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Critical thinking as a life skill | Edmund Dudley

Critical Thinking Skills

Plenty of ELT materials now include prompts and activities designed to foster students’ critical-thinking (CT) skills. I work with teenage students, and two questions that tend to crop up when the heading ‘critical thinking’ appears on the page are 1) What is critical thinking, anyway? and 2) Why do we have to deal with it in the English lesson? By the end of the class I sometimes find that I am asking myself the same questions, too.

The problem, I feel, is that critical thinking is sometimes treated as if it were purely a language skill, whereas in fact it is actually a complex life-skill, which, if properly developed can benefit students in countless real-life situations and interactions.

So what is critical thinking, anyway?

For me, it includes the following key points:

1. The belief that the information we are given should not always be accepted at face value.

This belief is by no means universally held. For all the enthusiasm about critical thinking in ELT at present, we should remember that not everyone agrees that this questioning reflex is necessary or desirable. Few proponents of critical thinking would say that CT is always a virtue, for that matter. It is linked to culture, but also to context. Wherever you are from, you can probably think of a situation when it would be deeply inappropriate to question the information you were given. When used, CT skills therefore need to be used wisely.

2. The idea that there is a difference between comprehension and understanding,

Students who get 100% on the reading comprehension understand the text, right? Not necessarily. Many students get all the information from a text successfully but still miss the big picture. These blind spots occur most frequently when we conflate language comprehension with full understanding, and are satisfied with mere surface comprehension. Knowing the meaning of the vocabulary and the sense of every sentence is sometimes not enough. We sometimes need to get students thinking in a different, more critical way if we want them to understand what they have read more fully.

3. The awareness that we are surrounded both by information and misinformation.

Not all the texts, reports, or indeed images that our students encounter will have been edited and scrutinised for bias and objectivity. This is particularly pertinent to outside-the-classroom situations, especially when dealing with social media posts and unverifiable sources. Being aware of the ambiguity is the first step; having strategies with which to resolve it is the second step. That’s where the teacher can be of assistance.

4. The conviction that understanding is enhanced not only by getting answers, but also by formulating new questions.

Successful learners are the ones with the right questions, not the ones with the right answers.

Why do we have to deal with it in the English lesson?

As a matter of fact, we don’t have to. There is something to be said for being critical of critical-thinking itself, especially in ELT contexts. Nevertheless, here are some of the real-life benefits that I feel can be had from a smart and sensitive use of CT in the language classroom

  • It can help us to become aware of our own biases, and to maintain a sense of balance. 

For example: asking students to argue against their own beliefs in a classroom debate, and then to reflect on the experience.

  • It can help us to develop the capacity for empathy through examining multiple perspectives.

For example: Describe a hypothetical situation to your students, e.g. A laptop is stolen from an unlocked car. Ask students to tell the full story from two perspectives. In the first scenario, the theft must be seen as morally unjustifiable; in the second scenario, however, the theft must be made to seem morally justifiable. (Dudley, 2018:81)

  • It can help us become better at detecting attempts to use language to influence and manipulate.

For example: Find and share instances of texts designed to influence and manipulate – it might be from a news source, advertising, or social media; ask students to find, analyse and share further examples that they have found themselves.

For further thoughts and practical ideas, sign up for my free webinar on the 18th/19th June 2019! Click on the button below to sign up.


Edmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Based in Budapest, he has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels. He works with teachers from around the world as a freelance teacher trainer and as a tutor at the University of Oxford’s ELT Summer Seminar. He is the author of ETpedia Teenagers (2018, Pavilion Publishing) and co-author of Mixed-Ability Teaching (2015, Oxford University Press).


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25 ideas for using unit word lists in the classroom

Teacher and young adult students developing their skills with classroom activities

Many ELT series have unit word lists, either in the student book, or available in the teacher resources. However, few teachers make active use of these unit word lists on a regular basis. In an attempt to address this situation I have produced a set of 25 activities which teachers can easily incorporate into their regular teaching practice.

