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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Six – Motivate your students with cognitively-challenging tasks

students critical thinkingZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the final article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she proposed improving listening skills as teachers to better support your students. This week, Zarina introduces cognitively-challenging tasks to engage and involve your students.

“Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” Voltaire

When students are busy in an English class thinking about how to go about saying something, they can become weighed down by the need to produce perfect linguistic patterns. So they focus too much on accuracy, rather than really communicating. So how can we get them to communicate if they don’t have enough language? We set tasks at a low language level. This can, however, create another problem: these kinds of activities can fail to challenge learners cognitively. Although our students cannot yet express complex thoughts and ideas in English, they can of course do so in their native tongue (and possibly in other languages too), so the activities we give them need to bear this in mind.

One way of making lessons more intellectually stimulating is to introduce more variety. A new report in the UK by the Sutton Trust touches on research in cognitive psychology by Bjork and Bjork, which found that varying the types of task, practice and context of learning improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term. In other words, we can stimulate students with new and alternative ways to practise language, rather than sticking to the same type of activities.

It’s also useful to look at Bloom’s Taxonomy, which has helped teachers to monitor the level of difficulty of task types for many decades.

Have you tried applying Bloom’s Taxonomy in class? Here are a variety of activities based around the different stages of learning. They all use the same text – a blog entry written by an events organiser, taken from International Express Elementary. Download the text, then try out some of these activities for yourself.

Activity 1: Remembering

Remembering is the basic level of cognition, and this is a good stage to deal with new language. For example, if we look at Claudia Oster’s blog (exercise 5), the comprehension questions below the text are at the basic level of thinking because the answers can easily be found in the text and involve a simple referral and repetition. As the questions asked are cognitively unchallenging, any new language found can be easily dealt with at this stage. This is where the teacher is helping students to start with an equal footing – by establishing the main theme of the text and ensuring all students have understood new key words.

Activity 2: Understanding

Once your students have completed the above activity, you can move them on to the understanding stage: the second level of cognition. So, to return to Claudia’s blog, exercise 6 encourages students to skim the text looking for examples. In this case, they need to identify the expressions with do, have, make and take, and use these to complete the word maps on the previous page (exercise 3). Because the students have a second chance to understand the context, identify and select the correct examples, they will have moved up a level of cognition.

Activity 3: Applying

The next stage is applying, which involves using given information in a new context. This is dealt with in exercise 7, which asks students to consider additional collocations to the ones in the text. They have to choose a correct verb, where some of the phrases are from the text or similar to them, but others are new.

Activity 4: Analysing

Analysing involves comparing and questioning differing ideas. You could go back to the quiz (exercise 4) that appears on the previous page to Claudia Oster’s blog, and ask your students to analyse how stressed Claudia is, according to the quiz. Here is answer key:


Activity 5: Evaluating

In the evaluation phase of cognition you could ask students to decide if Claudia is going to burn out from her stressful job. Ask students to look at the advice given in exercise 1, and get them to decide on four pieces of advice they would give her. Ask students to work in groups, and get each group to evaluate the other’s advice in terms of how realistic it is and whether Claudia would be likely to act upon it.

Activity 6: Creating

Creating is the stage where something new is formed, designed and produced. To round off this series of activities, why not get your students to write a questionnaire? Ask them to work in groups of three or four to carry out a class survey of whether people find their work stressful. They must produce six questions with multiple choice answers. Encourage them to carefully consider what the responses might be in order to create good multiple choice options.

Make sure different group members taken turns at doing the actual interviewing. If you like, the others could video or record the process – or simply listen. You could ask learners to record the results in a graph, write a short paragraph, or present them to the class, depending on language level.

I hope the above has shown that it is possible to design cognitively-challenging tasks that boost understanding, and make learning interesting for students of all levels!

This is the final article in my series of six ways to boost classroom participation. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and if you have missed any of the previous articles, please visit the OUP website to catch up.

Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world (Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, China, Peru and the UK, where she is from). Since 2000, she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina now spends her time divided between teacher training, materials writing, trainer training and presenting at conferences.




http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/pubs/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf Willingham, D. T. (2008).

What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?. American Educator, 32(4), 17- 25.


This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here

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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Five – Get better at listening

shutterstock_271719515Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fifth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she explored asking better questions and improving questioning style to allow for different learning styles in class. This week, Zarina focuses on improving your own listening skills as a teacher.

“Are you really listening…or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?” Robert Montgomery

Last week in the previous article in this series, I explored how you can get more out of your students by improving your questioning technique – but it’s just as important to work on how you listen and respond to their answers.

In an average, busy lesson when the teacher has planned a set of activities, it is easy to ask questions of our students, knowing what the answers should be. This sometimes results in ‘half listening’ to their responses. Students often answer with a lack of confidence in themselves, so they speak quietly, or purposefully mumble certain vocabulary that they feel they can’t pronounce properly. As teachers, we sometimes fill in the gaps of what we have heard, or think we have heard.

This may appear to save time in the short-run, but it does not build the trust required to help students gain confidence. In the long-run, students who don’t fully trust their teacher and lack confidence in their abilities in another language take much longer to answer oral questions or offer opinions. It is in this kind of situation that a language lesson can often seem like a monologue and lack that important two-way communication. We therefore need to practise active listening.

What is active listening?

We can demonstrate that we are listening actively by the way that we respond to what someone is saying.

  1. First, how can we respond more positively to correct answers?
    If we just accept the answer as correct or acceptable and move on, we haven’t let the student know what we heard. Instead, show that you think the answer is a good one, by saying things such as “Exactly!” “Well done, you really thought about that” “Just what I was looking for”. Ask the rest of the class “Did everybody hear x’s answer?” then ask the student to repeat it, adding “What you said is really important, I’d like everyone to hear it.” This values an answer, boosts confidence and gives recognition to those who give it a try. It should also encourage others within the group to get involved too.
  1. But what do you do if you can’t hear, or don’t understand what a student is saying?
    Don’t move on after guessing what they meant, thinking that you are saving them from embarrassment. Tell them you couldn’t hear their answer and ask them to repeat it. If it’s the meaning that’s the problem, when they repeat the answer then it is useful to rephrase their response and ask them “Did you mean _______?” Surprisingly, rather than dying of embarrassment, the student will probably realise you actually want to know what they mean, and try to communicate their idea differently. If you follow with an apology for misunderstanding them (and state that you now understand what they mean), rephrase if necessary or restate the answer for the rest of the class. This demonstrates that you are willing to work with them on an answer and that you are truly interested in understanding their response.
  2. What can we do if students are struggling to answer?
    Students may try very hard to answer a question or give an opinion, but struggle to get their idea across in another language. In such cases we need to try to piece together and summarise what they are trying to say, with their consent. This illustrates that the message being conveyed is more important than accuracy of language and that inaccuracies don’t make an idea or opinion invalid. So if they stumble over whether to include an article or not, for example, quickly add “That’s right, we say on THE street,” then bring them back to the content of what they were saying. “So what was happening on the street?”
  3. How can we explore students’ answers in more detail?
    It’s also important to check that the thought processes behind students’ answers are correct – in fact, this part is actually more important than the final answer! We can do this by asking questions such as “Tell me why you think that?” or “Where did you find that answer?” This also has the benefit of helping students who have been struggling to come to an answer, because they will hopefully be able to follow the thinking behind their classmate’s answer.

In summary, teachers who listen actively do so by clarifying and rephrasing their students’ answers, and reflecting on their students’ thought processes. By concentrating on the thinking behind students’ answers, not just the answers themselves, we can foster a more trusting relationship between ourselves and our students, giving them greater confidence, and reducing their fear of making mistakes. After all, active listening leads to active communication, which should be every language teacher’s goal.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here

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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Four – Improve your questioning technique

answering questions in classZarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fourth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she covered embracing different learning styles to widen your reach in class. This week, Zarina examines how changing your questioning technique can boost interest and interaction in your EFL classroom. 

