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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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5 Ways Your Young Learners of English Will Change the World

shutterstock_247739401Kathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina have taught young learners in Asia for over 25 years. They are co-authors of Magic Time, Everybody Up, and Oxford Discover, primary ELT courses published by Oxford University Press. Their inquiry-based teaching approach supports a differentiated classroom environment that builds the 21st Century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

If you teach English to young learners, take a moment to consider the role you play in shaping their futures. To begin with, you are providing the building blocks of a skill that they can use meaningfully and productively throughout their lives. You are offering the opportunity for global communication, for relationships and careers that will shape who they are and what they do. Most importantly, you can help them change the world for the better.

In essence, the English language classroom exists to prepare students to communicate across cultures, across borders, across perspectives. As the world evolves and becomes even more interconnected, it is our students to whom we entrust the responsibility of building a better global society.

So how will your young learners of English change the world as adults in the future?  Here are five ways:

  1. By communicating effectively in English. Your students will have the ability to read, write, listen and speak with a strong degree of fluency. They will have the social and academic language skills necessary to consider differing points of view, and to persuade and inform others. Here are some tips on how to help your students develop good communication skills in English.
  1. By thinking critically about knowledge and information. Your students will think deeply about issues, and will connect what they learn with what they already know. They will be able to organize and prioritize the information they receive, in order to make sense of it and achieve new goals with it. How do you bring critical thinking skills into your classroom? Here is a video with some easy-to-use ideas.
  1. By thinking creatively. Your students will have the ability to take knowledge and create something completely new with it. They will connect information from various fields to arrive at solutions to old and new problems. They will personalize new knowledge, adapting it to create something that is uniquely their own. You can develop and nurture creativity in your classroom with some of these simple strategies.
  1. By working together, also known as collaborating. Your students will have the social language skills necessary to work with people from other cultures and perspectives. They will learn to share ideas and compromise to achieve the needed results.
  1. Finally, by caring about the world. Your students will be curious and connected adults who will be able to identify problems and seek out solutions with others. They will strive to make a difference in the world. Try some of these approaches to create a classroom environment in which students are encouraged to collaborate and show caring attitudes towards each other.

Some of these qualities have been listed under the label of “21st Century Skills”. We’re happy to look at them as prerequisites for success.  Students who communicate well, who think critically and creatively, and who work well with others, have the tools they need to find success in any field. And it all begins in our classrooms.

How do we build these skills? The links above will take you to a small sample of video tips on using and developing 21st Century Skills in your English classroom. To view all 56 videos available on this topic, visit this 21st Century Skills playlist on YouTube.

If you’re in Japan, join us on Sunday November 22 at the 2015 JALT conference in Shizuoka, where we will present our workshop entitled A Practical Guide to Building 21st Century Skills. Using examples from our new primary course Oxford Discover*, we will demonstrate how the building of 21st century skills can be incorporated into every language lesson. We’ll show how these skills can help your young learners develop English fluency and increase their motivation at the same time.

*2015 ELTon award winner for Excellence in Course Innovation.

Kathleen and Charles will present at JALT on Sunday, November 22nd. Click here for more details.


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Practical ideas for the Business English classroom: Part One – Developing critical thinking

Developing critical thinking in ESLThis is the first article of a three-part Business English series by ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes. Here, he looks at the core critical thinking skills required by business English students.

Business English teachers are familiar with teaching the language for communication skills, such as giving a presentation or negotiating a deal. Perhaps fewer of us consider including the skill of critical thinking as part of our typical Business English course. And yet critical thinking is regarded as one of the key twenty-first century skills that employees look for in a candidate when recruiting. This demand for job applicants with critical thinking skills is also reflected in the course descriptions of many MBA and university-based business programmes which list the development of critical thinking as a core objective.

So can we, as business English teachers, integrate this skill into our courses? The answer is ‘yes’ and in fact you probably already provide students with language-practice tasks that require critical thinking. Here are five critical thinking skills that I believe the typical Business English lesson can help develop:

Critical questioning

Critical thinkers naturally question information that is presented to them and this clearly has an important role in business. Take, for example, the situation where you have quotes from three different suppliers and you need to select the best offer. It’s important to ask questions about each offer rather than accept each of them at face value. In the classroom, we can also develop this skill by asking students questions about a text they have read or listened to which will encourage them to consider it critically. For example, these might include questions like: Do you think the author supports his opinion with facts? Are you convinced by the author’s argument? Why? Why not?

