna would benefit from!

I’ll be using materials from the Pre-Intermediate, and Upper Intermediate levels of the new edition of International Express. I look forward to seeing you soon!

Register now.


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Moving into EAP: navigating the transition

EAP English for academic purposesWhat exactly is EAP and how should it be taught? Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, discusses the challenges and opportunities for teachers moving in this area of English language teaching ahead of his webinar on the subject. 

First and foremost, you’ll want to know what EAP really is. ‘What is EAP?’ might sound like a straightforward question, but there’s quite a lot to it. For some people EAP means study skills – for example making notes while listening to a lecture – yet there’s much more to EAP than this.

It’s helpful to start with the three key words in EAP – English, Academic, Purposes – and look at each of these in turn.

What English should we focus on?

English is such a vast language that we need to be clear about what’s most relevant for our students, and spend time on this. We simply don’t have the time to cover everything.

For vocabulary, it’s useful to divide the language up into three broad groups:

• Core vocabulary – the most frequent words including prepositions and determiners, and frequent nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs
• Academic vocabulary – this is central to EAP and includes all the words which express meanings in any discipline, for example ‘argument’, ‘in terms of’, and ‘significantly’
• Technical vocabulary – this includes discipline-specific vocabulary, such as ‘genome’ (genetics) and ‘flotation’ (economics and finance).

In EAP we need to focus mainly on the first two of these – core and academic. Learning subject-specific words is beyond the scope of most EAP programmes, which tend to be general (i.e. where students of different disciplines study together in the same classes) rather than specific (where classes are built round students from similar disciplines, such as engineering or economics).

In addition, there’s grammar. As Ron Carter and Michael McCarthy have pointed out, ‘there are no special structures which are unique to academic English and never found elsewhere’. What’s strikingly different is the frequency and complexity of grammatical structures in academic language. For instance, the passive is far more frequent, accounting for about 25% of all main verbs in academic texts. Complex noun phrases are very frequent too – look out for examples like ‘a difficult investment climate characterized by over-regulation’ and unpack these in your EAP classroom.

What does Academic really mean?

We’ve all got our own experiences of academic life and culture – the schools and universities we’ve studied at and the places where we’ve taught. In EAP we have to prepare our students to survive in a context which potentially has three shocks: academic shock, language shock, and culture shock. Academic institutions like universities have their own cultures and ways of doing things. There are different academic communities – to some extent artists behave differently from biologists. But there are many things in common, such as the principle of academic honesty (don’t use other people’s material without acknowledgment) and the necessity to communicate.

What Purposes are there?

The main purpose of EAP is to enable students to be able to study effectively in their chosen programme, in English. To do this, students need considerable autonomy. Autonomy and independence don’t just happen – in short, EAP teachers need to enable students to learn how to be more autonomous. Students need to learn how to study effectively, individually and collaboratively with other students. And they need many other skills and competences, such as how to search for source texts to use in their writing and speaking.

There’s another, more distant, purpose to EAP. Most students aren’t doing further study in English for its own sake. Rather, it’s a means to an end – a professional purpose.

So, there’s a lot going on in the field of EAP. In my webinar on Thursday 20th November we’ll be exploring this through the lens of ‘E’, ‘A’ and ‘P’. Join us and see what it all adds up to!


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How to give an effective presentation: Part 2 – Practice

In this series of video tips Ben Shearon, the Stretch Presenting Skills Consultant, shares his advice to help students enter The Stretch Presenting Skills Competition 2014-15 and become more comfortable and confident public speakers.

The more you practice, the easier your presentation will be. But how can you make sure that your practice makes a difference? Ben shares his ideas:

Have your young adult/adult class entered The Stretch Presenting Skills Competition 2014-15 yet?

One of your students could win a two-week all-expenses paid scholarship to Regent Oxford, a renowned English school in Oxford, as well as a class set of Stretch for you. Expand students’ public speaking skills, improve their English, and get them presenting in class!

Closing date: January 2, 2015. Enter today!

Related articles:

  • Part 1 – Plan
  • Check back in December, when we will post Ben’s third and final video tip. Or visit the competition webpage to see it today.


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The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers Texts have always played an integral part in classroom learning, for skills development and as contexts for language study. It has long been acknowledged that choosing texts that are interesting and motivating is key, but we also need to ensure rich and meaningful content. Katie Wood, teacher trainer and materials writer, suggests using four key questions to assess whether a text meets these criteria and discusses why it should.

Question 1: Does the text contain information that can be of use in the real world outside the classroom?

In today’s fast-moving and increasingly digital world students are less likely than ever before to read or listen to something solely because it’s good for them, or because it contains examples of a particular structure. They are likely to want to know which specific skills they’re working on, but also what information they can take from the text and make use of in their life outside the classroom. A good text needs to be engaging, but it also needs to contain information that remains relevant and useful to the student once the lesson is over. Texts need to provide take-away value both in terms of linguistic development and real-world knowledge.

Question 2: Does the content help students relate their experiences, situation and country to the world as a whole?

More than ever before, both students and teachers have access to information from a variety of truly international sources on a grand scale. Facebook, Twitter and the internet in general mean that students are communicating internationally both in terms of their career and social life. As a result the communications themselves have become more related to matters which cross boundaries and borders.

Question 3: Is the text generative and can productive tasks be tailored to students’ needs?

The challenge is to provide both students and teachers with texts that have universal appeal, that are relevant, yet are in some way not already worn out by digital media. Choosing texts which are content rich increases the likelihood that they will generate different responses and points of interests from different individuals, and this includes the teachers. Maintaining the enthusiasm of a teacher dealing with the material for perhaps the fifth or sixth time should not be underestimated. In addition, a large number of students learn English in a General English class, but increasingly they have a more defined purpose in learning than they did in the past. In one group for example, a teacher might find students who want to pass an exam, want to improve their English in a business environment, or want to focus more on social English. A genuinely generative text provides the opportunity to lead into productive work in more than just one of these areas.

Question 4: Is the content of the text authentic and does it lend itself to further research and exploration?

As previously mentioned, students want to feel that what they spend their time reading and listening to in the classroom, has real world application. A text that satisfies this criteria should ideally create a desire in readers or listeners to discover more. Consequently, texts need to be authentic and googleable, and this should be true for all levels. So, while a text chosen for elementary learners will need to be adapted in terms of language, we need the content to be real. A student can then go away and find out more for themselves.

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