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Developing College EFL Writers’ Critical Thinking Skills Through Online Resources: A Case Study:

Developing College EFL Writers’ Critical Thinking Skills Through Online Resources: A Case Study: This study reports on how the supplementation of online resources, informed by systemic functional linguistics (SFL), impacted English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) student writers’ development of critical thinking skills. Through qualitative analyses of student-teacher interactions, interviews with students, and students’ written documents, the case study shows that through 1 semester of intensive exposure to SFL-based online resources in a college Chinese EFL writing classroom, EFL writers were able to develop critical thinking skills in regard to the construction of effective academic writing, although it was a process of encountering and overcoming challenges. Through teacher mediation and their own efforts, they could adjust to the online resources-based classroom, exemplified by their utilization of SFL-related categories offered through online resources to analyze and evaluate the interrelationship between language features and the content manifested in valued texts, and regulate the content of their own academic writing. Keywords academic writing, critical thinking, EFL learners, online resources, systemic functional linguistics content and language levels (Mok, 2009). In EFL writing Introduction contexts, teaching critical thinking skills is, in addition, chal- Developing students’ critical thinking skills has been a cru- lenged by conventional classroom practices in which teach- cial component of the language teaching curriculum, as it ers often lack effective educational training and are fosters students’ abilities to analyze and evaluate informa- constrained by the contents of the textbook, leading to a sce- tion, as well as to make their own decisions related to their nario where teachers dominate the classroom and provide academic success (Nold, 2017). Take academic English writ- limited space for students’ development of critical thinking ing as an example. Experienced writers have to construct (DeWaelsche, 2015; Zhang, 2017). In other words, there is a texts at the dual levels of content and language as endorsed lack of effective learning materials and teaching strategies in by academic English communities (Fang & Schleppegrell, EFL contexts that can cement critical thinking skills with 2010). This means that English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) writing construction and help students harness contextually writers have to gain corresponding critical thinking skills, embedded linguistic choices to compose effective writing and through them, deconstruct valued English texts and con- (Rose & Martin, 2012). Therefore, this case study attempts to struct their own content on the two levels, projecting their explore how a language learning theory (i.e., systemic func- professional identity as culturally and linguistically endorsed tional linguistics [SFL]) based on the adoption and use of academic writers (Hyland, 2002). instructional resources (i.e., online resources) can help EFL Unfortunately, despite the importance of critical thinking writers critically navigate the complexities of academic writ- skills in the process of writing construction, they are still ing literacy on the levels of both language and content. It largely ignored in the writing classroom, which primarily focuses on the teaching of grammar or structure and hampers students from composing effective essays (Lee, 2008; Zhang, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China 2017). Even in international communities that try to develop Corresponding Author: English writers’ critical thinking skills, actual writing teach- Xiaodong Zhang, School of English and International Studies, Beijing ing practices are still limited to non-linguistic strategies (e.g., Foreign Studies University, No. 2 North Xisanhuan Road, Beijing 100089, using questions), which are often too abstract or inaccessible China. Email: zxdman588@gmail.com for students’ writing literacy development on both the Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 SAGE Open aims to call EFL writing teachers’ attention to the importance Indeed, students’ success in academic writing is contin- of teaching critical thinking skills as well as to provide them gent on construing meaningful discourse with contextually with an accessible tool for adopting and using supplementary appropriate linguistic choices (i.e., grammar and vocabulary; materials in the classroom while developing their students’ Pally, 2001). To train successful EFL writers, teachers have critical thinking skills in regard to the construction of effec- to guide students through critical analysis, evaluating texts, tive writing. and regulating their own writing in terms of both language choices and meaning. As such, Siegel and Carey (1989) argued that “having a theory of critical thinking in which lan- Theoretical Framework guage plays a key role opens up instructional potentials” (p. 9), which may help students with critical appropriation or Critical Thinking Skills the construction of meaningful English discourse. In other The core tenets of critical thinking skills related to English words, a theory-driven curriculum that guides students in language learners reside in their understanding of language understanding and harnessing the correlation between lin- as semiotic resources to participate in discourses and their guistic features and content construction would be poten- ability to analyze, evaluate, and regulate communicative dis- tially optimal for critical writing instruction. courses (Bloom, 1956; O’Halloran, Tan, & Marissa, 2017; The compatibility between Halliday’s (1994) systemic Paul & Elder, 2013; Siegel & Carey, 1989). However, the functional linguistics (SFL) as a language learning theory existing research on EFL learners’ critical thinking skills has and the development of EFL writers’ critical thinking skills either focused on whether students have critical thinking resides in SFL’s multilayer constructs for demystifying a par- skills or how students’ critical thinking skills are exemplified ticular communicative discourse (e.g., writing) through from a non-linguistic perspective; that is, how students dem- unpacking the relationship among linguistic choices, mean- onstrate their ability to analyze or evaluate authors’ or teach- ing (i.e., the content of discourses), and context (e.g., the ers’ challenging texts while expressing their own voice. For context of academic writing). As such, SFL as a learning example, DeWaelsche (2015), on the basis of Korean theory synergizes nicely with the demand for explicit teach- English-major students’ responses and interviews over a ing of critical thinking skills in the writing classroom, which semester conversation course, showed that teachers’ ques- are needed to analyze and evaluate texts, and to produce tioning was useful for students’ development of their critical similar texts that demand contextually appropriate language thinking skills whereby students became actively engaged in resources (Ryan, 2011; Siegel & Carey, 1989). talking about specific topics. Worse still, even less empirical research has been con- SFL as a Teaching Praxis ducted to investigate EFL students’ critical thinking skills related to academic writing instruction and learning, although In particular, SFL as a comprehensive language learning the- academic writing and critical thinking are intertwined and ory offers the following constructs to critically deconstruct are germane to students’ academic success (McKinley, 2013; valued academic texts and construct writing at the level of Sun, 2011). Among the limited studies on writing and critical meaning and linguistic features. That is, at a macro-level, the thinking skills in EFL contexts, Liu and Stapleton (2014) context of culture shows how a text serves different purposes revealed that Chinese college students who were taught (e.g., to inform) and organizes meaning in a specified way counterargument gained enhanced critical thinking skills in (e.g., the structure of introduction, body, and conclusion in an analyzing and evaluating different opinions in academic expository essay). Within the context of culture, the context writing. Similar to this study, which emphasizes non-linguis- of situation provides three variables, further anchoring the tic teaching strategies and equates students’ critical thinking background of human communication: field (the communica- skills with their general learning skills in evaluating or ana- tion event), tenor (the interrelationship between those lyzing discourse contents, McKinley (2013), in a discussion involved in communication), and mode (the channel of com- paper, also suggested that argument-based writing was an munication). Responding respectively to the three contexts of optimal way to train students’ critical thinking as it helped situational variables, the three meta-meanings of a discourse them analyze and evaluate different types of evidence and are highlighted in the context of situation, and are ultimately project authorial stances. Apparently, along with the tradi- organized in response to the context of culture. That is, ide- tional line of research in EFL educational settings, which has ational meaning is the manifestation of field, representing the centered on providing non-linguistic strategies and equated discourse composers’ experiences of this world and the logic- critical thinking with students’ general cognitive skills, there semantic relationship between events. Interpersonal meaning is also a lack of praxis that explicitly and conveniently guides is the manifestation of tenor, showing how discourse compos- EFL writers’ development of their critical thinking skills in ers negotiate within and out of a text (i.e., speech function) as regard to the creation of meaningful texts at the linguistic well as their evaluative stances (i.e., appraisal system). level, although it is also closely related to students’ writing Textual meaning, as a realization of mode, focuses on the success (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010). organization or the fluency of a text. Most importantly, the Zhang 3 construct of lexico-grammar in SFL serves as an interface in E-Learning Resources as Learning the process of realizing the three meta-meanings in language Materials communication as this construct provides categories to fur- ther deconstruct or construct the meaning/content of texts. Many studies have documented the importance of materials That is, for ideational meaning, major categories include par- in the language learning classroom in both ESL and EFL ticipants (noun phrases), process (verb phrases), and circum- contexts (e.g., Tomlinson, 2012; Zhang, 2018). Namely, they stances (prepositional phrases). For interpersonal meaning, are the resources students and teachers depend on to deliver major categories are subject (in the traditional sense), predi- and accumulate knowledge, respectively. Unfortunately, no cate (in the traditional sense), residue (adverbial phrases, textbook is perfect, which could be due to a variety of fac- prepositional phrases), and appraisal resources that include tors, such as textbook editors’ understanding of language the use of lexical resources (adjectives or non-adjectives) in learning theory or the demand of a market that might only explicitly or implicitly projecting authorial stance (i.e., atti- prefer a particular dimension of language knowledge, for tude), or showing the source and certainty of information example, speaking (Tomlinson, 2012; You, 2004; Zhang, (i.e., engagement) and intensifying/weakening information 2017). For instance, in the EFL context, writing textbooks is (i.e., graduation). For textual meaning, major categories are mainly concerned with the structure or grammar of writing theme (i.e., the starting point of a sentence), rheme (i.e., the (Menkabu & Harwood, 2014; You, 2004). As a result, teach- rest of a sentence), and cohesive devices (e.g., conjunction ers and students who rely on textbooks often feel poorly words, synonyms). Through these categories, typical features guided in the construction of critical writing at both the lan- of academic writing have been illuminated, such as the use of guage and meaning levels, which call for the adoption of inanimate participants (e.g., nominalization) and implicit learning materials to supplement the textbook, such as online evaluative resources or frequent use of engagement resources resources, because of their easy and free access on the to enhance the reliability of the content in expository writing Internet (Zhang, 2018). (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010). In sum, the multiple layers in However, research on online resources in relation to writ- SFL offer a visible and accessible tool for demystifying aca- ing instruction is still limited. Relevant studies on online demic texts and fostering student writers’ critical thinking resources have focused on the convenience of online skills through a linguistic channel. resources as a technological tool to facilitate students’ learn- Indeed, recent SFL-based research in English-as-a- ing, such as computer-student interactions, in comparison second-language (ESL) contexts has emerged regarding how with traditional classroom interactions (Yang, Chuang, Li, & students become more engaged in critically talking about Tseng, 2013). texts and constructing their own texts. For example, in an In addition, while online resources have been used to pro- Australian university, Ryan (2011) reported that the teaching mote language learners’ critical thinking skills, this line of of SFL, especially