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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.

For regular tips, tricks, and resources to help your students improve, subscribe to our monthly Teaching Adults e-newsletter!


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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The Treasures of Bilingualism | Patsy M. Lightbown

Globe - pointing at destination

As a Girl Scout, I learned a song that you may also have learned. “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.”

The lesson of that song also applies to the role of languages in our lives. “Learn a new language, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.” Even better, learning languages isn’t like lining up silver coins beside gold ones, with spaces between them. The new and old languages interact; they can strengthen and enrich each other, creating knowledge and skill that go beyond the simple fact of knowing more words.

Bilingualism – the ability to use more than one language – has been found to bring benefits throughout our lives. Some of those benefits are obvious, but others are more subtle and unexpected. As teachers of English, we sometimes need to be reminded that we are not only helping students become proficient in English, we are also helping them become bilingual, adding English language knowledge to the knowledge of the language they already have already acquired at home, at school, or in their community. In some contexts, of course, English will be students’ third or fourth language.

Bilingualism is more than just a personal benefit. Bilinguals can positively affect their community because of their ability to engage more easily with members of different linguistic and cultural groups. Knowing and using more than one language can promote empathy, allowing us to see and interpret the world from another person’s perspective.

There may even be some health benefits to learning and using more than one language.

As bilinguals, we may enjoy the cultural enrichment that comes from being able to read literature or watch films in the original language. In addition, we may get more from travel when we are able to understand local languages. Other personal benefits include the value of maintaining connections with family members of an older generation who speak only the language of their cultural heritage.

Economic benefits of bilingualism have been found not only for individuals who leave their country of origin and migrate to another country to find work. Even individuals who have been brought up in wealthy countries and who speak a powerful world language such as English or French have been found to have greater earning potential when they are able to use additional languages.

Researchers have found that bilingualism is related to cognitive benefits across the lifespan. Young bilinguals show greater mental flexibility and creativity in problem-solving than children who speak only one language. Bilingual children develop metalinguistic awareness at an earlier age, coming to understand, for example, that the name of an object is not part of the object itself but rather a label that we can choose to change. The experience of regularly using more than one language also appears to enhance children’s ability to shift attention from one task to another.

The possibility that bilingualism entails health benefits may seem farfetched, but language skill may be related to health in several ways. It is clear that if we are away from our home community, knowing a local language can be crucial for getting information about local health concerns, reading labels on medicines, or understanding a doctor’s instructions. More surprising, perhaps, is evidence that in elderly bilinguals, symptoms of dementia may manifest themselves later than for monolinguals with similar medical conditions.

Oh, and one more thing. Some research shows that in order to get the greatest benefit from becoming bilingual, it’s necessary to achieve a certain threshold of proficiency. The exact level of proficiency has not been defined but the evidence suggests that while there are personal and social benefits to learning even “a little bit” of a new language—enough to facilitate travel or to read a newspaper with the help of a dictionary, for example—the most significant benefits come to those who have developed higher levels of proficiency. Related research shows that the strengthening and continued growth of a person’s first language supports the acquisition of a new language. As with keeping “old friends”, it seems that the experience of maintaining and strengthening our first language makes us better at adding new ones.


ELTOC 2019

Patsy ran a webinar on this topic for OUP’s free English Language Teaching Online Conference in March 2019. Click the button below to watch the full recording.

Note: Among the researchers whose work we will draw on in this webinar are Jim Cummins, Wallace Lambert, Ofelia García, Ellen Bialystok, Colin Baker, Vivian Cook, Fred Genesee, and Lily Wong Fillmore.


Patsy M. Lightbown is Distinguished Professor Emerita (Applied Linguistics) at Concordia University in Montreal. Since the 1970s, her research has focused on the importance of time in second language learning and on the complementary roles of meaning-focused and language-focused activities. She has studied the acquisition of French, English, and Spanish in classrooms in Canada and the US. Her 2014 book Focus on Content-Based Language Teaching appears in an Oxford University Press series that she co-edits with Nina Spada, with whom she co-authored How Languages Are Learned (OUP), an award-winning introduction to second language acquisition research for teachers, now in its fourth edition.


