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Ma h m u d a Ya s m i n Shaila and Be t h Trudell .

From Passive Learners to

Critical Thinkers: Preparing
EFL Students for University Success.

any English as a Foreign After reviewing its own pre-uni-
Language (EFL) students versity program, the Centre for Lan-
who seek admittance to a guages (CfL) at BRAC University
university where English is the medi- realized that the program needed a
um of instruction do not have suf- stronger focus on the academic chal-
ficient language skills to understand lenges of university study. In response,
lectures, comprehend textbooks, par- the centre identified and implement-
ticipate in class discussions, or generate ed methods to strengthen the pre-
satisfactory written work. Oftentimes, university program to better prepare
they have only experienced teacher- students for higher education. This
centered instruction, where they were article describes how a group of teach-
passive learners or mere memorizers of ers thoroughly revised the pre-univer-
rules. Critical thinking was not a part sity curriculum to create lessons and
of the curriculum, and they did not activities that now equip students
have the opportunity to develop meta- with the critical thinking ability and
English language skills required for
cognitive strategies to help them orga-
regular university classes.
nize, plan, and make decisions about
their learning. For these reasons, some Background of BRAC.
universities offer foundation or pre- The Bangladesh Rehabilitation
university programs to help students Assistance Committee (BRAC), one
improve their language skills; however, of the largest nongovernmental devel-
students need support in more than opment organizations in the world,
just language skills because in the uni- founded BRAC University in 2001
versity environment they are expected to provide students with the critical
to think, to reason, to communicate, skills necessary to meet the needs of
and to continue their learning outside this developing country (see www.
the classroom. Because

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BRAC University is an English medium skills. Although this was a large group, it was
university, its CfL offers English language felt that all the instructors should be involved
education for the entire student body. In in the decision making and should have input
Bangladesh, most universities have mixed on the design of the program.
ability classes, but BRAC University is unique The director of the department attended
because of a placement process that is based some of the meetings as an observer and
on the student’s proficiency level. English lan- received reports from the planning group.
guage classes are required, and applicants are Her most important role was recognizing the
evaluated on their oral and written skills and work both of the group and of individuals
placed in one of the five modules that focus while also providing positive feedback to the
on speaking, listening, reading, and writing. instructors who were trying out new ideas and
The CfL’s pre-university program also methods. She kept the university administra-
makes BRAC University unique. To be eli- tion informed about the program changes and
gible for pre-university classes, the students the decisions that the planning group made.
must pass all the other subjects on the admit- At the beginning, the planning group was
tance test. To determine their English lan- concerned about how the students would
guage placement, they complete a written adjust to new instructional methods. The
essay and are interviewed by an English teachers reviewed the curriculum with the
language teacher. Students must attend the students and carefully explained the changes
twelve-week pre-university program for five and benefits of the new pre-university pro-
days a week, three hours per day, and pass gram. The students then brainstormed about
the courses to gain admission to the univer- how being a university student would be dif-
sity. Because most pre-university students ferent from being a secondary school student.
are from Bangla medium schools, and thus Next, they described a successful university
did not have the same opportunities to learn student while the teacher listed their ideas on
English as students from other schools, a the board. The students had so many ideas
serious concern arose about whether the pre- that the teachers ran out of board space and
university program was meeting the students’ time. These descriptions were subsequently
needs. As a result, the director of CfL asked incorporated into program activities, such as
an English Language Fellow to review the when the writing instructor assigned a writ-
program’s course work and teaching practices. ing task based on an essay by Akers (1998)
The evaluation found that the program was that listed the steps for becoming a successful
grammar-based with little integration of the university student. In another activity that
skills of speaking, listening, writing, and read- capitalized on these descriptions, students
ing. Several suggestions were made on how to reflected on their future goals and then drew
revise key components of the curriculum and a picture of how they imagined themselves
fulfill the main objective of the pre-university later in their careers. They started slowly but
program, which was to help students be suc- were soon very involved and drawing in great
cessful in their university studies. detail. They enjoyed telling their classmates
about their pictures and how they were going
Planning for curricular change. to reach their goals. The instructor then
The suggested changes to the curriculum papered the walls of the department with
included integrating the speaking and listen- these pictures of judges, musicians, CEOs,
ing and the writing and reading language and teachers.
skills, teaching grammar in context, adding
lessons to spur critical thinking and authentic The needs assessment.
communication, and modifying assessment An immediate task for the planning group
practices. The director of the department was to design and administer a needs assess-
agreed with the suggestions, and a planning ment to gather information on how the stu-
group was formed. The group consisted of dents like to learn, how they use English out-
a teaching assistant and nine instructors, side the classroom, how they self-assess their
including the department leads for compo- speaking and writing skills, and the nature of
sition/reading skills and speaking/listening their future fields of study and career plans.