All of the activities have the following three principles:

  1. they can work with almost any ELT unit word list;
  2. apart from the students having access to unit word list itself, they require only basic classroom resources i.e., pencil, paper, board and marker;
  3. they require no previous preparation from the teacher.
Example from: Smart Choice 2nd edition, OUP

Note: Unless otherwise stated, students need to be looking at the word list to do the activity.

  1. Which words do you know (before starting the unit)? – Individually, before starting the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the right next to all the words they know.
  2. What is your favorite word? – Individually, each student identifies their favorite word from the list. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  3. Which ones are similar to words in your own language? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify all the words that appear to be similar to words in their own language. These could be cognates or false cognates. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  4. I don’t like this word because… – Individually, each student identifies a word from the list that they don’t like. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  5. Rapid underlining – The teacher chooses between 5 and 10 words from the unit word list and calls these out quite quickly. Individually, students listen, find and underline these words in the list. Students then compare and check that they have found the correct words.
  6. Find the word in the unit – The teacher chooses a word from the word list and calls this out and the students need to find the word in the unit of the course book. This can be done as a race.
  7. Which is the most useful word? – Individually, each student identifies from the unit word list the word they think is the most useful. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  8. How many of the words are things you can touch? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things that can be touched. The teacher elicits and discusses. There might be many different ways to interpret this and can lead to interesting discussion.
  9. ‘Killing’ vocab items – In small groups, students decide on 3 words they want to eliminate from the unit word list and which will not appear in the next test. The teacher then elicits from each group the 3 words they chose. The teacher writes these words on the board and identifies which 3 words are the most frequently chosen from all the groups. The teacher promised not to include these in the next test. (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP)
  10. Rapid translation – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student has to try to give the translation in their own language.
  11. How many have you seen today? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things / concepts / actions they have seen today. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  12. Identify the words from a definition – The teacher chooses about 5 words from the unit word list and then one word at a time tells the students a definition of each word. Individually, students look at the list and underline the words they think the teacher is describing. The teacher elicits, checks and discusses.
  13. How many have 3 syllables? – In small groups, students identify how many words have 3 syllables. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  14. Which word is the most difficult to pronounce? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to pronounce. The teacher elicits and helps students pronounce the words they chose.
  15. Bingo – Individually, students choose any 5 words from the unit word list and write these on a piece of paper. The teacher reads and crosses off words at random from the list until a student has crossed off all of their 5 words and calls out ‘bingo’.
  16. How many words have the stress on the second syllable? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify how many words are stressed on the second syllable. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  17. Which is the most difficult word to spell? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to spell. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  18. Test your partner’s spelling – In pairs, one student looks at the unit word list and chooses 5 words and dictates these to the other student (who is not looking at the list). After the dictation of the 5 words the students both look at the list and check the spelling.
  19. The teacher can’t spell – The teacher choices 5 words and spells these aloud to the student but makes a deliberate spelling mistake in 2 or 3 of the words. Students listen while looking at the word list and try to identify which words were misspelled.
  20. Quick spelling – In pairs, students take it in turns for one student to choose a word and spell it aloud quickly to other student. The second student tries to say the word before the first student has finished spelling it aloud.
  21. Which word has the craziest spelling? – Individually, each student decides which word, in their opinion, has the craziest spelling. The teacher elicits the words from the students and the class identifies which word was the most frequently chosen.
  22. Which are the 3 longest words? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify the 3 words with the most of letters. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  23. Guess my word – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student needs to ask yes/no questions to work out the word.
  24. Can you make a sentence using 4 of the words? – Individually, each student makes a sentence using any 4 of the words from the unit word list (combined with other words to create coherent sentences). Students then compare and decide which sentence they like best.
  25. Which words do you know (after finishing the unit)? – Individually, after finishing the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the left next to all the words they now know. They can compare this with the number of words they knew before starting the unit and see their progress.

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Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995, and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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World Oceans Day | Teaching Resources

World Oceans Day teaching resources

World Oceans Day, June 8th, is a time when people all around the world do something to show their appreciation for the world’s oceans.

We are all connected to the oceans in some way.

