Designing Worksheets for Critical Language Practice

Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines

This paper examines principles of Critical Language Awareness in relation to critical reading practices.  It argues that language should be taught not only as form and function but also as a system of communication that belies particular biases, whether consciously or unconsciously expressed.  It further argues that students need to be explicitly taught to recognize the discourse of power relations embedded in a text, and that even second language learners with limited proficiency skills should not be exempt from exposure to critical reading practices.

One of the most ubiquitous tools associated with task-based teaching is the use of worksheets to facilitate students’ manipulation of texts.  However, many worksheets tend to be testing devices that encourage “passive” reading instead of teaching materials that facilitate active reading.  This paper will show how CLA principles can be integrated into the design of more effective teaching worksheets in order to promote critical understanding.

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Introduction Today, we recognize that there is more to language proficiency than the mastery of grammatical forms and communicative functions.  In truth, one limitation of the communicative view of language is its tendency to gloss over the social dimensions of language. As many of us are aware, language is not a neutral medium of self-expression; it is also a way of influencing others through the conscious (or subconscious) choices of lexis, grammar, register, and/or structure made by the writer, which in turn belie particular biases that position readers in various ways.  For instance, the term “girl” can be construed as a compliment or an insult depending on who is saying it and to whom. Because of this, language learning must go beyond the teaching of form and function by including ways of thinking about how language can be an empowering or a prejudiced construction.

Such a view demands a more critical approach to learning, one where students are encouraged to read texts in an active, reflective manner to better understand and challenge the power relationships mediated through language.  In a second or foreign language context, where some students may be even more hesitant to question the perceived authority of texts and teachers in the classroom, it becomes all the more important to empower readers to “resist certain kinds of assaults presented by written texts; to challenge…particular ways of talking about persons, places, events, and phenomena” (Wallace, 1992, p. 61).

In the Philippines, even students with limited language proficiency levels are encouraged to develop critical language awareness (CLA).  At the Ateneo de Manila University, students who have passed the school’s entrance exam but scored poorly in the English section are made to undergo an English remedial program (English 10).  English 10 is a skills review class anchored on a task-based framework that is designed to help them cope with the academic requirements of their content subjects.  Part of the program’s emphasis is on promoting ways of thinking about how language is reflective of social and ideological processes.

In this paper, I wish to present how we try to design materials that incorporate CLA concepts in our English 10 classes.  The first part discusses the role of worksheets in promoting active reading strategies.  The second part demonstrates how a sample worksheet can be utilized and processed to incorporate CLA in the interpretation of a text.

Using worksheets in the classroom The use of self-directed materials, such as worksheets, is an integral part of the task-based framework.   However, no matter how ubiquitous a tool they are, worksheets are often underutilized when it comes to promoting critical reading practices.  Many times, worksheets propagate the same kind of passive reading skills that prove tedious over time. Davies (1995 cited in Correia, 2006) identifies the following tasks (commonly used in many worksheets) as being essentially “passive” in nature:  answering multiple choice questions, answering superficial comprehension questions, accomplishing gap-fill exercises, marking true-false statements, and doing vocabulary and dictionary work.  While these activities have individual merit, they serve a better purpose as “testing activities” than “teaching ones” because they presuppose that the students have already understood the text sufficiently in order to answer the questions being posed.

In contrast, what students need are “teaching” worksheets; those that promote active reading by focusing their attention on the more salient features of the text and by helping them understand the biases and assumptions that shape the writing.

When worksheets are properly designed to teach, they help students focus on the various features of a text. This enables students to organize and structure the material, thereby promoting their cognitive and even critical involvement with the text.

While worksheets are not an end to themselves, they are tools that students can use to gain better grip of a text. Grabe (1997) asserts that when students complete graphic organizers (like graphs, charts, or diagrams) they restructure the material for themselves in more meaningful ways as they learn to recognize more clearly patterns evident in the text.

The basic idea underlying [the use of graphic organizers] is that there are a relatively small number of basic knowledge structures which, in combination, underlie all academic texts. When students are made aware that texts are composed of these organizational formats and patterns, they will be able to understand better the coherence and logic of the information being presented, and they will be able to locate the main ideas and distinguish them from less important information. Such knowledge structures also indicate the intent of the author and the purpose of the text (Grabe, 1997, “Text structure awareness and content-based instruction,” para. 1).