E n g l i s h TE a c h i n g F o r u m | Number 3 2010 3
This information is vital to create a learner- teachers assigned the more outgoing students
centered curriculum and to select methods to work with the quieter students. The teach-
and topics that are relevant to the students’ ing assistant also helped to coach the groups
interests and goals. For example, many of the and encouraged the quieter students to speak.
students wanted to go to graduate school in To enhance the quality of discourse in
an English-speaking country, so this need was group work, the teachers moved away from
linked to the lessons. Students were also asked routine activities and exercises that filled time
to write about their favorite and not-so-favor- but did not encourage the students to become
ite learning experiences, which gave the teach- independent learners. This entailed carefully
ers feedback about successful instructional choosing activities that can only be accom-
techniques as well as information about each plished with collaboration and serious conver-
student’s true writing ability in a non-testing sations, including comparing and contrasting
situation. Based on the original pre-university information, summarizing readings, debating
program evaluation, the planning meeting, and argument essays, composing biographies
and the student needs assessment, important and autobiographies, conducting interviews,
changes, as described below, were made to the and making presentations. These and other
curriculum. activities were represented in all classes to give
students plenty of time to engage with their
Creating an interactive classroom classmates and extend their independent use
environment. of English outside the classroom.
The need to make classes more interac-
Strategies for integrating the four skills.
tive was a major focus for all components of
the newly revised curriculum. The rationale Skill integration was a priority because the
for an emphasis on interaction was based on instructors wanted the pre-university classes
the idea expressed by Bruffee (1984) that for to resemble the actual university, where lan-
people to think well, they must first learn guage skills are not practiced separately but
to converse and reason in their community. instead all language skills are used in every
If students have a rich social context in the class, such as when students react both orally
form of discussion and collaboration, then and in writing to an article they have read.
this context will cue the cognitive action that The task of integrating the speaking/listen-
is necessary for writing and speaking (Bruffee ing and writing/reading classes was informed
1984). Therefore, group work was instituted by Rebecca Oxford’s image of a language class
to allow students to converse in their pre- as a tapestry woven of different strands, where
university community and to prepare them the primary skills of speaking, listening, writ-
for the extensive, high-level writing and pre- ing, and reading are “one of the most crucial
senting that takes place in the larger university of these strands” (Oxford 2001, 2). If these
community. four skills are separated from one another, a
It is important to note that when teachers language is taught; however, if they are inte-
design group work for young people, they grated with each other, authentic communica-
sometimes forget that not all students have tion is taught (Oxford 2001).
the skills or experience to perform in groups. The four strategies described below were
If group work was not part of their previous used to successfully implement four-skill
educational experience, students need strate- integration.
gies to help them collaborate with others. 1. Coordinate the curriculum for all
Therefore, the teachers decided to introduce classes.
students to simple group work strategies, such Previously, each teacher created her own
as showing that they are listening to the speak- lesson plans and decided what to teach
er by making eye contact and nodding, and by and when to teach it. In the redesigned
saying such things as “What do you think?” program, teachers focused on sequenc-
or “I like that idea.” These skills are simple ing the activities and levels of difficulty.
but important, as they allow all students an If the writing/reading instructors were
opportunity to effectively participate in group teaching the students how to write a
discussions. Using an additional strategy, the formal argument and support their

