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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.

References

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


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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.

References

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


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Using authentic texts in the EAP classroom

JournalsWhat exactly are authentic texts, and how should we use them? Edward de Chazal is a freelance consultant, author and presenter. In the first of three articles on the subject, Edward takes an in-depth look at authentic texts and how bring them into the EAP classroom.

Authentic texts are widely used in EAP, and clearly there are good reasons for doing so. When students are studying in their chosen disciplines, they have to read authentic academic texts such as textbooks and journal articles, so it makes sense to bring these into the EAP classroom. I have been doing this for years, which has prompted me to think more deeply about exactly what authentic texts are and how to use them.

What is an authentic text?

An authentic text is usually taken to mean a text which was not written for the language classroom, and which hasn’t been messed with – it retains its original vocabulary and grammar, and bits of the text have not been cut out. Preferably it is unprocessed, i.e. not retyped, so it still looks the same as it always did: the same font and graphics. In other words, authentic texts are written for any purpose other than language learning, and are intact rather than processed, adapted, or simplified.

Authenticity is a broader concept, however. Not only is the text itself authentic, but also its context and related tasks. For instance, in EAP an authentic text (such as an extract from a university textbook) needs to be situated to some extent in its intended academic context. This means EAP students need to read the text in order to gain knowledge and use selected parts of it in their own new text (such as an essay or presentation), just as they would in their university department.

Choosing an authentic text for your class

When you’re choosing an authentic text to use in class, there is also the question of level to consider. By ‘level’ we usually mean language level – whether a text is at B1 or B2, for example – but there’s another crucial aspect: cognitive level. Some texts are much more challenging than others in terms of how difficult their ideas and concepts are. When selecting a text, it’s important to think about what you want your students to get out of it. Do you want them to gain a comprehensive understanding of the whole text, or will they use it more superficially – for example, in order to identify key words? In this way, you can use authentic texts which are at a high linguistic level in your lower level classes, so long as you set appropriate, achievable tasks.

Let’s try and bring all these questions together in a possible scenario. Suppose our EAP students are recent high-school graduates planning to go to university. Their English language level is solid B1. They will have recent experience of high school exams such as IB (International Baccalaureate) or A-level. Using an IB text is ideal in this scenario: it is at an appropriate level, both linguistically and cognitively. These students usually approach such textbooks in order to learn something new, as well as to develop their English.

Developing tasks and learning outcomes

Similarly, in the EAP classroom we can come up with learning outcomes and tasks which engage with the content of the text and develop language. For instance, students learn to write a summary of a textbook extract (the learning outcome), and achieve this by identifying and noting down the main points (the task), which they then use to form the basis of their summary. In this way we’ve got an example of authentic textcontext, and tasks. The EAP context reflects their future academic context as they will have to read and summarize texts in the disciplines.

In short, using authentic texts means not only selecting an authentic text, but also setting up an authentic context and authentic tasks. The concept of authenticity also applies to the level of the text, including its language level and cognitive level.

In my next article I will be discussing the nature of academic listening texts and how we can use them in the EAP classroom.


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Critical Thinking in Business English

Critical thinking businessmanAhead of his forthcoming webinar on the subject, John Hughes, ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, looks at the growing need for critical thinking skills to be integrated into Business English teaching.

In a recent article on the subject of technology and the 21st century workplace, The Economist (January 18th, 2004) made the following demand: “Schools need to change, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.” As teachers and educators, many of you will be familiar with this viewpoint; after all, the calls for more critical thinking in education grow louder all the time. But the fact that this comment appears in a business magazine like The Economist reflects a growing view from the world of work that ‘critical thinking’ is a key skill.

Critical thinking in the workplace

Employers, Human Resource recruiters and business schools globally also report a lack of suitable graduates and candidates with ‘critical thinking skills.’ A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the problem and looked at the high number of business schools that now include critical thinking as a key course component. In other words, you are increasingly likely to see the term ‘Critical thinking skills’ listed on the syllabus of a business course programme next to course components such as ‘Presentation skills’ or ‘Negotiating Skills’.

Fostering sub-skills to develop critical thinking

So if companies require critical thinking skills and business schools are teaching these skills, is it time for Business English teachers to consider how critical thinking skills might be integrated into their Business English courses? After all, we readily teach the skills and language for presenting, negotiating, meetings and so on. So why not critical thinking

In fact, some language schools specialising in business English and corporate training ARE already offering critical thinking in English as part of their courses. And I suspect that many Business English teachers probably help students to develop this skill as part of their typical Business English lessons without realising it. Take the use of Case Studies, for example. A case study requires students to identify evidence, recognise different perspectives, express opinions with supported arguments and negotiate a final outcome. These are all sub-skills that go towards developing critical thinking as well as improving language fluency.

In my forthcoming webinar on the 25th & 26th June I’ll be going into much more detail on this topic. We’ll define the sub-skills of critical thinking in Business and what language we need to teach students in order to support those skills. I’ll also suggest a variety of practical activities that you can use in your lessons to start developing the skills whilst at the same time – of course – improving students’ business English.

 

Register for the webinar


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Engaging Young Learners Through CLIL

Kids lying in a circle making goggle eyesCharles Vilina, co-author of the new Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, offers some practical tips on making the most of CLIL in the young learner classroom.

As a teacher of young learners, it’s easy for me to see when my students are engaged in the lesson. I see it in their faces, in their posture, and in the way they inquire and respond. The class is almost vibrating with positive energy.

