“He so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight to daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his mind.” (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)
Language Learner Literature
In April 2017 I hosted the Language Learner Literature Awards (known–by me anyway–as the Lalalas) for the Extensive Reading Foundation of IATEFL*. These awards are given to the best adaptations or original works of literature for students.
This year, the winners ranged from a Sherlock Holmes story miraculously made comprehensible for Beginners to an original tale about a Native Canadian girl who goes to live in a tree to stop loggers from cutting down the forest. My favourite winner was Vera the Alien Hunter, for Very Young Learners. It’s about a girl who hunts aliens while being mentored by a blue alien cat called Luca. OK, it wasn’t Dostoyevsky, but it was a whole lot of fun to read.
During a conversation before the ceremony began, someone mentioned that extensive reading is an endangered species. Does anyone, including language learners, read extensively these days? Many parents would attest that their teenage children read nothing longer than 140 characters. The current President of the United States, according to his biographer, has rarely finished a book in his life. Investigative journalism and extended essays, in all bar a few periodicals such as The New Yorker and Atlantic magazine, are being given less and less room in newspapers around the globe.
Extensive Reading Works
Extensive reading (ER) is hugely beneficial for language learners. It has a number of names with silly acronyms – Positive Outcomes While Enjoying Reading (POWER); Free Voluntary Reading (FEVER); and Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) – but there’s plenty of research that tells us it’s a serious business: big readers are big winners in terms of second language acquisition.
Stephen Krashen has long argued the benefits of extensive reading. He emphasises the gains students make in vocabulary, writing and spelling. In a 2007 meta-study of the research, Krashen concluded that “in-school self-selected reading works.” Nation (1997), Day & Bamford (1998), Elley (2001), and Waring (2006) all concur.
The wise owl Alan Maley identifies seven benefits of ER: learner autonomy, comprehensible input, general language competence, general knowledge, vocabulary growth, improved writing, and motivation to read more.
Why don’t schools have ER programs?
Bearing in mind the effectiveness of ER, why isn’t it used more in language schools? The main reasons are cost, time, and the attitudes of teachers and students.
Cost: Schools need to put aside money and space for books, and many decision-makers, not seeing the immediate benefits, choose to spend the money elsewhere.
Time: Teachers never have enough time to cover everything on the syllabus, so unstructured activities such as ER get dropped.
Attitudes of teachers: There’s a feeling that learning needs to be measurable, i.e. testable. For school decision-makers, it’s difficult to quantify the benefits of ER, so ER becomes an optional extra.
Attitudes of students: Students tend to be grounded in internet culture, which encourages short reading experiences. It can be tough to convince them of the value of spending days reading the same book when exam results aren’t riding on it.
How can schools implement an ER program?
Here are some suggestions:
1. There should be a wide selection of books available in a variety of genres and at different levels, including graphic novels and comic books.
2. Students are free to choose what they want to read, with no obligation to finish anything.
3. There are no comprehension questions, tests, or progress checks.
4. The goal is to enjoy reading the book.
5. The students read alone and in silence or, if timetabling doesn’t allow this, at home.
6. The teacher models the process as co-reader, reading and periodically reporting back what he/she read.
7. All pedagogical activities are to enhance the reading experience and not to focus on language. So story maps, time lines, student illustrations, reading logs, journals, mock trials, Readers’ Theater (reading and dramatizing a script based on a story), literature discussion circles, etc., are optional.
Pleasure and Privilege
Extensive reading is a privilege. As Gavin McLean, Business Development Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at National Geographic Learning, put it during his acceptance speech at IATEFL:
“We think of reading for pleasure and we think that it is something that all parents do with their kids, but in many parts of the world, it doesn’t happen at all. And the work that we do in developing English language teaching readers is so crucial in building up the confidence of children and parents, to get that sense of reading as not just an activity for learning, but for social interaction and a joint enterprise that can benefit both generations.”
