Coursebooks and critical thinking

Lewis Lansford

Lewis Lansford, author of Unlock, looks at how coursebooks have been addressing the topical area of critical thinking. He also provides some suggestions of what you can do when they don’t.

Critical thinking (CT) is a current ELT buzzword. Along with communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, and a variety of literacies – including visual and digital – CT is rightly seen as a basic survival skill for life in the twenty-first century.

The idea isn’t new. More than a hundred years ago, American philosopher, psychologist and education reformer John Dewey (1859–1952) championed the importance of teaching learners to think critically. In the 1950s, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom introduced his taxonomy, which features critical thinking as a crucial element. But the focus on CT in ELT is relatively recent.

Following on from my previous posts on coursebooks, I thought it would be timely to weigh in on how coursebooks address CT, and what teachers can do about it when they don’t.

By way of research, I Googled ‘coursebooks and critical thinking’. The third result was the archived Twitter #ELTchat transcript from 13 July, 2011 under the title ‘Promoting Critical Thinking’. Coursebooks are not the main focus of the thread, but they are mentioned a few times, and four main views are expressed:

1) When coursebooks are taught from start to finish and are the only classroom resource, they don’t promote critical thinking.
2) This is probably because coursebooks don’t include question types that promote critical thinking.
3) Instead, coursebooks ‘teach the test’ because the promise of improved grades is a better selling point than the promise of improved thinking ability.
4) As a result, coursebooks generally explore the form of language, but not the content or the ideas that language can express.

It’s fair to say that in case of many published materials, the above are all true. So rather than counter with examples of coursebooks that do stimulate and encourage critical thinking – and good examples are increasingly easy to find – I’d like to suggest three tips for stimulating critical thinking into the classroom when your coursebook fails to do so.

Encourage learners to question everything

When approaching a text, get students to ask questions such as:

  • Who is the author and what knowledge or experience does she have?
  • What is the author’s motivation for writing?
  • Does the writer have a hidden agenda?
  • Does the text actually support any claims that it makes?
  • Is there another side to the story that should be considered?


I can imagine what some of you are thinking now: often, the answers to these questions would be ‘The author is an ELT textbook writer. The motivation for writing the text is to pack in as many examples of past progressive as possible. The text doesn’t really make any claims.’ OK, fair enough. But does that short-circuit critical thinking? Not at all. It removes the pretense that a text is authentic, and gives learners credit for being aware of that. You can still encourage them to think critically about any facts presented, and about the overall effectiveness of the text in meeting its perceived goals.

Don’t ignore negative reactions to the material, help students articulate them instead

If learners find a text, a unit or an entire book boring, work with that. Have some sympathy. If you’re required to work through a text or unit, do what you have to do, but don’t hold back, allowing students to interpret rigid coursebook dialogues in a way that makes them more interesting for everyone. It can be a thin line between a lively class and an out-of-control one, but encouraging students to draw conclusions about characters and read between the lines of dialogues may breathe some life – and some critical thinking – into an otherwise dull coursebook offering. It may also encourage more dramatic and even hilarious performances of coursebook conversations.

Encourage creative responses to texts

If your students have, through critical thinking, concluded that a text in a coursebook is merely a highly artificial vehicle for grammar, get them to locate the core idea of it and come up with something that isn’t just grammar. If the coursebook text in question is yet another reading on an ice hotel or Lady Gaga, you could take the approach of asking learners to list the reasons why the topic doesn’t appeal to them, and to research and develop a replacement text with more intellectually stimulating or personally relevant content. Think of texts in coursebooks as starting points and don’t hesitate to manipulate them in whatever way necessary to get your students thinking critically.

Those are just a few ideas. I’d love to know what’s worked and what hasn’t in your classroom.

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