Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog

1 Comment

What Learners Can Do with Texts

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachersNigel Caplan, assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute, holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Pennsylvania, and is finishing his PhD in Education. His research focuses on genre theory and collaborative writing. He has presented at TESOL as an invited speaker, the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing, and the Symposium on Second Language Writing. He is the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing (OUP).

As a teacher and writer, I believe that two of the main questions we face in the classroom can be summarized as: How do our students learn, and how do our lesson plans and materials promote learning?

I’m especially interested in how this applies to our use of texts. And I say texts not readings to emphasize my belief that the articles, reviews, websites, essays, and textbooks that we assign can be used for more than teaching reading.

Here are four of the ways I use texts in my teaching:

  • To challenge students to reconsider the world. For example, in the second edition of Q: Skills for Success Reading/Writing 5, we have a fascinating new reading about how graphs can lie: what appear to be hard numbers may turn out to be visual distortions!
  • To encourage critical thinking by presenting multiple viewpoints. When we were writing Q: Skills, we were always looking for two different ways to answer the unit question, often from very different academic fields. So, for instance, how do we define a private space after reading articles about shared spaces such as roads and public buildings?
  • To model written genres. We all learn to write by reading other texts in the target genre. That’s how we know what a wedding invitation, or a conference proposal, or a blog post should look like. In Inside Writing, we present one or more models for every genre we ask students to write and invite them to discover how and why it is written.
  • To focus on language. Reading widely is certainly important for language acquisition, but research has shown that it’s not enough. Learners also need to focus on the structure of the new language. After reading a text for meaning, I like to dig into the language and help students discover useful vocabulary and grammar structures that they can use in their own speaking and writing. For example, why does a summary of a research article begin with “The author claims that poor exercise routines can be dangerous” rather than “The author presents the dangers of poor exercise routines”?

At the JALT 2015 conference in Shizuoka, Japan (November 20-23), I’ll be talking about these ideas in more detail, including a language-based approach to teaching critical thinking, and a genre-based approach to teaching writing through the Teaching/Learning Cycle.

The Teaching/Learning Cycle

The Teaching/Learning Cycle (Rothery, 1996)* is a well-developed method for helping students to write in target genres. The Teaching/Learning cycle starts with an activity called “Deconstruction,” which is basically a teacher-led analysis of several writing models to help students deduce the staging (the typical structure of information) and language used (especially for ESL or other linguistic minority populations). For example, we teach the online product review as a genre that requires students to describe an item in detail and evaluate it, giving specific reasons. So, first we have students read several reviews, adapted for the level, and then together we figure out that reviews typically follow a predictable pattern: establishing the writer’s expertise, describing the product, giving opinions with specific support, and then closing with a recommendation. You can find this assignment in Inside Writing 2.

The trick with deconstruction is to avoid structural labels and focus on functions. For example, if I ask my students what the structure of any genre is, they will invariably reply “introduction, body, conclusion” because that’s what they’ve been taught. But pretty much every piece of writing has a beginning, middle, and end, so it’s just not very helpful to students learning how to write. In the case of argument writing, for instance, “claims” and “evidence” are much more useful than “introduction” and “body.”

At this point, we also need to focus on language. How are adjectives used to strengthen a description? What shifts in tense do you see? What verbs do the authors use to introduce evidence? What tenses do they use? Do you see certain types of grammar in the claims and opinions but not the evidence and support (e.g. modals)? How do the writers use relative (adjective) clauses? Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be amazed what you and your students notice about your genres!

Join me at JALT to practice the other stages of the Teaching/Learning cycle, Joint Construction and Independent Construction. I’m also going to discuss teaching critical thinking by using thought-provoking texts as prompts for discussion and writing.

Nigel will present at JALT on Saturday, November 21st and Sunday, November 22nd. Click here for more details.


* Joan Rothery’s chapter, “Making Changes: Developing an Educational Linguistics” is in the book Literacy in Society (Hasan & Williams, 1996). The pedagogy is also summarized in my essay, “From Generic Writing to Genre-Based Writing,” available from the OUP website.


21st Century Skills in ELT Part 2: the question-centred approach

classroom_students_teenagersShaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowleyIn Part 1 of this series, Shaun Crowley considered the importance of 21st Century Skills in ELT, concluding that the group of competencies that define this term are indeed important to English language learning. In the next four posts, Shaun continues by offering ideas to help you integrate some of these skills into your classes.

Critical thinking skills are some of the key “21st Century” competencies, so it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see publishers position their course books with this benefit up-front, from primary to tertiary level.

Here is an idea to help you maximize opportunities for critical thinking, so that your students are better prepared for the rigours of university education and the professional workplace.

Adopt a “question-centred” approach to your classes

Since the recent curriculum reforms in the US, a question-centred approach to teaching has been gaining popularity in schools. Teachers start a module with a big question. Students consider this question critically, and over the course of the module they synthesize information to form a conclusion in the form of a final homework assignment.

