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A P B LT approach to teaching ESL speaking, writing, and thinking skills

Gholamhossein Shahini and A. Mehdi Riazi

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This paper introduces Philosophy-based Language Teaching (PBLT) as a new approach to developing productive language and thinking skills in students. The approach involves posing philosophical questions and engaging students in dialogues within a community of enquiry context. To substantiate the approach, the paper reports a study in which 34 university students from one of the major universities in Iran were randomly assigned to two groups: one experimental (PB LT/led by philosophical questions) and the other control (conventional/ directed by ordinary or non-philosophical questions). Results revealed that there was a signicant difference between the two groups with students in the experimental group outperforming those in the control group on both speaking and writing tasks. The ndings of the study have implications for all stakeholders in ELT locally and internationally.


Reections on our language teaching experience over the years have provided us with the interesting and even surprising observation that whenever a philosophical question was encountered or raised in our English language classes, students would automatically become ready and motivated to actively participate in class discussions. Our observation also showed that in such discussions and negotiations of meaning, students word range and the length of their talk increased and they would even stay behind after the class to continue the discussion and get their points across. This interesting observation was supported by a number of studies (Haynes 2002; van der Leeuw 2004); we came across on the effect of philosophical questions and dialogues on students and childrens L1 ability. The issue was further consolidated by other studies (for example Ofsted 1997) that indicated that regular practice of philosophical enquiry led to signicant gains in students overall use of their native language and that students who had engaged in philosophy-based discussion made more gains in reading than those who had not (Murris 1992). Given the potentialities of philosophical discussion and its power to enhance students communication skills and thinking abilities and the evidence of gains in students L1 development, we were attracted by the idea of investigating the effect of introducing this approach into the eld of ESL/E F L learning and teaching. The core of the approach is to engage students in discussions that revolve around philosophical questions. The point, however, should be made clear that by philosophy we do not mean complex, abstract, and
E LT Journal Volume 65/2 April 2011; doi:10.1093/elt/ccq045


The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved. Advance Access publication September 16, 2010

specialized philosophical discussions one might expect in Philosophy as a discipline, rather we mean to encourage students to plunge deeper into a question or set of questions by discussing their understanding of the concepts and reasoning for such an understanding. In Philosophy-based Language Teaching (PBLT), as in recent approaches to language teaching such as Communicative Language Teaching, Cooperative Language Learning, Task-based Language Teaching, etc., students use language to learn it. Language in PBLT, as in the above approaches, is viewed holistically. In PB LT, where the classroom is considered as a social community, students work together to complete a philosophical task. Looked at from this perspective, PBLT is in line with Vygotskys (1978) view that holds learning as a social and constructivist activity and language as a tool for thinking. It is suggested by Vygotsky that social interaction is of major importance in developing language capacity. He believes that thought and language are initially separate but become interdependent during acts of communication since meaning is created through interaction. According to Vygotsky, it is language that makes abstract thinking possible. From this perspective, PBLT allows its users to use language to imagine, manipulate, create new ideas, and share those ideas with others. Language in PB LT is thus a mental tool that each member of the social community (classroom) uses to think and it is through language and communication that abstract thinking becomes possible.

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The signicance of

The signicance of this approach to L2 instruction is twofold:

1 The enhancement of thinking ability through L2 instruction. 2 The improvement of L2 prociency, especially productive skills, through

philosophical discussion. Strictly following the paradigm of Lipman, Sharp, and Oscanyan (1980), the term Philosophy with a capital P is not considered here. According to them, philosophy does not imply complex philosophical debates among great philosophers nor is the aim to teach the subject philosophy to sophisticated bookish minds in university lecture halls. Philosophy in PBLT is meant to encourage ordinary students to think critically and creatively about the world around them, to delve deeper into subjects, and not blindly accept or memorize whatever is fed into their minds. Philosophy, in this sense, as Cam (1995) indicates, is the richest source and tool used for the cultivation of higher thinking and enquiry into the meaning of concepts that are central to our lives. Lipman (2003) holds that this view of philosophy taps ones natural curiosity and sense of wonder and puzzlement. Philosophy as such assists us in practising the consideration of questions most of us have wondered about from time to time; questions which are familiar and meaningful to most people all over the world. According to Gregory (2008), we always ask ourselves philosophical questions like What is reality/beauty/democracy/justice /art/death/love/God/language/truth/mind? What is the right thing to do? Does everything have a cause? What makes something beautiful? and so on. Viewing philosophy from this perspective, people of any age, even children (cf. Gregory 2008), can be taught to philosophize to become social thinkers in future. A typical example in this respect is

A P BLT approach to teaching ESL speaking


a study done by Daniel, Lafortune, Pallascio, and Schleifer (1999) who posed philosophical questions on mathematics to elementary school children aged 913. Questions such as Does zero signify nothing? Was mathematics invented or discovered? and the like. The language production and reasoning of these children is surprising. More examples of philosophical dialogues between Lipman and children can also be found in Lipman (1993).