Challenging assumptions

Business decisions which are based on assumptions run the risk of being out-of-date or repeating past mistakes. By challenging your assumptions you are likely to come up with innovative ideas and original products. Class discussions and debates on topical business issues are one way to develop this skill and require students to use the language for expressing opinions, agreeing, and disagreeing.

Identifying evidence

Evidence in business helps us to make informed decisions; for example, a market research survey will help the future development of new products or services which are customer-focused. Ignoring such evidence could result in failure. However, identifying evidence also means separating what is useful or correct evidence from information which may be opinionated or even untrue. This is often the case if you give students a reading text which contains factual information alongside the view of the author. Ask students to underline factual information and circle the writer’s opinions in the text.

Identifying perspective

This skill means seeing things from another point of view. It’s especially useful in a business situation where, for example, you are negotiating with someone else and need to understand their objectives. Similarly, if you attend a meeting where you disagree with another person, it’s helpful to recognise their perspective. In class, using role pays where students take on a different character and have to view a business problem from their point of view is a useful way to develop this skill.

Creating solutions

My fifth and final critical thinking skill in business is often referred to as problem-solving but I prefer to call it ‘creating solutions’. In other words, I give my students a problem and ask them to work in a team and generate a variety of solutions before selecting the best one. Typically, this kind of task might take the form of a case study in which students read about a real business problem and have to create the solution that they would follow.

As you can see, incorporating these kinds of critical thinking skills into your lessons is fairly straight-forward as the kind of language practice and classroom activities needed are familiar. The difference is that by defining the sub-skills of critical thinking, you can also clearly state your aims in terms of critical thinking and the language that will be required. Such an approach could be the response we need in order to satisfy the growing demand for business professionals who can combine a command of English with the ability to think critically.

Look out for my next article next week where I’ll be providing examples of how to integrate video into your Business English lessons, with suggestions for classroom activities.

This article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Mixed up by mixed abilities?

Chinese school studenr with class behind herKate Read, co-author of the new Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for making the most of your mixed-ability Kindergarten classroom.

Kindergarten classrooms can be busy and confusing places at the best of times, but when you (like most of us) have to cope with a wide range of abilities, it throws an extra challenge into the mix. We love the fact that each child is an individual, with his or her own quirky little personalities, but it sure makes teaching effectively a challenge! Don’t despair! Here are a few simple steps to unmix you!

1. Be prepared

As with so many things in life, the secret is in the preparation. Think about what you want to achieve and what it is reasonable to achieve on both a class and individual level. Set a range of achievable goals: begin from the same starting point then vary the level of difficulty. Remember that mixed abilities do range upwards – you want to keep the most able children challenged and interested too.

When creating or adapting activities, chose ones which can be approached in a number of ways, especially in regards to oral or written abilities. Think of ways to exploit a variety of skill sets. For example, if you were going to introduce a new song, you might look at doing the following with it:

  • acting out the words with no production, but focusing on creating interesting movements to illustrate understanding
  • a singing/production element
  • a drawing element
  • a simple reading/writing element (e.g. a gap fill or a create a new verse) for those most able to cope with written text.

Make sure that your instructions are very clear, structured and achievable when you present the tasks. Be very clear about what you hope they will achieve by the end of the class or activity – include the range of outcomes in this. When you give instructions, demonstrate the whole process from beginning to end.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of review. Creative reviews give the lower-ability children a chance to take stock and gain confidence while providing a springboard for other children to attempt higher-level activities.

2. Use the children’s strengths

It’s very important for each child to know that he or she is a valued member of your classroom community. Each contribution is important. For example, someone with good motor skills but poor linguistic skills could make a different but equally important contribution to a project or activity and you need to make this clear. Most tasks will be enhanced by mixing abilities within a group and encouraging peer co-operation. Many children enjoy taking the teacher role and this can be usefully exploited!

Using the children’s different strengths also benefits their social development. Be sensitive to how far you can push the children, but at the same time do mix things up by changing groups, dynamics and procedures when you think they can handle this.

Teaching a mixed–ability class is a great opportunity to

  • develop cooperative learning and peer teaching
  • appeal to different strengths and learning styles
  • support the less able and challenge the more able
  • train children to work both independently and in groups.

