Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


Critical Thinking in the ELT Classroom

Young man thinking while using laptopEdward de Chazal, co-author of Oxford EAP, explores the topic of critical thinking and how it should be taught in the ELT classroom.

The enquiring mind

Critical thinking is innate – it comes from inside us – and as humans we have survived and developed by approaching things critically. Children naturally try to check what they have been told, and are ‘programmed’ to piece together the information they encounter. For example, a six year-old child I know was told that diamonds are the strongest and hardest thing on earth and could cut through other stones and even metal. He then visited a rock on the English Jurassic Coast that had been ‘carved’ into an arch, and after listening to an explanation of how it had happened asked, ‘Which is more powerful, diamonds or the sea?’ This child could not yet read and write, but like other children, he was developing his critical mind.

Critical thinking essentially means having a questioning, challenging, analytical state of mind. A critical mind is comfortable with a degree of scepticism and doubt; it is a mind that is open to reinterpreting and refining its knowledge, and accepting that what we know may change in the light of new knowledge. A critical thinker questions whether something is believable, evaluates how strong is the basis of an assumption, and makes new connections between what they know and learn.

Multiple intelligences are involved in critical thinking. The conductor of an orchestra critically interprets the written score, even if it is as familiar as Beethoven’s Ninth. They aim to add something new, and communicate their interpretation to the musicians through movement. A surgeon has to work out the wider picture from the detail they can see, and act quickly. Someone working in business accesses the information relevant to their sector, assesses its significance, and looks for a new opportunity. These people are all thinking critically. Our students will do jobs like these when they have completed their education.

Critical thinking in the classroom

Part of our job as language teachers – and more broadly as educators – is to develop our students’ critical thinking competence. In reality, different students may have experienced varying degrees of nurture and discouragement at the hands of their parents, previous education, and wider culture. Our students’ level of critical thinking may not be related to their language level.

We can start by introducing tasks which ask students to question what they read and listen to, investigating the deeper – more implicit, meanings in texts – and identify assumptions and weaknesses. We can ask students to respond to statements that emerge from the materials we are already using. For example, my class were shown a slide in a lecture which stated ‘China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world’. I elicited critical questions which included: ‘When? – How soon is ‘soon’?’; ‘Why not India?’; ‘How do you know? – What are your sources?’; and ‘How well will they speak English?’ We can start by asking the simple question ‘So what?’ Our classes, and all our lives, will be richer for our students’ responses.

Bookmark and Share


Critical Thinking – Teaching Tips from Around the World

Adults sharing ideasFollowing his webinar on Teaching Critical Thinking in EAP, Louis Rogers looks back at the participants’ tips and ideas on the subject.

In my recent webinars on critical thinking in EAP I asked participants to write in the chat box any definitions of critical thinking and any teaching tips they had. The aim was to then analyse the definitions and to try and pick out any commonalities. I also asked everyone to share teaching tips for encouraging students to think critically.

With around three hundred participants across the two sessions I did wonder what I had let myself in for, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss with such a diverse range of cultures involved. One of the great things about these sessions is that they bring together people from all over the world in one forum to discuss issues relevant to all of us in our teaching contexts. Whether it was six in the morning for some people or midnight for others it certainly did not stop the ideas flowing. In all, there were just under one hundred definitions and a whole host of ideas. So what ideas stood out?

Before moving on I should probably point out that this was not the most scientific collection method or analysis and I certainly won’t be awarded a PhD on the basis of it; however, hopefully it will prove of interest.

One of the first things I decided to do was to look at the frequency of individual words in the definitions. I was about to cut out function words and look at the content words when fortunately the alphabet intervened. The first word I noticed in the alphabetical list was the final word: ‘you’. When I highlighted this along with other pronouns and words related to the concept of ‘self’, one thing that stood out strongly was the interaction of the person with many other things. As we might expect there were a lot related to the interaction of the reader with the ideas in the text, but also the interaction of the individual with concepts such as society, culture and our own past influences. Other words that had a particularly high frequency were; think, inform, critic, analyse, evaluate, culture, difference.

One other thing that stood out quite strongly as a feature of the definitions was that I felt many could be categorised in two ways. One set could be perhaps defined as ‘interpretation of information’. These tended to focus on analysis, evaluation, interpretation and challenging ideas. The second set could perhaps be defined as ‘using information’. These tended to contain more concepts along the lines of synthesising, organising, using and applying.

In terms of teaching ideas many people seemed to feel that the ideas of self-reflection, peer evaluation and the use of video work well in encouraging critical reflection. For recording and sharing presentations for peer review one participant suggested the use of www.mybrainshark.com

Another suggestion was that The CRAAP test would help many students as a useful set of transferable questions. These focus students with questions related to issues of:

Currency: the timeliness of the information

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

Authority: the source of the information

Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

Purpose: the reason the information exists

Many examples of the test can be found online.

Other ideas included using definitions as a discussion tool as they are often open to debate. For low language levels, ideas that were suggested were the analysis of images and the different meanings of a word.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the chat room transcript afterwards. As a presenter you try to follow and join in with the lively discussions but you’re often too preoccupied remembering the points you want to make so it’s really beneficial to be able to take time to analyse the contributions after the event.

Bookmark and Share


Critical Thinking in EAP

Students working outdoorsLouis Rogers, co-author of the new Oxford EAP series, looks at the much-debated topic of teaching critical thinking in Academic English (EAP) courses. Louis hosted a webinar on this topic on the 1st February 2013.

