A PBLT Approach to Teaching ESL Speaking Writing and Thinking Skills

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  • A PBLT approach to teaching ESLspeaking, writing, and thinking skills

    Gholamhossein Shahini and A. Mehdi Riazi

    This paper introduces Philosophy-based Language Teaching (PBLT) as a newapproach to developing productive language and thinking skills in students. Theapproach involves posing philosophical questions and engaging students indialogues within a community of enquiry context. To substantiate the approach,the paper reports a study in which 34 university students from one of the majoruniversities in Iran were randomly assigned to two groups: one experimental(PBLT/led by philosophical questions) and the other control (conventional/directed by ordinary or non-philosophical questions). Results revealed that therewas a significant difference between the two groups with students in theexperimental group outperforming those in the control group on both speakingandwriting tasks. The findings of the study have implications for all stakeholders inELT locally and internationally.

    Introduction Reflections on our language teaching experience over the years haveprovided us with the interesting and even surprising observation thatwhenever a philosophical question was encountered or raised in ourEnglish language classes, students would automatically become ready andmotivated to actively participate in class discussions. Our observation alsoshowed that in such discussions and negotiations of meaning, studentsword range and the length of their talk increased and they would even staybehind after the class to continue the discussion and get their points across.This interesting observationwas supported by a number of studies (Haynes2002; van der Leeuw 2004); we came across on the effect of philosophicalquestions anddialogues on students and childrens L1 ability. The issuewasfurther consolidated by other studies (for example Ofsted 1997) thatindicated that regular practice of philosophical enquiry led to significantgains in students overall use of their native language and that students whohad engaged in philosophy-based discussion made more gains in readingthan those who had not (Murris 1992). Given the potentialities ofphilosophical discussion and its power to enhance studentscommunication skills and thinking abilities and the evidence of gains instudents L1 development, we were attracted by the idea of investigating theeffect of introducing this approach into the field of ESL/EFL learning andteaching. The core of the approach is to engage students in discussions thatrevolve around philosophical questions. The point, however, should bemade clear that by philosophy we do not mean complex, abstract, and

    170 ELT Journal Volume 65/2 April 2011; doi:10.1093/elt/ccq045 The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.Advance Access publication September 16, 2010

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  • specialized philosophical discussions one might expect in Philosophy asa discipline, rather we mean to encourage students to plunge deeper intoa question or set of questions by discussing their understanding of theconcepts and reasoning for such an understanding. In Philosophy-basedLanguage Teaching (PBLT), as in recent approaches to language teachingsuch as Communicative Language Teaching, Cooperative LanguageLearning, Task-based Language Teaching, etc., students use language tolearn it. Language inPBLT, as in the above approaches, is viewedholistically.In PBLT,where the classroom is considered as a social community, studentswork together to complete a philosophical task. Looked at from thisperspective, PBLT is in line with Vygotskys (1978) view that holds learningas a social and constructivist activity and language as a tool for thinking. It issuggested by Vygotsky that social interaction is of major importance indeveloping language capacity. He believes that thought and language areinitially separate but become interdependent during acts of communicationsince meaning is created through interaction. According to Vygotsky, it islanguage that makes abstract thinking possible. From this perspective,PBLT allows its users to use language to imagine, manipulate, create newideas, and share those ideas with others. Language in PBLT is thus amentaltool that each member of the social community (classroom) uses to thinkand it is through language and communication that abstract thinkingbecomes possible.

    The significance ofPBLT

    The significance of this approach to L2 instruction is twofold:

    1 The enhancement of thinking ability through L2 instruction.2 The improvement of L2 proficiency, especially productive skills, throughphilosophical discussion.