the ideational and textual meaning con- research is limited to speaking and listening (e.g., Yang & structs, enabled students to critically deconstruct texts and Chou, 2008; Yang et al., 2013); almost no research has par- project the academically endorsed content with appropriate ticularly showcased the relationship between students’ criti- features (e.g., nominalization, and the use of cohesive ties cal thinking skills and online resources in the writing such as conjunction words) when writing a reflection on their classroom. Even among the research on online resources and field experiences in a local elementary school. Similarly, in critical thinking skills, studies along these lines have primar- an ESL elementary classroom in the United States, ily focused on using online technology itself, such as discus- O’Hallaron, Palincsar, and Schleppegrell (2015) showed that sion forums, to facilitate language learners’ critical thinking explicit teaching of the SFL-based appraisal system and its skills in dealing with discourse content. For example, in embedded linguistic realization enabled students to gain a Yang et al.’s (2013) research, which focused on a semester- critical perspective on information texts, in which they could long general education course in a university in Taiwan, their analyze and evaluate the social relationships hidden in texts quantitative research demonstrated that through an online by observing the lexico-grammatical resources used (e.g., platform as well as teacher mediation, students became able fortunately and interestingly), and transfer these critical to actively invest themselves in analyzing or evaluating lis- insights into their own written texts. In other words, as Fang tening or speaking content. Regarding this issue, researchers and Schleppegrell (2010) noted, SFL’s “focus is not on anal- have called for attention to be paid to the pedagogical design ysis for its own sake, but analysis to get at meanings so that of online resources and to focus more on the way of using students learn content at the same time they develop critical and implementing online resources as learning materials in thinking skill. . . .” (p. 596). the classroom (Taffs & Holt, 2013; Zhang, 2018). Given the Despite the potential of SFL instruction to enhance stu- integrated relationship between language and meaning dents’ critical thinking and develop their English academic embedded in writing, it seems worthwhile to explore the use writing, a paucity of relevant empirical research has been con- of online resources as learning materials to impart the inter- ducted in EFL contexts. This was also exacerbated by a lack of play between language and meaning and engage students in relevant teaching materials in the classroom (Zhang, 2018). critically understanding and composing writing. 4 SAGE Open As seen above, SFL can potentially help students to criti- classroom did not have SFL-related knowledge, as it mainly cally understand writing as a meaningful and linguistic unit included reading texts and only sporadically mentioned rel- through its multiple layers. In addition, it seems helpful to evant knowledge (e.g., cohesion) without elaborated expla- use online resources as learning materials in EFL writing nations. As such, the SFL-based materials were mainly contexts. As such, this case study explores, (a) how students collected from the Internet, including audio and video adapt to an SFL-based curriculum design that included the resources. Each time, these material resources were sent to use of online resources as learning materials, and (b) how the students via e-mail beforehand when one construct of SFL curriculum assisted EFL students with critically engaging in was to be instructed (e.g., genre, register, three meanings). writing literacy. The purpose of this research is aimed at pre- After in-class teaching of the online resources, additional senting innovative ways of material use and the instruction materials were also sent to the students for the purpose of of critical thinking skills in the writing classroom. clarifying or practicing the knowledge they had learned or for further readings. The ultimate purpose was focused on mediating students’ ability to analyze and evaluate the fea- Research Method tures of texts used in the classroom, and ultimately become regulatory in their own writing. Research Context: Participants and Curriculum Every time a construct was taught, the instructor (the Content author of the study) followed the pattern of joint decon- The study was conducted in a weekly, semester-long exposi- struction of sample texts where he guided the students in tory writing course at a top university that is reputed for its critically understanding sample texts, eventually leading English teaching in China. Students who attended this course them to independent deconstruction (Rose & Martin, 2012), were second-semester freshmen English-major students, all unearthing the interaction between meaning and linguistic of whom had just learned narrative writing. All of them were resources in texts. The sample texts for each subtype of informed of the nature of the study at the beginning of the expository writing (e.g., compare and contrast, exemplifi- semester. They all agreed to join in this project, and none cation) included quality writing in the textbook, online withdrew from the project when their final grade was posted. resources from authoritative publishing houses that were In particular, prior to the pre-project survey, students were verified by English language literacy experts who speak asked about their core knowledge relative to critical thinking English as their native language, as well as students’ work skills as EFL writers (e.g., analysis, evaluation, and regula- that needed to be improved. In addition, students’ indepen- tion) as well as their experiences with online resources as dent writing was required, although written feedback and learning resources. Unfortunately, the writing knowledge of after-class oral feedback (both of which were provided in the surveyed students had been mainly constrained to mak- indirect ways) were offered. The reason for providing indi- ing grammatically correct sentences in writing or reading rect feedback (such as, do you think we need to replace the texts, with vague awareness of constructing meaningful writ- verb in the one with less semantic load?) was to encourage ten content. In addition, their previous exposure to online students to use their newly found SFL knowledge to revise resources was primarily limited to the use of gathering ideas their writing in as many rounds as possible, and meet the for a writing topic. During the project, three students— standards of being an effective writer on both the language Laura, Clair, and Kim (all pseudonyms)—were selected as and meaning levels. focal students, although the whole class was willing to par- Arguably, SFL can be complex and not easy to under- ticipate in this study. The three students were selected stand. The researcher, as an expert in SFL, used the plainest because they were similar to other classmates or those in a words possible and the students’ first language when teach- larger EFL context who lacked critical thinking skills as EFL ing the theory. Indeed, the SFL-related pedagogy is not to writers and who relied on the textbook for learning writing train students to become linguists but to afford them the most (DeWaelsche, 2015; Zhang, 2018). More important, they felt accessible explanation of the myth of academic writing comfortable about sharing their in-class and out-of-class (Macken-Horarik, Love, & Unsworth, 2011). Because of stu- writing pieces, including their essays and reflections, and dents’ language proficiency in the English language, the they also felt comfortable about being interviewed several teaching process was complex but still manageable. times for this project, which also ensured the ethical appro- priateness of this study. Data Collection and Analysis Over the semester, the course began with teaching the basic elements of the expository essay (e.g., the structure of Data were collected over the academic semester. Included an expository essay). Following that, the course started to were a pre-study survey, audio-recordings of student-teacher zoom in on developing students’ critical understanding of interactions, students’ written documents, peer comments, writing in terms of the co-relationship between language and students’ reflections over the course of the semester, resources and meaning making from the perspective of SFL. along with interviews over the academic semester. In partic- Understandably, the mandatory textbook used in the ular, audio-recordings of student-teacher interactions in the Zhang 5 writing course were collected across the semester in align- Research Question 1: How did students adapt to the ment with the researcher’s observations/field notes. Students’ online resources-based classroom? peer comments for each essay (one round for each essay) and writing samples (four expository essays with a word count of Students’ Initial Perception of Online Resources approximately 500 words, excluding references) were also as Informal Learning Materials collected. In addition, multiple rounds of interviews across the semester and the students’ biweekly written reflections The students did not take online resources seriously. For on their learning experiences with SFL-based writing instruc- them, these were only ancillary materials as they had associ- tion were also collected. It has to be noted that interviews ated the learning of mandatory textbooks with formal educa- were conducted in students’ first language (i.e., Chinese) to tion. As Laura said, best elicit their response. They were translated into English and reported in this study for the sake of the international We never used such a large number of online resources as audience. learning resources . . . I feel kind of funny . . . although the contents of these online learning resources are new. A qualitative content analysis scheme was mainly used to analyze and code the multiple sources of data, where data Echoing Kim, she also said, sets were triangulated and constantly compared and rejected to ensure the trustworthiness of the analysis (Creswell, I am not saying online resources are not good or useful . . . I have 2012). In particular, data analysis was conducted in the origi- just never been exposed to such a teaching and learning style. nal language (e.g., students’ interviews were conducted in Chinese, but classroom interactions and students’ reflections Apparently, the students’ previous learning style (textbook- were in English). Following this, a deductive coding of a based) had remained ingrained. In this context, it would be chain of data was conducted to reveal categories (e.g., stu- no surprise that they would not invest much of themselves in dents’ perceptions of online resources, their struggle with the learning the online resources right away. The students’ deci- different learning styles, or their reactions to SFL’s perspec- sion to learn the content of online resources was seemingly tive on writing), which were combined to generate salient because they were part of obligatory learning content in the themes in relation to the research questions (i.e., trajectory of class. As Clair said in the interview, “either way we had to being critical thinkers while learning academic writing from learn them [online resources] since they are part of required an SFL-based perspective). The students’ own writings learning.” In other words, while they were not completely (including what they wrote both at the beginning and at the resistant to the use of online resources, the students’ learning end of the semester) and their feedback as peer reviewers of them initially seemed tinged with their passivity and did were analyzed through codes from SFL (e.g., the linguistic so to fulfill curricular requirements. features, three meta-meanings) to investigate the develop- ment of their critical thinking skills (O’Halloran et al., 2017; Pally, 2001). A colleague in the field of qualitative research Adjustment Facilitated by Knowledge Repertoire also volunteered to check and agreed with the analyses; peer The students’ initial reaction to online resources seemed par- debriefing was also harnessed to mitigate potential biases of ticularly related to the learning styles they had been exposed the data analysis. to and caused their initial adjustment difficulties. Nevertheless, learning new knowledge and their experience Findings with the usefulness of the new knowledge from online resources seemed to help galvanize their interest in continu- Compared with the pre-study survey, which showed that ing their learning. For instance, in the curriculum, textual students’ knowledge of writing was constrained to struc- meaning and related linguistic manifestation were first taught tural accuracy as well as their limited experiences with to the students, which consumed about 2 weeks in and out of online resources, over the semester, the students constructed class. During this time, students learned more about the role their understanding of the value of online resources as of not only conjunction words (part of which could be found learning materials, through which they developed an aware- in their textbook), but also thematic progression, which had ness of the use of language resources in constructing or never been taught before. Because of this, the students deconstructing writing content on both the language and seemed more open to using online resources in the class- meaning levels, although not fully fledged, along with a room. As Laura mentioned in the reflection, “The knowledge zigzag trajectory. In particular, student writers could con- offered in the online resources is new and I have never expe- duct analysis, and evaluate and regulate the appropriateness rienced this before . . . more importantly, they clarified and of a text at the language and meaning levels, showing the enhanced my previous understanding.” Indeed, as shown in development of their critical thinking skills as academic the pre-survey, students had knowledge about the use of con- writers. The following subsections illuminate the trajectory junction words, but they did not know why; instead, they just of their development. 