By extension, I wish to argue that we can devise other types of teaching worksheets that follow the same principles governing the design of graphic organizers. In other words, we can design materials, questions, and activities (which are not necessarily based on graphic or visual representations alone) that may assist students in locating sources of biased reasoning in the writing or instances where the author makes certain assumptions about his or her subject matter.  By doing so, these teaching worksheets can help strengthen students’ “while-reading” skills as they think about what the text is saying.

Designing a sample worksheet In order to design more effective classroom materials, Kress (in Wallace 1992) and Wallace (1992) suggest keeping the following questions in mind:

  1. What is the topic?
  2. Who is writing to whom?
  3. Why is this topic being written about?
  4. How is this topic being written about?
  5. What other ways of writing about the topic are there?

Although different texts will necessarily emphasize some questions more than others, as a whole, these questions can aid in the formulation of materials that may help students recognize the author’s overt or latent ideas, beliefs, or attitudes.

As Nuttall (2000) has pointed out, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to reading comprehension stems from readers being unaware of the assumptions of the writer.  To make matters worse, some students may allow themselves to be swayed by the ideas of a text/author.  In a remedial foreign language context, the problem is compounded further by linguistic and cultural impediments (see also Littlewood, 2006).  On the one hand, students may already feel inadequate regarding their language skills; on the other, in cultures such as the Filipino one which place a premium on respect for figures of authority, many students tend to inhibit themselves from questioning the supposedly superior position of a teacher – including the ideas expressed in the materials he or she introduces in the classroom.

In the English 10 program at the Ateneo de Manila University, students are first guided into unlocking the writer’s assumptions before they are asked to critique them, thereby exposing the inequality embedded in the text’s discourse.  By using a worksheet, we hope to make students more aware of their own reading processes so that they can feel more empowered to raise questions about the text later on.

Pre-reading: What is the topic? At the start of the lesson, students are asked for their understanding of the notion of ‘parable’ and its connection to the title of the story The Creation of Woman: A Parable from India (see appendix), which  narrates how the God Twashtri created woman as a companion for man but with some unexpected results.  The initial activity serves as both a schema building and prediction activity prior to the actual reading of the text.

Next, students are asked to read The Creation of Woman and determine whether or not it provides a flattering view of women.  Doing so gives them a clearer purpose for reading actively, enhancing interest and performance (see Williams, 1984).  Moreover, it provides an initial look at the way the topic is being framed by the writer and how students respond to the text.

Afterwards, students are asked their opinion of the text.  Often, they confirm that the text is flattering for women, citing the images and textual references that seem to connote positive descriptions. They are then given a worksheet to subject the text to closer scrutiny.

While-reading:  How is this topic being written about? Much of the critical aspect of this lesson is drawn from the actual processing of the worksheet.  The first part of the activity is designed to call the students’ attention to the gender bias evidenced by the way the man and woman are positioned in active (DOER) and passive (GOAL) positions, respectively.  By noting the language used to describe the actions of the central characters, students begin to notice the subtext operating beneath the story’s surface.

The second section of the worksheet tries to help students gain sensitivity to the writer’s underlying attitude towards the woman.  It calls specific attention to a key phrase in the text where Twashtri is said to have “exhausted his materials in the making of man” (a little dramatic reading on the part of the teacher helps get the point across as well).  At this point, it helps to experiment with the students’ knowledge of semantics to see how different words may provide different meaningful effects (e.g., substituting exhausted with “used up,” “finished,” etc.) and what this statement implies in terms of the actual ingredients used to create a woman.  In addition, students are asked to interpret the possible connotations of the elements used to create woman.

To reinforce the CLA aspect of the lesson, the worksheet asks students to identify the nouns and pronouns used to describe the woman before asking them to reflect on the way the language ideologically positions what it means to be a man or a woman. Careful attention to close reading techniques trains students to be more conscious of how the topic is being written about and the linguistic nuances writers employ to depict their subjects.