    Strictly following theparadigmofLipman,Sharp, andOscanyan (1980), theterm Philosophy with a capital P is not considered here. According tothem, philosophy does not imply complex philosophical debates amonggreat philosophers nor is the aim to teach the subject philosophy tosophisticated bookish minds in university lecture halls. Philosophy inPBLT is meant to encourage ordinary students to think critically andcreatively about the world around them, to delve deeper into subjects,and not blindly accept or memorize whatever is fed into their minds.Philosophy, in this sense, as Cam (1995) indicates, is the richest source andtool used for the cultivation of higher thinking and enquiry into themeaning of concepts that are central to our lives. Lipman (2003) holdsthat this viewof philosophy taps ones natural curiosity and sense of wonderand puzzlement. Philosophy as such assists us in practising theconsideration of questions most of us have wondered about from time totime; questions which are familiar and meaningful to most people allover the world. According to Gregory (2008), we always ask ourselvesphilosophical questions like What is reality/beauty/democracy/justice/art/death/love/God/language/truth/mind? What is the right thing todo?Does everything have a cause? What makes something beautiful? andso on. Viewing philosophy from this perspective, people of any age,even children (cf. Gregory 2008), can be taught to philosophize tobecome social thinkers in future. A typical example in this respect is

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  • a study done by Daniel, Lafortune, Pallascio, and Schleifer (1999) whoposed philosophical questions on mathematics to elementary schoolchildren aged 913. Questions such as Does zero signify nothing? Wasmathematics invented or discovered? and the like. The languageproduction and reasoning of these children is surprising.More examples ofphilosophical dialogues between Lipman and children can also be found inLipman (1993).

    A framework for PBLT Lipmans (2003) framework informs PBLT for L2 teaching.

    The framework includes

    1 The presentation of a stimulus (for example a reading or a multimediatext) to create an open-ended issue, concept, or situation.

    2 Structured students cooperation to formulate specific questions arisingfrom the issue or concept.

    3 The selection of a single question for the whole group to discuss andexplore through dialogue aided by the facilitator.

    The use of philosophy provides two effective tools to promote good thinkingin the classroom:

    1 community of enquiry2 philosophical dialogue.

    In the community of enquiry (see, for example, Kennedy 2004; van derLeeuw 2004), students work together to generate and then answer theirown questions about the philosophical issues contained in purposefulwritten materials or a wide range of other resources. The process ofphilosophical exploration in this environment encourages students to takeincreased responsibility for their own learning process and to develop asindependent and self-correcting learners. Students develop intellectualcourage to put forward their own views in a group. Lipman (op.cit.) believesthat in philosophical community of enquiry, the following skills will bedeveloped:

    cognitive skills, making distinctions, seeing connections, identifyingfallacies, finding analogies/disanalogies, seeing broader perspectives,formulating and testing criteria, sticking to the point, openmindedness,being willing to offer and accept criticism, valuing reasonableness,increasing tolerance against opposing ideas, drawing inferences, etc.(pp. 16771)

    Philosophical questions, according to Gregory (2008: 23), do not call forcorrect answers: they refer to problems that cannot be solved by calculation,consulting books, or by referring to ones own memories. To answer suchquestions, one has to consider her or his own depth of thoughts. In contrastto routine questions which call upon students to show their knowledge ofestablished facts, philosophical questions require the student to think forher/himself and they demand further investigations that invite reflection(Cam 1995). The subject matters of philosophy for negotiation are thosecommon, central, and contestable concepts that underpin both generalexperience of human life and all academic disciplines. Appendix 1 providessome examples of philosophical questions in both areas.

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  • Procedures forrunning a PBLTclassroom

    Atypical PBLTclassroom session beginswith students reading a source textnot practisedbefore.After reading, the students are invited individually or incollaboration with their peers to come up with one or two philosophicalquestions that the text has made them think or wonder about. Thesequestions, which are primarily constructed based on the concepts used inthe text, set the agenda for discussion. Each student then reads her/hisquestion to thewhole class and themost interesting ones are selected by thestudents themselves to be discussed. Students are allowed to code switchwhen necessary in order not to lose their train of thoughts while discussingthe issues. The role of the instructor is mainly to facilitate studentdiscussions by monitoring and helping students to keep on track. Duringoral discussion, the instructor takes some personal notes, writes down themain points raised and the important words used, and translates the L1words used by students into L2. At the end of the discussion and whilestudents have a break, the instructor divides the board into two halves andoutlines the main points discussed in one column and puts the importantwords and those translated into L2 in another. Then students are asked towrite individually an essay on the main points using the materials on theboard if needed. These are checked by the instructor out of class for eachsession and returned to the students with feedback before the next classhour. Each class session lasts for twohourswith the following tentative timeallocationreading the text and producing questions: 15 minutes, oraldiscussion: 1 hour 15 minutes, and writing: 30 minutes.