What are the qualities of learning in such a classroom? Here are just a few suggestions:

active, useful, meaningful, productive, experiential, challenging, rewarding, shared

Students who see value and purpose in their learning, who are challenged to think actively and to ask their own questions, are going to be engaged in the lesson. Take those qualities away, and students become bored and disenchanted.

Discovering the World

This brings us to the subject of content-based language education, which many teachers know as CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). In a CLIL lesson, we open the windows of our classrooms and invite our amazing world inside. Students discover the world for themselves, using the tools of language in a meaningful way as they move through the lesson. As a result, language fluency is increased.

For our young learners, a successful CLIL lesson is meaningful, challenging, rewarding, and requires them to think deeply and learn actively.

Eight Points for Success

There are eight points to remember when incorporating CLIL into your young learners’ classroom.

1. Introduce the world through many core subjects

Since our purpose as language teachers is to build fluency, students should be introduced to a wide variety of core subjects (in the areas of social studies, the sciences, the arts, and math) to build strong language skills. Each core subject has its own particular vocabulary, grammar, and approach to learning. Social language (BICS) and academic language (CALP) are used in these CLIL lessons, integrating and strengthening both.

2. Let students lead the way by asking their own questions

When we introduce a subject, students should first have the opportunity to discuss what they know and what they want to know about it. This inquiry-based approach to learning engages students from the start. Students are invited to discuss their prior knowledge and experience of a subject, making them feel that they are active participants in the learning process. When students then go on to wonder, to ask their own questions about the subject, they create a personal interest in finding the answers. This supports strong student engagement.

Questions might include, based on the subject matter:

Why do butterflies have four wings?
Why are there 365 days in a year?
Why are cities often built near rivers or lakes?

The teacher can contribute to this process by wondering, too. As the teacher also has questions, this changes student perception. They begin to look at their teacher as a partner in learning.

3. Present content through both fiction and non-fiction

Everything in our world is enriched when presented through fiction as well as facts. Our young learners need exposure to stories as well as to expository texts, giving them fresh examples of how knowledge can be presented. This builds literacy skills as well as knowledge.

Here is an example of providing both fictional and non-fictional content for students, taken from Oxford Discover. The core subject is natural science, and it poses the big question, Where are we in the universe?

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

In the first reading above, the subject is presented through a fictional poem about a little girl and her imaginary spacecraft. In the second reading, a science article presents information about our solar system. Through both readings, students approach learning in a unique way.

4. Match the content to the students’ language ability

Be sure that the content you present is at a level of vocabulary and grammar that is comprehensible to your students. This means that the majority of the vocabulary and grammar in the readings has already been explicitly taught and learned in previous lessons.

However, every CLIL lesson will introduce additional vocabulary and grammar that are needed to understand the particular subject or topic. This additional vocabulary and grammar are taught explicitly, either before or after students are introduced to them in the readings. As students experience the new words and grammar through the context of the readings, their understanding increases.

5. Present content in an interesting and challenging way

The world is a fascinating place, but material is often presented in a dull way. Find content that triggers a child’s natural spirit of curiosity. There should be a sense of wonder, exploration, and discovery within the words of the readings.

6. Allow students to organize the content in a meaningful way

Once students have discovered information about a subject, they should have an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. This can begin with comprehension activities, but it should soon move to higher order thinking tasks.

A successful CLIL lesson often uses graphic organizers such as time lines, Venn diagrams, mind maps, or charts (illustrating cause and effect, chain of events, etc.). Graphic organizers require students to analyze the information and make sense of it.

Here is an example of a graphic organizer used for the reading shown above about our solar system. It is a Venn diagram, asking students to compare and contrast Earth and the planet Venus.

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

By challenging students to think more deeply, you create a much more active and motivating learning experience for them.

7. Give students an opportunity to talk about what they have learned

Throughout the CLIL process, students are building literacy skills through intensive reading. However, they need an opportunity to build their listening and speaking skills as well. Many opportunities exist in a CLIL lesson for this. For example, students should be encouraged to create their own questions about the readings. This lets students take control of their own learning, as well as to demonstrate what they know. As students share questions and answers, fluency is improved.

In addition, the graphic organizers described above can be a jumping board for dialogue. Students can work in pairs and complete the graphic organizers together while discussing their choices. Later, student pairs can work with other pairs to discuss what they have learned.

8. Provide a summative project to complete the CLIL lessons

A summative project allows students to take what they have learned and create something original with it. A strong summative project is collaborative (getting students to achieve something together) as well as creative (contributing their own original ideas) and communicative (listening, speaking, reading, and writing through the process). In addition, there should be an opportunity for students to present their projects to the class, building their public speaking skills.

Here is an example of a summative project around the subject of our solar system, taken from Oxford Discover. Students work together in small groups to create a model of our solar system, and then present it to the class.

Extract from Oxford Discover Student's Book 4

Extract from Oxford Discover Student’s Book 4

To conclude, a successful CLIL lesson is a student-centered approach to learning. The teacher facilitates the learning process by moving around the class, ensuring that students are actively involved and using the language tools they need to succeed. It is inquiry-based, encouraging students to ask their own questions and seek their own answers together.

Most importantly, CLIL allows students to use their language skills in a meaningful and productive way, building fluency and confidence as they seek and discover knowledge.

Would you like more practical tips on using CLIL and teaching 21st Century skills to your young learners? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.