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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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My IATEFL Conference 2019 experience! | Nick Manthei | Aysu Şimşek

The OUP Turkey team at IATEFL 2019

I close my eyes and imagine a place where I can meet hundreds of teachers from different places on earth, with different backgrounds, with different interests and with the same passion: learning and sharing. I open my eyes and see this place is real, like my very own self that meets these teachers and shares with them the same enthusiasm for teaching. This place is the wonderfully orchestrated 53rd IATEFL Conference 2019 held in Liverpool.  The location of the event was right on the water with beautiful views of the coastline. Overall, approximately 3,000 attendees participated in over 500 talks! In these sessions, fellow colleagues presented their findings from their part of the world and discussed how it could be adapted to the participant’s home country.  It was Aysu’s first time at IATEFL and Nick’s third, and both of us eagerly await next year’s conference.

Nick was fortunate enough to fly early to Liverpool and attend the special interest group on Learning Technologies. Here participants discussed how technology and feedback can be used to assist English language learning.  After a great presentation on defining what feedback is and what it should be, the audience was shown several technologies that are currently being used in the classroom. This included uses of Artificial Intelligence and Screen Caption technology.  During the conference, we attended several Teacher Training sessions, two of which stood out. One particularly memorable session focussed on using Lego to enhance teaching and learning, and another focussed on Assessing through Games.

Aysu has been into poetry since she could remember for her own pleasure, but for the past couple of years, she has been interested in using poetry in the ELT classroom. You can imagine her excitement at joining a poetry session with Doris Suchet to hear her ideas, poetry is another way to find out about one’s own, and certainly a great way to connect with others. 

The Oxford Test of English

Oxford University Press’s Oxford Test of English Launch Event was a huge success. It was held in the beautiful Tate Liverpool Museum where many gathered to celebrate this new endeavour.  The Oxford Test of English is a computer adaptive general English proficiency test certified by the University of Oxford. Nick was at the party and met several teachers eager to access this test for their students, enabling them to access further education.

The thing we will probably remember the most though was the people we met and interacted with. All the presenters were incredibly generous and approachable. We met so many teachers from around the world and learned about their students and working conditions. Conversations with teachers from Nepal, Russia, England, Thailand, Kosovo, Brazil, the Netherlands, Greece, China, and Bulgaria all helped to shape our knowledge of ELT globally, as well as help us to reflect on our own situation in Turkey.

One final note

Throughout the conference, this snippet from Alice in Wonderland haunted us:

The Hatter asks ‘Have I gone mad?’ and Alice answers ‘You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret, all the best people are.’

I believe we, as the people attending IATEFL, are all ‘bonkers’ like ‘all the best people are’ because we are the living proofs that we can create a world that is equal, inclusive, kind, hungry for learning, and open to sharing.


Nick Manthei is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press. He has previously taught in Istanbul and Izmir. He recently finished his Master’s degree in Education at Endicott College on International Education with an ESL Concentration. Nick has an optimistic outlook on Education in Turkey and the world and gives real examples of how education can be made better starting with the most important person in the school: the teacher.


Aysu Şimşek is a passionate advocate of continuing professional development. After graduating from Istanbul University with joint honours in American Culture and Literature with Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy, she embarked on her own teaching career. As a teacher, Aysu had the fortune to work in supportive teaching teams and personally benefited from the valuable guidance of mentors. Now in her role with Oxford University Press, Aysu meets and supports teachers from across Turkey and is proud to be an active member of a global community of dedicated educationalists. She is a holder of a CELTA qualification, has co-written articles for Modern English Teacher magazine and TEA Online Magazine.


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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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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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Learn English with Virtual Environments | Hidekazu Shoto

Students playing computer games to learn english

Communication with native English language speakers is one of the most effective ways to learn English, and using technology makes this possible. I teach English based on my “collaborative-communication model”, one that’s very effective for motivating my students. I use a wealth of technologies with my class such as Skype, Minecraft, and AI robots. I find them useful for not only teaching English, but for teaching 21st century skills as well!

Virtual environments

From my experience, virtual environments can be very effective language learning tools for students of English; they allow students young and old to experience new worlds, communicate, make friends, and build relationships. There are a wealth of tools out there that you can use, but I’m happy to say that I’ve had real success with my students using a combination of Skype and Minecraft (a game many students may already be familiar with). These digital environments offer students engaging opportunities to use English with native speakers and to use the language to achieve a common goal, such as constructing a digital building. Through these activities, students also develop their 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, imagination, and logical thinking. These four skills are necessary assets for learners that will help them to succeed in the modern world.

A typical lesson

Typically, students grouped together to make a team of four people, and they are given a task. I might ask the groups to construct a building, like the Kyoto World Heritage Site in Minecraft, before asking them to introduce it to students from overseas. To build something in Minecraft, students need to exercise their imagination, and think logically about the build and their resources. Each student is then given a role; Minecraft Leader, Programming Leader, English Leader, and Building Designer. Finally, they are given a deadline.

Most groups start off by discussing a plan, each student offering an opinion. These discussions continue throughout the duration of the build. Once completed, the group welcome overseas visitors to their digital environment, giving them a tour of their build and gathering their opinions on their work, all in English!

The simplicity and global appeal of Minecraft make it extraordinarily easy to introduce to the class. As a tool, it allowed me to break down subject barriers, combining English, 21st Century Skills, and programming. This is something I’m especially proud of achieving as from 2020 in Japan, the Ministry of Education plans to make ‘English’ and ‘Programming’ compulsory across all Primary schools. The techniques I’ve described combine these two educational programmes, which is great for teachers! And through the “collaborative-communication model”, students can improve their English proficiency in an engaging and motivating way. 


Hidekazu Shoto was born in Osaka, Japan, and is an English Teacher and Head of ICT at Ritsumeikan Primary School. After graduate school, he joined Ritsumeikan Academy as an English teacher, introducing ICT and technology into his English classes.

Hidekazu Shoto was a top 10 Finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2019. Here’s why!