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers” – Voltaire

The above quotation can also be applied to teachers, whatever their gender! Questioning is a vital part of most language lessons, but this essential technique can be difficult to master. Do you find that some students never answer? Do you avoid singling out members of your class who find direct questions intimidating? And what do you do when your questions are met with resounding silence? In this article, I’ll be suggesting some creative ways to get around these common problems.

Accepting non-verbal responses

When asking questions to a class, we can often rely on the same students to participate and hope the rest are paying attention so that they learn from others’ answers. To encourage participation from as many students as possible, you could consider accepting responses in other ways:

  • Use a voting system which encourages students to offer a kinaesthetic, rather than a spoken response. For example, stick a “Yes”/ “No”; “True”/“False”; “Agree”/“Disagree” label on opposite sides of the room and ask students to move and stand under the correct answer.
  • If you have access to mini-whiteboards held by each student, ask your class to write down their answers in response to your question. This is useful if multiple choice answers are possible, when asking for synonyms/antonyms, investigating parts of speech or grammar, and for brainstorming ideas as well as voting.
  • Distribute cards labelled ‘true’ and ‘false’, and ask students to hold up their responses. If you use a colour code, for example, making ‘true’ cards green and ‘red’ cards false, it makes it easier to quickly assess the opinion of the group.

Provide more thinking time

We all know the feeling when we ask a question and no one answers – but what do you do about it? Silences can feel uncomfortable, and one common occurrence is that the teacher ends up answering themselves, without giving students enough thinking time. Studies have shown that on average a teacher waits 1-3 seconds for a response. Thinking time in the first language actually takes 7-10 seconds, so for students who are studying a foreign language, we need to be giving 10-15 seconds at the very least for a response. Otherwise they will be unable to process the question and consider the answer in English before saying it out loud. (Boyes and Watts, 2009)

Here’s a technique you can use in class to allow for more thinking time. It also has the advantage of bringing more students into the discussion.

  • Choose a student (student A) to answer your question, but don’t say whether you think they are right or not.
  • Ask a second student (student B) if s/he agrees with student A.
  • Still not saying what your opinion is, open it up to the whole class to get more involved, and only then give the ‘correct’ answer.

This provides much more thinking time and keeps students on their toes as they may be asked next. It works particularly well if students have had time to consider the questions in pairs or groups beforehand. They can then test out possible answers in the safer environment of their small group first. Also, if you monitor your students during this discussion time, you can pick two opposing answers which the whole class can then go on to exploit. This should encourage a flurry of agreements and disagreements, as the other students reconsider their answers.

When you single out individuals, be sure to create a safe atmosphere. If teachers randomly choose a student to provide an answer without providing the chance to discuss things, it can cause a lot of anxiety. Another way of creating a feeling of safety is to praise all answers, not only the correct ones. Praise the participation or the fact that they are thinking about a different point that you weren’t considering, before rephrasing the question and throwing it out there again. So for an incorrect answer:

  • Accept the incorrect answer.
  • Add some additional questions (which may seem like baby steps) until the student who got it wrong can see what you were expecting from the original question.
  • Go back to the student who got it wrong, to give them a second chance.

If students are embarrassed in public, they are far less likely to answer next time, so we need to avoid this at all costs.

Why ask questions?

And finally, it’s worth thinking about why asking questions is so important. The 2012 handbook of the UK Office of Standards in Education says inspectors must decide whether teachers use questioning to assess the effectiveness of their teaching and promote pupils’ learning. By using questions to guide our students towards particular answers, we are checking that what we are teaching has been understood. Just in case some students have slipped through the net of understanding, questions should be a way of catching them and preventing them from falling into the waters of confusion. By encouraging more students to respond to questions, we promote the expectation that we require our students to contribute, and that we won’t accept “Don’t know” as an answer. By thinking carefully about how we set questions up and how we phrase them, we can help our students to reach the answers that they previously thought they couldn’t. And from their answers, you learn a lot about your teaching!