This approach first made its way into ELT with the publication of Q Skills for Success. But whatever course you are using, so long as you have enough time to step out of the materials, it should be possible to customize your lessons to feature an “essential question”.

For example, Headway Elementary Unit 4 is called “Take it easy” and follows the topic of leisure activities. Before you start this unit, you could write this question on the board:

“What makes the perfect leisure activity?”

Perhaps search for a YouTube video that offers a nice way-in to thinking about the question… here’s one I found following a quick search:

Pre-teach some of the main vocabulary items that fit into the question theme. Then spend a few minutes discussing the question and gauging students’ opinions before you open the book.

As you go through the unit, use the various listening and reading texts as opportunities to return to the big question, encouraging students to synthesize and evaluate the different input.  For example, in the “Take it easy” unit, there’s a text called “My favourite season.” Here you could ask:

Is the perfect leisure activity one that you can do in any season?

Return to the big question any time you see a link to the course material you are using. Then at the end of the unit, have students write an answer to the question for homework. If students are not in the routine of doing homework, round off the question with a class discussion.

Have you adopted a similar approach to your classes? If you have, we’d love to hear how you apply the question-centred method.

1 Comment

21st Century Skills in ELT Part 1: The rise of 21st Century Skills

Blended and cooperative learning in EAP

Shaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowley

In ELT we often regard our profession to be independent of teaching subjects like maths and science. That said, many of the approaches and materials we use are influenced by wider trends in education – from constructivist thinking in the 80’s that influenced the publication of Headway, to the recent “flipped learning” approach that’s inspiring some EFL teachers to rethink blended learning.

In American mainstream education there is an increasing emphasis on a concept referred to as “21st Century Skills” – a collection of various competencies that are regarded as being important for success in life, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, digital literacy, creativity, problem solving, environmental awareness and self-expression.

Now let’s be honest – it’s a bit of a buzzword, with a meaning that’s open to interpretation. But the essential concept is pertinent: the ability to combine the subject you’re learning, with the skills and awareness that you need to apply your knowledge of the subject successfully.

In ELT terms, I would interpret 21st Century Skills as:

  • Analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating materials written in English
  • Developing a “voice” on a topic and expressing it in English
  • Researching materials and solving problems that are presented in English
  • Being creative in English and taking communicative risks in pursuit of fluency
  • Collaborating in diverse international teams, communicating in English
  • Respecting international cultures and sensitivities
  • Presenting yourself professionally in English
  • Being able to use software to express yourself in English
  • Being able to navigate software and digital content that’s presented in English
  • Having the self-discipline to study English independently, and “learning how to learn”.

This probably isn’t an exhaustive list but already it is clear how relevant 21st Century Skills are to ELT, particularly in today’s interconnected world where English is the lingua-franca.

And when we look specifically at the expected outcomes of English classes in schools and universities, it is even more evident that 21st Century Skills have increasing importance.

21st Century skills and the changing ELT landscape

When I first started promoting ELT materials 10 years ago, there was a sizable market of end-users we playfully referred to as “EFNAR” (English for no apparent reason).

These days, English is considered in most places as a foundation subject, a universal requirement for success in later life. Students are aware that English is a necessity for their CVs, particularly if they harbour ambitions to work for an international company.

In many countries, English has become a preparatory subject in universities, partly because of the rise of English medium instruction on undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

These trends have implications on the type of English students must learn, but they also have implications on the interpersonal, cognitive and technical skills that students need to apply to function effectively in English.

Meanwhile, our students’ online worlds are bringing 21st Century skills to the surface even when they are at home… in gaming (collaborating as part of an international team on the Xbox), social networking (sharing thoughts with an international audience), and internet browsing (being able to quickly evaluate the validity of English websites found on Google).

So if we ask how ELT will be influenced by future trends in mainstream education, I would suggest that 21st Century Skills will become a lot more integrated into the language learning process.

What might that look like?  In my next posts I will offer four ideas for integrating some of these competencies in class and as part of a blended learning curriculum.


Mother Language Day: Why learning a foreign language is important

answering questions in classPrior to becoming an ELT Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico, Lysette Taplin worked as an English language teacher and ELT author for a number of primary and secondary series. In this post she discusses the importance of learning a foreign language to foster linguistic and cultural diversity and the positive effects it has on the cognitive process.

International Mother Language Day has been celebrated every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in an increasingly globalized world is vital to achieve meaningful communication between nations and strengthen the unity and cohesion of societies. Today, there are around 7,000 languages in the world, and an increasing number of situations in which two or more languages co-exist and are indispensable in everyday communication. UNESCO’s decision to celebrate International Mother Language Day derives from the importance of linguistic diversity and the need to maintain and revive minority languages.