4 2010 Number 3 | E n g l i s h TE a c h i n g F o r u m
claims, the speaking/listening teachers 4. Institute peer review activities.
were also focusing on how to support Since peer review provides students
an argument orally, using the same pro- with valuable feedback and teaches
cess with small group debate work. All them to help each other, the students
teachers used similar themes that were were encouraged to openly discuss their
carefully selected to help the students difficulties and achievements with the
become successful university students. writing process. To ensure success, they
2. Provide oral and written feedback on were taught how to give oral and writ-
writing. ten feedback by using terms such as
Since writing in a second language is “did well” and “could improve,” and
typically a difficult task, extra effort how to receive critiques without being
was put into designing a feedback defensive. Since students were writing
system for the students. In addition multiple drafts, peer review was an
to the written feedback on papers, important opportunity to check early
which emphasized what the students drafts for the inclusion of structural dis-
did well and what they could improve, course elements such as a thesis state-
the teachers provided individual oral ment, a topic sentence, or support for
feedback, and tutorial sessions were a claim. The use of peer review helped
scheduled for those who needed extra the students reach the goal of becoming
help. All instructors were expected to independent learners, and it helped the
interact orally with students about the teacher to assess their English produc-
difficulties, successes, and new ideas tive skills. Bruffee’s (1984) ideas on
gained from a writing assignment. discourse, which apply to both spoken
3. Maintain guided journals. and written skills, offered new insights
Journal writing encourages students to into peer review and the importance of
use metacognitive learning strategies so letting conversation about the assign-
they can realize success, identify genu- ment and writing in general take pre-
ine problems, and increase motivation. cedence over mechanics such as spell-
Each week the students responded to ing and punctuation. His distinction
the following prompts that are adapted between normal discourse (traditional
from Nunan’s (1996, 36) techniques and accepted ideas) and abnormal dis-
for guided journal writing: course (discourse that challenges exist-
• This week I learned: ing ideas and initiates new ones) was
• This week I spoke English with essential to incorporating peer review
these people: into the curriculum and learning how
• My strong points are: to freely explore the writing process
• My difficulties are: through authentic communication
• I would like help with: (Bruffee 1984).
• My learning and practicing
Integrating critical thinking in the
plans for next week are:
The students were given small spiral
notebooks to write in, and this inex- The planning group agreed that critical
pensive gift was received with smiles thinking was paramount and should be inte-
and excitement. After students wrote in grated throughout the curriculum, a task that
them, the teachers responded to each was made easier by the concomitant emphasis
journal, with some positive and empa- on interaction and skill integration. The teach-
thetic comments. According to Peyton ers borrowed many ideas from Bean (1996),
and Reed (1990), this type of journal an excellent source for critical thinking activi-
writing encourages students to reflect ties. By the end of the program’s first semester,
on, discuss, and plan their language the book’s pages were smudged and worn.
learning. Journal writing also helps the The ability to think critically is especially
teacher because she can use the infor- important for students living in a country with
mation for lesson planning. political and socioeconomic problems, for it

E n g l i s h TE a c h i n g F o r u m | Number 3 2010 5
will help them to look at issues from different on Thailand’s most important holiday, the
viewpoints and become independent thinkers students, who had been working on their
and responsible citizens. An important tech- interview skills, asked the Thai teacher ques-
nique to get students to look at both sides of tions. They had a wonderful time and cheered
an issue is based on Elbow’s (1986) believing for each other’s questions and for the visitor’s
and doubting game. In this activity, students answers. It was a fun activity that also exposed
work in pairs and take turns supporting and the students to a different culture and religion.
arguing against the same issue. As they deter-
mine what is wrong with an argument they Teaching grammar in context.
must also focus on the merits of the opposite Although some classes, such as the
position. This activity encourages students to enhancement class, were added, the stand-
put themselves in another’s shoes and to have alone grammar class was eliminated. Grammar
empathy with another’s opinion. At the end instruction was integrated into all the classes
of the activity each student attempts to guess and taught in the context of activities. The
his or her partner’s true belief, and students students were encouraged to recognize gram-
try their best to fool their partners. This cul- mar points in the various language exercises
minated in whoops of celebration whenever a and activities they completed and to create the
student succeeded in hiding the truth. rules rather than memorizing them. Instead of
Another popular critical thinking exer- being taught as a theoretical system, grammar
cise was connected with the viewing of the was taught as a communication tool. What
documentary Bostrobalikara: Garment Girls better way to review past tense than to read a
of Bangladesh (Mokammel 2007). The film biography, which is written in that tense, and
was shown in segments, with discussion fol- then interview a family member and write and
lowing each part. After viewing the entire tell that person’s history in the past tense? If
documentary, students divided into groups the students were learning to write a persua-
representing textile manufacturers, govern- sive essay, they would learn how to recognize
ment regulators, foreign purchasers, members and use conditional if clauses, cause and effect
of an international ethical trade committee, because clauses, and modal auxiliaries in the
and the garment workers themselves. Each context of expressing attitudes. This type of
group role-played and applied their particular in-context grammar instruction also encour-
stakeholder’s point of view while working ages students to continue their grammar edu-
together to solve the problems demonstrated cation outside the classroom, when reading
in the documentary. the newspaper or their favorite novel.
Like grammar, the teaching of discourse
The enhancement class: Introducing new conventions like paragraph unity, transitions,
experiences and ideas. and cohesion, as well as mechanics like spell-
A special enhancement class was added ing and punctuation, was integrated into the
to the curriculum to expose the students to lessons at logical places and not taught direct-
issues they had not encountered before and ly as a stand-alone activity. Students noticed
to challenge them to react to difficult and how punctuation was used and in groups dis-
controversial topics. The teachers were always cussed the rules as they came up. For example,
searching for special types of activities or the appropriate use of quotation marks was
speakers for this class. In the needs assess- integrated into the unit on biographies, and
ment, for example, many students mentioned when students were composing essays and
a concern about drug use; therefore, the CfL oral reports, it was a natural time for them
director invited the leader of a drug rehabilita- to emphasize the importance of transitional
tion center and two recovering addicts to meet phrases. Over time students became proficient
with the students. The teachers had never seen in set rules that they could apply to a variety
such a large number of students pay such rapt of writing assignments.
attention and ask so many questions.
A university teacher from Thailand was Alternative methods of assessment.
also a guest speaker in the enhancement Another substantive change to the curricu-
class. After the writing teacher showed a film lum originated because of the strong desire to