6 SAGE Open accepted it passively and as rules. In other words, the stu- However, the challenges the students encountered were dents felt motivated to learn online resources, in contrast also related to the specific demand of expository writing, with their previous learning and passive reaction to online where supporting details are supposed to be fact-based. Yet, resources. Because of their experience with the power of lan- in the students’ writing, they could not understand the value guage knowledge offered by online resources, their increased of the appraisal system to support their construction of sup- language knowledge and positive experiences served as a porting details. As Kim said, catalyst for their engagement in a new curriculum. I understand it [the appraisal system] talks about how to convey interpersonal meaning. But how can I relate the knowledge to Challenges Posed to Students’ Adaption my expository writing? This still looks difficult to me? Maybe I am not very familiar with the expectations of expository writing Yet, the progressive knowledge conveyed from the online . . . and the appraisal system. materials seemed to emotionally frustrate the students from time to time, exemplified by their dual challenges of both Indeed, in the students’ writing, personal comments were understanding and practicing the newly gained knowledge. often infused in places where facts or details should have Indeed, when the researcher first introduced the theory in a been provided. For example, when Kim elaborated on how broad way, emphasizing the importance of meaning making carbon dioxide impacted global warming, she mentioned her in context, this was met with students’ inactive responses in personal comment (“Therefore, we should use low carbon class. For example, students would be very reticent to par- fuels”; field notes), where the modal verb should carries a ticipate in dialoguing with the instructor, especially in the strong personal position. This may only be explained by her initial phase of learning SFL (field notes). This especially immature knowledge of the appraisal system as well as occurred at the dimension of the way to present logical rela- generic expectations of expository writing as shown in her tionships (a component of ideational meaning) and the way interview. to project appraisal resources. For example, the students could not project logical connections well through the use of Mediation and Self-Agency as a Way of explicit connectors (e.g., because, although, and however), Expediting Students’ Transition to the Curriculum although in their reflections, they felt that they were learning the new knowledge. This seems to stem from the interven- The student writers’ struggle with SFL, however, was con- tion of their first language background. As Clair said, stantly offset by their teacher’s mediation and their own determination to better themselves. As Kim mentioned in her I understand the expectations of English discourse and the reflection, generic expectations of expository writing in terms of logical relationships, but this seems different from my first language Of course, learning each construct is not easy . . . as it is very where explicit logic connectors are not required. different from what we have learned or emphasized . . . but since we already have extensive knowledge of grammar, we should Indeed, in the students’ first language (i.e., Chinese), its dis- learn something new . . . also, in class and out of class, my teacher used our first language or daily examples to explain this course generally expects readers to decode meaning (Lian, theory . . . it really helps clarify my confusion and calm me 1993). As such, it is no surprise that logical relationships down in the face of the new knowledge. were not well demonstrated by the students. The apparent frustration among these students seemed Obviously, as advanced language learners who were knowl- related to their difficulty in understanding the SFL theory edgeable about structural grammar, the students wanted to within a short period in class as well as their previous educa- improve. This actually galvanized students in overcoming tion. As Clair said in the interview, their difficulties associated with learning SFL’s multiple con- structs; the students’ alignment with SFL was further The SFL looks rather promising in helping me become a better enhanced because of their teacher’s multiple ways of media- English learner and know more about how to compose effective essays. However, I just have no linguistic background . . . so it tion in and out of class, allowing them to gain a better under- takes me time to understand this . . . also SFL emphasizes things standing of SFL. This occurred in the latter half of the differently from what I have learned [grammar-based writing] . academic semester. . . It also takes time for me to shift my perspective. EFL writers’ critical understanding of writing gained from online In this regard, students’ previous educational exposure that resources in relation to the construct of register. Students’ was primarily focused on the sentential accuracy of writing familiarity with register gradually offered them three vari- hampered their transition into the curriculum where the per- ables in contextually understanding the content constructed spective on writing was in sharp contrast with their previous in written texts, empowering them with a critical lens into the understanding, which was exacerbated by intensive relationship between context and text content. As Laura said learning. in the interview, Zhang 7 I knew there was difference between spoken English and written I can now tell the explicit attitude of authors, but also nuanced English. But I just did not know why it was the case . . . The attitude . . . in reading texts . . . such as the way they use verbs . construct [register] shows me and [now] I know why; this is . . Once I read a computer and life text . . . the author used the related to the contextual variables of writing [field, tenor and verb “revolutionized” . . . This implicitly showed how the author mode]. actively aligned with technology. As shown from the above excerpt, the students transitioned In other words, the interpersonal meaning and its subcate- from being mechanical language learners who focused on gory (i.e., appraisal system) helped students transcend the structural accuracy to ones who could view writing as con- literal meaning and understand the evaluative stance of texts, textually embedded activities. which added to their repertoire of critical thinking skills. The three meta-meanings–based critical understanding gained Textual meaning and students’ critical understanding. The from online learning materials. The SFL-based three meta- construct of textual meaning afforded students’ awareness of meanings enabled students to go beyond their habitual focus how information is organized in sample texts and their own on literal meaning and also overcome their habit of relying texts. As shown in the students’ interviews, on their intuition when decoding the content of written dis- Kim: I can tell most materials are coherent through the use of course. Instead, they transitioned into students who can conjunction words or lexical cohesion . . . but my writing was attend to all three meanings constructed in the content of missing this somehow . . . and I was not aware of this . . . because written texts. I had no idea. Ideational meaning and students’ critical understanding. The Laura: Grammatical conjunction is fine. I know this . . . But I construct of ideational meaning helped the EFL students feel theme-rheme pattern and lexical cohesion are really new understand logical meanings in texts, which were not empha- to me . . . They also help me analyze sample texts or regulate sized in their first language and were underexplored in their my own writing through connecting back to grammatical previous English writing classrooms. As Kim noted, cohesion. The construct reminds me of the logical relationship . . . My That is, the construct of textual meaning prompted them to previous teacher did not mention this . . . and I also feel Chinese think about the fluency and meaning organization in terms of does not highlight this . . . Knowing this, I keep reminding analyzing, evaluating, or regulating texts. myself to watch this in sample texts and think about it during my own writing, in addition to understanding the importance of Lexico-grammar categories and students’ critical under- using topic-related words. standing. This construct is closely linked to the three meta- meanings, which enhanced students’ writing knowledge by In other words, because of the negative influence of their providing linguistic categories that are related to encoding previous learning experiences with their first language (i.e., or decoding meaning, such as “participants,” “theme,” and Chinese) or in prior English classrooms, the students had “cohesive devices,” and enabled students to compare fea- ignored logical relationships within their writing (Lian, tures of the texts. For instance, Clair mentioned in her reflec- 1993). The construct of SFL-based ideational meaning tion, enhanced the students’ awareness of the literal meaning of the text, particularly by emphasizing the logical relationship The categories offer another layer of sources in showing how as a part of the students’ knowledge base of text deconstruc- meaning is encoded in texts . . . I can use these categories to tion or construction. analyze and compare meanings in a really clear way . . . everything can be labeled . . . and I won’t feel lost. Interpersonal meaning and students’ critical understand- ing. Over time, the students seemed reactive to the role of Thus, the students’ writing knowledge in terms of analysis, the appraisal system in analyzing, evaluating, or regulating evaluation, or regulation developed on a scale of visibility texts. For instance, Laura wrote in her reflection, from register to lexico-grammar. At the level of lexico-gram- mar, the students’ experiences with the linguistic codes par- I had an attitude when I wrote an essay on the difference between ticularly broadened their perspective of SFL as a tool for college and high school . . . I used “students always need to learn critically constructing or deconstructing texts by focusing on as much as possible.” The “always,” when connected with the lexico-grammatical choices. appraisal system, helped me realize that I am actually biased toward college life. Research Question 2: How did SFL-based learning In a similar vein, Clair also mentioned in the interview, impact EFL student writers’ critical thinking skills? 8 SAGE Open Teacher: How? How can you tell, I mean? Critical Thinking Skills: Using the SFL-Based Laura: The author used “unexpected” to indicate Knowledge in Analyzing Texts? Kublai Khan’s failure connected to the monsoon. I The dialogues below were centered on a cause-effect sample think the word shows that the author is nice to text (the effects of weather on Kublai Khan), which was Kublai Khan. selected from the Cengage Publishing House and is down- Teacher: Nice . . . you see . . . exposition is about loadable online. As usual, following their familiarity with showing information objectively . . . but there are contextual background (e.g., information about a specific still explicit or implicit (like you see here) words type of expository essay), the students were invited to talk that may show an author’s stance. about the texts or decode the texts before they wrote their Students: That is amazing. own. To better show how students demonstrated their SFL- based skills in the classroom, the following selected excerpts As shown in the excerpt, Laura utilized the knowledge of the center on the three focal students. It has to be noted that the SFL-based appraisal system, speaking about the realization dialogues occurred in the latter half of the semester when the of interpersonal meaning at the level of the texts, and she was students had mastered sufficient knowledge of SFL. able to see how an academic writer shuffles between being The dialogue excerpt below shows how students could objective and evaluative, as shown by Laura’s identification apply their knowledge of ideational meaning gained from of the implicit appraisal resource “unexpected” in the above online resources: dialogue. Another dimension of SFL-related textual meaning was Teacher: It is about the effect of monsoons, right? In also demonstrated by students’ practices, as illuminated by terms of ideational meaning, can you tell me the using more than conjunction words to unpack the mecha- features of the participant and the process? [The nism of written discourse. For instance: teacher also repeated the same meaning in Chinese]. Any volunteers? Who can tell me? Teacher: Now let’s look at the cohesion. Is the text Clair: Yes, they [participants] are all Kublai Khan . . . fluent? and they [participants] are all action verbs. Students: (pause for a few seconds) Yes. Teacher: So, why is that the case? Teacher: How? And can you tell me in an explicit Clair: It is because it is related to the topic . . . the way?