Look out for my next article in the series next week – I’ll be exploring the benefits of really listening carefully to your students.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here


Boyes, K. and G. Watts (2009) Developing Habits of Mind in Elementary Schools. ASCD http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-topromote-learning

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#IATEFL – “The difference is academic”

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2015 about developing elementary English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students’ academic language, Edward de Chazal, co-author of Oxford EAP, considers the increasing relevance of EAP teaching for elementary students and younger learners. Have you ever used the saying “The difference is academic”? The fact that it means “There is no meaningful difference”, says something about the negative historical attitude of the British towards academics! But for the purposes of EAP I’d like to propose using the saying literally. In other words, EAP is different to other English language teaching contexts and the main difference, of course, is that it’s academic in focus. At IATEFL Glasgow I was one of the conference reviewers and I used this saying as the title of my review – what I argued was that over the years IATEFL itself has become increasingly academic. Sure, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, but an increasing number of the sessions are academically-inspired, covering research, serious ideas and theories, and EAP. Ideally, sessions should be both academic and fun! If one discernible trend in English language teaching is towards more specificity including EAP, there’s another important trend too: towards teaching ever-younger learners and lower levels. And in EAP the two trends come together. Going back, many would argue that you can’t teach EAP at lower levels, like elementary / A2. Looking forward, that’s exactly what’s happening, around the world and on an increasingly massive scale. I argue that as EAP teachers we should engage with this process and shape it. Let’s start by looking at EAP. What is the essence of EAP, and can it happen at A2? Big questions, short answers: at its heart EAP is about using academic language in a meaningful way; and yes, A2 is a great place to be doing this. For the first question, remember that the ‘E’ in ‘EAP’ stands for ‘English’, and the ‘A’ is for ‘Academic’. EAP students may be at an elementary level in terms of their English language, but they’re not elementary in cognitive terms. When we start teaching them they will already have had many years of schooling, usually have chosen a subject to study, and are planning to do so in English. We do them no favours by dumbing down the content and skills, provided these are achievable. So, what language can A2 EAP students learn? Time is limited, and we need to spend much less time on verbs, and more on nouns. Verbs are useful and necessary, but it’s inefficient to work through all the tenses; instead let’s stick to the present and past tenses, plus the passive as it’s widely used in academic texts. Nouns are far more frequent in academic texts, and a particular feature of such texts is the large proportion of noun phrases. The latter are all but absent from general English coursebooks, but should form a major part of EAP materials at this level. There are other key language areas too, including working with different sentence patterns, linking language, and specific areas like the language of evaluation. Above all, language learning needs to be contextualized and meaning-driven. In my IATEFL Manchester presentation I’ll be investigating what academic language we can focus on with our A2 EAP students. In doing so, we’ll see how language, context, and meaning are crucial for successful learning. Participants will identify and analyse the target language in different graded authentic academic texts, and will be empowered to follow these principles with new texts with their own students. In short, as I wrote in the IATEFL 2012 Glasgow Conference Selections, English language teachers are working towards educating our students for their own education. The difference is academic.


The Many Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL

The challenges of academic writing in ESLDr. Ann Snow, writing consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, discusses the particular challenges of writing in an academic context.

This month I will be teaching a new academic writing course for second language students at my university. I am thus thinking a lot about writing these days and looking forward to helping my students become better academic writers. I’ve promised a lot in my course proposal. I will:

  • Cover characteristics of expository writing and help students apply them to their own academic disciplines;
  • guide them through a cycle of awareness and analysis leading to self-assessment; expose them to different text types (e.g. problem-solutions, methods, discussion sections) and genres (e.g. critiques, case studies, literature reviews, research papers);
  • help them improve their sentence and discourse-level grammar and be better proofreaders of their own writing.