*You can see watch the ceremony here: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2017/session/extensive-reading-foundation-reception-and-awards-ceremony
Many years ago, I was asked to teach an Advanced student one-to-one. He was a Spanish politician. He’d been moved out of the Advanced class because it was too easy for him. Within a minute of meeting him, I realized his English was as good as mine. Horror of horrors, he already knew the Third Conditional. What could I teach such a rare creature? In a blind panic, I asked him why he was at a language school. It turned out he didn’t want to be taught. He just wanted fluency practice. He proceeded to talk non-stop for several weeks, and, like most politicians, he didn’t want any correction. In the end, I loved teaching him. He had hilarious anecdotes and all I needed to do was listen.
Teaching Advanced classes isn’t usually like this. It’s a challenge. Here’s what I recommend for teachers of super-motivated, super-sophisticated Advanced students.
Profile the Learners
Find out what motivates them to keep improving and where they are on their learning journey. The term “Advanced” contains the widest spectrum of all the levels: it can be anything from post-First Certificate (B2) to post-Proficiency (C2+). Although Advanced students should be fluent and fairly accurate, their ability may be unevenly spread across the four skills. Some are good speakers and poor writers; others great readers and average listeners, etc.
Go Easy on the Grammar
If they’ve been studying formally for a long time, Advanced students will have seen certain items of grammar six times or more. They can probably quote you the rules of the Present Perfect in their sleep. Teaching more and more obscure grammatical items (e.g., cleft sentences and inversion) may not be that useful for them. Instead …
Focus on Vocabulary
Don’t focus on obscure “hundred-dollar” words. Low frequency vocabulary items are low frequency for a reason – people don’t use them much. Advanced students often need to learn more collocations and combinations with common words. A good example is phrasal verbs. These rarely contain difficult words, but they often have multiple meanings. Pick up, for example, has about 20 meanings: we can pick up bad habits, signals, diseases, people, pizzas, and suspected criminals.
Highlight Idiomatic Language
If the students’ first language has Latin roots, they probably don’t have many problems with formal English. The latter uses cognates from Latin languages. But many Advanced students need help with colloquial or idiomatic language. The meanings of idioms, proverbs, and prepositional phrases are frequently un-guessable. In fact, English is full of odd combinations of simple words: a loose cannon, a couch potato, a wet blanket, a tough cookie.
Go Beyond the Syllabus with Authentic Materials
When possible, use authentic materials as a source of language, and “mine” the texts. Text-mining involves analyzing written and recorded material for useful language – an essential skill for teachers and Advanced learners. Often, this language includes little phrases and chunks that don’t appear in any syllabus. Just listening to my colleagues for two minutes, I heard: “you’ve got to be kidding me,” “nice try,” “I have mixed emotions about it,” “well-deserved.” I’d bet my house these aren’t taught in any coursebooks on my shelf.
Don’t Let the Students Play it Safe
Advanced students have advanced avoidance strategies. If they’re not confident about using new vocabulary, they find ways to avoid it: circumlocution, paraphrasing, changing the subject. And so they stay firmly on their plateau. Through vocabulary games and speaking activities, encourage students to experiment and take risks with language.
Point out Fossilized Errors (but don’t keep insisting on the correct form)
Most Advanced students, completely oblivious, have been making the same errors for years. Maybe the errors were never picked up (that phrasal verb again!) or the student never learned the standard form. Fossilized errors are a natural part of interlanguage and often occur because of L1 interference. Point out the error a few times; try writing the incorrect and correct forms on the board for the students to analyze; and get students to transcribe short recordings of themselves, focusing on accuracy. And then leave it. If it’s a fossil by the time the student gets to Advanced, like most fossils it’s usually set in stone.
Advanced students are often very specific about the tasks they need to achieve in English. Tailor the homework to their individual needs. They may have to write academic essays or give presentations or discuss world politics with their in-laws. Whatever their task, our job is to facilitate it.
Critical and Creative
Use critical thinking and creative activities. When using texts, dig deeper, looking at tone (irony, humor). Get students to question author intention (persuasion, entertainment). Ask them to probe critical features of writing (bias, omissions). When planning tasks, get students to brainstorm ideas and invest time and thought. If your instructions include verbs like make, create, build, illustrate, devise, and come up with, you’re asking for creativity. Such approaches can push Advanced learners to the limits of their language use and beyond.