Critical Thinking has been a buzz term in recent years within EAP and is not without its controversies. The one thing that most people would agree on is that it is integral to academia no matter what country, culture, institution or course the students are based in. However, what much of the discussion of critical thinking revolves around is: What is critical thinking? Who is responsible for teaching it? Can it be, and does it actually need to be, taught?

Critical thinking is one of those terms, like culture, that can have numerous definitions as it means so many things to different people. In fact it is so intertwined with culture, whether of a nation or an institution, that it is hardly surprising that many people find it hard to define. The Higher Education Academy in the UK is not supportive of the idea that critical thinking is a western cultural phenomenon, and as Yoshino (2004) points out it hardly demonstrates good critical thinking skills from those who argue that there is the existence/absence of critical thinking in entire cultures. In the case of some cultures this would mean saying that hundreds of millions of people are unable to think critically. The challenge for an EAP practitioner is that institutions, courses and lecturers will have certain expectations as to what they mean by critical thinking.

Not to say that we have the right or perfect definition in Oxford EAP, but we have chosen to define it in this context: ‘students need to question what they read, look for assumptions and weaknesses, make connections, respond, and evaluate’. For us it was also integral that such tasks were integrated alongside other activities. It is obviously a challenge for students to understand what is expected of them critically but to also do this in a second language raises the bar considerably. In particular, when they are expected to decode individual words, put them back together into a proposition that makes sense and to then see how these relate to other ideas and propositions within a text while at the same time engaging on a critical level, it is incredibly challenging.

In webinar I looked at some of the controversies related to Critical Thinking and the approach we have taken in Oxford EAP.

Bookmark and Share


Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes

Male graduate student smilingRachel Appleby, author and seasoned EAP teacher, looks at the challenges of teaching speaking skills in an academic context. Rachel hosted a webinar on this topic on 21st November. You can view a recording of the webinar here.

Why should academic speaking be any different from regular speaking skills?

In General English contexts, students need informal discussion skills, everyday transactional skills (such as those we practise in roleplay activities), and ultimately to be able to communicate successfully. Quite often those students who have good communication skills in their first language are able to transfer them successfully to a second language.

In an academic context, these general skills are still important, but specifically, there are two key areas which require focus, namely:

  • participating in seminars
  • giving academic presentations

So what do we mean by these? Apart from regular language work, how can we help students participate? What sort of questions open up a discussion, or enable a student to delve more deeply into a topic? How can they present an argument well? What do we mean by ‘clarity’ from a speaker’s perspective? And how can we help students structure their speaking, both in terms of an overall text, as well as at sentence level?

As these are actually important in everyday conversation, then they are skills which are already accessible to the teacher; they are things that we should be able to do too!

In terms of fine-tuning what students need, we should also bear in mind the sorts of contexts they learn in. For seminars, this is raising an awareness of, and practising group discussion conventions. For presentations, students need help in planning, and then in organizing the content. And of course unless they are seasoned presenters in their own language, a lot of effective work can be done on delivery, either for giving a PowerPoint presentation, or a poster presentation. I recently spent a little time on the latter, and the results were impressive: my students were not only able to layout a poster with visual clarity, but also present it orally with a good degree of conviction. It certainly pays to work on a few nifty tips and strategies!

Academic speaking skills training gives students structure for what they want to say, as well as rationale and focus; all of which are extremely useful for effective communication in every walk of life.

For us as teachers, it’s also important to be able to ensure equal participation among our students. By first observing, and then working on techniques students can use, we can maximize their participation in seminars and help enable students not simply to join in a discussion but also to lead a discussion.

If you teach students about to study at college, or already in tertiary education, or you’d simply like to know more about these issues, then watch the webinar here!

Bookmark and Share

1 Comment

Approaches to writing in EAP

Louis Rogers, part of the writing team of the new Oxford EAP series, looks at the challenges and practicalities of teaching writing on an academic English (EAP) course. Louis hosted a webinar entitled ‘Approaches to Teaching Academic Writing‘ on the 26th and 28th September 2012.

Since the rise of the communicative approach, writing has probably been the skill given the least time in classroom. In many general English courses writing would often simply be a simple output task in the final rubric, or consigned to further practice in a writing bank at the back of the book. Arguably, this is changing today as more and more mainstream courses are starting to acknowledge and reflect the amount of communication that occurs in written form. However, when students and teachers move into an EAP environment they notice a number of changes in the approach to writing.

One of the most obvious changes people are confronted with, when moving from general English to Academic English context, is the dominant role that writing begins to play. My own personal shift as a teacher was from Business English to Academic English and the main difference that jumped out was the change in how writing is taught. Of course a variety of genres might be taught in Business English but the one that tends to dominate most classes and published materials is the writing of emails. In a Business English context the focus is very much on the end product and materials tend to focus on the use and manipulation of standard phrases that learners can recycle in their own emails. When writing is short and brief in nature then arguably the product approach meets the needs of learners best. Equally it could be said that learners, to a certain extent, apply parts of a process naturally in the planning and redrafting of their own work, however, in the classroom it is the product that is the focus above and beyond the process.

There are commonly claimed to be three main approaches to teaching writing; product, process and genre, which I will be giving more details about in the webinar. Academic writing tends to lean heavily on the process approach to writing, but to what extent does it need to use the ideas of a product and genre approach? So often when students are given feedback the focus is on the mark and the feedback is rarely used as part of the process in improving future writing. If students are so focused on grades and the final product how can we convince them of the benefits of the process approach to academic writing?

The upcoming webinar will focus on approaches to writing in EAP. The talk will look at the different approaches of product, process and genre and how the best features of each have been used in the Oxford EAP series.

You can view the webinar here.

Bookmark and Share