    Considering the potentialities of philosophical discussions in enhancingcommunication skills and finding some evidence from the literature forthis, we hypothesized that exposing ESL/EFL students to PBLTwouldenhance their speaking and writing as well as their thinking skills. Thishypothesismotivatedus to set up the following study to investigate the valueof a PBLT approach to ESL/EFL teaching.

    The studyParticipants andmaterials

    To investigate our hypothesis, we set up an experiment to see if PBLTwouldproduce better results than conventional approaches to ESL/EFL teachingand learning currently in practice in contexts like Iran. To selectparticipants, an invitation letter was posted on the bulletin boards of thethree colleges of Engineering, Sciences, and Humanities at a majoruniversity in Iran. Englishmajor studentswere excluded from the invitationgiven their distinct level of English proficiency as compared to otherstudents. Initially, 82 students from the three disciplines with differentmajors replied to the invitation letter and participated in an interviewsession with three experienced raters who assessed them. Of these,53 students within the age range of 1925 (who turned out to have thesame intermediate proficiency level) were chosen, with only 34 studentseventually able to participate in the study. The rest withdrew for differentreasons, including a clash with their regular classes. Using randomassignment, the students were placed into the experimental (N 17:10 female and 7 male) and control (N 17: 9 female and 8 male) groups.The basic instructional materials were 17 texts (each for one session) ofdiffering length and topic with the criterion of having the potentiality ofbeing subjected to deep and philosophical discussion. The averagereadability index of the texts was 75.1 indicating rather simple texts.

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  • For a sample text, along with two types of questions (philosophical andnon-philosophical) see Appendix 2.

    Data collectionprocedures

    The classes were run four days a week (two days for experimental andtwo days for control) over one semester (17 sessions). Both classes weretaught by the same teacher.Before the study, the instructorof the twogroupstook part in some philosophical thinking training sessions to becomefamiliar with the procedures of running a philosophical community andhow to provoke students into raising philosophical questions. Theparticipants in each group received pre- and post-tests in both speaking andwriting.The speakingperformanceof theparticipants inbothgroups inpre-and post-test was audio recorded with their consent for subsequentrating.Their pre- andpost-writingessayswerealso collected.Their speakingwas rated using the Speaking scale: analytic descriptors of spokenlanguage from the Common European Framework (Council of Europe2001), and their writing was rated using the ESL composition profile scaleby Jacobs, Zinkgraf, Wormuth, Hartfiel, and Hughey (1981). Intra- andinter-rater reliability of speaking and writing ratings were checked and theindexes were 0.92 and 0.90 for speaking and 0.95 and 0.92 for writing,respectively. With the high reliability indexes, all the speaking and writingtasks were then rated by the lead rater.

    Results anddiscussion

    To compare the speaking andwriting performance of the participants in theexperimental and control groups, gain scores were computed using theirpre- and post-tests. Table 1 presents the results of the gain scores forspeaking and writing of students in both groups.

    Group Pre-writing







    Mean 67.58 76.76 44.58 56.29 9.17 11.70N 17 17 17 17 17 17Standard deviation 7.16 7.57 7.73 7.09 1.18 2.08


    Mean 66.82 82.11 43.94 66.11 15.29 22.17N 17 17 17 17 17 17Standard deviation 7.61 7.73 7.88 10.31 1.49 4.034


    Mean 67.20 79.44 44.26 61.20 12.23...


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