Sunday, 2 March 2014

WebQuests - the best way to foster critical thinking, social skills and problem-solving?

In an earlier post, I examined (amongst other things) Johnson & Johnson's 1974 version of "Cooperative Learning Theory" and considered its applicability as a theoretical basis for group and project work in modern language teaching. It certainly seems that a good case can be made for teaching social and collaborative skills as well as language knowledge in today's classes!

I was therefore most interested when the topic of "WebQuests" was introduced to us here at Warwick slightly under a month ago. Having enjoyed some success through adopting a fairly constructivist approach towards ESP teaching at business school earlier in my career, I was eager to know more about an approach that similarly emphasizes the practical application of information rather than simply its retrieval and/or rote learning.

Relevance and Rationale
Dr Bernie Dodge - arguably the "father" of WebQuests - explains the concept well in the following video:

Essentially, then, a WebQuest:
  • Is a constructivist lesson format;
  • Is "wrapped around a doable or interesting task that's a scaled-down version of something adults do";
  • Derives most (though not necessarily all) of its source material from the web;
  • Utilizes information pre-selected by the teacher;
  • Often involves students assuming roles;
  • Critically, involves higher order thinking skills (HOTS).
Higher order thinking skills represent the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy, as shown in this diagram:

In a follow-on video, Dr Dodge goes on to explain this in rather more everyday, "action verb" terms:
  • Know, Tell, Remember - these verbs are largely reserved for the classroom, he suggests. 
  • Apply, Analyze, Explain - this could happen in the classroom or be taken outside. 
  • Decide, Design, Create, Predict, Judge - these are "life" verbs, corresponding to higher value-added functions in today's knowledge economy.
In other words, a Web Quest is far more than simply a Web Search. The defining features of a WebQuest - according to educators across the US, longitudinal studies (e.g. Zheng, Perez, Williamson & Flygare, 2008) suggest - are as follows:

1) Constructivist problem solving (critical thinking, leading to knowledge application);
2) Social interaction (leading to the development of positive interdependence, individual accountability and interpersonal skills, much as Johnson and Johnson (1974) would suggest);
3) Scaffolded learning (very much in the social constructivist tradition of Vygostsky and Bruner).

It is certainly exciting to see all of these potentially happening at the same time! A WebQuest can be designed to have four distinct stages:
  • Introduction; 
  • Task; 
  • Process; 
  • Evaluation
 Or possibly six:
  • Introduction; 
  • Task; 
  • Process; 
  • Resources; 
  • Evaluation; 
  • Conclusion
This has a number of parallels with task-based language teaching, if one includes a "focus on form" stage where feedback becomes appropriate. It can also be used to foster skills development, e.g. presentation skills.

Naturally, though, it is also extremely important for task success criteria to be explicit! offers a good illustration of how one can do this, using a template.

Propensity to foster language learning
Dr Dodge is a keen advocate of constructivism in education, and I'm quite keen as well. However, when applied to a language learning context the situation can be a little more complicated.

For instance, he suggests that it's best to start early in life with this approach, possibly as early as the 3rd grade in the US. This may work well with native speakers of a language or children raised bilingually if the initial steps to be taken into the learners'  zone of proximal development are relatively small across the class as a whole. However, in the case of second language acquisition I suspect this is all a little too soon, and we must also acknowledge that some societies do more than others to emphasize individual autonomy, regardless of children's age.

Also, in the case of adult learners one must always acknowledge the possibility that they may actually be rather good at higher order thinking skills in their native tongue - what's missing in the L2 is simply the means of expressing their ideas, or the communication skills to participate fully in teamwork. As a teacher, one must take such factors into consideration.

In addition, placing an over-emphasis on higher-order thinking may cause other less glamorous (but still vitally important) learning tasks such as the memorization of key topic vocabulary to be devalued in the eyes of your learners. One can argue that a balance has to be struck between instructionism and (social) constructivism here: too much of one and you start to lose the benefits of the other.

Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to rate well-designed WebQuests - i.e. those which genuinely foster collaboration and involve critical thinking and problem-solving - very highly indeed. Their affordances extend well beyond mere language acquisition and cross over into the acquisition of life skills. In short, they can help learners mature as people.

Furthermore, WebQuests allow for differentiation between (groups of) learners in mixed ability or multi-level settings: you can simply give different groups of learners different tasks to perform. They may therefore offer an ingenious (if not necessarily total) solution to one of the most difficult classroom management problems affecting teachers today.

The Consultants-e maintain a good repository of WebQuests at

You'll need the authors' permission to use the materials posted there, but they may instead offer a good example to follow if you wish to create your own.

Despite loving the main thrust of this idea, I would like to suggest there remain some caveats (and even Dr Dodge in the second of his two videos acknowledges traps exist for the unwary, if the right choices of topic, content, and task aren't made). 