And finally …
You may not find a genial chatterbox like my Spanish politician in your class, but Advanced students tend to be self-starters: motivated, organized and curious. If you can find ways to harness their curiosity, teaching them can bring terrific rewards.
I was recently asked to deliver a workshop on helping low level students to cope with authentic listening material and DVD clips. In my scramble to say something intelligent, I’ve come up with a few principles, some time-honored, others I think I just made up.
One argument for using authentic material in the classroom is that it’s motivating for students. But there’s nothing more demotivating than listening to something and understanding nothing. The selection of the material is the starting point, and you have to get it right.
Authentic material, by definition, is not graded for learners. In many cases, this material is in a coursebook, so the writer has already chosen it. But if you, the teacher, are choosing the material, you need a mental checklist to decide what’s usable at low levels.
The checklist includes factors related to content and factors related to delivery. Content: familiarity of context, cultural accessibility, engagement. Delivery: clarity of recording, speed and grammatical complexity of speech, range and level of vocabulary, number of speakers, and difficulty of accents.
Lots of pre-listening/viewing support is essential. Use anything and everything to activate the students’ schemata: pictures, realia, key words, questioning. What is the topic and what do we know about it already? What vocabulary is connected to the topic? How is the speakers’ task achieved in the students’ native language and culture?
If appropriate, do a dictation of the first two sentences or first thirty seconds of the recording. This attunes students to the vocabulary and topic, and is less pressurized as the teacher can slow down her speech, repeat what she said, and give time for students to check.
For genuine Beginners in a monolingual class, I believe it’s sometimes appropriate to do some pre-listening work in L1, i.e. a very short preamble about the recording.
Where possible, make the material personally relevant to the students before listening/watching. If the recording is about travel, get students to mark on a map all the places they’ve been and brainstorm words connected with travel. If they are about to listen to someone describing her home town, get the students to say what they like about their home town first.
This is a form of priming. It gets the students ready to hear certain words in a certain context using a predictable discourse structure (predictable because they have just done it themselves).
‘Low demand’ first task
You can’t grade the material, so grade the task. Even Beginners watching or listening to authentic material will be able to understand something. “What is his name?” “Where is she from?”
For Elementary students: “What is the relationship between the speakers?” “What does X want?” “Where are the speakers?”
For the first task, don’t ask students to use more than one skill. If they are listening, let them listen. Dealing with incoming speech signals is a tremendous challenge for low level students. Don’t ask them to listen and write answers to comprehension questions at the same time. The writing should be done later in the sequence.
Productive second task
Try to get students doing something with what they heard/watched. Productive responses can be very simple: students write a large Yes on a piece of paper and a large No on the other side. They hold up the paper in response to the teacher’s questions. For example, pause the recording and ask, “are they in a restaurant?” “Yes!” “Is the woman happy?” “No!”
Use variants of Total Physical Response. Students raise their hand when they hear a name. Students follow instructions. Students mime actions.
Long passages – more than one minute – can be demanding for low level students. They are more likely to lose the thread of the conversation because they are dealing with more language. One solution is to ‘chunk’ long passages: the teacher uses the pause button to divide the recording into manageable sections, stopping to check comprehension of each section.
One of the main difficulties of English is the lack of correlation between how words are written and how they are spoken. Going to becomes gonna. Want to becomes wanna. After the first couple of tasks, let students listen and read the transcript at the same time. They’ll see how written words are pronounced and where speakers speed up and slow down, and they’ll perceive pronunciation features such as elision and assimilation.
Many minds know more than one mind. Although the receptive skills – listening and reading – take place, by definition, in our minds, students can collaborate in order to piece together what they “received.”
One activity: put students into groups. Give each group a large sheet of paper. They write down everything they understood about the recording/DVD clip, even if it’s just isolated words. Together, the students begin to reconstruct the material. They listen/watch again and add more words and ideas.