A framework for P B LT Lipmans (2003) framework informs PBLT for L2 teaching.

The framework includes
1 The presentation of a stimulus (for example a reading or a multimedia

text) to create an open-ended issue, concept, or situation.

2 Structured students cooperation to formulate specic questions arising
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from the issue or concept.

3 The selection of a single question for the whole group to discuss and

explore through dialogue aided by the facilitator. The use of philosophy provides two effective tools to promote good thinking in the classroom:
1 community of enquiry 2 philosophical dialogue.

In the community of enquiry (see, for example, Kennedy 2004; van der Leeuw 2004), students work together to generate and then answer their own questions about the philosophical issues contained in purposeful written materials or a wide range of other resources. The process of philosophical exploration in this environment encourages students to take increased responsibility for their own learning process and to develop as independent and self-correcting learners. Students develop intellectual courage to put forward their own views in a group. Lipman (op.cit.) believes that in philosophical community of enquiry, the following skills will be developed: cognitive skills, making distinctions, seeing connections, identifying fallacies, nding analogies/disanalogies, seeing broader perspectives, formulating and testing criteria, sticking to the point, open mindedness, being willing to offer and accept criticism, valuing reasonableness, increasing tolerance against opposing ideas, drawing inferences, etc. (pp. 16771) Philosophical questions, according to Gregory (2008: 23), do not call for correct answers: they refer to problems that cannot be solved by calculation, consulting books, or by referring to ones own memories. To answer such questions, one has to consider her or his own depth of thoughts. In contrast to routine questions which call upon students to show their knowledge of established facts, philosophical questions require the student to think for her/himself and they demand further investigations that invite reection (Cam 1995). The subject matters of philosophy for negotiation are those common, central, and contestable concepts that underpin both general experience of human life and all academic disciplines. Appendix 1 provides some examples of philosophical questions in both areas.


Gholamhossein Shahini and A. Mehdi Riazi

Procedures for running a PBLT classroom

A typical PBLT classroom session begins with students reading a source text not practised before. After reading, the students are invited individually or in collaboration with their peers to come up with one or two philosophical questions that the text has made them think or wonder about. These questions, which are primarily constructed based on the concepts used in the text, set the agenda for discussion. Each student then reads her/his question to the whole class and the most interesting ones are selected by the students themselves to be discussed. Students are allowed to code switch when necessary in order not to lose their train of thoughts while discussing the issues. The role of the instructor is mainly to facilitate student discussions by monitoring and helping students to keep on track. During oral discussion, the instructor takes some personal notes, writes down the main points raised and the important words used, and translates the L1 words used by students into L2. At the end of the discussion and while students have a break, the instructor divides the board into two halves and outlines the main points discussed in one column and puts the important words and those translated into L2 in another. Then students are asked to write individually an essay on the main points using the materials on the board if needed. These are checked by the instructor out of class for each session and returned to the students with feedback before the next class hour. Each class session lasts for two hours with the following tentative time allocationreading the text and producing questions: 15 minutes, oral discussion: 1 hour 15 minutes, and writing: 30 minutes. Considering the potentialities of philosophical discussions in enhancing communication skills and nding some evidence from the literature for this, we hypothesized that exposing ESL/EFL students to PB LT would enhance their speaking and writing as well as their thinking skills. This hypothesis motivated us to set up the following study to investigate the value of a PB LT approach to ESL/E F L teaching.

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The study Participants and materials

To investigate our hypothesis, we set up an experiment to see if PB LT would produce better results than conventional approaches to ESL/E F L teaching and learning currently in practice in contexts like Iran. To select participants, an invitation letter was posted on the bulletin boards of the three colleges of Engineering, Sciences, and Humanities at a major university in Iran. English major students were excluded from the invitation given their distinct level of English prociency as compared to other students. Initially, 82 students from the three disciplines with different majors replied to the invitation letter and participated in an interview session with three experienced raters who assessed them. Of these, 53 students within the age range of 1925 (who turned out to have the same intermediate prociency level) were chosen, with only 34 students eventually able to participate in the study. The rest withdrew for different reasons, including a clash with their regular classes. Using random assignment, the students were placed into the experimental (N 17: 10 female and 7 male) and control (N 17: 9 female and 8 male) groups. The basic instructional materials were 17 texts (each for one session) of differing length and topic with the criterion of having the potentiality of being subjected to deep and philosophical discussion. The average readability index of the texts was 75.1 indicating rather simple texts.
A P BLT approach to teaching ESL speaking 173

For a sample text, along with two types of questions (philosophical and non-philosophical) see Appendix 2.