(Students talk to each other) thesis is about cause and effect . . . and action verbs Kim: It is like a constant theme pattern. can vigorously show this event . . . to readers. Teacher: Great . . . so we can learn from it, right? Any Teacher: Great. Those are the linguistic features of the other cohesive devices? ideational meaning in this work . . . Nice job. Clair: Conjunction words, indicating cause and effect relationship. As shown in this excerpt, with the teacher’s minimal guid- Teacher: Great . . . Now tell me your overall impression. ance that featured SFL-based linguistic constructs as well as Students: Really fluent and good. the students’ first language (i.e., Chinese), Clair obviously picked up on the instructor’s cues, elaborating on how par- Kim and Clair also used SFL-based constructs to discuss ticipants and verbs were contextually selected to show the how the text was constructed in a fluent way by analyzing causal relationship in the text. Also, Clair was able to use an and evaluating the texts through “theme” and “cohesive SFL perspective to explain why the ideational content was ties.” This was in sharp contrast with their performance at the constructed through the key linguistic resources (e.g., action beginning of the semester when they did not know about verbs and processes), indicating her skill in verbalizing her drawing on the knowledge and the theme knowledge in critical thinking from the perspective of SFL. deconstructing written discourse. In terms of interpersonal meaning, the students also Indeed, at the beginning of the semester, when the students seemed to actively decode the interpersonal meaning by were not familiar with the theory of SFL, they tended to be unearthing implicit or explicit lexico-grammatical quiet and unwilling to participate in classroom discussions resources. (observation notes; M. Liu & Jackson, 2008). Echoing inter- view excerpts about the development of their SFL-based writ- Teacher: What is your overall impression of the text? ing knowledge, the dialogue excerpts above illustrate that the Subjective or objective? students were able to use the SFL-based knowledge in the Students: (following a round of discussion) Objective. actual classroom and actively engage in analyzing a writing Teacher: Good. But is it really objective? sample, obviously overcoming their prior knowledge that was Laura: No . . . but I think I can see the author’s limited to grammatical accuracy or learning new words. attitude? Zhang 9 from background information to your thesis is not Critical Thinking Skills: Using SFL-Based smooth.” Knowledge to Make Evaluations The focal students’ ability to make evaluations was particu- As shown above, the three students adroitly commented on larly exemplified in their capacity as peer evaluators. It has their classmates’ writing from the three dimensions, such as to be noted that the students were not fully developed as pro- the appropriate use of modal verbs in relation to evidence. fessional academic writers. The three focal students, like other students in the classroom, still had some writing issues Critical Thinking Skills: Using SFL-Based even at the end of the semester. What is noteworthy, how- Knowledge in Independently Regulating Writing ever, is that the focal students, as representatives of the whole class, developed the ability to make evaluations, which they The EFL students gradually projected their self-regulation as did not have before. As Kim said, advanced academic writers. Again, it has to be noted that their self-regulation was not fully developed. Rather, the As a peer evaluator, I also can have more to offer aside from self-regulation was more related to the students’ ability to grammatical accuracy. It is like making decisions or more than make revisions from their instructor’s or classmates’ implicit just that . . . I can help double-check the appropriateness of my feedback. As Clair said, peer classmates’ meaning realization by focusing on those linguistic devices. Through constant practice in class, I could also apply it to checking my own writing upon completion . . . though I might Indeed, the three students adroitly commented on their class- miss something . . . but it does help me to make revisions on my mates’ writing from the three dimensions, such as the appro- own. priate use of modal verbs in relation to evidence. Exemplification of the students’ critical thinking through As seen from the above excerpt, the students’ mastery of evaluating their classmates’ writings are shown as follows: hands-on skills also enabled them to go beyond their knowl- edge boundary and realize the importance of regulating their Ideational meaning: The students could evaluate the ide- own writing. ational meaning of their classmates’ writings, includ- Indeed, over the semester, the students were requested to ing their choice of verbs or participants as well as the improve their writing following their instructor’s or their logical relationships. For instance, Laura commented classmates’ implicit feedback on the levels of language and on her classmate’s essay that “It [the writing] is clear content (the three meanings; e.g., Do you think these para- and logical. The author used proper words and brings graphs are logically connected? Do you think it is a good readers close to the text.” Laura also commented on lexical choice here?). An SFL-based analysis conducted on another classmate’s essay that “[please] watch the cir- the students’ early writings and final writings showed that cular reasoning here when you make interpretations.” the three focal students’ critical thinking skills in regulation Interpersonal meaning: The students could comment on were obviously mapped to their own writings, which sug- the appraisal resources used in their classmates’ writ- gests an increased imprint of SFL-based critical thinking ings. For example, Clair commented, “You [one of skills development. The quality of these students’ final ver- Clair’s classmates’] used ‘lead to’ and ‘suffer’ well, sions of their essays was also endorsed by an expert whose showing your negative stance.” For another student, first language is English and who has years of writing Clair also commented that “You [the classmate] also instruction experience at the college level. The changes in used engagement well to elaborate on your supporting the students before and after their familiarity with SFL are details.” Similarly, Kim made the comments, “He shown below, out of a discourse analysis of the participating hides his stance, and makes his essay objective”; “He students’ essays, including their early writings (the first two used ‘immediately’ to show an implicit attitude.” In a essays) and later writings (the last two essays and their final different way, Laura commented, “Modal verbs should version of the first two essays submitted at the end of the be watched when you make statements or provide semester): details.” Textual meaning: The students could comment on the Ideational meaning: Prior to the students’ familiarity use of cohesive devices and theme pattern. For with the new curriculum, the students’ writing lacked example, as Kim commented, “The text is fluent, but explicit logical relationships, overused animate sub- there are places where the use of thematic progres- jects, including the first person, and verbs were chosen sion is not good.” “Try to use linguistic signals, such randomly (e.g., inappropriate use of there be struc- as, ‘in addition,’ when you split your main claim into ture). However, in the final writings submitted, the two sub-claims in one paragraph.” Kim also com- logical relationships between sentences had improved mented on another student’s writing, “The transition through the explicit use of linguistic markers (e.g., 10 SAGE Open however, as a result). There was also appropriate use of became better able to adjust to the teaching and learning of nominalized phrases or the third person (researchers’ online resources, along with teacher mediation, as shown names). In addition, appropriate verbs were chosen to when composing writing instead of focusing on structural show actions related to a topic, not random choices. rules (e.g., their understanding of cohesive devices and dis- Interpersonal meaning: In their early writings, the stu- course fluency or the use of implicit words denoting authors’ dents sometimes used spoken language (e.g., the use of attitudes). In this regard, while research exists that explores pretty as an intensifier). The students also used ques- the relationship between the use of online resources and the tions to emotionally engage readers. There was also development of students’ critical thinking skills, it has mainly inappropriate projection of personal comments through focused on the role of online resources as technology itself the use of the modal verb should. In addition, the stu- (e.g., the use of online discussion forums), and was centered dents’ writings made limited use of reporting verbs on speaking and listening (e.g., Yang & Chou, 2008; Yang (i.e., predominant use of “say,” regardless of the evi- et al., 2013). In contrast, this study particularly shows the dence available in the process of citation). However, in power of an SFL-based design of online materials in offering their latter writings, the students used written English students an in-depth understanding of linguistic resources to language to create a formal tone, and there was good construct meaning. In other words, this case study has filled control of evaluative language (e.g., flexible use of an important gap and contributed to research on the co-rela- modal verbs, not abusing the use of should; the use of tionship between online material development and critical non-adjectives to indirectly show evaluative stance). thinking in the writing classroom (cf. Taffs & Holt, 2013; They also projected their knowledge of semantic varia- Tomlinson, 2012). In addition, the finding illustrates the rela- tions of reporting verbs based on the strength of evi- tionships among students’ knowledge repertoire, teacher dence (e.g., flexible use of the words say, implicate, mediation, and learning motivation, in which the former two suggest, and claim). facilitate students’ learning engagement (Ushioda, 2011). Textural meaning: The students’ early writings lacked Most importantly, the finding empirically illuminates the the use of cohesive devices, and many sentences feasibility of an SFL-based design of online resources in fos- seemed isolated without connection. However, in their tering language learners’ critical thinking in the EFL class- latter writings, there was flexible use of cohesive room (Siegel & Carey, 1989). However, emerging literature devices (e.g., the use of lexical chain through syn- has merely demonstrated the positive impact of SFL on ESL onyms). They also used theme patterns (e.g., linear learners’ critical thinking in the traditional classroom where patterns that are characterized by starting sentences hardcopy textbooks are used (cf., Ryan, 2011). with similar semantic content) to create connections In addition, the SFL-based critical thinking, characterized between sentences. by students’ understanding of writing from the triadic rela- tionship among meaning, linguistic features, and context is As shown above, the students apparently displayed their crit- obviously more enriched thinking than what has been ical thinking skills in regulating their writing when con- revealed among EFL learners in previous studies (e.g., their structing or revising their own texts by the end of the awareness of challenging authority in the process of writing; semester, in comparison with their previous writing. As Clair Liu & Stapleton, 2014), in that it provides multiple con- further noted in the interview by the end of the semester, structs (e.g., register, lexico-grammar) for language learners’ “Using these dimensions [SFL-based constructs] and com- orchestration of cognitive activities (e.g., analysis or evalua- posing my writing beyond grammar . . . obviously refreshed tion). The study particularly reveals that the students’ SFL- my way of constructing academic writing and boosted my based critical thinking skills could be exemplified in their confidence.” literacy practices where they used their knowledge to ana- lyze and evaluate texts, and regulate writing. For instance, by utilizing their critical thinking, EFL students broke the Discussions and Implications silence in class and felt capable of projecting their critical In response to the importance of learning materials and edu- readership or authorship through analyzing and evaluating cators’ struggle for accessible tools to develop students’ criti- texts available to them in and out of their classroom. In addi- cal thinking skills in EFL classrooms, this study shows that tion, through a new curriculum, as shown in this study, the in a writing classroom that synergized online resources and EFL writers challenged their previous learning practices and SFL, students gained knowledge on how online linguistic regulated their own writing using the three dimensions from resources could be utilized for text analysis, evaluation, and SFL. In other words, the current study answered Mok’s regulation. Albeit, the process was not smooth in that their (2009) call for “creating a context that supports student adjustment was constrained by their first language back- inquiry, genuine communication and reflection in class” (p. ground and the contents of learning materials as well as their 265) and furthers our understanding of the role of SFL in previous learning experiences. However, with the increased supporting language learners’ critical thinking in the interna- knowledge gained from online resources, the students tional community (e.g., O’Hallaron et al., 2015). In the Zhang 11 meantime, these findings complement previous studies that expository writing; future research on developing language ignore linguistic challenges of EFL students and focus on learners’ critical thinking skills could be conducted on other teaching EFL students’ critical thinking at the non-linguistic genres of writing instruction (e.g., argumentative writing). level, such as questioning strategies (cf. DeWaelsche, 2015) Limitations of this study have to be acknowledged. First, or the use of counterargument in writing (e.g., Liu & the case study was only focused on three students. Their high Stapleton, 2014). proficiency in the English language may help facilitate their The findings of this study have several implications for adaptation to the curriculum. In addition, this study relied on enhancing EFL students’ critical thinking in academic writ- qualitative analyses of three EFL students’ writing and in- ing. First, given the importance of materials in the classroom, class performance. A quantitative analysis of more EFL stu- the urgent need to develop EFL students’ critical thinking, dents’ writing samples or an adoption of questionnaires to and the limited studies on SFL-based teacher education in survey students may provide further evidence of their critical EFL contexts (Zhang, 2017), it seems promising to promote thinking development. SFL-based language education and the use of online resources among educators, thus, providing them with an Declaration of Conflicting Interests accessible praxis and learning materials to harness when The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect developing students’ critical thinking in the language class- to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. room. Second, this study suggests that students’ silence or lack of critical thinking in EFL classrooms could be due to Funding their lack of a linguistic repertoire to participate in in-class The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support discussions. To promote in-class discussions, it seems plau- for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The sible to promote SFL in the language classroom (including project is funded by a grant from the Ministry of Education’s (MOE reading and writing literacy), so that students have more in China) key project of humanities and social sciences practical skills to use in critically deconstructing texts at (16JJD740002). multiple dimensions beyond the sentence level. Most impor- tantly, the study also suggests that exposing students to dual ORCID iD focus of language form and meaning in academic contexts Xiaodong Zhang https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7216-6542 may facilitate students’ development of critical thinking. In other words, second language acquisitions theories, such as References SFL, that emphasize the role of language as social semiotics, Bloom, B. S. (1956). Committee of college and university exam- may be taken into critical thinking–based classrooms. iners: Handbook 1 cognitive domain. New York, NY: David McKay. Creswell, J. W. (2012). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Conclusion Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. DeWaelsche, S. A. (2015). Critical thinking, questioning and Through a case study, this research shows that an SFL-based student engagement in Korean university English courses. design of online materials was helpful for developing stu- Linguistics and Education, 32, 131-147. dents’ knowledge of writing at the linguistic level in terms of Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2010). Disciplinary literacies the co-relationship between language form and meaning. across content areas: Supporting secondary reading through This facilitated students’ demonstration of critical thinking functional language analysis. Journal of Adolescent & Adult skills as student writers. Literacy, 53, 587-597. While this study aimed to reveal how the use of online Halliday, M. A. K. (1994). Introduction to functional grammar resources and SFL instruction impacted college EFL stu- (2nd ed.). London, England: Edward Arnold. dents’ critical thinking in academic writing, it is noteworthy Hyland, K. (2002). Options of identity in academic writing. ELT that the acquisition of SFL-related linguistic knowledge Journal, 56, 351-358. from online resources and its application in academic writing Lee, I. (2008). Student reactions to teacher feedback in two Hong Kong secondary classrooms. Journal of Second Language can be a slow process, depending on students’ language pro- Writing, 17, 144-164. ficiency or teachers’ instructional skills. In addition, argu- Lian, S. (1993). Contrastive studies of English and Chinese. ably, there are other important dimensions of critical thinking Beijing, China: Higher Education Press. related to academic writing that were not included in this Liu, F., & Stapleton, P. (2014). Counter argumentation and the culti- study as it was focused on students’ critical thinking at the vation of critical thinking in argumentative writing: Investigating linguistic dimension. Future research could adopt a longitu- washback from a high-stakes test. System, 45, 117-128. dinal case study approach to investigate the learning process Liu, M., & Jackson, J. (2008). An exploration of Chinese EFL in SFL instruction and identify the difficulties and challenges learners’ unwillingness to communicate and foreign language experienced by students while incorporating other potential anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 92, 71-86. strategies useful for students’ development of critical think- Macken-Horarik, M., Love, K., & Unsworth, L. (2011). A gram- ing skills. In addition, the current study zoomed in on matics “good enough” for school English in the 21st century: 12 SAGE Open Four challenges in realizing the potential. Australian Journal Taffs, K. H., & Holt, J. I. (2013). Investigating student use and value of Language and Literacy, 34, 9-23. of e-learning resources to develop academic writing within the McKinley, J. (2013). Displaying critical thinking in EFL academic discipline of environmental science. Journal of Geography in writing: A discussion of Japanese to English contrastive rheto- Higher Education, 37, 500-514. ric. RELC Journal, 44, 195-208. Tomlinson, B. (2012). Materials development for language learning Menkabu, A., & Harwood, N. (2014). Teachers’ conceptualization and teaching. Language Teaching, 45, 143-179. and use of the textbook on a medical English course. In N. Ushioda, E. (2011). Language learning motivation, self and iden- Harwood (Ed.), English language teaching textbooks: Content, tity: Current theoretical perspectives. Computer Assisted consumption, production (pp. 145-177). Basingstoke, UK: Language Learning, 24, 199-210. Palgrave Macmillan. Yang, Y. T. C., & Chou, H. A. (2008). Beyond critical thinking Mok, J. (2009). From policies to realities: Developing students’ skills: Investigating the relationship between critical thinking critical thinking in Hong Kong secondary school English writ- skills and dispositions through different online instructional ing classes. RELC Journal, 40, 262-279. strategies. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39, Nold, H. (2017). Using critical thinking teaching methods to increase 666-684. student success: An action research project. International Yang, Y. T. C., Chuang, Y. C., Li, L. Y., & Tseng, S. S. (2013). A Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 29, 17-32. blended learning environment for individualized English lis- O’Hallaron, C. L., Palincsar, A. S., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2015). tening and speaking integrating critical thinking. Computers & Reading science: Using systemic functional linguistics to support Education, 63, 285-305. critical language awareness. Linguistics and Education, 32, 55-67. You, X. (2004). “The choice made from no choice”: English writ- O’Halloran, K. L., Tan, S. E., & Marissa, K. L. (2017). Multimodal ing instruction in a Chinese University. Journal of Second analysis for critical thinking. Learning, Media and Technology, Language Writing, 13, 97-110. 42, 147-170. Zhang, X. (2017). Exploring a novice Chinese EFL teacher’s writ- Pally, M. (2001). Skills development in “sustained” content-based ing beliefs and practices: A systemic functional perspective. curricula: Case studies in analytical/critical thinking and aca- International Journal of Language Studies, 11, 95-118. demic writing. Language and Education, 15, 279-305. Zhang, X. (2018). Connecting OER with mandatory textbooks in an Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Critical thinking: Tools for taking EFL classroom: A language theory–based material adoption. charge of your professional and personal life. Upper Saddle International Review of Research in Open and Distributed River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Learning, 19, 89-110. Rose, D., & Martin, J. R. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney school. Author Biography London, England: Equinox. Xiaodong Zhang is an assistant professor at Beijing Foreign Ryan, M. (2011). Improving reflective writing in higher education: Studies University, China. He holds a PhD degree in Linguistics A social semiotic perspective. Teaching in Higher Education, (University of Georgia). His research interests include teacher edu- 16, 99-111. cation, second language writing, and systemic functional linguis- Siegel, M., & Carey, R. (1989). Critical thinking: A semiotic tics. His work has appeared in international journals, such as perspective (Monographs on Teaching Critical Thinking, Linguistics and Education (Elsevier), Journal of Language and No. 1). Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading Cultural Education (De Gruyter), International Review of Research and Communication Skills. in Open and Distributed Learning, and Croatian Journal of Sun, Y. (2011). Toward a critical thinking-oriented curriculum for English majors. Foreign Languages in China, 8, 49-58. Education. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png SAGE Open SAGE

Developing College EFL Writers’ Critical Thinking Skills Through Online Resources: A Case Study:

SAGE Open , Volume 8 (4): 1 – Dec 21, 2018

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Abstract

This study reports on how the supplementation of online resources, informed by systemic functional linguistics (SFL), impacted English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) student writers’ development of critical thinking skills. Through qualitative analyses of student-teacher interactions, interviews with students, and students’ written documents, the case study shows that through 1 semester of intensive exposure to SFL-based online resources in a college Chinese EFL writing classroom, EFL writers were able to develop critical thinking skills in regard to the construction of effective academic writing, although it was a process of encountering and overcoming challenges. Through teacher mediation and their own efforts, they could adjust to the online resources-based classroom, exemplified by their utilization of SFL-related categories offered through online resources to analyze and evaluate the interrelationship between language features and the content manifested in valued texts, and regulate the content of their own academic writing. Keywords academic writing, critical thinking, EFL learners, online resources, systemic functional linguistics content and language levels (Mok, 2009). In EFL writing Introduction contexts, teaching critical thinking skills is, in addition, chal- Developing students’ critical thinking skills has been a cru- lenged by conventional classroom practices in which teach- cial component of the language teaching curriculum, as it ers often lack effective educational training and are fosters students’ abilities to analyze and evaluate informa- constrained by the contents of the textbook, leading to a sce- tion, as well as to make their own decisions related to their nario where teachers dominate the classroom and provide academic success (Nold, 2017). Take academic English writ- limited space for students’ development of critical thinking ing as an example. Experienced writers have to construct (DeWaelsche, 2015; Zhang, 2017). In other words, there is a texts at the dual levels of content and language as endorsed lack of effective learning materials and teaching strategies in by academic English communities (Fang & Schleppegrell, EFL contexts that can cement critical thinking skills with 2010). This means that English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) writing construction and help students harness contextually writers have to gain corresponding critical thinking skills, embedded linguistic choices to compose effective writing and through them, deconstruct valued English texts and con- (Rose & Martin, 2012). Therefore, this case study attempts to struct their own content on the two levels, projecting their explore how a language learning theory (i.e., systemic func- professional identity as culturally and linguistically endorsed tional linguistics [SFL]) based on the adoption and use of academic writers (Hyland, 2002). instructional resources (i.e., online resources) can help EFL Unfortunately, despite the importance of critical thinking writers critically navigate the complexities of academic writ- skills in the process of writing construction, they are still ing literacy on the levels of both language and content. It largely ignored in the writing classroom, which primarily focuses on the teaching of grammar or structure and hampers students from composing effective essays (Lee, 2008; Zhang, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China 2017). Even in international communities that try to develop Corresponding Author: English writers’ critical thinking skills, actual writing teach- Xiaodong Zhang, School of English and International Studies, Beijing ing practices are still limited to non-linguistic