Plan a sequence that makes a verbal task into a visual one, then a visual task into a kinesthetic one.
Imagine you ask the students to compare what they understood. After doing that, ask them to present it graphically: a sketch or line drawing. Then ask them to act out the scene. This won’t work for all authentic materials, but it will allow certain students a ‘way in,’ a method to access and understand the material by interacting with it in a different mode.
Be a cheerleader!
Last but not least … provide lots of encouragement. It’s easy to get demoralized when you’re listening to a foreign language at full speed. Trying to catch words is like trying to catch leaves in a storm. That’s why every little success matters, and should be quietly celebrated.
On the 90th anniversary of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis – one of the earliest to include a robot – we ponder the role of robots in education.
In 2004, IBM executive Charles Lickel was eating in a restaurant when he noticed his fellow-diners abandoning their meals and heading towards the bar. Why the desperate scramble? They were rushing to watch Jeopardy!, a long-running and addictive quiz show. Seven years later, after Lickel had repeatedly fought for it, IBM built a machine called Watson to compete in Jeopardy!. It was to be a grand test of computing capabilities: a machine that could answer general knowledge questions about any subject at any time in history. Watson at first had some problems. When asked a question about 19th century British literature, the computer came up with the Pet Shop Boys – an English pop group – instead of Oliver Twist. But after much tweaking by its programmers, it eventually beat its human competitors.
The struggle between man and machine is nothing new. Back in the 15th century there were complaints that Gutenberg’s printing press would make monks lazy (part of their job was to copy manuscripts by hand). In 16th century England, William Lee presented his newly-invented knitting machine to Queen Elizabeth I in order to get a patent. She was so worried that hand-knitters would lose their jobs that she refused.
Half a millennium later, the world of work has changed drastically because of automation. Fritz Lang’s vision of workers slaving away in cavernous factories, as seen in Metropolis, has largely come true in developing countries. But has the world of education changed, too?
If you look at pictures of classrooms around the world over the last 150 years, the surprising thing is how little they have changed. There’s a teacher at the front with some kind of screen or board on which he or she writes. There are children in rows or clusters. Only in a few societies – notably in South Korea – has the paradigm occasionally been challenged by replacing the teacher.
In 2011, news came out of South Korea that the country was piloting a robot-teacher program for Elementary students. The robots, called Engkey, were controlled by remote teachers in the Philippines. The program helped to make up for the shortage of English teachers in the country, and while the robots were apparently motivating for the children, the idea was not to replace real teachers.
The fact is, automatons – by which I mean robots and any form of artificial intelligence – are extraordinarily good at some tasks and extraordinarily bad at others. When the parameters of the task are limited, such as knowing the finite possibilities of a chess match or doing calculus, automatons are brilliant. (In 1997, IBM’s machine, Deep Blue, beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who promptly accused IBM of cheating.) But other simple-sounding tasks are beyond them. While trying to build robots to do housework, inventors realized the biggest problem was teaching the robots to walk. In fact, most household chores are tricky for robots. In 2010, a team of UC Berkeley researchers built a robot that could fold towels. Unfortunately, each towel took 24 minutes to fold – fine if you have all week to do the laundry.
Ask any educator if robots will ever replace teachers and they’ll say no. Teachers have multiple roles: guides, mentors, facilitators. They do the soft skills – motivating students, explaining nuances of language, and building rapport – that machines can’t do. Most importantly, robots can’t inspire us.
Tucker Balch, associate professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says, “I don’t think a robot will ever be better than a person. Teaching is probably the most challenging role for artificial intelligence. It is a creative role and to teach well you really have to understand the person you’re teaching.”
Similarly, Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, identifies three reasons why human teachers are essential: creating content, answering tough questions and providing inspiration.
Replacement of human teachers, then, seems unlikely. Having said that, what teacher wouldn’t appreciate a robot to help with the menial tasks machines excel in – checking attendance, grading homework, cleaning the board? Or perhaps our model should be a movie robot, but not the one from Metropolis, which ended up getting burned at the stake. In Star Wars, C-3P0 was designed by Anakin Skywalker as a translation machine, “fluent in over six million forms of communication.” Now that might be useful in a language classroom.