Data collection procedures

The classes were run four days a week (two days for experimental and two days for control) over one semester (17 sessions). Both classes were taught by the same teacher. Before the study, the instructor of the two groups took part in some philosophical thinking training sessions to become familiar with the procedures of running a philosophical community and how to provoke students into raising philosophical questions. The participants in each group received pre- and post-tests in both speaking and writing. The speaking performance of the participants in both groups in preand post-test was audio recorded with their consent for subsequent rating. Their pre- and post-writing essays were also collected. Their speaking was rated using the Speaking scale: analytic descriptors of spoken language from the Common European Framework (Council of Europe 2001), and their writing was rated using the ESL composition prole scale by Jacobs, Zinkgraf, Wormuth, Hartel, and Hughey (1981). Intra- and inter-rater reliability of speaking and writing ratings were checked and the indexes were 0.92 and 0.90 for speaking and 0.95 and 0.92 for writing, respectively. With the high reliability indexes, all the speaking and writing tasks were then rated by the lead rater. To compare the speaking and writing performance of the participants in the experimental and control groups, gain scores were computed using their pre- and post-tests. Table 1 presents the results of the gain scores for speaking and writing of students in both groups.
Group PrePostPrePostGain Gain writing writing speaking speaking score score writing speaking

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Results and discussion

Control Mean 67.58 N 17 Standard deviation 7.16 Experimental Mean 66.82 N 17 Standard deviation 7.61 table 1 Descriptive statistics for pre- and post-tests of writing and speaking and the gain scores Total Mean 67.20 N 34 Standard deviation 7.29 79.44 34 8.01 44.26 34 7.69 61.20 34 10.04 12.23 34 3.37 16.94 34 6.18 82.11 17 7.73 43.94 17 7.88 66.11 17 10.31 15.29 17 1.49 22.17 17 4.034 76.76 17 7.57 44.58 17 7.73 56.29 17 7.09 9.17 17 1.18 11.70 17 2.08

As can be seen in Table 1, the gain scores of both groups in writing (control 9.17, experimental 15.29) and speaking (control 11.70, experimental 22.17) show that students in the experimental group had a much higher gain score in both skills. To nd out if this difference was signicant, multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used. MANOVA is the same as analysis of variance except that it is possible to have two dependent
174 Gholamhossein Shahini and A. Mehdi Riazi

variables in the analysis (see Ary, Jacobs, and Razavieh 2002 for further explanation). Table 2 presents the results of the MANOVA test.
Source df Mean Dependent Type III sum of squares square variable F Sig. 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000

table 2 Results of the M A N O VA tests of between-subjects effects

Corrected model Gainspeak 931.882a Gainwriting 318.118b Intercept Gainspeak 9758.118 Gainwriting 5089.882 Group Gainspeak 931.882 Gainwriting 318.118 Error Gainspeak 330.000 Gainwriting 58.000 Total Gainspeak 11020.000 Gainwriting 5466.000 Corrected total Gainspeak 1261.882 Gainwriting 376.118
a b

1 931.882 90.364 1 318.118 175.513 1 9758.118 946.242 1 5089.882 2.808E3 1 931.882 90.364 1 318.118 175.513 32 10.313 32 1.813 34 34 33 33

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R squared 0.738 (adjusted R squared 0.730). R squared 0.846 (adjusted R squared 0.841).

As Table 2 indicates, there was a signicant difference between the two groups in terms of students performance on speaking and writing skills. While the signicant results between the two groups are probably due to PBLT, we tend to be cautious not to attribute this totally to PBLT given the complexity of human participants and the host of other variables at play in such experimental situations. It was, however, observed that students in the experimental group as compared to those in the control group were much more motivated to actively participate in discussions. This might be for the following reasons:
1 Due to the challenging nature of philosophical questions, there were very

heated debates in so far as the students were eager to stay longer in classes and continue the discussions within and even outside the class. 2 The students in the experimental group sent many follow-up emails to the course instructor discussing the points raised in the previous sessions, while students in the control group sent few emails to follow-up issues. When students in the experimental group were asked what they thought encouraged their active participation, they referred to the unique nature and characteristics of the questions and discussions. In particular, they highlighted the following points:
1 The questions were thought-provoking, discouraging supercial

discussion, promoting a reective and critical stance towards issues, and demanding precise language to dene and explain concepts. 2 The discussions helped to enhance tolerance among students rather than imposing ideas. 3 In such critical dialogues, the mind was so engaged in thinking and providing reasoning that students would forget they were communicating in English and this helped them to use the language productively although with some code switching.

