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Teaching English in Colombia – Building Critical Thinking Skills

Critical Thinking Skills in the ESL Classroom

Critical Thinking Skills (CTS) allow us to analyze the information presented in front of us. It helps us make informed and “better” decisions. As you are reading this, the concept of CTS probably brings back memories of high school. I vaguely remember my high school teachers talking about the importance of justifying my conclusions when writing an argumentative essay. I remember analyzing newspaper articles (probably English class), the writer, the message being transmitted, and the big question – WHY. Reflecting back, this is one of the most important skills I learned in high school that is essential in adulthood. As adults, we are constantly making decisions that affect us and the people around us. In the age of social media, we are constantly coming across new or opposing information. Critical thinking goes beyond our classroom and equips us to make the best decisions for ourselves.

The Importance of CTS in an ESL Classroom

In our ESL classrooms, we are constantly presenting students a chance to look at the world through a new lens. In using authentic material, we show students the application of the language in the English-speaking world. We ask them to participate in debates and discussions related to real-life situations. We ask our students to analyze the who, what, where, when, why, and how – without showing them its relevance. However, those of us who have grown up and studied in English-speaking countries sometimes take critical thinking for granted. Not all English classrooms are taught to analyze and look at the hidden meaning behind content. As a matter of fact, ESL classrooms have a different goal – to be able to communicate using the language. This goal makes sense in English-speaking countries since it fulfills the need of its audience. However, when teaching English in a non-English speaking country, the goal needs to be specific. An ESL classroom in a non-English speaking country needs the added CTS training. We are not only teaching our students a new language but also how to manage the new language and nuances.

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Mindset Switch


Here is a thought to reflect on – we think differently in other languages. If you speak more than one language you will realize – you have different personalities in each language. Check out the following TED talk for more details: How Language Shapes the Way We Think. When teaching English in Colombia you will find that Spanish speakers follow a different thought process than English speakers. It comes down to the way the language is formulated and processed. In addition, a Spanish speaker often struggles with keeping information brief and precise. On the other hand, English speakers normally struggle with making concepts sound beautiful and poetic. Why is this relevant? In an ESL classroom, a teacher would look for brief answers to questions. To a Spanish-speaking student, a brief answer does not give you the entire picture or context and it’s incomplete. Showing authentic English language material might also seem incomplete or rude. Along with understanding the content we also need to transmit the thought process or perspective of the English language. What better way to display the thought process of English than through CTS.

Embarrassed or Embarazada?

Building critical thinking skills through ESL classes can open up a world of possibilities for students. Imagine giving students a reading text with false friends and they figure out the context on their own! Many English speakers on their first trip to a Spanish-speaking country quickly realize the meaning of the word “embarazada”. Although it sounds a lot like embarrassed, it means “to be pregnant”. Or on a hot summer day, it’s common to say, “I’m hot” insinuating “feeling hot”. Yet if you were to translate that literally into Spanish…it means to feel turned on. These differences in terminology could be a great and fun way to get students to learn the new language. This is also a great way to get students thinking in a more independent manner since they already know Spanish. That means they already have some pieces of the puzzle. Holding those pieces can be so important when learning a new language and promotes independent thinking.

Read: Cultural Considerations for Teaching English in Colombia

Creating Independent Learners


One of the biggest challenges in my ESL classrooms as a teacher was the level of dependency from students. Students were fixated on doing everything in the correct manner all the time. Even though that’s not wrong, language is not supposed to be about being right 100% of the time. Students felt afraid of getting a low grade and as a result, were dependent on the instructor in all situations. Having a small activity involving students having to figure things out on their own – went a long way. It gave them the confidence to work out bigger “problems” on their own or with their peers. Don’t get me wrong, my students still asked me for clarifications or examples before proceeding with an activity. What changed was that they looked for answers together and knew I was there for them as a last resort.

Re-inventing the Classroom Dynamic

In order to be effective language teachers, it is important to build a relationship of trust with your students. Gone are the days of the teacher in front of the classroom and students taking down notes. In addition, this method just doesn’t work when it comes to language learning. How can we expect our students to be comfortable enough to make mistakes? Instead, if we learn and look for answers together, we are more likely to create a trusting environment. It also shows students that not knowing something is okay, instead there are ways to find answers. Depending on where you teach English in Colombia, your students might have access to cell phones. Why not use it to your advantage and ask them to use their cellphones to look up things in English? Show them how you look for the information you don’t know. Pretend you don’t know the answer and look it up together. After all, being a good teacher does involve good acting skills from time to time.

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