1. I hope 2016’s madcap political manoeuvers in the UK and the USA won’t result in drastically reduced numbers of foreign students in 2017. In Britain, about 5.5% of all university students are from EU (European Union) countries. After Brexit, these learners will be classified as international students, which means they pay more. Opportunities to study in Britain might be reduced for all but the very wealthy and the tiny minority who win scholarships. The UK’s ELT industry – currently worth £1.2 billion – will watch nervously as the Brussels bureaucrats get the Brexit wheels spinning.
2. Wish no. 2 concerns my own specialist field: materials writing. I hope the onward march of authenticity continues. The alternative – Fake English – has been exposed and denounced, as the ubiquity of the internet has left it behind.
These days, barely a conference goes by without some grammar guru recalling unlikely sentences from ancient textbooks. My own comes from a Spanish language-learning program which recently taught me how to say “I am a penguin” – “Yo soy un pingüino” – not a sentence I expect to say in this lifetime (or in the next, assuming I’m not reincarnated as a Spanish-speaking penguin). While Fake English has its uses, I hope the more ridiculous examples disappear and the phrases our students learn in the classroom are at least similar to what they encounter outside the classroom.
3. Talking of conference speakers, what do they say into a microphone to make sure it works? “Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.” For the big publishers, this phrase isn’t just for tech run-throughs; it’s their modus operandi, the mantra that makes the money. Persuade a government to implement your tests countrywide; publish the books that prepare students for those tests, and watch the cash roll in. Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3.
I hope in 2017 we de-emphasize tests, not just in ELT but in all education.
4. Testing’s big brother is measurement. By measurement I’m talking about Big Data – the type that parses your facebook page, your tweets, and your emails, and decides you’re a suburban, sixty-something vegan even if you’re really a meat-eating Millennial mountain-dweller. Your computer then starts advertising products based on its calculations of who you are.
In education, Big Data has Big Potential. Adaptive learning programs give us the tools to measure how students are progressing and then the program adapts the sequence of work for that particular student. In other words, we’re no longer guessing about things we’ve guessed about for centuries.
The catch is this, a quote attributed to Einstein: “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
I hope in 2017 we still have room for human interaction as the main driver of learning. There’s nothing more powerful, not even Big Data.
5. Ed-tech is the genie that jumped out the bottle. But the wishes it promised haven’t all come true. There’s no magic bullet to language learning, and tech tools are just that: tools. To get them working properly, educators need more training and more motivation to master them. There’s a good reason interactive whiteboards have become interactive white elephants in many schools. The money went on the tech and not on training the teachers.
I hope, this year, ed-tech evangelists continue to offer increasingly wise counsel about their products: that their platforms, games and apps represent small, incremental developments in language learning, and that the tools themselves – like all tools – are ineffective unless they’re in good hands.
6. Finally, in 2016 there was much talk about native vs non-native speaker teachers. I hope to see all teachers valued for their professionalism and ability, regardless of their first language. I also hope conference organizers will offer more plenaries and keynote talks to non-native speakers and to that other underrepresented majority: women.
A Happy New Year to all.
Students say the funniest things.
“Do you want your coffee cremated?”
“My sister is having three cats.”
“My relationship with my ax-girlfriend was very painful.”
“When I was six I went to primate school.”
“The cat was hungry because we forgot to eat him.”
And teachers do the funniest things to correct them.
One teacher keeps a large plastic snake in her desk. When the students forget the third person s, she pulls out her snake, whirls it above her head, and says “sssssssssssssssssssssssss”.
Another class kept making errors with prepositions. The teacher labeled the walls (AT, ON, IN), moved the tables and chairs, and got his students to run to the correct wall according to what he said. If he said “2 o’clock”, they ran to the AT wall; if he said “Monday”, they ran to the ON wall.