strategies (e.g., Foreign Studies University, No. 2 North Xisanhuan Road, Beijing 100089, using questions), which are often too abstract or inaccessible China. Email: zxdman588@gmail.com for students’ writing literacy development on both the Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 SAGE Open aims to call EFL writing teachers’ attention to the importance Indeed, students’ success in academic writing is contin- of teaching critical thinking skills as well as to provide them gent on construing meaningful discourse with contextually with an accessible tool for adopting and using supplementary appropriate linguistic choices (i.e., grammar and vocabulary; materials in the classroom while developing their students’ Pally, 2001). To train successful EFL writers, teachers have critical thinking skills in regard to the construction of effec- to guide students through critical analysis, evaluating texts, tive writing. and regulating their own writing in terms of both language choices and meaning. As such, Siegel and Carey (1989) argued that “having a theory of critical thinking in which lan- Theoretical Framework guage plays a key role opens up instructional potentials” (p. 9), which may help students with critical appropriation or Critical Thinking Skills the construction of meaningful English discourse. In other The core tenets of critical thinking skills related to English words, a theory-driven curriculum that guides students in language learners reside in their understanding of language understanding and harnessing the correlation between lin- as semiotic resources to participate in discourses and their guistic features and content construction would be poten- ability to analyze, evaluate, and regulate communicative dis- tially optimal for critical writing instruction. courses (Bloom, 1956; O’Halloran, Tan, & Marissa, 2017; The compatibility between Halliday’s (1994) systemic Paul & Elder, 2013; Siegel & Carey, 1989). However, the functional linguistics (SFL) as a language learning theory existing research on EFL learners’ critical thinking skills has and the development of EFL writers’ critical thinking skills either focused on whether students have critical thinking resides in SFL’s multilayer constructs for demystifying a par- skills or how students’ critical thinking skills are exemplified ticular communicative discourse (e.g., writing) through from a non-linguistic perspective; that is, how students dem- unpacking the relationship among linguistic choices, mean- onstrate their ability to analyze or evaluate authors’ or teach- ing (i.e., the content of discourses), and context (e.g., the ers’ challenging texts while expressing their own voice. For context of academic writing). As such, SFL as a learning example, DeWaelsche (2015), on the basis of Korean theory synergizes nicely with the demand for explicit teach- English-major students’ responses and interviews over a ing of critical thinking skills in the writing classroom, which semester conversation course, showed that teachers’ ques- are needed to analyze and evaluate texts, and to produce tioning was useful for students’ development of their critical similar texts that demand contextually appropriate language thinking skills whereby students became actively engaged in resources (Ryan, 2011; Siegel & Carey, 1989). talking about specific topics. Worse still, even less empirical research has been con- SFL as a Teaching Praxis ducted to investigate EFL students’ critical thinking skills related to academic writing instruction and learning, although In particular, SFL as a comprehensive language learning the- academic writing and critical thinking are intertwined and ory offers the following constructs to critically deconstruct are germane to students’ academic success (McKinley, 2013; valued academic texts and construct writing at the level of Sun, 2011). Among the limited studies on writing and critical meaning and linguistic features. That is, at a macro-level, the thinking skills in EFL contexts, Liu and Stapleton (2014) context of culture shows how a text serves different purposes revealed that Chinese college students who were taught (e.g., to inform) and organizes meaning in a specified way counterargument gained enhanced critical thinking skills in (e.g., the structure of introduction, body, and conclusion in an analyzing and evaluating different opinions in academic expository essay). Within the context of culture, the context writing. Similar to this study, which emphasizes non-linguis- of situation provides three variables, further anchoring the tic teaching strategies and equates students’ critical thinking background of human communication: field (the communica- skills with their general learning skills in evaluating or ana- tion event), tenor (the interrelationship between those lyzing discourse contents, McKinley (2013), in a discussion involved in communication), and mode (the channel of com- paper, also suggested that argument-based writing was an munication). Responding respectively to the three contexts of optimal way to train students’ critical thinking as it helped situational variables, the three meta-meanings of a discourse them analyze and evaluate different types of evidence and are highlighted in the context of situation, and are ultimately project authorial stances. Apparently, along with the tradi- organized in response to the context of culture. That is, ide- tional line of research in EFL educational settings, which has ational meaning is the manifestation of field, representing the centered on providing non-linguistic strategies and equated discourse composers’ experiences of this world and the logic- critical thinking with students’ general cognitive skills, there semantic relationship between events. Interpersonal meaning is also a lack of praxis that explicitly and conveniently guides is the manifestation of tenor, showing how discourse compos- EFL writers’ development of their critical thinking skills in ers negotiate within and out of a text (i.e., speech function) as regard to the creation of meaningful texts at the linguistic well as their evaluative stances (i.e., appraisal system). level, although it is also closely related to students’ writing Textual meaning, as a realization of mode, focuses on the success (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010). organization or the fluency of a text. Most importantly, the Zhang 3 construct of lexico-grammar in SFL serves as an interface in E-Learning Resources as Learning the process of realizing the three meta-meanings in language Materials communication as this construct provides categories to fur- ther deconstruct or construct the meaning/content of texts. Many studies have documented the importance of materials That is, for ideational meaning, major categories include par- in the language learning classroom in both ESL and EFL ticipants (noun phrases), process (verb phrases), and circum- contexts (e.g., Tomlinson, 2012; Zhang, 2018). Namely, they stances (prepositional phrases). For interpersonal meaning, are the resources students and teachers depend on to deliver major categories are subject (in the traditional sense), predi- and accumulate knowledge, respectively. Unfortunately, no cate (in the traditional sense), residue (adverbial phrases, textbook is perfect, which could be due to a variety of fac- prepositional phrases), and appraisal resources that include tors, such as textbook editors’ understanding of language the use of lexical resources (adjectives or non-adjectives) in learning theory or the demand of a market that might only explicitly or implicitly projecting authorial stance (i.e., atti- prefer a particular dimension of language knowledge, for tude), or showing the source and certainty of information example, speaking (Tomlinson, 2012; You, 2004; Zhang, (i.e., engagement) and intensifying/weakening information 2017). For instance, in the EFL context, writing textbooks is (i.e., graduation). For textual meaning, major categories are mainly concerned with the structure or grammar of writing theme (i.e., the starting point of a sentence), rheme (i.e., the (Menkabu & Harwood, 2014; You, 2004). As a result, teach- rest of a sentence), and cohesive devices (e.g., conjunction ers and students who rely on textbooks often feel poorly words, synonyms). Through these categories, typical features guided in the construction of critical writing at both the lan- of academic writing have been illuminated, such as the use of guage and meaning levels, which call for the adoption of inanimate participants (e.g., nominalization) and implicit learning materials to supplement the textbook, such as online evaluative resources or frequent use of engagement resources resources, because of their easy and free access on the to enhance the reliability of the content in expository writing Internet (Zhang, 2018). (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010). In sum, the multiple layers in However, research on online resources in relation to writ- SFL offer a visible and accessible tool for demystifying aca- ing instruction is still limited. Relevant studies on online demic texts and fostering student writers’ critical thinking resources have focused on the convenience of online skills through a linguistic channel. resources as a technological tool to facilitate students’ learn- Indeed, recent SFL-based research in English-as-a- ing, such as computer-student interactions, in comparison second-language (ESL) contexts has emerged regarding how with traditional classroom interactions (Yang, Chuang, Li, & students become more engaged in critically talking about Tseng, 2013). texts and constructing their own texts. For example, in an In addition, while online resources have been used to pro- Australian university, Ryan (2011) reported that the teaching mote language learners’ critical thinking skills, this line of of SFL, especially the ideational and textual meaning con- research is limited to speaking and listening (e.g., Yang & structs, enabled students to critically deconstruct texts and Chou, 2008; Yang et al., 2013); almost no research has par- project the academically endorsed content with appropriate ticularly showcased the relationship between students’ criti- features (e.g., nominalization, and the use of cohesive ties cal thinking skills and online resources in the writing such as conjunction words) when writing a reflection on their classroom. Even among the research on online resources and field experiences in a local elementary school. Similarly, in critical thinking skills, studies along these lines have primar- an ESL elementary classroom in the United States, ily focused on using online technology itself, such as discus- O’Hallaron, Palincsar, and Schleppegrell (2015) showed that sion forums, to facilitate language learners’ critical thinking explicit teaching of the SFL-based appraisal system and its skills in dealing with discourse content. For example, in embedded linguistic realization enabled students to gain a Yang et al.’s (2013) research, which focused on a semester- critical perspective on information texts, in which they could long general education course in a university in Taiwan, their analyze and evaluate the social relationships hidden in texts quantitative research demonstrated that through an online by observing the lexico-grammatical resources used (e.g., platform as well as teacher mediation, students became able fortunately and interestingly), and transfer these critical to actively invest themselves in analyzing or evaluating lis- insights into their own written texts. In other words, as Fang tening or speaking content. Regarding this issue, researchers and Schleppegrell (2010) noted, SFL’s “focus is not on anal- have called for attention to be paid to the pedagogical design ysis for its own sake, but analysis to get at meanings so that of online resources and to focus more on the way of using students learn content at the same time they develop critical and implementing online resources as learning materials in thinking skill. . . .” (p. 596). the classroom (Taffs & Holt, 2013; Zhang, 2018). Given the Despite the potential of SFL instruction to enhance stu- integrated relationship between language and meaning dents’ critical thinking and develop their English academic embedded in writing, it seems worthwhile to explore the use writing, a paucity of relevant empirical research has been con- of online resources as learning materials to impart the inter- ducted in EFL contexts. This was also exacerbated by a lack of play between language and meaning and engage students in relevant teaching materials in the classroom (Zhang, 2018). critically understanding and composing writing. 