Through learning languages, even just by mastering a second language, we develop a fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions (UNESCO, n.d.). And besides the obvious practical benefits learning a foreign language provides, it has been demonstrated to improve memory and brain power and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, can have a positive effect on the brain. Students who speak more than one language tend to outperform peers in math and reading (French Immersion School of Washington, n.d.; Anne Merritt, 2013), and are more adept at focusing on relevant information by ignoring irrelevant and misleading stimuli. This can be due to the fact that by learning another language, we have to switch back and forth between two distinct systems of rules, challenging the brain to recognize and work out meaning. For this reason, bilingual students learn to become critical thinkers and perform better at problem-solving tasks. The brain has also been likened to a muscle since it is said to function better with exercise. Language learners need to memorize rules and vocabulary and thus strengthen their cognitive muscles, making them better at memorizing lists and sequences (Anne Merritt, 2013).

Learning a second language can also develop mother tongue skills. Generally, not much attention is paid to the grammatical structures of our native tongue, but once we start to focus on the mechanics of a second language: grammar, conjugations and sentence structure, our awareness of our L1 improves. These transferable skills give bilingual students a greater insight into their mother tongue, thus making them more effective communicators as well as better writers.

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into later life. Recent studies have shown that bilingual patients were more resistant to the onset of dementia. On average, individuals with a proficiency in two or more languages developed dementia 4.5 years later than monolingual ones (Suvarna Alladi et al., 2013; Anne Merritt, 2013).

But aside from the positive effects on our cognitive process, learning a second language opens the door into a particular culture, broadening our understanding of a race and culture, and making us more appreciative of other perspectives. Once I started to learn a second language, I began to experience how learning about another culture, in my case Mexico, has enabled me to achieve a significantly more profound understanding and appreciation of my own. As a Brit living in Mexico, I feel a stronger connection to my heritage which I took for granted when living in England. Not only that, I now have access to an assortment of literature, movies and music in their original form, giving me the opportunity to view the world from different vantage points.

Learning a second language has been a truly rewarding experience, and has enabled me to build deep and meaningful relationships with people in foreign communities as well as becoming more flexible and creative in my ways of thinking. It has also opened up a whole world of opportunities when it comes to travel and I have been lucky enough to have had the chance to visit local indigenous communities where Spanish is not their first language. Without a doubt, bilingualism and multilingualism provide the possibility to bridge both the linguistic and cultural gap between countries as well as being a great asset to the cognitive process.


UNESCO, International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2012, (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/languages-in-education/international-mother-language-day/

French Immersion School of Washington, (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.fisw.org/admission/BilingualBenefits.cfm; Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

Suvarna Alladi, DM, Thomas H. Bak, MD, Vasanta Duggirala, PhD, Bapiraju Surampudi, PhD, Mekala Shailaja, MA, Anuj Kumar Shukla, MPhil, Jaydip Ray Chaudhuri, DM and Subhash Kaul, DM, Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.neurology.org/content/early/2013/11/06/01.wnl.0000436620.33155.a4.abstract; Anne Merritt, Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism, 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html


On a journey to think critically

students critical thinkingColin Ward looks at how to support students to think critically in the language classroom. Colin is a Professor of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, Texas. He is also a co-author of Q: Skills for Success and the forthcoming Trio Writing, both published by Oxford University Press.

As teachers, it’s not always easy to embrace uncertainty.  There is comfort in knowing exactly what a lesson will cover, what questions are going to be asked, and how students are supposed to respond.

However, a paradigm shift often occurs when teachers push students toward thinking critically.  By its very nature, critical thinking brings teachers and students to a much more ambiguous place.  There is no single correct answer—but many.  Teachers are asked to adopt a “pedagogy of questions” instead of a “pedagogy of answers.” 4  They might not have all the answers, and answers might themselves be in the form of questions.

Managing such ambiguity in the classroom is no simple task, yet many researchers continue to cite the benefits of teaching students to think critically.  Evidence suggests that teaching critical thinking in the language classroom improves both speaking and writing and increases motivation.11  Kabilan goes so far as to suggest that foreign language learners are not truly proficient until they can think critically and creatively in the target language. 7

In addition to embracing ambiguity, teachers must grapple with what “critical thinking” actually is, for there are countless definitions in the literature.9  Is it making decisions independently? Developing criteria for analyzing one’s own thinking? Evaluating different perspectives, forming opinions, and taking action?  Making inferences?  Challenging assumptions?  Withholding judgment?

In fact, critical thinking has become an umbrella term encompassing all of these skills.  In looking at the literature, it also becomes clear that critical thinking is not a one-off task, but a journey, where students must discover and evaluate what they believe, why they believe it, and how new evidence challenges or supports what they believe.  It is a journey, but one that requires several stops along the way.  Part of our role as educators is to scaffold this journey of inquiry for our students.