Another teacher, after her online student kept making mistakes with of, copied and pasted fifty emails (that’s not a typo) and asked her student to highlight all the examples of of so he would see how it’s used correctly. The student attempted the task but died of boredom before he could finish.
Error correction. Does it work? And are there any good ways to do it that don’t involve plastic toys, humiliation, exhaustion, or death?
Let’s start with the student. Some students say they want to be corrected every time they make an error. Try doing this for five minutes. They’ll be miserable and you’ll be exhausted. The teacher needs to find a balance between helping the classroom community function happily, i.e. without constant correction, and fulfilling students’ expectations that they’re being monitored.
Interlanguage and fossilization
The other aspect to constant correction is that it ignores a simple fact: errors are an inevitable part of language learning. They are evidence of learners attempting to activate L2. While experimenting, students produce an intermediate form of language that typically falls between their native and target languages. This is called interlanguage. It’s the equivalent of those transitional hominids in evolutionary biology, like Australopithecus, that were somewhere between our ape ancestors and bipedal humans. Interlanguage is somewhere between L1 and the target language.
And while we’re on the subject of evolutionary biology, we should mention fossilization. Fossilization occurs when a student is no longer developing in proficiency and her errors become a permanent part of her language repertoire. These days fossilization is being replaced as a concept by stabilization, a more positive term, but either way it’s usually associated with automatized errors – errors the student doesn’t know are errors and which she produces regularly and consistently.
Student makes an error; teacher makes a decision
When a student errs, teachers decide on at least four things. Is it really an error or just a slip of the tongue? What type of error is it (grammar, pronunciation, etc.)? Is the error worth correcting? How should it be corrected?
1. Is it an error?
Errors and mistakes are different. Errors occur when a student doesn’t know the rule/vocabulary and uses a non-standard form instead. Mistakes are performance problems, sometimes known as slips. They may be caused by tiredness or lack of concentration, as when an Advanced student forgets third person s. She undoubtedly knows the rule, but forgets it momentarily.
2. What type of error is it?
On hearing an error, teachers mentally categorize it. Many errors are caused by first language interference; others by students simply not knowing enough vocabulary or grammar. Other errors appear to be caused by one thing but aren’t. I once had a German student who wrote “The house had no ear conditioning.” This looks like a spelling error, but it was connected to her Germanic pronunciation of air.
3. Is the error worth correcting?
If the activity is accuracy-focused, we should correct errors. If the purpose is fluency, then we may ignore an error or write it down for later. Only when a conversation stalls, and speaking partners are forced to negotiate meaning, might we interrupt a fluency activity to make a correction.
4. How to correct (and who corrects)?
Students must be made aware of the standard form but not made to feel stupid or self-conscious by the intervention. Here are several common techniques:
Explicit correction is when we say something like “No, you can’t say ‘I have 20 years old’. We say ‘I’m 20 years old.'” Sometimes explicit correction includes metalinguistic terms: “You have to use the Present Perfect there.”
A recast is when we repeat the student’s words but include the correction. Student: “He from Spain.” Teacher: “Oh, he’s from Spain.”
We may use a request for clarification: “Can you explain what you mean by that?”
We may also solicit the correct form from the student or other students. Student: “Yesterday I go to town”. Teacher: “Can you try that again? What’s the past of go?”
All of these techniques are useful, but the best form of correction is self-correction. It’s always more memorable for the student when he or she works it out for herself.
The Last Word
Error correction is a tricky area. Krashen and Terrell recommend no error correction at all. David Willis says it’s a waste of time. But a host of other researchers say it’s necessary, in part for psychological reasons (“I’m being listened to and someone cares if I make a mistake.”).
But maybe we’re on the wrong track altogether. Maybe instead of using the c word (correction), we should just use the f word. Feedback. So, after a speaking task the teacher points out really good examples of language use – phrases, idioms, verb constructions the students used – as well as useful phrases the students could have used; and attempts at language use that weren’t quite right.
And finally, we must remember not to get disheartened if the students don’t appear to learn from their mistakes. Why? Because the effects of teaching are always delayed. I remember a conversation with a student some years ago:
Student: I’ve went to the Tate Gallery yesterday.