6 2010 Number 3 | E n g l i s h TE a c h i n g F o r u m
change the pre-university testing paradigm. which at first caused concern; however, because
The instructors rejected anxiety-producing of their diverse interests, both young men
discrete point testing in favor of evaluation approached the interview from a different per-
that resulted in positive washback, which refers spective, and it was as if they had interviewed
to the fact that assessment can be fun, reward- two different people. Finally, the students pre-
ing, non-stressful, and supportive of learning. sented the results of their interview to the class,
The teachers wanted assessment to encourage and they were outstanding. Even the very casu-
students to become autonomous and thinking al students dressed up for the presentations,
young adults, and they embraced practices and one young man related that his mother
such as formative assessment, which measures and grandmother laughed when they saw him
progress periodically throughout the course. because he so seldom wore dress clothes.
For example, when teaching writing as a pro-
Course curriculum evaluation.
cess of brainstorming, planning, drafting, and
revising, the instructors felt that each of those The pre-university program also conduct-
elements should be assessed with the students’ ed formative assessment of the new curricu-
participation, as opposed to administering a lum so that any changes could be made while
traditional timed essay test as a midterm or instruction was in progress. The students were
final exam. asked to evaluate their classes each month
Portfolio assessment was another useful using “did well” and “could improve” state-
method for evaluation that required students ments, and the teachers used these evaluations
to become actively involved by filing their to make changes and improve future les-
work products in binders. This created inter- sons. As the semester progressed, the students
est and motivation because the students were became more critical and gave the teachers
in charge of gathering the results of their hard some excellent feedback.
work and discussing it with the teacher. Each
Results of new curriculum: Student
student wrote a reflective introduction to the
portfolio to assess how his or her written work
The students readily adapted to the critical
had improved and changed over the semester.
thinking, enhancement, and writing classes.
The students’ reflection, self-appraisal, and
As is typical with the speaking skill, they were
interaction with the teacher made them par-
initially hesitant, but when they had the oppor-
ticipants in the assessment process.
tunity to express their opinions on relevant
For mid-term and final exams students
academic and social issues, they soon forgot
were evaluated by group work and presenta-
about their shyness. The large amount of posi-
tions to the class, some of the same skills that
tive feedback from the students had a lot to do
would be essential for attending the univer-
with the effort, enthusiasm, and attitudes of the
sity. Although performance testing like this
teachers. According to Singer (1986), a climate
can be stressful, it becomes less so when it of warmth and empathy “may be the single
revolves around familiar tasks. Since there had most important factor in determining how
been so much emphasis on group work, for well your students learn” (32). “A large body
the mid-term the students were divided into of research shows that if a teacher is warm, car-
groups of five to discuss a local, national, or ing, and enthusiastic, the students learn more”
international issue, and they were evaluated (Singer 1986, 33). The teachers were con-
on their oral and group work skills. stantly praising and reinforcing the students,
For the final speaking exam, the students especially about the way they were meeting
were asked to use their new interviewing skills challenges and adjusting to the university cur-
to question a person whom they admired but riculum. This positive reinforcement may have
who was not part of their family. The choices been the biggest reason that students so readily
of interviewees were excellent: those hoping accepted this new way of learning.
to major in business interviewed bankers and
presidents of companies, and five students Results of new curriculum: Teacher
interviewed different freedom fighters from perspective.
the 1971 War of Liberation. A set of twins Teachers felt that the curricular changes to
both interviewed the same television producer, the pre-university program solved numerous