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Creating an inclusive learning environment | Dr Bimali Indrarathne

Inclusivity in the classroom

Inclusive education is defined as “recognition of the need to work towards ‘schools for all’ – institutions which include everybody, celebrate differences, support learning, and respond to individual needs” (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2011, p. 3). When inclusive practices are introduced into a school system, usually teachers are trained and they are expected to make necessary changes in the teaching-learning process. However, teacher training itself cannot create an inclusive environment in the school. All relevant parties such as school administration, parents, and other social institutions should also play an active role. Therefore, it is important to understand how these different groups contribute to create an inclusive environment. 

Challenges in creating an inclusive environment

Negative attitudes and lack of awareness: One of the main challenges in introducing inclusive practices into an education system is the negative attitudes and/or misconceptions of teachers, school management, parents and society on issues such as disabilities. This is due to their lack of awareness of such issues. Research in different parts of the world has shown evidence of teachers’ (e.g. Alawadh, 2016) and parents’ (Scorgie, 2015) lack of awareness of learning difficulties such as dyslexia. A recent study (Indrarathne, in press) has shown that English language teachers find it difficult to implement inclusive practices to accommodate learners with dyslexia at classroom level due to lack of support from their colleagues, parents and school management (or the education system).

Poor collaboration: If educational changes are to be successfully implemented, there should be healthy and regular collaboration between professionals within the education system (Alur & Timmons, 2009). For example, when inclusive practices are introduced into a school system to accommodate learners with learning difficulties, there need to be changes introduced to the assessments as well. However, in certain contexts, assessments are designed by external bodies and teachers have minimal influence on the decisions taken by those who design assessments. On such occasions, teachers are in a dilemma as changes that they introduce may have negative consequences on learners when it comes to assessments. 

Lack of resources: Lack of physical resources (e.g. sufficient classroom space, facilities for preparing learning aids), lack of awareness-raising programmes aimed at teachers, principals, parents and society at large, lack of specific teaching-learning materials/resources and lack of administrative support within the school system can also be challenging when creating an inclusive environment.

Ways to overcome challenges

Awareness raising: One of the most important steps that need to be taken when creating an inclusive environment is awareness-raising. This should be aimed at:

  • Everybody in the education management system including teachers, principals, teacher educators, policy planners and administrators. This can be realised through either short-term or long-term programmes and by including components related to inclusion into existing CPD programmes.
  • Parents – both of learners with and without special needs. It is important that parents of learners without special needs understand the reasons for accommodating learners with special needs and parents of children with special needs understand which accommodations their children need. Involving the parents in creating an inclusive environment will bring more positive results. This can be done through regular discussions with parents, through parents’ meetings and through other means such as leaflets.
  • Society – as social institutions need to fully participate in creating an inclusive environment, it is important to design ways and means to reach them. Awareness- raising programmes such as newspaper articles, leaflets, short TV/radio programmes, public talks and seminars would be useful in this context. At school level, events such as school visits and open days can be arranged.
  • Learners – it is also vital to make learners aware that some of their peers need special accommodations in the learning process.

Agenda for creating an inclusive culture: The institution needs to identify the steps that need to be taken to create an inclusive environment and design a programme to realise it. This needs to include a clear vision, short-term and long-term goals and ways to make changes sustainable. This should be designed in collaboration with all parties (i.e. teachers, administrators, students and parents) and should also be communicated to all parties concerned.

Collaboration and communication: It is important to create an environment where all relevant parties within the school system (i.e. teachers, administrators, students and parents) engage in regular communication and collaborate in creating an inclusive environment.

Legislation: Eleweke and Rodda (2002) identify the absence of enabling legislation as a major problem in implementing inclusive education particularly in developing countries. Therefore, a country/education system needs some enabling legislation of inclusive practices, for example, giving extra time in exams for learners with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

Resources: Providing teachers with necessary training and physical resources to implement inclusive practices and providing learners with special needs the resources that they need would make the school environment more inclusive.

I spoke about creating and Inclusive Classroom at ELTOC 2019, click here to watch the recording!


Dr Bimali Indrarathne is a lecturer in the Department of Education, University of York. She researches second language acquisition/pedagogy and teacher education. She has been involved in several teacher training projects on dyslexia and inclusive practices in South Asia. She is also an educator on the Lancaster University’s MOOC on Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching.


References

Alawadh, A. S. (2016). Teachers perceptions of the challenges related to provision of services for learners with specific learning difficulties (dyslexia) in Kuwaiti government primary schools. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of York.

Alur, M., & Timmons, V. (Eds.). (2009). Inclusive education across cultures: Crossing boundaries, sharing ideas. India: SAGE Publications India.

