Build Success Beyond the Classroom: Critical Thinking Skills and Academic English


Christina Cavage is an ESL academic and author. An expert on blended learning, she has hosted webinars on critical thinking skills and assessment in the ESL classroom and written a series of blogposts on critical thinking in the language classroom. In this post, she looks at how to prepare your ESL students for the rigors of academic study. 

English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classes are designed to prepare students for higher education delivered in English. Students are expected to hold their own among a class full of native speakers. So it’s important that they have not only the language skills, but the academic and social skills that tertiary education demands today. And it’s up to teachers to make sure that our students develop these skills – but that requires a balancing act.  

Many EAP courses lack the authenticity of the college classroom experience. Lectures are generally quite short, only 5-10 minutes long. Reading is scaffolded, and the content is very structured, even overly structured. Then, our students move into their academic courses where they encounter two-hour lectures, 50+ pages of reading, and content that is far from scaffolded. So, how do we bridge these academic, linguistic and social gaps? Let’s take a look at some techniques that can help students succeed in higher education.  

Bridging the linguistic gap  

Linguistics gaps may involve content-specific language, or the informal language students encounter when they work with other students, or the connotative and denotative meanings and contexts of a word. To bridge this gap, we need to build deep conceptual knowledge of vocabulary. We don’t want students to only have label knowledge. Label knowledge allows a student to pass a vocabulary text where matching or multiple choice is present. But that is not enough in an academic environment. Deep conceptual knowledge means truly knowing a word.  

So, what does it mean to know a word? Well, according to Paul Nation, a student needs to know the following: the spoken and written form, the parts of the word that have meaning, the words forms and their meanings, the concepts and vocabulary associated with the word, the grammatical function, any collocations and the register and frequency of the word. That is a whole lot!  

To build this extensive knowledge, we really need to do so in an intentional manner. We need to build a variety of activities that develop and foster critical thinking skills, but that engage students as well.  

Here is an example from University Success:  


The terms mixed and community are bolded. You can engage students with a simple noticing activity of how these words are used, the forms they take, the words around them, their collocations and the concepts associated with these words. An activity like this will help students develop a deep understanding of these words. And that deep understanding will enable students to make connections and draw conclusions around these terms.  

Bridging the academic gap


EAP students move from very scaffolded EAP courses to courses where they must listen and take notes for 50 minutes or read 50+ pages before class. Additionally, their professors often do not build background knowledge, or scaffold learning, as they expect students to enter into their classrooms with this understanding. And this can create an academic gap.  

When it comes to bridging this gap, content can be the vehicle for instruction. Exposing students to the language of academic disciplines early on can build background knowledge, and be highly motivating for students who crave more than rote language instruction. 

Bringing the social gap  

When students enter their university courses they will be expected to work with peers, engage in group activities, negotiate, take turns and assert their own ideas into a dialogue. These social skills require language which needs to be developed and practiced in their EAP courses.  

You can do this by building instructional tasks and learning around developing and practicing critical thinking skills. Consider introducing project-based learning to your class. In project-based learning, students must work with their peers, learning how to prioritize, negotiate and assign responsibility. When you bring in these types of tasks and activities, it helps to develop soft skills alongside critical thinking skills.  

Read more  

Learn about how to teach critical thinking, and how to assess critical thinking skills. Building critical thinking skills will help your students to bridge the linguistic, academic and social gaps they might encounter, and ensure they are ready for the challenges of higher education.  

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