3. Be flexible

As you will know, teaching mixed abilities draws on all your multi-tasking skills – but it is worth it when it works well. At times there might be a bit more confusion than with a single approach, but keep calm, aware, and in control, and you will often hear that sweet hum of concentrated activity. Just in case things don’t go perfectly to plan, try to keep a good ‘Plan B’ activity in the sidelines, even if it is just a quick break in the form of an action song or a chant before settling them back into the task. If you see their interest flagging, don’t be afraid to change your approach.

4. Appreciate the achievements of all learners

All children need praise, particularly when navigating the unknown waters of a new language. Find things to praise in all the children’s efforts. If you can’t find something, then deliberately help them do something that is praiseworthy. Remember to think of the individual’s learning path and compare what they’ve done to their own past achievements as opposed to the achievements of others. Demonstrate and reward success – post their efforts on the wall, or in folders, and hand out congratulations stickers, etc. In a very simple way, go back to the objectives you discussed at the beginning of the class. Show the children how they achieved them and how well they did.

Challenge question for fast finishers: how many times did I manage to insert ‘mix’ into this blog?

Would you like more practical tips on working with mixed-ability classes and developing 21st Century skills in your Kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Five Easy Ways in Which You Can Encourage Young Children to Think Critically

Child thinkingKate Read, co-author of the forthcoming kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for getting your kindergarten children to think critically.

Too young for critical thinking?

When people refer to critical thinking, it’s often in association with older Primary and Secondary children who have mastered basic literacy and numeracy skills. Critical thinking is sometimes seen as a higher-level skill that can only be used after the children have mastered the basics of the language through traditional methods. But is this really true?

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is defined in a number of ways but in essence it means the ability to analyze information, make decisions based on information and insight, and find creative solutions to different problems and questions. These skills, once learned, can be used throughout a lifetime and are becoming increasingly important in today’s world.

Turning received wisdom on its head

When we set out to write Show and Tell, our forthcoming kindergarten course for Oxford University Press, my co-authors and I decided that we would see how we could take basic critical thinking skills and apply them to a kindergarten context. The more we wrote, the more we became convinced that not only was it possible to do this but it was vital to do this in order to prepare young children for the years ahead. We realized that you’re never too young to start thinking critically.

We see an approach that places critical thinking at the center as a way of creating a partnership in the learning process with the child. An approach in which learning isn’t just about memorizing isolated words but is about exploring concepts through the medium of language. We also see it as harnessing what is already there: the young child is abounding in curiosity about the world and that curiosity is the most important learning tool you could possibly have.

Five easy ways in which you can encourage young children to think critically

1. Questions, questions, questions!

Encourage a child’s natural inclination to ask questions. Focus on why questions more than any other. Treat children’s questions seriously and enthusiastically and engage with them. Encourage other children to engage with the questions as well.

2. Allow children to discover

When presenting a child with a series of facts, the relevance can often be lost. However, if you guide children with ways of finding things out, they will understand and consolidate the understanding more easily. For example, if you are looking at shapes, don’t tell a child that a triangle has three sides and a square has four. Let them count, draw conclusions and verbalize their answers. In that way, it becomes more meaningful and memorable. From a young age, discovery can happen through observation, trial and error, and even simple experiments.

3. Wrong can be right

In order to be comfortable with critical thinking, children need to be in an environment where they feel confident and comfortable taking chances and getting things wrong. Try not to criticize a wrong answer but use it as an opportunity to further explore. We can often learn more from wrong answers than right ones!

4. Respecting and encouraging opinions

Children should be encouraged to form and express opinions on even simple things. Forming opinions means that they have processed the information, activated it and formed a judgment on it. Once expressed, their opinions should be treated as important. See if they can develop new ideas from that point onwards.

5. The seriousness of fun and games

Game playing can be a great way of critically assessing the ideas and attitudes of others while deducing ways of solving simple ‘problems’ that effective or good games present. They also give children those vital skills of reacting to the unexpected when dealing with other people and their ideas.

These are just a few ideas but I’m sure that the experienced kindergarten teachers out there could add and add to this. Use the comments section below to let us know what you come up with!

Would you like more practical tips on developing critical thinking, and other 21st century skills, in your kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and photocopiable downloadables.