Eleweke, C., & Rodda, M. (2002). The challenge of enhancing inclusive education in developing countries. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 6(2), 113-126.

Indrarathne, B. (In press). Accommodating learners with dyslexia in ELT in Sri Lanka: teachers’ knowledge, attitudes and challenges. TESOL Quarterly.

Scorgie, K. (2015). Ambiguous belonging and the challenge of inclusion: parent perspectives on school membership. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 20(1), 35-50.

United Nations Children’s Fund (2011) The right of children with disabilities to education: a rights-based approach to inclusive education. Geneva, Switzerland: UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEECIS).


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Does technology work? | Nicky Hockly

Teaching with technology

In todays’ wired world, technology is an integral part of our work and personal lives. As teachers, we are often expected to use a range of digital technologies in our English language classes.

These expectations come from a range of quarters: from educational technology vendors, Ministries of Education, school directors, students, parents, and often from teachers themselves who feel they ‘should’ use technologies, especially with younger students/teenagers.

But in our rush to use technology in the English language classroom, the question of whether a chosen technology ‘works’ or not is frequently ignored.

What does research say?

Let’s start with a short quiz. Are the three following statements true or false?

  • Younger students (e.g. teenagers) are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.

Do you feel confident about your answers? Let’s see what the research says about each of these statements.

  1. Younger students are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
    Many people believe this to be true, but the myth of the ‘digital native’ (Prensky, 2001) has been thoroughly debunked by research. Young people are not automatically effective users of new technologies, although they may be confident with these technologies and use them for a range of (primarily friendship-driven) purposes. Young people may appear to live on Instagram, but they are often not good at evaluating the source and veracity of information they find online. They often don’t know how to write an email with the appropriate structure and tone. In short, younger students tend to be confident but uncritical users of technology. A large-scale research study (Fraillon et al.) carried out with 60,000 13 to 14 year olds across 3,300 schools in 21 educations systems/countries found that the ICT skills of young learners and adolescents were fairly low, and depended on a wide range of factors. These factors included: the impact of students’ home and school contexts, students’ individual characteristics, parents’ educational level and profession, the number of books and access to ICT resources in the home. Whether students received ICT instruction in school was another factor that affected their digital literacy. The bottom line is that younger people are automatically digital literate.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
    Blogs have long been considered good for helping students develop their writing skills. When writing blog entries, students write for a real audience and with a communicative purpose; students can also interact with blog readers in a blog’s comment section. These are all good things for writing. Research shows that blogs can increase students’ motivation to write in English, although the research is less clear on whether the quality of their writing improves through writing blog entries. For example, it has been found that students with a lower level of language proficiency may benefit less from writing blogs than stronger students do (Secru, 2013). Nevertheless, the research into using blogs to develop EFL and ESL students’ writing is positive overall.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.
    So-called ‘assistive technologies’ are used in inclusive learning in different disciplines, not only in English language learning, so much of the research has taken place in a range of subject areas. Overall, the research is promising. Tablets, for example, have been enthusiastically taken up by teachers working with special educational needs (SEN) learners because of their multimodal and tactile assistive qualities, as well as the ever-growing range of educational apps available for SEN students. In the field of English language teaching, research suggests that, depending on the learning materials or apps used and task design, learners’ engagement with language learning materials can increase (e.g. Cumming & Draper Rodriguez, 2013). The research also suggests that language teachers usually have a positive attitude to the use of assistive technologies with their SEN language learners.

Whatever the technology and whoever the learners, one thing is clear: it is important to review the available research in order to take an evidence-based approach to using technology with English language learners.

To what extent do technologies support language learning, and lead to improved outcomes for students? Join me in April for my webinar where we’ll take a critical look at digital technologies research and ask: Does technology actually help English language students learn better?


Nicky Hockly is the Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an award-winning online training and development organisation. She has worked in the field of English Language Teaching since 1987, is an international plenary speaker, and gives workshops and training courses for teachers all over the world. Nicky writes regular columns on technology for teachers in ETP (English Teaching Professional) magazine, and in the ELTJ (English Language Teaching Journal).


References

  • Cumming, T. M., & Draper Rodriguez, C. (2013). Integrating the iPad into language arts instruction for students with disabilities: Engagement and perspectives. Journal of Special Education Technology, 28, 4, 43-52.
  • Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Gebhardt, E. (2013). Preparing for life in a digital age. The IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study International Report. Springer Open: Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland.
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 5. MCB University Press.
  • Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Spain, pp. 4355-66.