A Global era of information
Albert Einstein once said that ‘Information is not knowledge’. With so much information around at the click of a mouse, our students need to become critical thinkers. Lindsay Clandfield argues that a successful reading text needs to challenge students’ analytical skills if they are to achieve this and in turn become competent language learners.
We are living in an era of information. The spread and penetration of broadband, high-speed access to the Internet has made huge amounts of information available at our fingertips. This has created what some call ‘sovereign individuals’. Sovereign individuals are empowered because they have access to new learning opportunities, can sell their own ideas, services or products directly to others and can access a wide variety of information to make their own choices about all aspects of society, from political engagement to health care. Among these sovereign individuals are, probably, many of our students who can now access this information, and can do it quickly.
However, because all this information is out there, we are often unsure what is accurate and fact and what is opinion, or worse, false and misleading. To succeed in an information-rich world one has to learn how to discern, analyse and evaluate what one sees or hears. Many of the texts being proposed to learners in classes around the world are not always helpful in getting learners to do this. They may be interesting, but on a superficial level only. Texts in language teaching materials can be trivial and about invented people. Sometimes the content of texts is incidental, as they are primarily being used as a vehicle to present a grammar or vocabulary point. There is no incentive to go into any depth about the information presented; instead the teacher and students plough on to get to the language exercises which are completed, corrected and considered 'covered'.
Other texts may be about a curious human interest story, serving as a springboard to discuss a relatively 'safe' issue. Sometimes it is unclear whether the story or characters are in fact real or invented, as little is made of the source of the text even if it is authentic. Again, the text is to be digested quickly and easily so that the speaking may follow. It has been argued that communicative language teaching approaches, with their emphasis on verbal face-to-face interaction have neglected the development of learners' ability to read, discuss, think and write critically about texts.
To really help students engage in this kind of activity I believe that three basic conditions need to be met:
1) That texts and topics be interesting and provocative. The best kind of text is one which catches the students’ attention and makes them think. However, this does not mean teachers need only select texts or topics their students already know about (eg 'My students love football so I always bring in football texts'). The teacher’s own enthusiasm and judgement about the interest level of a text is equally important. Education is also about learning things you didn’t know about before, not just things you do.
2) That learners and teacher can critically interact with the text. Good texts in this respect allow the possibility of critically questioning the content of the text, or trying to analyse the author’s point of view. Literary texts work very well for this, and they are a vastly underused resource in language teaching materials. It’s also important that the source of the text also be made clear. Is it from a newspaper? If so, which one? When was it published? What information do we know about the author that will help us come to a better understanding of the text?
3) That texts and topics be rooted in the real world. If a text provokes interest then this can be followed up outside of class. The teacher can set students tasks to find out more about the author, the source, the story or alternative arguments and critical views by searching the Web. The means knowing how to use search engines efficiently, a skill which should be taught in every classroom.
If these three conditions are met then we as teachers can go further than simple comprehension and skills development. We can ask about issues and connections between the text and local or global realities. Whose culture is being portrayed? Whose identity? Whose reality? What are the implications and assumptions being made? This kind of critical engagement is a goal worthy in itself, but it may also help to make the material, and the language we wish to focus on, more memorable. It’s a win-win situation.
Lindsay Clandfield is a teacher, teacher trainer and the author of the new Macmillan course Global. He is also the co-author of Straightforward (Macmillan ELT, 2006).