Scaffolding for Critical Reading in EAP

Critical thinking has now become a key skill in university education. In EAP, much focus has been placed on the output demonstrating critical thinking, i.e. writing. Wilson (2016), however, highlights reading as underpinning critical thinking ability.  It notes some difficulties with training critical thinking / reading in EAP:

  •  the multiple, often loose definitions of the concept of critical thinking
  •  the often-found lack of discipline specificity in EAP classes
  •  students’ common focus on ‘what is on the exam’

and attempts to answer the question of

‘What does it mean to teach students to read critically in the context of an EAP classroom?’

by presenting three case studies of critical reading pedagogy in EAP, presented in relation to Davies and Barnett (2015)‘s framework of critical thinking.

Framework for Critical Thinking

To help students and teachers understand the concept of critical thinking, Davies and Barnett describe three broad perspectives found in the literature:

  1. Skills perspective: includes structural approaches like Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking skills, often used in academic writing instruction, and the cognitive approach to reading which trains reading strategies and influenced the IELTS test.
  2. Criticality perspective: aims at developing students’ critical disposition within the relevant discourse community, including elements of social-constructivist psychology.
  3. Critical pedagogy perspective: promotes active engagement with civil, political and ethical issues, and encourages students to act responsibly within the world, critically analysing input on such issues.

Research

  • 3 ethnographic case studies of EAP teachers’ reading lessons at university preparation institutions in Australia. (Teachers experienced and qualified with MAs in TESOL or Applied Linguistics).
  • 3x classes of 10-16 intermediate/upper-intermediate students working towards university entrance, at least 5 nationalities per class.
  • Observations of classes in 5-10 week courses. Worksheets, whiteboard work, student productions collected.
  • Semi-guided interviews with teachers and focus groups with students conducted at middle and end of course.
  • Data analysed using Activity Theory to explore tensions between participants’ roles, texts, tasks, classroom practices, and participants’ expectations and needs.
  • Evidence of students’ critical thinking inferred from in-class participation, work on worksheets and essays.

Case Study 1

This teacher used “a tightly scaffolded approach to developing academic reading strategies with numerous short practise exercises leading up to a final essay”.  The input was mainly short, easy texts. There was quite a lot of direct instruction, with the teacher mostly in control of  activities, pacing, lesson content.  Towards the end of the course, more interactive tasks were used and observations found “students had increased in confidence and gained a greater sense of identity as critical readers”. Nonetheless, some students expressed difficulty with reading, or lack of pleasure in reading, after the course.

Case Study 2

Most lessons were based on fairly short, but quite challenging, non-fiction texts, and tasks similar to IELTS, provided on worksheets. Lessons included lots of pair-work or group-work, with the teacher assisting groups in turn, followed by answer-checking and discussion in plenary.  The worksheets were used as scaffolding, with some challenging tasks requiring students to deduce their own meaning from texts, and to help each other to do so. Students reported liking the lessons and were satisfied with their improvement on micro-skills, also demonstrating a good level of engagement with the texts’ content.

Case Study 3

This course was based on continuous assessment, with students spending 5 weeks on the topic of teleworking. The input texts were 3x original academic publications suggested as sources for the next essay on the question provided at the end of the 5-week unit.  The teacher guided students in deconstructing the text’s meaning (right down to subtleties of grammar), using IRE (initiate-respond-evaluate) sequences, though not many students responded in front of the whole class. This approach was chosen due to students’ lacking cultural understanding of the topics. Observations noted that students struggled to understand the topic without considerable support, and were not always actively engaged. The teacher was unimpressed with the essays produced, regarding their incorporation of meaning from the input texts.

 

Findings – Framework of Critical Thinking

All three teachers had elements of concrete thinking skills in their teaching, though in different manners. The strongest focus on individual skills and reading strategies was in Case 1. The skills training was less overt in Case 2, where scaffolding worksheets focused more on constructing meaning. In Case 3, the teacher rather modelled the application of such skills.

All three teachers also worked to a certain extent towards nurturing students’ critical dispositions. Particularly Cases 2 & 3 focused on encouraging students to approach all reading from an overall critical perspective, though they used different techniques to do so: Case 2 aimed to engage students with reading by providing “designed-in scaffolding” which enabled students make meaning for themselves. Students in Case 2 “gained confidence in using the language and concepts of the texts to develop their own position” on the issues they read about. In Cases 1 & 3, though, the meaning was mainly teacher-made, and students did not engage with the texts or their content very deeply; in Case 3 this was explained by the topic focus of the texts.

A critical pedagogy approach was most evident in Case 3, where the teacher intended for the students to engage with social issues. The input texts had copious potential, but seemed to be slightly too difficult for students, who did not engage well with the topics.

Implications – Scaffolding for Critical Reading

Although the article does not wish to advocate ‘one perfect way’ of teaching critical reading and thinking skills, there are some tips that can be taken from these case study analyses.

EAP tutors must beware of seeing their role as ‘redeeming’ students from their lack of ability, by throwing them into the deep-end of controversial issues and helping them not to drown. It is important that teachers do not cast themselves in the role of ‘primary knower’, as students then become passive recipients with limited scope for participating in communicative engagement. Moreover, some topics employed in a critical pedagogy may be simply too far removed from students’ world-views and need careful preparation if they are to ‘learn to swim’. Wilson states that

students need careful and “delicate” scaffolding so that they remain secure in this dangerous space between educational worlds.

The topics chosen need to be gripping and interesting, but not too confronting, so that students can actively and affectively engage with the input texts.  The tasks which form the basis scaffolding for reading should enable students to feel a both sense of achievement and of agency. Students should be promoted to take responsibility, rather than relying on teachers to give them answers. Wilson also suggests that teachers should accept “partially correct answers rather than insisting on perfection.” And finally, the class should provide a supportive atmosphere, where students can have fun and be creative whilst they “try out their voices in the new discourses “.

References

M. Davies & R. Barnett (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of critical thinking in higher education, Palgave Macmillan, New York (2015).

Wilson, Kate (2016), Critical reading, critical thinking: Delicate scaffolding in English for Academic Purposes (EAP), Thinking Skills and Creativity, Vol 22, pp 256–265. Available here.

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Clare Maas
Lecturer in EFL and EAP at Trier University (Germany)
Clare holds post-graduate qualifications from the University of Wales and Trinity College London. Before moving into tertiary education, she taught English at German grammar schools, and English for Specific Purposes at several language academies in the UK and Germany. Her professional interests include EAP materials development and CPD for teachers. She also blogs at ClaresELTCompendium.wordpress.com.

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