Above all, it is crucial to understand your learners. For instance:
  • If you're teaching an ESP class, an authentic task to them means something that relates to their current or future work. To them, authenticity means specificity.
  • The input (information students get told to work with) should be of an appropriate length (e.g. 550 words maximum for a text at B2-level) and graded (i.e. simplified, or else have unfamiliar words explained) to the level of the learners. 
This may necessitate a teacher intervention - but could represent an opportunity for anyone wishing to follow in Sean Banville's footsteps!
Also, coming at WebQuests from a quality assurance perspective, a strong case can be made for the use of templates and standardized assessment criteria/rubric if you're in a management position and want to introduce the concept department-wide, just as you would with project-based learning.

However, when all is said and done I think WebQuests are a great idea, and it has never been easier for a teacher to put together a collection of them using free website creation (e.g. or blogging (Blogger; WordPress) tools. If you get to re-use them, you won't be sorry you put the effort in upfront. 

So that's what I think about WebQuests, anyhow. What about you?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

"Breaking News English" - a great resource for EFL teachers!

Earlier posts on this blog have focussed on the language learning affordances of ICT tools (often free) or modes of teaching utilizing ICT (e.g. e-learning, blended learning).

There's still much to be said about these things, of course, but today I'd like to take a different approach and examine the Internet in terms of its potential as a resource for language teachers and materials developers to share lesson ideas with each other as part of a supportive online community of practice.

This post will therefore examine a truly remarkable resource that is both a potential treasure trove for busy teachers in search of relatively authentic, yet graded material for reading/listening plus related activities for English language learners. And it's continuously being updated: the site in question is Sean Banville's "Breaking News English".

Relevance and Rationale
Many teachers will argue that learners need more than a textbook to engage them, or help them engage with the real world in English. There's certainly some truth to this. Textbooks have to serve a global market, meaning that content has to be selected extremely carefully in order to be globally acceptable. The cost to teachers and learners of publishers going out of their way to avoid giving offence to anyone may be content that is artificial, bordering on the anodyne at times, and insufficiently relevant to learners' lives.

Basing lessons on authentic sources (as this blogger has done many times) can be a much more exciting experience for learners, but can entail a lot of preparatory work upfront. Unfamiliar vocabulary - idioms especially - may need to be explained, and possibly the cultural background, too; texts may need to be shortened, which raises a number of issues; and in the meantime, lead-in and follow-on activities must also be worked out. The payoff for a class of learners may be significant if all of this done well, but the chances are that a teacher will only really be happy to "go the extra mile" in terms of materials development if the materials are going to be reused. Making such an effort may well be judged too much work for a single teacher delivering a single lesson to a single class.

There is therefore a need for graded "semi-authentic" materials that are ready for teachers to use, and Sean Banville fills this niche magnificently. His site features relevant and up-to-date lesson plans - a new one is published every two days, it seems - plus a library of earlier content that's still well worth exploring.  The text materials are graded well, it seems, according to seven ability levels. He also provides a number of excellent MP3 audio materials for listening practice (these can be listened to at five possible speeds, as well as graded for language). Whether text- or audio-based, a typical set of teaching materials features a wealth of possible activities, plus mini-lesson or homework suggestions from which teachers and learners can choose the most appropriate for their particular learning situation.

Propensity to foster language learning
There are many reasons to rate "Breaking News English" highly. They materials have clearly been put together by an experienced teacher/teacher trainer who understands an awful lot about how to grade input and make it comprehensible for learners. There are also several activities on offer within text-based lesson plans that really force learners to focus on form, and that's good if used in moderation.

Of course, being able to follow the latest "hot" news stories is certainly an attraction, but actually the existence of a substantial "library" of curated materials on the site is a huge benefit in terms of learner autonomy. Young and older adults can be asked to select materials for study that interest them, and if they take up the offer, that's a clear sign of their taking responsibility for their own learning.

"Breaking News English" is such a great resource, it seems a pity to criticize it. I feel I have only mild things to say!

Possibly, one might say that the ability "levels" featured on Breaking News English seem internally consistent, but don't appear to map directly to IELTS bands or the Common European Framework. Teachers (and self-directed learners) should, it seems, investigate texts themselves to gauge what level is right for them, but I don't myself think this should seriously inhibit uptake of the materials.

As for what type of learner would best be served by such materials, I think there's a clear case for using them with younger and older adults, but it might be hard to engage whole classes of teenagers this way. Their interests are just too likely to diverge.

One other possible limitation is that learners with more specialized interests would prefer to see more specialist content. Sean is doing a fantastic job with "general" news, but business news is perhaps a niche that needs more content. Maybe that's an area I should consider exploring…

Overall, though, I'd certainly rate "Breaking News English" highly. If you need graded, semi-authentic and up-to-date content for intelligent adult learners (and fast), look no further. It's a great resource.