From reading to reading critically

In many EFL/ESL/TESOL coursebooks, the approach to reading is usually to proceed from pre-reading strategies of, e.g., content prediction, vocabulary activation, to while-reading sub-skills of skimming and scanning and then to detailed understanding with the occasional inference question and possible post-reading exercises that exploit the text for lexical or grammatical development, or focus on discourse features.

For EAP and mainstream secondary/high school readers in open societies, there is a need to go further by developing the skills of reading critically. This is because writers of media articles may seek to persuade the reader to accept a certain explanation of an issue, or a certain moral stance on an issue. Critical readers are not won over by propaganda or marketing-style tactics such as the use of images that evoke sympathy, the misuse of logic, or the inclusion of emotive words. By contrast, critical readers fairly judge the validity and soundness of writers’ claims.

Critical reading is a learnt skill. Teachers and coursebook authors can help learners by guiding them to search for particular features of persuasive writing. Through responding to skillfully devised questions, students can learn to identify the…

  • issue itself
  • causes of the issue
  • writer’s identity and background (if available)
  • reasons for the writer’s concern and interest in the issue
  • stakeholders, i.e. groups in society with a vested interest in the issue
  • possible value conflicts between stakeholders
  • writer’s conclusion
  • writer’s reasons
  • writer’s assumptions (= hidden reasons)
  • evidence for the writer’s proposition
  • sources of that evidence (if cited)
  • ambiguous, emotive and euphemistic vocabulary
  • logical fallacies, e.g. hasty generalisations

Teachers and authors can provide helpful support by setting questions that require identification of these features. Once the skill of identification is mastered through practice, students can progress to setting similar questions for their peers and finally formulating such questions independently for themselves when they encounter other media articles in future.

To help authors and teachers, a questioning framework is a useful reference. There are many available, but suggested here are Socratic questioning and Biggs & Sollis SOLO Taxonomy.

Below, I provide an example of a reading lesson that begins conventionally but ends with more critical reading by means of Socratic questions. A similar result could be achieved with the SOLO or Bloom’s taxonomies. It is based upon a 2007 article that appeared in the South China Morning Post on the issue of conservation of historic buildings.

Taxi driver lone dissenting voice as conservationists plead for pier (10th May 2007 SCMP)

Pre-reading

Speculating 

Cover the text. Describe what you see in the accompanying photograph (with the original article). Can you guess the situation?  (clue = date: 10th May 2007) What do you imagine the people are looking at? How are the people feeling? The placards are blank. Can you imagine what was written on them?

Sharing personal experiences related to the topic of the article

Have you ever been involved in a protest? If so, can you describe the experience? If not, do you know anyone who has? Would you join this protest? Why/why not?

Comparing initial opinions on the issue involved

How do you balance heritage conservation with economic development?

Activating related vocabulary

Now that you know the topic of the article, predict 10 words and phrases that you believe will appear in it.

Capture2

Researching key vocabulary 

Work in small groups. Use a dictionary and race to complete the table below using 4 of the following words/phrases: dissenting, public hearing, conservationist, public sentiment, plead, antiquities.

Capture

While-reading

Skimming

Choose the most appropriate title for this article:

  • Pier preservation incontestable argue conservationists
  • Taxi driver lone dissenting voice as conservationists plead for pier
  • Queen’s pier – new symbol of civic movement


Scanning & identifying key points

Who expressed the following opinions?

Capture3

Summarising the article

Complete the chart below to summarise the opinions, reasons and possible consequences described by Mr Lam and Ms Lung.

Capture4

Critical reading

Distinguishing facts from opinions

Which of the following statements from the article are factual?

  1. “Queen’s pier has a high level of heritage collective memory.”
  2. “Reconstructing the pier between two public piers might be cheaper and easier, but the pier would be much more significant as part of the City Hall complex.”
  3. “Mr. Lee was a government architect between the 1960s and 1970s.”
  4. “What has happened since the demolition of the Star Ferry pier in December has given Queen’s Pier a new meaning.”
  5. “Representatives of 11 conservation groups and a lone taxi driver spoke at an unprecedented public hearing…”

Socratic questioning

  • Questions that probe assumptions

What belief is behind the words of Ms Man-wah when she says that “The pier witnessed how Hong Kong evolved…”?

 The term ‘heritage collective memory’ was used by Mr Cheong. What do you understand by this term?

  • Questions that probe reason and evidence 

Is any evidence reported in the article to support the views expressed?

What kind of evidence might support Mr Cheong’s opinions?

  • Questions about viewpoints or perspectives

 Do you see any relation between the opinions expressed and the vocations of the people who expressed them?

What opinions do you think would be expressed by a prominent business leader, a representative of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, or a traffic police officer?

  •  Questions that probe implications and consequences

What are the consequences of asserting that the Queen’s Pier is “an inseparable part of the City Hall complex”?

References

Biggs, J.B. & Collis, K.F. (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome Taxonomy. Academic Press Inc.

Brown, M.N. & Keeley, S.M. (2007). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking. Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-220304-9

Van den Brink-Budgen, R. (2000). Critical thinking for students. How To Books. ISBN 978-1-85703-634-3

Not Jolly but Folly Phonics for China

I’m going to argue in this post that phonics is inappropriate for children learning English as a foreign language in countries such as China.

I was prompted to write this post by two experiences.

Firstly, I met the owner of a chain of language centres in mainland China who was in Hong Kong to purchase phonics kits from regional distributors of US/UK publishers. According to him, phonics courses sell very well in China.

Secondly, I read a balanced article about phonics on the BBC News website entitled Viewpoints: Teaching children to read  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19812961 To summarise the content, research evidence supports the view that bottom-up systematic phonics is more effective than the alternative ‘look and say’ method. However, it does have drawbacks and limitations and shouldn’t be relied upon alone to cultivate good readers. In other words, it is a necessary but not sufficient component of an overall approach to early literacy development. Those drawbacks and limitations are listed in the BBC article so I won’t repeat them here. The evaluation of phonics by the writer of this article was done with native speaker environments in mind.

I would, however, like to underline a serious problem with phonics in language environments such as China where English is taught as a foreign language to young children. Those children are likely to lack the oral skills in English that are an essential prerequisite to success in learning to read through phonics. This is because phonics teaches children to decode words by sounds. Once a native speaker child has successfully sounded out an unfamiliar written word, they can access meaning by associating it with the spoken version of the word that they already know. So, as one of the literacy experts interviewed for the BBC article, Lisa Morgan, points out, “children with good oral language skills are likely to become good readers”.

So why is phonics so popular in China?

Phonics kits, e.g. Letterland,  Jolly Phonics, etc. are packaged very nicely. Such good presentation alone can give the impression of professionalism and reliability and may be one of the reasons why parents of young children have faith in the method.  It is also systematic, encouraging the view that it is well-conceived. Moreover, repetitive learning is widely practised and accepted in China and phonics fits in well with this educational heritage.

Phonics may become effective after English oral skills and vocabulary have been developed adequately. But from what I observe, it is used at introductory levels of instruction with (very) young children.

Question

Are you using phonics to teach young learners of English and, if so, what are your experiences of this method?