Did you know:

  • Oceans cover over 70% of the earth’s surface
  • Ocean plants and organisms create most of the oxygen we breathe
  • Oceans absorb carbon dioxide, helping to regulate our climate
  • Many of our medicines come from the oceans

Our oceans bring countless benefits to our lives, and now you can bring those benefits to your classroom!

Our freely available lesson plans give you the tools to celebrate World Oceans Day with your students. These lesson activities encourage students to develop their vocabulary, to collaborate, and to speak about current issues.  

Adult learner button
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These resources are available via the Oxford Teacher’s Club.

Not a member? Registering is quick and easy to do, and it gives you access to a wealth of teaching resources.


Found these resources useful? How did they work for you? Share your experiences with our teaching community by leaving a comment below, or by tweeting us using the handle @oupeltglobal!


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What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

Assessment for learning (AfL) is a catchphrase with which many teachers may be familiar and yet may not feel confident that they know what it means in terms of classroom practice. Here I outline the basic ideas behind it and the kinds of classroom practices AfL may involve.

At heart, it’s what good teachers do every day:

  • they gather information about where learners are in their learning, what they know and don’t know;
  • they help their students understand what, and why, they are learning and what successful performance will look like;
  • they give feedback which helps learners ‘close the gap’ between where they are in their learning and where they need to get to;
  • they encourage learners to become more self-regulating and reflective.

The evidence is that, done well, these practices are among the most effective ways of improving learning and outcomes.

Assessment in this process is essentially informal, the information teachers gather comes in many forms, for example, through classroom dialogue, following up on unexpected answers, or recognising from puzzled looks that the students have not understood. Tests play a part, but only if they are used to feed directly into the teaching and learning process.

What would we expect to see in an AfL classroom?

Diagnostics. There would beevidence of teaching and learning that is active, with students involved in dialogue with their teachers and classmates. This goes beyond simple recall questions and will include seeking out students’ views (‘what do you think….) and giving them time to think about their answers – often with a classmate (‘pair and share’).

Clarity about learning intentions. This requires teachers to be clear about what is to be learned, how the lesson activities will encourage it, and where it fits in the learning progression. They then seek to make this clear to their students by linking it to what they have learned already and showing why it’s important. Expert teachers will use imaginative ways of introducing the learning intentions (‘why do you think we’re doing this?’) rather than routinely writing out the learning objectives.

Teachers will also clarify what a successful performance will look like, so that the learners can see the standard they need to achieve. Teachers may do this by negotiating with the class about what the learners think a good performance might involve (for example: ‘what would you look for in a good oral presentation?’). Another approach may be to exemplify the standard by using examples of work (best as anonymous work from other students). A teacher may give the class two pieces of work, she may then give the class the criteria for assessing the work (no more than two or three key criteria) and ask them, in groups, to make a judgement about their relative quality. This also provides a vital step in being able to evaluate the quality of their own work and become more self-regulated learners.

Giving effective feedback. Providing feedback that moves learning forward is a key, and complex, teaching skill. We know from research that feedback is hard to get right. Good feedback ‘closes the gap’ between a learner’s current performance and the standard that is to be achieved. Some of the key features in quality feedback are:

  1. It recognises what has been done well and then gives specific advice on what step the learner can take next. General comments such as ‘try harder’, ‘improve your handwriting’, or 7/10, do not provide the detail needed.
  2. It is clear and well-timed. The teacher gives feedback in language the learner understands and it is given when it is most useful.
  3. It relates to the success criteria and focuses on the key next steps. We may sometimes give too much feedback if we start to comment on presentational features (e.g. spelling) when these were not part of the learning intention.
  4. It involves action and is achievable.

In all this, the aim of assessment for learning is to encourage our students to increasingly think for themselves, and have the ability and desire to regulate their own learning.

Gordon Stobart is an assessment expert that has contributed to the latest Position Paper for Oxford University Press, ‘Assessment for Learning’. Download the paper today to learn about effective feedback, close the gap between where your learners are and where they need to be, and get access to exclusive professional development events!

Button to download the Assessment for Learning Position Paper.

Gordon Stobart is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford. Having worked as a secondary school teacher and an educational psychologist, he spent twenty years as a senior policy researcher. He was a founder member of the Assessment Reform Group, which has promoted assessment for learning internationally. Gordon is the lead author of our Assessment for Learning Position Paper.