E n g l i s h TE a c h i n g F o r u m | Number 3 2010 7
problems. Group work was more success- basic components can be duplicated in a pre-
ful, there was more interaction and critical university program, and the core principles
thinking, and the students’ language skills apply to other language programs as well.
improved. From the teachers’ perspective, the A main reason for the success of the cur-
hardest adjustment was teaching grammar in riculum revision is attributable to advanced
context. It is so much easier to present rules planning and collaboration. The decision to
and to give the students pages of exercises. include all the instructors in the planning
Nevertheless, the instructors became adept group was a wise one. They were dedicated
at selecting materials that contained perti- to the program’s success, and they willingly
nent examples of the grammar that students attended the weekly meetings to discuss the
needed to see and hear. curriculum, the student feedback, and what
Overall, the teachers were amazed at the was going well and what should be improved.
students’ progress, and this inspired them to In addition, the instructors would gather
seek out challenging, interesting, and authen- informally on an almost daily basis to discuss
tic materials. They were especially impressed new material that had been discovered. As
with how the students were able to look at part of the decision making group, all the
issues from different points of view and to pre-university instructors felt responsible for
offer creative answers to problems. Even the the success of the program. Since the teaching
shyest students started to get up in front of the assistant was also part of the group, she was
class and provide evidence to support a posi- able to keep the changing materials and the
tion and then provide evidence to support the lesson plans up to date. It is important that
very opposite point. The teachers often came one person in the planning group have this
back to the department office saying, “You role, so that an organized record is preserved.
won’t believe this.” To develop a program that will help stu-
After a group of pre-university students dents reach their goal of becoming success-
ful university students, the following factors
entered the regular university, it became
should also be considered:
apparent that an unidentified problem had
been solved by the new curriculum: the stu- • The students should be consulted on
dents became extremely confident. Previously, their needs through a needs assessment
it had been easy for regular university instruc- and ongoing evaluations.
tors to distinguish between students who • The teachers need to work as a team,
came from English medium schools and those teaching the same topics and interact-
who came from Bangla medium schools. The ing with the students in a positive way.
former group did the talking, while the latter • The teachers need to make an extra
group sat silently, and there was a social divi- effort to find or create materials that
sion between them. But after students who meet the students’ needs and interests.
had attended the newly revised pre-university • The important element of critical
program were admitted to the university, thinking should be integrated into
instructors there reported that the usually every class and most activities. This
“silent” students from Bangla medium schools skill will help students in their educa-
were involved and active in class and were tion and as parents, spouses, employees,
providing feedback on the class curriculum. In and citizens.
their university English language classes, they When these factors are included in cur-
were more advanced than some of the other riculum development for a pre-university
students. The problem that CfL faces is how program, the result will be enthusiastic, con-
to keep these students adequately challenged fident, and successful university students.
in the regular university English modules. Rather than looking at the program as a bar-
rier to university life, the students will see it as
a gateway to their university career.
BRAC University’s experience with cur-
ricular reform should be heartening to all References.
teachers who have students who want to Akers, S. 1998. Power learning. In English skills with
attend an English medium university, either readings, 4th ed., J. Langan, 560–70. New York:
in their own country or abroad. The program’s McGraw-Hill.

8 2010 Number 3 | E n g l i s h TE a c h i n g F o r u m
Bean, J. C. 1996. Engaging ideas: The professor’s Singer, E. 1986. Competency-based adult education
guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and classroom management guide for adult basic
active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: education curriculum: Level II, 5–8. Cocoa, FL:
Jossey-Bass. Brevard Community College.
Bruffee, K. A. 1984. Collaborative learning and the
“conversation of mankind.” College English 46
(7): 635–52.
Elbow, P. 1986. Embracing contraries: Explorations MahMuda YasMin shaila is a senior
in learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford Uni- instructor at the Centre for Languages at
versity Press. BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Mokammel, T. 2007. Bostrobalikara: Garment She teaches the pre-university writing
Girls of Bangladesh. DVD. Directed by Tan- classes. She received her MA in English
vir Mokammel. Dhaka, Bangladesh: Kino-Eye
Literature from the University of Dhaka and
Nunan, D. 1996. Learner strategy training in the holds an MA in ELT from the Institute of
classroom: An action research study. TESOL Modern Languages, Dhaka University.
Journal 6 (1): 35–41.
Oxford, R. 2001. Integrated skills in the ESL/EFL Beth trudell was an English Language
classroom. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearing- Fellow in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she
house for Languages and Linguistics. ERIC worked with BRAC University’s Centre for
Digest ED456670.
Languages and the BRAC NGO from 2006
w w w . e r i c . e d . g o v / E R I C We b P o r t a l /
recordDetail?accno=ED456670. to 2008. She holds an MA in English for
Peyton, J. K., and L. Reed. 1990. Dialogue journal TESOL from California State University,
writing with nonnative English speakers: A hand- East Bay. Most recently she was the Senior
book for teachers. Alexandria, VA: TESOL. English Language Fellow in Pakistan.

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