In class, the first step of this journey often starts with a thought-provoking question.  What does it mean to be polite?  Why do things yourself?   Does advertising harm or help us?  Questions such as these allow for multiple viewpoints and set a trajectory. Questions also motivate students because they become a puzzle to be solved. 3

At this stage, teachers must consider students’ abilities, and scaffold appropriately. 8 Before asking students to share their opinions, for example, instructors may first need to give them the language necessary to do so.  This may involve teaching basic chunks such as I believe that or One reason is because before a discussion.

Teachers can also reinforce critical thinking skills by paying careful attention to the language they use in class.  Using higher-level terminology from Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as compare, predict, analyze, and recommend, will help students acquire the meta-language needed to understand what critical thinking is and what it does.

There is also art to asking questions.  A student may say, I think that advertising helps consumers.  It is natural for teachers to follow-up with Why? to encourage critical thinking.  Too often, however, the Why? question can feel like an assault and lead to uncomfortable silence.  Instead, rephrasing Why? to Can you explain that? can result in less student anxiety, and a more immediate and relaxed response.

Once the journey of inquiry has been established, new content helps to keep the momentum going.  However, interacting with the content will require careful pauses.  After a reading text or a listening, for example, students often need opportunities to stop and think, considering how the new information has modified their understanding of the question.  Here teachers can scaffold new perspectives by adding on to the initial question. What does it mean to be polite….at work?  At school?  With family?  With friends?

Students may also be encouraged to challenge or support their initial beliefs based on new evidence from the text.  When mediating such discussions, teachers must be mindful of their students’ cultural backgrounds.  Atkinson, for example, points out that in some cultures, the nature of critical thinking as an act of self-expression is not encouraged. 1  In culturally sensitive contexts, a lighter approach could involve asking students to think about how their experiences connect to those explored in a reading or listening, rather than demanding an outright opinion.  This can still lead students toward re-evaluating beliefs, but in less intrusive way.

Often the journey must be messy in order to allow disparate elements to come together in the discovery of something new.  That “aha” moment may come at one stop or another, but more often than not, it appears at the final destination.  This is when students synthesize what they think with the knowledge they have gathered through a formal speaking or writing task.   Students’ answers to the question may take a new direction, or several directions.  Graphic organizers that help students organize their ideas can help scaffold this process of discovery.  For example, when answering the question, Does advertising help or harm us?, students could use a T-chart to list reasons that support “yes” and “no” answers.

Another way to support critical thinking at the end of the journey is to ask students to reflect on their responses to the question when revising.  When students revise the final assignment, for example, they could directly compare how their response of the question compares to their response from the beginning of the journey.  To scaffold, teachers could offer chunks of language to frame the comparison: Originally, I believed that…but now, I think that…because…  This kind of reflection will push them to see and summarize the journey as a whole and could be added to their concluding remarks.

Seeing critical thinking as a journey with several stops treats it as an essential part of the lesson plan, which explains why critical thinking is often paired with content-based instruction. 3 It also acknowledges that students may not have a complete answer to a question right away, but will build on their answer as they travel through the lesson and encounter additional input.  It is a means to an end.

It is tempting to assume that teaching content and skills will result in higher-order thinking without explicit instruction, but research suggests otherwise.  Fostering critical thinking in the classroom becomes the teacher’s responsibility.  However, when done effectively, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences for students and teachers alike.  There is great satisfaction in witnessing students think about what they think, and taking them through that journey of discovery, one stop at a time.


1Atkinson, D. (1997). A critical approach to critical thinking. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 71-94.

2Brookfield, S. (2011). Teaching for Critical Thinking.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

3Crocker, J.L., & Bowden, M.R. (2011). Thinking in English: A content-based approach.  In A. Stewart (Ed.), JALT2010 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

4Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Seabury press.

5Freire, P. (1973). Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: The Seabury Press

6Halvorsen, A. (2005). Incorporating critical thinking skills development into ESL/EFL courses. Internet TESL Journal, 11(3).  Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Halvorsen-CriticalThinking.html

7Kabilan, M. (2000). Creative and critical thinking in language classrooms. Internet TESL Journal, 6(6).  Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Kabilan-CriticalThinking.html

8Liaw, M. (2007). Content-based reading and writing for critical thinking skills in an EFL context. English Teaching and Learning, 31(2), 45-87.

9Long, C.J. (2009). Teaching critical thinking in Asian EFL contexts: theoretic and practical applications. Proceedings of the 8th Conference of Pan-Pacific Associate of Applied Linguistics.

10Mayfield, M. (2001). Thinking for Yourself: Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading and Writing (5th ed.). United States: Thomas Learning.

11Shirkhani, S. & Fahim, M. (2011).  Enhancing critical thinking in foreign language learners.  Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 29, 111-115. Available: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811026759