Towards the end of the processing, the class is asked again whether or not the text reveals a flattering image of women.  To extend the discussion, students consider what this parable attempts to teach about the way/s in which men and women are constructed in and by society. Interestingly enough, students then begin to raise their own questions regarding the text, including why the woman figures prominently in the title but not in the text itself.  This kind of inquiry demonstrates the crux of CLA practice as students begin to explore alternative ways of reading texts – by exploring aspects of it that have been muted, downplayed or silenced. Such “readings against the grain” are as much a part of developing critical literacy as more conventional interpretations.

Post-reading:  What are other ways of writing about the topic are there? A good task activity to follow up and cap this lesson is for students to write their own creation stories.  Students may be asked to rewrite the elements that go into the creation of woman (or man) and come up with their own versions of a Filipina (or Filipino) for the 21st century.  They can design their own posters and present them to the class in the next meeting.  Doing so encourages students to re-imagine the topic not only linguistically but creatively as well.

After the presentations, it is important to remind students of the focus of the CLA aspect of the lesson:  understanding CLA means recognizing that language is not a neutral medium.  It is invested with meanings that, although socially and culturally determined, are reflections of ideological process that need not necessarily be the case.

Conclusion This lesson trains students to pay closer attention to the unstated biases of texts that may undercut the surface meaning of the text itself.  It requires them to attend to the denotative and connotative power of words as well as the underlying subtext that may otherwise go undetected. By using a worksheet that is designed to instruct rather than test, we move away from a pedagogy based on competence alone to a more liberating and problem-posing one that Freire (1970) [1] and other progressive educators envision.

This is not to say, however, that using a worksheet will guarantee the critical competence of students. Indeed, it takes a critical teacher to develop materials for critical thinking. As such, it is not  enough for us to be knowledgeable about the content features of our discipline; we also need to possess a high degree of language awareness in order to bridge the world of theoretical know-how (where understanding begins) and practical application (where understanding actually takes place).  As Wright and Bolitho (1993) state:

A linguistically aware teacher will be in a strong and secure position to accomplish various tasks – preparing lessons; evaluating, adapting, and writing materials; understanding, interpreting, and ultimately designing a syllabus or curriculum….Indeed,…successful communicative teaching depends more than ever on a high level of language awareness in a teacher due to the richness and complexity of a “communicative view.”  These points apply equally to teachers of native speaker and non-native speaker origin. (p. 292)

The real challenge, therefore, is not simply to design worksheets with a CLA component for classroom use but to make CLA a part of our pedagogic agenda.

[1] In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire advocates a more student-centered problem-solving approach to teaching (as opposed to a more teacher-centered banking approach) in order to raise the consciousness and critical awareness of students towards a more transformative view of reality.

References Correia, R. (2006). Encouraging critical reading in the EFL classroom. English teaching forum, (1). Retrieved May 5, 2009, from

Department of English, Ateneo de Manila University. (2005). Introduction to college English.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Grabe, W. (1997). What research tells us:  Discourse analysis and reading instruction. In T. Miller (Ed.), Functional approaches to written texts. Retrieved May 7, 2009, from

Littlewood, W. (2006). Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms. Language Teaching, 40 (3), 243-249.

Nuttall, C. (2000). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language (2nd ed.). Oxford: Heinemann.

Wallace. C. (1992). Critical language awareness in the EFL classroom. In N. Fairclough (Ed.), Critical language awareness (pp. 59-92). London: Longman.

Williams, E. (1984). Reading in the language classroom. USA: Macmillan.

Wright, T., & Bolitho, R. (1993). Language awareness: A missing link in language teacher education? ELT Journal, 47 (4), 292-304.


The Creation of Woman A Parable from India

1          In the beginning, when Twashtri came to the creation of woman, he found that he had exhausted his materials in the making of the man, and that no solid elements were left.  In this dilemma, after profound meditation, he did as follows:

2          He took the rotundity of the moon, and the curves of creepers, and the clinging of tendrils, and the trembling of grass, and the slenderness of the reed, and the bloom of flowers, and the lightness of deer, and the joyous gaiety of sunbeams, and the weeping of clouds, and the fickleness of the winds and the timidity of hare, and the vanity of the peacock, and the softness of the parrot’s bosom, and the hardness of diamond, and the cruelty of the tiger, and the hot glow of fire, and the coldness of snow, and the chattering of jays, and the cooing of the dove, and the fidelity of the drake.  Compounding all this together, he made woman, and gave her to man.