A P BLT approach to teaching ESL speaking


4 The discussions were so interesting that students were not aware of the

passing of time. Another interesting observation was that all students were interested in taking part in the discussions contrary to the situation in the control group in which students preferred to be silent unless asked to respond. This might be due to the fact that there is no one correct answer to philosophical questions and thus, every student can relate her/himself to the questions and discussions.

Some advice for teachers

ES L/E F L teachers can become familiar with how to use PBLT in their

classes by reading recommended texts and, if needed, through short training sessions. Some resources are listed below to help in this regard. To choose a suitable text, teachers can just ask themselves whether the text raises any question that cannot simply be answered by observation, calculation, or by reference to established facts. If the text explores an issue or prompts a question of this kind, then that question or issue is almost certain to be philosophical. Moreover, the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children has published curriculum materials and manuals for teachers with prepared exercises and discussion plans (for more information refer to Gregory 2008: 1116). With some adaptation, this recommended curriculum could be an ideal resource for the eld of ELT. Given that a philosophy-based conversation class is not a reading class and the texts are just a means to motivate students to talk, simple texts must be chosen so that students will not face problems comprehending the text. Therefore, even a story like the one in Appendix 2 can be used with adults for discussion from their own perspectives. In addition to texts, other materials and topics, lms, pictures, recordings, and so on can be used as a springboard for philosophical discussions. Reading philosophical questions and dialogues in miscellaneous disciplines presented in Lipman et al. (1980), Cam (1995), Haynes (2002), Gregory (2008), and visiting sites like seems to be an efcient way for teachers to learn how to think about and produce philosophical questions. The role of the teacher in PBLT is that of a facilitator and conductor. She/he assists students to clarify and formulate their ideas and to set up appropriate dialogues and interaction. The facilitator plays Socrates role, asking questions to help students deepen their perceptions, nd justication for their opinions, and contribute to the discussion. The PBLT facilitator sees her/himself as a co-inquirer with the students (Gregory 2008). As a facilitator, teachers both guide students and perform as a role model by asking open-ended questions, presenting alternative views, seeking clarication, questioning reasons, and by demonstrating self-correcting behaviours. For example, the teacher can handle the class by asking the following questions: For clarity: Do you mean that . . . ? By . . . do you mean . . . or . . . or maybe something else? When you say . . . , are you supposing/assuming that . . .?

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Gholamhossein Shahini and A. Mehdi Riazi

For exploring disagreement: Why do you think you are right? What makes you think she is wrong? Can you justify your answer? Can you think of a better reason? For considering alternatives: Does anyone have a different idea? How else could we look at this? For appealing to criteria: According to what criteria do you say that? For making appropriate distinctions: Is this case basically the same as that?
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For jumping to a conclusion: Can we be certain that just because of so-and-so, it must be the case that such-and-such? It is through this kind of modelling that students eventually internalize the procedures of enquiry. The best and easiest way to train students how to ask philosophical questions is to raise some philosophical questions in the rst session or by drawing students attention to the concepts behind the words used in the text. One important nal point to be mentioned is the exibility of PBLT in the sense that it can be used and inserted into lesson plans as and when it is needed. As such, the class can have its routine syllabus but when the teacher comes across an interesting term or concept and notices students enthusiasm, he/she can lead students to philosophical discussion. As soon as the teacher learns that the discussions are going beyond students tolerance and capacity, she/he can shift to other themes and activities. If PBLT nds its proper place in language teaching, then different aspects of the approach will certainly need to be dealt within teacher training programmes.


