CATESOL Conference Reflections: Part I

This weekend I attended the CATESOL conference in Anaheim California. It’s always such a great experience learning from and connecting with other professionals in the field. Of course, the weekend has flown by at lightning speed, and I’m now sitting here on the flight home with various ideas floating around in my head that I need to write down before they get lost somewhere in my memory neurons. To keep this post from turning into a rambling book, I’ll keep it focused on a few nuggets I got about critical thinking and vocabulary development. 

Critical Thinking

I attended a couple of sessions that were focused on ways to engage students with critical thinking in class. Monica Snow and Carolyn Dupaquier gave a presentation entitled “Fun with Critical Thinking.” One of my takeaways from their presentation was the idea to use fun and engaging brain teasers or riddles to get students thinking and engaged in class. For example, the presenters posted the Old Engineer riddle and asked us to discuss what we thought would be on the itemized list. We were all engaged as we talked with our partners to try to come up with the possible answer.

Another thing Snow and Dupaquier shared during their presentation was using a question dice to get students to ask deep questions about a thought provoking photo. They displayed an interesting image and then had us work in groups to take turns asking and answering questions. Each group was given a die with a question starter written on each side. We took turns rolling the dice and then asking a question. Anyone else in the group could answer the question. The question starters were:

  1. How?
  2. Why?
  3. What caused…?
  4. What would happen…?
  5. Where does this lead?
  6. Do you agree?

You can see the images below to help you visualize this activity.

The next session I attended on critical thinking was titled “The Art of Engaging Students Through Critical Thinking” by Rob Jenkins. His talk was aimed at providing “simple critical thinking strategies that make a huge difference in student engagement and success.” Jenkins gave us his one liner definition of critical thinking to keep in mind. He said that it’s “any tasks that require learners to think deeper than the superficial vocabulary and meaning.”

The teachings tips started from the very beginning of his presentation when he had us do backwards introductions in order to meet those sitting near us. It was an activity that also got us to exercise our critical thinking skills in a fun way. First Jenkins modeled it to make sure we knew what to do (something you’d certainly want to do in class as well). He gave the answer to a question and we had to guess what the question was. So, for example, if I said that the answer to a question about myself is “In California” you will have to use your critical thinking skills to guess that the question being answered is possibly “Where do you live?” This activity was very interesting and required us to use the available context clues to make guesses about what each question might be.

Another thing I picked up from his presentation was the idea that we should routinely add critical thinking to things we’re doing in our classes. He called these “Critical Thinking Quick Adjustments.” For example, if you’re telling a story, pause it at one point and ask your students to predict what they think will happen next. It doesn’t take much time out of your class to do this, but it gets your students to think more deeply. Jenkins gave a list of quick adjustments you can use to add critical thinking to class. They were: 

  1. Analyzing data (graphs, charts)
  2. Classifying
  3. Collaborating over a problem
  4. Comparing (VENN, Johari, charts)
  5. Defining concepts
  6. Evaluating information with a rubric
  7. Individually solving problems
  8. Predicting outcomes
  9. Ranking
  10. Reaching consensus
  11. Summarizing concepts


An idea that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how to help my students get the words they need to be successful. The importance of vocabulary was certainly being expressed this weekend. The well known Keith Folse gave a presentation called “Vocabulary Vacuum: ESL Students’ Lexical Plight” where he emphasized how crucial it is for us to intentionally help our students expand their lexicon, as well as encourage them to do so on their own. In the course of his presentation, I collected the following great strategies to use in class.

Vocabulary Knowledge Share

Create a list of the possible new/challenging vocabulary from a reading or activity you plan to do. Have students mark each words a either a 3 (I can easily use it), 2 (I understand it, 1 (It sounds familiar), and 0 ( I don’t know it). Once students have marked the list of words, have your students get up and mingle to share information about the words they know with people who didn’t know those words. This is a quick way to have your students boost word knowledge in class without taking a lot of class time to go over the list together. 

Based on this idea, I created a handout for the activity. Just type in the words you want and then students can easily rate each word and then take notes during the share session. Click here to make a copy of the Google Doc template.

Whiteboard Vocab Square

Folse mentioned that one of his daily class routines is to create a new vocab list on the board as he goes throughout his lesson. He said that he purposefully uses new vocabulary while teaching and then writes these new/challenging words on a designated space of the whiteboard. 

At the end of the class, he goes over the words to help reinforce them to students. However, instead of going over them one by one, he said it’s important to ask questions that will get students to process each word multiple times. So for example, look at the list of words below:

  1. Wonderful
  2. Gardener
  3. Grumpy
  4. Participant
  5. Gloomy
  6. Frigid
  7. Sunny
  8. Balloon
  9. Balance
  10. Grin

Now, you could review this list by going down it word by word. However, Folse argued that you shouldn’t do that. He said that you want to ask questions that will get your students to look at all of the words over and over. So, instead of saying, “Okay class, what does the word wonderful mean?” you can ask “Which of these words have a positive meaning?” Notice how the first question only invites you to look at the first word, whereas the second question will require you to critically examine all of the words. Here are some possible questions Folse suggested:

  1. Which words are alive/machines/animals/in the sky, etc.?
  2. Which words are negative?
  3. Which word is the longest?
  4. Which would come last in the dictionary?
  5. Which word is the hardest for YOU to pronounce?
  6. Which words is the hardest for you to spell?
  7. Which word do you think YOU will forget by lunchtime? (Folse said that by asking students to zero in on the one word they were likely to forget, it actually becomes one they may be more likely to remember).

These are a few of the many ideas that are buzzing around my head after three days of workshops. Stay tuned for a future post on some of the new tech tools and websites I heard about this weekend. If you attended the conference, please share your favorite takeaway in the comment section below. 

Say Thanks! Get Jessica a cup of coffee.


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