3          But after a week, man came to him and said:

4          “Lord, this creature that you have given me makes my life miserable.  She chatters incessantly, and teases me beyond endurance, never leaving me alone.  She requires attention every moment, takes up all my time, weeps about nothing, and is always idle.  So I have come to give her back again, as I cannot live with her!”

5          Then, Twashtri said, “Very well,” and took her back.

6          After a week, man came to him, saying:

7          “Lord, I find my life is lonely since I surrendered that creature.  I remember how she used to dance and sing to me, and look at me out of the corner of her eye, and play with me, and cling to me.  Her laughter was music, she was beautiful to look at, and so soft to touch.  Pray give her back to me again.”

8          Twashtri said: “Very well,” and returned the woman to the man.

9          But after only three days had passed, man appeared once more before the creator, to whom he said:

10        “Lord, I know not how it is, but after all, I have come to the conclusion that she is more trouble than pleasure to me.  Therefore I beg that you take her back again.”

11        Twashtri, however, replied: “Out upon you!  Be off!  I will have no more of this.  You must manage how you can.”

12        Then quoth man:  “But I cannot live with her!”  To which Twashtri answered:  “Neither could you live without her.”  And he turned his back to man, and went on with his work.

13        Then said man: “Alas, what is to be done?  For I cannot live either with or without her!”

@SMALL GROUP WORK: Answer the following worksheet on “The Creation of Woman”.

  1. How does the writer describe what is going on?
1.  Examine the clauses in paragraphs 1, 2, 5 and 8, where Twashtri and the woman appear as participants.a)  How many times is Twashtri presented as the DOER?      ______b) How many times is Twashtri presented as the GOAL?       ______c) How many times is the woman presented as the DOER?   ______d) How many times is she presented as the GOAL?               ______

B. How does the writer indicate attitude towards Woman?

2.  Refer to paragraphs 4 and 7.  What noun does the man use to refer to Woman?  ______________________
3.  In paragraph 1, Twashtri is said to have “exhausted his materials in the making of man, and that no solid elements were left” to make the woman.  Write down at least 5 of the elements he used in creating the woman.a)      ____________________________b)      ____________________________c)      ____________________________d)     ____________________________ e)      ____________________________
4.a)  What personal pronoun(s) is/are selected  to refer to the man?__________________________________________________b)  What personal  pronoun(s) is/are selected to refer to Twashtri?__________________________________________________c)  What personal pronoun(s) is/are selected to refer to the woman? __________________________________________________

C. How is the content of the text organized?

5.  List in sequence the first 4 time connectors used by the writer right after Twashtri is said to have given Woman to Man. Indicate beside each of your answers the number of the paragraph in which you find these connectors.     Time Connectors                                 Paragraph Numbera)   ___________________________         _________________b)   ___________________________         _________________c)   ___________________________         _________________d)  ___________________________          _________________

About the Author: Michelle G. Paterno

95 Xavier St. San Juan, Metro Manila

Instructor, School of Humanities, Ateneo de Manila University

Michelle G. Paterno has been an instructor and teacher-trainer for 13 years.  She received her MA in English from the Ateneo de Manila University and has a certificate in Communicative Language Teaching from Lancaster University.

3 thoughts on “Designing Worksheets for Critical Language Practice

  1. The worksheet by Michelle Paterno is really useful material for all types of learners. It worked well with my students in developing their thinking skills and improving their reading ability. Thank you. I would like to be in touch with you for more acadamic discussions.
    Dr. Nagaraj, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India.

  2. This is indeed a useful material that would surely evoke developing practices in teaching language to students. Teaching a language with all the grammatical lessons is so outdated. However, I cannot deny the fact that a lot of schools still adhere to this kind of language teaching. Hopefully, with studies like this, this scenario could be slowly overcome.

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