In addition, I am determined to go outside the traditional boundaries of a writing class because I think that writing cannot and should not be taught in isolation from the other skills that students need in order to be effective writers. Therefore, I have added academic vocabulary and strategic reading skill components. I also plan to integrate critical thinking skills so my students improve their abilities to make inferences, synthesize, develop arguments and counter-arguments, and evaluate sources in their writing. My task feels a little overwhelming right now, but also helps me as the instructor appreciate the complexities of academic writing and understand better the challenges our second language students face.

Finding the writer’s voice

Stepping back from the details of my new course, let’s consider the big picture of what writing entails. Writing is a complex language form practiced by users of all languages (both native and non-native) for everyday social and communicative purposes and, for many, for vocational, educational, and professional needs. It has been variously described as a product – a piece of writing with a particular form and the expectation of “correctness.” And as a process – a journey that takes writers through stages where they discover they have something to say and find their “voice.” From the cognitive perspective, it is seen as a set of skills and knowledge that resides within the individual writer and from the sociocultural perspective as a socially and culturally situated set of literacy practices shared by a particular community (Weigle, 2014). With these perspectives in mind, all teachers of writing must ask: How can I help my students improve their writing and what are best practices in the classroom? As I design my new course I am asking myself these same questions.

Needs assessment

An important first step is undertaking a needs assessment, whether informal or formal, to learn what kinds of writing students need. From this assessment, a syllabus or curriculum can be developed or a textbook series selected that is a good match with your students’ needs. Typically, the instructional sequence starts with personal/narrative writing in which students have to describe or reflect on an experience or event. This usually leads to expository writing in which students learn to develop a thesis statement and support this controlling idea in the body of their writing. Analytic or persuasive writing is the most challenging type of academic writing because students must learn to state and defend a position or opinion using appropriate evidence (Ferris, 2009).  These kinds of academic writing tasks require students to become familiar with a variety of text types and genres, one of my course goals.

Improving vocabulary and grammar

The academic writing class also provides the opportunity for students to fine-tune their grammar and expand their academic language vocabulary. Typically, by the time our second language students are engaged in academic writing, they have been exposed to the majority of grammatical structures in English (e.g. complete tense system; complex constructions such as relative clauses and conditionals), but they still may need to learn how to integrate these structures into their writing. They also need to match text types with the kinds of grammatical structures needed. For example, in order to write a cause/effect essay, students need to use subordinating clauses with because and since and they need to use the appropriate transitional expressions like therefore and as such. Student will most likely have learned these structures in isolation but now need extensive practice and feedback to use them accurately in their writing. In terms of academic vocabulary, students need to differentiate the types of vocabulary found in everyday usage (e.g. the verbs meet and get) with their more formal academic counter-parts encounter and obtain (see Zimmerman, 2009, for many other examples.)

In sum, the English for Academic Purposes curriculum must integrate reading and writing skills, and, as mentioned, grammar and vocabulary. Cumming (2006) points out that a focus on reading can lead to writing improvement and an opportunity to learn discipline-specific vocabulary. It also gives students something to write about. Combining reading and writing also provides needed practice in analyzing different text types so students see the features of these models. These kinds of activities create opportunities for more complex tasks such as summarizing and synthesizing multiple sources. A curriculum that integrates reading and writing also exposes students to graphic organizers for reading comprehension which student can recycle for pre-writing (Grabe, 2001). Finally, students need many exposures to similar tasks in order to master the complexities of academic writing and build confidence in their abilities.

I look forward to teaching my new academic writing course and I hope this brief glimpse inspires others to undertake this challenge as well.

References and Further Reading

Ferris, D. (2009). Teaching college writing to diverse student populations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press

Grabe, W. (2001). Reading-writing relations: Theoretical perspectives and instructional practices. In D. Belcher & A. Hirvela, (Eds.), Linking literacies: Perspectives on L2 reading-writing connections.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Weigle, S. C. (2014). Considerations for teaching second language writing. In M. Celce-Murcia, D. M. Brinton, & M. A. Snow (Eds.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed., pp. 222-237). Boston, MA:  National Geographic Learning Heinle Cengage.

Zimmerman, C. (2009). Work knowledge: A vocabulary teacher’s handbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


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