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Teaching the “secret” language of social interaction | Anna Krulatz

Language pragmatics

Successful communication in English entails, among other skills, the ability to use language in socially appropriate ways, also known as pragmatic competence. For example, when making a complaint about the quality of food, language learners need to consider their relationship with the other person (are they friends, or are they co-workers?), the social distance (how well you know them), and the setting of the interaction (is it at home or at a restaurant?). The answers to these questions are crucial for contextualising communication, and they help people determine the linguistic resources they select to communicate.

In a less formal context and when interacting with someone we know well, we may say, “Does the soup seem too cold to you? How about if we stick it back in the microwave for a minute?” whereas in a restaurant, when making a complaint to a server, we may instead opt for, “Excuse me, my soup is cold. Would you be able to warm it up for me?” In recent years, pragmatic competence has received increasing recognition as an important component of language instruction.

The why and the how of pragmatics instruction

Research suggests that because pragmatics is closely related to cultural norms and to individuals’ beliefs and identities, it is one of the most difficult areas for language learners to grasp (Kasper & Rose, 2002). Pragmatic nuances are also difficult to notice in the input because many of them are so salient. For instance, there is a subtle difference between “Can I sneak by?” and “Can you move?” yet the situations in which these utterances are appropriately used are quite different. Other speech events, such as interactions between doctors and patients which usually take place behind closed doors, may simply not be available in the input at all. At the same time, we now know that unlike grammatical errors, pragmatic errors tend to be interpreted on a social or personal level, and therefore “may hinder good communication between speakers, may make the speaker appear abrupt or brusque in social interactions, or may make the speaker appear rude or uncaring” (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003, p. 38).  For these reasons, it is particularly important for language teachers to help learners develop their pragmatic skills.

However, while there is now a consensus among second language researchers and practitioners that “most aspects of pragmatics are amenable to instruction, [and that] instruction is better than non-instruction for pragmatic development” (Taguchi, 2011, p. 291), the debate on how teachers can best promote pragmatic development in the classroom is still ongoing. To date, the strongest rationale for the existing approaches to teaching pragmatics comes from Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis (1993, 2001), which states that in order to acquire certain linguistic features, language learners need to first notice them in the input. Consequently, the teaching of pragmatics often focuses on raising learners’ awareness of the linguistic forms that perform various pragmatic functions (for instance that a request can be performed using imperatives such as “Open the window!” or hints “It’s hot in here.”). However, pragmatics instruction should not be prescriptive in nature. Rather, its goal is to make learners familiar with various target language pragmatic choices and practices and to enable them to make informed decisions when interacting with different people and in different settings (Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor, 2003).

Teaching pragmatics with Wide Angle

Wide Angle, a new series for adults from Oxford University Press spanning CEFR levels A1 to C1, helps English language learners discover the “secret” rules of English and learn to say the right thing at the right time. The activities in each lesson follow the activation-presentation-production approach, with activities moving from controlled to freer. The design of the activities fulfills two important criteria for sound pragmatics teaching practices as specified by Bardovi-Harlig and Mahan-Taylor (2003):

  1. They provide models of authentic language use;
  2. Learners are exposed to input before they are expected to reflect on language use and participate in interactions.

Activity types (Activate, Notice, Analyse, and Interact) are loosely based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, with the level of linguistic and cognitive challenge increasing.


Anna Krulatz is Associate Professor of English at the Department of Teacher Education at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. She holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of Utah. Her research focuses on pragmatic development in adult language learners, multilingualism with English, content based instruction, and language teacher education. She has published (and has forthcoming) articles, teaching tips, and book chapters on topics related to teaching and learning pragmatics.


References

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Mahan-Taylor, R. (2003, July). Introduction to teaching pragmatics. English Teaching Forum, 37-39.

Kasper, G., & Rose, K. (2002). Pragmatic Development in a Second language. Oxford, Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Taguchi, N. (2011). Teaching pragmatics: Trends and issues. Annual Review of Applied    Linguistics, 31, 289-310.