This paper has attempted to present PBLT as a new approach to ESL/E F L teaching and learning. PBLT is focused on three objectives, rst of all to indirectly foster students communication skills of speaking and writing, secondly to make students reconsider their perceptions of different issues through raising logical reasons for their opinions, deconstructing their assumed beliefs, prejudice, and concepts, and nally not to accept things blindly by just imitation and memorization. This last aspect is especially important in E F L contexts like Iran where the education system is reductionist, taking away such skills and abilities from students and pushing them towards rote learning and memorization. The ndings of our study specically show that PBLT can play a signicant role in fostering students L2 productive skills through creating a much-needed environment for discussion and negotiation. Though we did not use specic measures for students attitudes and motivation towards PBLT and we did not measure their development in thinking and reasoning skills, our

A P BLT approach to teaching ESL speaking


observations of students participation, feedback, and reections attested such potentialities. Final revised version received June 2010
References Ary D., L. C. Jacobs, and A. Razavieh. 2002. Introduction to Research in Education. (Sixth edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning. Cam, P. 1995. Thinking Together: Philosophical Inquiry for the Classroom. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger/P ETA. Council of Europe. 2001. Common European Framework of Reference for Language: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Daniel, M. F., L. Lafortune, R. Pallascio, and M. Schleifer. 1999. Philosophical reection and cooperative practices in an elementary school mathematics classroom. Canadian Journal of Education 24/4: 42640. Gregory, M. 2008. Philosophy for Children: A Practitioner Handbook. Montclair, NJ: Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children. Haynes, J. 2002. Children as Philosophers: Learning through Inquiry and Dialogue in the Primary Classroom. London: Routledge. Jacobs, H. L., S. A. Zinkgraf, D. R. Wormuth, V. F. Hartel, and J. B. Hughey. 1981. Testing E SL Composition: A Practical Approach. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Kennedy, D. 2004. The role of a facilitator in a community of philosophical inquiry. Metaphilosophy 35/5: 74765. Lipman, M. 1993. Thinking Children and Education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. Lipman, M. 2003. Thinking in Education. (Second edition). New York: Cambridge University Press. Lipman, M., A. M. Sharp, and F. Oscanyan. 1980. Philosophy in the Classroom. (Second edition). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Murris, K. 1992. Teaching Philosophy with Picture Books. London: Infonet Publications. Ofsted. 1997. Wapping First School OFSTED Inspection Report (1997). Available at http://www. wapping (accessed on 20 February 2010). Van der Leeuw, K. 2004. Philosophical dialogue and the search for truth. Thinking 17/3: 1723. Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. The authors Mehdi Riazi is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University, Australia. His areas of interest include reading and writing in English as a second language, language testing and evaluation, language teaching methodology, research methods, and text analysis. Email: Gholamhossein Shahini is a PhD candidate in the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics at Shiraz University, Iran. He has been teaching English courses for some years. His areas of interest include language and critical thinking, needs assessment, language teaching methodology and its interface with the issues of education. Email:

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Appendix 1 Some examples of philosophical questions

Philosophical questions on power (general) What is power? Does power give pleasure? Can you have power without controlling other people or things? Are you more powerful if you know who you are? If you are controlled by others, can you still be powerful, as long as you know who you are? For some people to be powerful, must others be weak? Could everyone be equally powerful? If yes, what would happen then? d Philosophical questions on nature (academic) How did the world come to be? Are humans part of nature? What is natural and unnatural? Does nature have purposes or innate values? Can and should nature be controlled? Do animals and eco-system have rights? Can nature be cruel? (Why?) Is it bad for species to go extinct?


Gholamhossein Shahini and A. Mehdi Riazi

Appendix 2 The tale of Peter Rabbit (a summary)

The story is about a rabbit (Peter) who was living with his mother and three sisters. One day, Peters mother was going out and warned her children not to go into Mr. McGregors garden because their father had an accident there. The little rabbits went out when their mother left to gather blackberries, but Peter ran away to Mr. McGregors garden where he was chased by Mr. McGregor who was shouting stop thief!. Peter was badly frightened and rushed all over the garden not knowing how to get out. Finally he managed to escape, and he did not stop running till he got home and fell down on the oor, shut his eyes, and went to sleep. His mother came back and wondered what Peter had done with his clothes. She put him to bed, while his sisters had bread, milk, and blackberries for supper. I Examples of conventional (non-philosophical) questions 1 What did their mother tell the kids before she went out? 2 What did McGregor do when he saw Peter? Describe completely. 3 Do you always listen to your mom? Explain why or why not. 4 Do you know any other similar story like this? Describe it. 5 What do you do when you see an animal in trouble? 6 What are different ways we can keep out harmful animals from elds and gardens? II Examples of philosophical questions 1 Is Mr. McGregor good or bad? 2 Are you necessarily bad if you get into mischief? 3 Is Peter bad? 4 What makes you call a thing or a person good or bad? Can something be good and bad at the same time? 5 Is Mr. McGregor dangerous to you? Are you dangerous to yourself sometimes? 6 Is Peter a child? How can you know for certain? Do you prefer to be Peter or one of Peters sisters? Why? 7 Do you think Peter goes to McGregors garden again?

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A P BLT approach to teaching ESL speaking