Me (teacher): Oh, great. You went to the Tate Gallery.
Student: Yes, I’ve went to the Tate Gallery.
Me: What did you think?
Student: It was fantastic. Tomorrow I am go to the National Gallery.
Me: Ah, you’re going to the National Gallery?
Student: Yes, I am go tomorrow.
And off he went, happy to have communicated his meaning and totally oblivious to my attempts at correction.
I recently attended an excellent workshop about critical thinking in the ELT classroom. The presenters discussed what it is and isn’t, provided references to Bloom’s taxonomy and relevant literature, and concluded that we really need to teach it. Everyone nodded in agreement. No one questioned this statement. No one raised a hand to ask why. In other words, no one got critical about critical thinking. Including me. (I had my reasons: I’d just delivered the plenary presentation at the conference, and I was afraid of undermining the presenters.)
Education is abuzz with critical thinking. It’s frequently cited as one of the three Cs of the so-called 21st century skills, the others being creativity and collaboration, and it has begun to appear in mainstream coursebooks. But it’s problematic, for several reasons.
Problem 1: Who can teach it?
Which of us is qualified to teach critical thinking? In the CELTA and DELTA courses that I took to become a language teacher, there was no mention of critical thinking, or indeed critical anything (pedagogy, literacy, theory …).
Critical thinking is more than just getting students to question things. It relates to epistemology: the study of knowledge – its sources, structures and limitations. It requires a mindset of openness and an understanding of alternative possibilities. Are language teachers, generally, equipped with these tools? Some are, some aren’t. Some may think they are, but aren’t. Already we’re on shaky ground.
Problem 2: Which students need to be taught critical thinking?
What if our students are already critical thinkers? Over the last two decades, countless students have taught me enormous amounts about the world. I’ve been the recipient of impromptu lectures on American foreign policy, the media, the Swiss banking system, the work of writers I’d never heard of, etc., etc., all from students speaking English as a Foreign Language. No one can tell me these students didn’t think critically. They were teaching me how to think critically.
Perhaps the idea is that we teach critical thinking only to children or teenagers who are still learning how to read the world. But that leads us to another problem …
Problem 3: Whose belief systems do we espouse?
I lived and taught in Egypt in the 90s. Every day I witnessed things that were culturally alien to me: the place of religion in society, the treatment of women, the political environment. I thought about these critically, but realized that my views were a result of my biases and background – the western liberal tradition that, in theory, values democracy, openness, and equality.
Who was I to impose my critical views on traditions that stretch back thousands of years? Was it my vocation to be a savior of the souls of these poor little rich Egyptian kids I was teaching? And did I really want to be a disruptive influence in the school where I was paid to teach English?
Educational traditions vary enormously in different nations. It’s often noted that in China, rote memorization is a much-lauded practice. It represents respect for wise souls who came before us and ordered the world. Plagiarism, too, is more acceptable in China as it is seen as a rightful acknowledgement of authority. In the West, memorization is regarded as trivial and plagiarism criminal. To call for critical thinking in many cultures is seen as a disrespectful challenge to established knowledge.
Problem 4: What’s the purpose of our profession?
Michael Swan once gave a presentation called “Language Teaching is Teaching Language.” His point was that our profession isn’t about teaching pragmatics or culture. It’s about teaching language. This means grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and the four skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
Language teachers reside in a strange place in education. We simply have no content to teach. The syllabus is the components of language: words. The medium is the message.
And finally … does critical thinking have a place in ELT?
My answer is that it depends on the students. Learning is about two things: opportunity and motivation. Will it motivate the students to delve more deeply into a text? Will questioning the material enhance their engagement with it? Will problematizing a statement in a coursebook lead to extended speaking opportunities?
If critical thinking will motivate the class, then, for me, it’s a good thing. But I don’t believe language teachers should be on a mission to develop critical thinking. We aren’t paid for it, we aren’t qualified for it, and judging by the workshop I attended last week, most of us can barely define it, let alone teach it.