4 SAGE Open As seen above, SFL can potentially help students to criti- classroom did not have SFL-related knowledge, as it mainly cally understand writing as a meaningful and linguistic unit included reading texts and only sporadically mentioned rel- through its multiple layers. In addition, it seems helpful to evant knowledge (e.g., cohesion) without elaborated expla- use online resources as learning materials in EFL writing nations. As such, the SFL-based materials were mainly contexts. As such, this case study explores, (a) how students collected from the Internet, including audio and video adapt to an SFL-based curriculum design that included the resources. Each time, these material resources were sent to use of online resources as learning materials, and (b) how the students via e-mail beforehand when one construct of SFL curriculum assisted EFL students with critically engaging in was to be instructed (e.g., genre, register, three meanings). writing literacy. The purpose of this research is aimed at pre- After in-class teaching of the online resources, additional senting innovative ways of material use and the instruction materials were also sent to the students for the purpose of of critical thinking skills in the writing classroom. clarifying or practicing the knowledge they had learned or for further readings. The ultimate purpose was focused on mediating students’ ability to analyze and evaluate the fea- Research Method tures of texts used in the classroom, and ultimately become regulatory in their own writing. Research Context: Participants and Curriculum Every time a construct was taught, the instructor (the Content author of the study) followed the pattern of joint decon- The study was conducted in a weekly, semester-long exposi- struction of sample texts where he guided the students in tory writing course at a top university that is reputed for its critically understanding sample texts, eventually leading English teaching in China. Students who attended this course them to independent deconstruction (Rose & Martin, 2012), were second-semester freshmen English-major students, all unearthing the interaction between meaning and linguistic of whom had just learned narrative writing. All of them were resources in texts. The sample texts for each subtype of informed of the nature of the study at the beginning of the expository writing (e.g., compare and contrast, exemplifi- semester. They all agreed to join in this project, and none cation) included quality writing in the textbook, online withdrew from the project when their final grade was posted. resources from authoritative publishing houses that were In particular, prior to the pre-project survey, students were verified by English language literacy experts who speak asked about their core knowledge relative to critical thinking English as their native language, as well as students’ work skills as EFL writers (e.g., analysis, evaluation, and regula- that needed to be improved. In addition, students’ indepen- tion) as well as their experiences with online resources as dent writing was required, although written feedback and learning resources. Unfortunately, the writing knowledge of after-class oral feedback (both of which were provided in the surveyed students had been mainly constrained to mak- indirect ways) were offered. The reason for providing indi- ing grammatically correct sentences in writing or reading rect feedback (such as, do you think we need to replace the texts, with vague awareness of constructing meaningful writ- verb in the one with less semantic load?) was to encourage ten content. In addition, their previous exposure to online students to use their newly found SFL knowledge to revise resources was primarily limited to the use of gathering ideas their writing in as many rounds as possible, and meet the for a writing topic. During the project, three students— standards of being an effective writer on both the language Laura, Clair, and Kim (all pseudonyms)—were selected as and meaning levels. focal students, although the whole class was willing to par- Arguably, SFL can be complex and not easy to under- ticipate in this study. The three students were selected stand. The researcher, as an expert in SFL, used the plainest because they were similar to other classmates or those in a words possible and the students’ first language when teach- larger EFL context who lacked critical thinking skills as EFL ing the theory. Indeed, the SFL-related pedagogy is not to writers and who relied on the textbook for learning writing train students to become linguists but to afford them the most (DeWaelsche, 2015; Zhang, 2018). More important, they felt accessible explanation of the myth of academic writing comfortable about sharing their in-class and out-of-class (Macken-Horarik, Love, & Unsworth, 2011). Because of stu- writing pieces, including their essays and reflections, and dents’ language proficiency in the English language, the they also felt comfortable about being interviewed several teaching process was complex but still manageable. times for this project, which also ensured the ethical appro- priateness of this study. Data Collection and Analysis Over the semester, the course began with teaching the basic elements of the expository essay (e.g., the structure of Data were collected over the academic semester. Included an expository essay). Following that, the course started to were a pre-study survey, audio-recordings of student-teacher zoom in on developing students’ critical understanding of interactions, students’ written documents, peer comments, writing in terms of the co-relationship between language and students’ reflections over the course of the semester, resources and meaning making from the perspective of SFL. along with interviews over the academic semester. In partic- Understandably, the mandatory textbook used in the ular, audio-recordings of student-teacher interactions in the Zhang 5 writing course were collected across the semester in align- Research Question 1: How did students adapt to the ment with the researcher’s observations/field notes. Students’ online resources-based classroom? peer comments for each essay (one round for each essay) and writing samples (four expository essays with a word count of Students’ Initial Perception of Online Resources approximately 500 words, excluding references) were also as Informal Learning Materials collected. In addition, multiple rounds of interviews across the semester and the students’ biweekly written reflections The students did not take online resources seriously. For on their learning experiences with SFL-based writing instruc- them, these were only ancillary materials as they had associ- tion were also collected. It has to be noted that interviews ated the learning of mandatory textbooks with formal educa- were conducted in students’ first language (i.e., Chinese) to tion. As Laura said, best elicit their response. They were translated into English and reported in this study for the sake of the international We never used such a large number of online resources as audience. learning resources . . . I feel kind of funny . . . although the contents of these online learning resources are new. A qualitative content analysis scheme was mainly used to analyze and code the multiple sources of data, where data Echoing Kim, she also said, sets were triangulated and constantly compared and rejected to ensure the trustworthiness of the analysis (Creswell, I am not saying online resources are not good or useful . . . I have 2012). In particular, data analysis was conducted in the origi- just never been exposed to such a teaching and learning style. nal language (e.g., students’ interviews were conducted in Chinese, but classroom interactions and students’ reflections Apparently, the students’ previous learning style (textbook- were in English). Following this, a deductive coding of a based) had remained ingrained. In this context, it would be chain of data was conducted to reveal categories (e.g., stu- no surprise that they would not invest much of themselves in dents’ perceptions of online resources, their struggle with the learning the online resources right away. The students’ deci- different learning styles, or their reactions to SFL’s perspec- sion to learn the content of online resources was seemingly tive on writing), which were combined to generate salient because they were part of obligatory learning content in the themes in relation to the research questions (i.e., trajectory of class. As Clair said in the interview, “either way we had to being critical thinkers while learning academic writing from learn them [online resources] since they are part of required an SFL-based perspective). The students’ own writings learning.” In other words, while they were not completely (including what they wrote both at the beginning and at the resistant to the use of online resources, the students’ learning end of the semester) and their feedback as peer reviewers of them initially seemed tinged with their passivity and did were analyzed through codes from SFL (e.g., the linguistic so to fulfill curricular requirements. features, three meta-meanings) to investigate the develop- ment of their critical thinking skills (O’Halloran et al., 2017; Pally, 2001). A colleague in the field of qualitative research Adjustment Facilitated by Knowledge Repertoire also volunteered to check and agreed with the analyses; peer The students’ initial reaction to online resources seemed par- debriefing was also harnessed to mitigate potential biases of ticularly related to the learning styles they had been exposed the data analysis. to and caused their initial adjustment difficulties. Nevertheless, learning new knowledge and their experience Findings with the usefulness of the new knowledge from online resources seemed to help galvanize their interest in continu- Compared with the pre-study survey, which showed that ing their learning. For instance, in the curriculum, textual students’ knowledge of writing was constrained to struc- meaning and related linguistic manifestation were first taught tural accuracy as well as their limited experiences with to the students, which consumed about 2 weeks in and out of online resources, over the semester, the students constructed class. During this time, students learned more about the role their understanding of the value of online resources as of not only conjunction words (part of which could be found learning materials, through which they developed an aware- in their textbook), but also thematic progression, which had ness of the use of language resources in constructing or never been taught before. Because of this, the students deconstructing writing content on both the language and seemed more open to using online resources in the class- meaning levels, although not fully fledged, along with a room. As Laura mentioned in the reflection, “The knowledge zigzag trajectory. In particular, student writers could con- offered in the online resources is new and I have never expe- duct analysis, and evaluate and regulate the appropriateness rienced this before . . . more importantly, they clarified and of a text at the language and meaning levels, showing the enhanced my previous understanding.” Indeed, as shown in development of their critical thinking skills as academic the pre-survey, students had knowledge about the use of con- writers. The following subsections illuminate the trajectory junction words, but they did not know why; instead, they just of their development. 6 SAGE Open accepted it passively and as rules. In other words, the stu- However, the challenges the students encountered were dents felt motivated to learn online resources, in contrast also related to the specific demand of expository writing, with their previous learning and passive reaction to online where supporting details are supposed to be fact-based. Yet, resources. Because of their experience with the power of lan- in the students’ writing, they could not understand the value guage knowledge offered by online resources, their increased of the appraisal system to support their construction of sup- language knowledge and positive experiences served as a porting details. As Kim said, catalyst for their engagement in a new curriculum. I understand it [the appraisal system] talks about how to convey interpersonal meaning. But how can I relate the knowledge to Challenges Posed to Students’ Adaption my expository writing? This still looks difficult to me? Maybe I am not very familiar with the expectations of expository writing Yet, the progressive knowledge conveyed from the online . . . and the appraisal system. materials seemed to emotionally frustrate the students from time to time, exemplified by their dual challenges of both Indeed, in the students’ writing, personal comments were understanding and practicing the newly gained knowledge. often infused in places where facts or details should have Indeed, when the researcher first introduced the theory in a been provided. For example, when Kim elaborated on how broad way, emphasizing the importance of meaning making carbon dioxide impacted global warming, she mentioned her in context, this was met with students’ inactive responses in personal comment (“Therefore, we should use low carbon class. For example, students would be very reticent to par- fuels”; field notes), where the modal verb should carries a ticipate in dialoguing with the instructor, especially in the strong personal position. This may only be explained by her initial phase of learning SFL (field notes). This especially immature knowledge of the appraisal system as well as occurred at the dimension of the way to present logical rela- generic expectations of expository writing as shown in her tionships (a component of ideational meaning) and the way interview. to project appraisal resources. For example, the students could not project logical connections well through the use of Mediation and Self-Agency as a Way of explicit connectors (e.g., because, although, and however), Expediting Students’ Transition to the Curriculum although in their reflections, they felt that they were learning the new knowledge. This seems to stem from the interven- The student writers’ struggle with SFL, however, was con- tion of their first language background. As Clair said, stantly offset by their teacher’s mediation and their own determination to better themselves. As Kim mentioned in her I understand the expectations of English discourse and the reflection, generic expectations of expository writing in terms of logical relationships, but this seems different from my first language Of course, learning each construct is not easy . . . as it is very where explicit logic connectors are not required. different from what we have learned or emphasized . . . but since we already have extensive knowledge of grammar, we should Indeed, in the students’ first language (i.e., Chinese), its dis- learn something new . . . also, in class and out of class, my teacher used our first language or daily examples to explain this course generally expects readers to decode meaning (Lian, theory . . . it really helps clarify my confusion and calm me 1993). As such, it is no surprise that logical relationships down in the face of the new knowledge. were not well demonstrated by the students. The apparent frustration among these students seemed Obviously, as advanced language learners who were knowl- related to their difficulty in understanding the SFL theory edgeable about structural grammar, the students wanted to within a short period in class as well as their previous educa- improve. This actually galvanized students in overcoming tion. As Clair said in the interview, their difficulties associated with learning SFL’s multiple con- structs; the students’ alignment with SFL was further The SFL looks rather promising in helping me become a better enhanced because of their teacher’s multiple ways of media- English learner and know more about how to compose effective essays. However, I just have no linguistic background . . . so it tion in and out of class, allowing them to gain a better under- takes me time to understand this . . . also SFL emphasizes things standing of SFL. This occurred in the latter half of the differently from what I have learned [grammar-based writing] . academic semester. . . It also takes time for me to shift my perspective. EFL writers’ critical understanding of writing gained from online In this regard, students’ previous educational exposure that resources in relation to the construct of register. Students’ was primarily focused on the sentential accuracy of writing familiarity with register gradually offered them three vari- hampered their transition into the curriculum where the per- ables in contextually understanding the content constructed spective on writing was in sharp contrast with their previous in written texts, empowering them with a critical lens into the understanding, which was exacerbated by intensive relationship between context and text content. As Laura said learning. in the interview, Zhang 7 I knew there was difference between spoken English and written I can now tell the explicit attitude of authors, but also nuanced English. But I just did not know why it was the case . . . The attitude . . . in reading texts . . . such as the way they use verbs . construct [register] shows me and [now] I know why; this is . . Once I read a computer and life text . . . the author used the related to the contextual variables of writing [field, tenor and verb “revolutionized” . . . This implicitly showed how the author mode]. actively aligned with technology. As shown from the above excerpt, the students transitioned In other words, the interpersonal meaning and its subcate- from being mechanical language learners who focused on gory (i.e., appraisal system) helped students transcend the structural accuracy to ones who could view writing as con- literal meaning and understand the evaluative stance of texts, textually embedded activities. which added to their repertoire of critical thinking skills. The three meta-meanings–based critical understanding gained Textual meaning and students’ critical understanding. The from online learning materials. The SFL-based three meta- construct of textual meaning afforded students’ awareness of meanings enabled students to go beyond their habitual focus how information is organized in sample texts and their own on literal meaning and also overcome their habit of relying texts. As shown in the students’ interviews, on their intuition when decoding the content of written dis- Kim: I can tell most materials are coherent through the use of course. Instead, they transitioned into students who can conjunction words or lexical cohesion . . . but my writing was attend to all three meanings constructed in the content of missing this somehow . . . and I was not aware of this . . . because written texts. I had no idea. Ideational meaning and students’ critical understanding. The Laura: Grammatical conjunction is fine. I know this . . . But I construct of ideational meaning helped the EFL students feel theme-rheme pattern and lexical cohesion are really new understand logical meanings in texts, which were not empha- to me . . . They also help me analyze sample texts or regulate sized in their first language and were underexplored in their my own writing through connecting back to grammatical previous English writing classrooms. As Kim noted, cohesion. The construct reminds me of the logical relationship . . . My That is, the construct of textual meaning prompted them to previous teacher did not mention this . . . and I also feel Chinese think about the fluency and meaning organization in terms of does not highlight this . . . Knowing this, I keep reminding analyzing, evaluating, or regulating texts. myself to watch this in sample texts and think about it during my own writing, in addition to understanding the importance of Lexico-grammar categories and students’ critical under- using topic-related words. standing. This construct is closely linked to the three meta- meanings, which enhanced students’ writing knowledge by In other words, because of the negative influence of their providing linguistic categories that are related to encoding previous learning experiences with their first language (i.e., or decoding meaning, such as “participants,” “theme,” and Chinese) or in prior English classrooms, the students had “cohesive devices,” and enabled students to compare fea- ignored logical relationships within their writing (Lian, tures of the texts. For instance, Clair mentioned in her reflec- 1993). The construct of SFL-based ideational meaning tion, enhanced the students’ awareness of the literal meaning of the text, particularly by emphasizing the logical relationship The categories offer another layer of sources in showing how as a part of the students’ knowledge base of text deconstruc- meaning is encoded in texts . . . I can use these categories to tion or construction. analyze and compare meanings in a really clear way . . . everything can be labeled . . . and I won’t feel lost. Interpersonal meaning and students’ critical understand- ing. Over time, the students seemed reactive to the role of Thus, the students’ writing knowledge in terms of analysis, the appraisal system in analyzing, evaluating, or regulating evaluation, or regulation developed on a scale of visibility texts. For instance, Laura wrote in her reflection, from register to lexico-grammar. At the level of lexico-gram- mar, the students’ experiences with the linguistic codes par- I had an attitude when I wrote an essay on the difference between ticularly broadened their perspective of SFL as a tool for college and high school . . . I used “students always need to learn critically constructing or deconstructing texts by focusing on as much as possible.” The “always,” when connected with the lexico-grammatical choices. appraisal system, helped me realize that I am actually biased toward college life. Research Question 2: How did SFL-based learning In a similar vein, Clair also mentioned in the interview, impact EFL student writers’ critical thinking skills? 8 SAGE Open Teacher: How? How can you tell, I mean? Critical Thinking Skills: Using the SFL-Based Laura: The author used “unexpected” to indicate Knowledge in Analyzing Texts? Kublai Khan’s failure connected to the monsoon. I The dialogues below were centered on a cause-effect sample think the word shows that the author is nice to text (the effects of weather on Kublai Khan), which was Kublai Khan. selected from the Cengage Publishing House and is down- Teacher: Nice . . . you see . . . exposition is about loadable online. As usual, following their familiarity with showing information objectively . . . but there are contextual background (e.g., information about a specific still explicit or implicit (like you see here) words type of expository essay), the students were invited to talk that may show an author’s stance. about the texts or decode the texts before they wrote their Students: That is amazing. own. To better show how students demonstrated their SFL- based skills in the classroom, the following selected excerpts As shown in the excerpt, Laura utilized the knowledge of the center on the three focal students. It has to be noted that the SFL-based appraisal system, speaking about the realization dialogues occurred in the latter half of the semester when the of interpersonal meaning at the level of the texts, and she was students had mastered sufficient knowledge of SFL. able to see how an academic writer shuffles between being The dialogue excerpt below shows how students could objective and evaluative, as shown by Laura’s identification apply their knowledge of ideational meaning gained from of the implicit appraisal resource “unexpected” in the above online resources: dialogue. Another dimension of SFL-related textual meaning was Teacher: It is about the effect of monsoons, right? In also demonstrated by students’ practices, as illuminated by terms of ideational meaning, can you tell me the using more than conjunction words to unpack the mecha- features of the participant and the process? [The nism of written discourse. For instance: teacher also repeated the same meaning in Chinese]. Any volunteers? Who can tell me? Teacher: Now let’s look at the cohesion. Is the text Clair: Yes, they [participants] are all Kublai Khan . . . fluent? and they [participants] are all action verbs. Students: (pause for a few seconds) Yes. Teacher: So, why is that the case? Teacher: How? And can you tell me in an explicit Clair: It is because it is related to the topic . . . the way?(Students talk to each other) thesis is about cause and effect . . . and action verbs Kim: It is like a constant theme pattern. can vigorously show this event . . . to readers. Teacher: Great . . . so we can learn from it, right? Any Teacher: Great. Those are the linguistic features of the other cohesive devices? ideational meaning in this work . . . Nice job. Clair: Conjunction words, indicating cause and effect relationship. As shown in this excerpt, with the teacher’s minimal guid- Teacher: Great . . . Now tell me your overall impression. ance that featured SFL-based linguistic constructs as well as Students: Really fluent and good. the students’ first language (i.e., Chinese), Clair obviously picked up on the instructor’s cues, elaborating on how par- Kim and Clair also used SFL-based constructs to discuss ticipants and verbs were contextually selected to show the how the text was constructed in a fluent way by analyzing causal relationship in the text. Also, Clair was able to use an and evaluating the texts through “theme” and “cohesive SFL perspective to explain why the ideational content was ties.” This was in sharp contrast with their performance at the constructed through the key linguistic resources (e.g., action beginning of the semester when they did not know about verbs and processes), indicating her skill in verbalizing her drawing on the knowledge and the theme knowledge in critical thinking from the perspective of SFL. deconstructing written discourse. In terms of interpersonal meaning, the students also Indeed, at the beginning of the semester, when the students seemed to actively decode the interpersonal meaning by were not familiar with the theory of SFL, they tended to be unearthing implicit or explicit lexico-grammatical quiet and unwilling to participate in classroom discussions resources. (observation notes; M. Liu & Jackson, 2008). Echoing inter- view excerpts about the development of their SFL-based writ- Teacher: What is your overall impression of the text? ing knowledge, the dialogue excerpts above illustrate that the Subjective or objective? students were able to use the SFL-based knowledge in the Students: (following a round of discussion) Objective. actual classroom and actively engage in analyzing a writing Teacher: Good. But is it really objective? sample, obviously overcoming their prior knowledge that was Laura: No . . . but I think I can see the author’s limited to grammatical accuracy or learning new words. attitude? Zhang 9 from background information to your thesis is not Critical Thinking Skills: Using SFL-Based smooth.” Knowledge to Make Evaluations The focal students’ ability to make evaluations was particu- As shown above, the three students adroitly commented on larly exemplified in their capacity as peer evaluators. It has their classmates’ writing from the three dimensions, such as to be noted that the students were not fully developed as pro- the appropriate use of modal verbs in relation to evidence. fessional academic writers. The three focal students, like other students in the classroom, still had some writing issues Critical Thinking Skills: Using SFL-Based even at the end of the semester. What is noteworthy, how- Knowledge in Independently Regulating Writing ever, is that the focal students, as representatives of the whole class, developed the ability to make evaluations, which they The EFL students gradually projected their self-regulation as did not have before. As Kim said, advanced academic writers. Again, it has to be noted that their self-regulation was not fully developed. Rather, the As a peer evaluator, I also can have more to offer aside from self-regulation was more related to the students’ ability to grammatical accuracy. It is like making decisions or more than make revisions from their instructor’s or classmates’ implicit just that . . . I can help double-check the appropriateness of my feedback. As Clair said, peer classmates’ meaning realization by focusing on those linguistic devices. Through constant practice in class, I could also apply it to checking my own writing upon completion . . . though I might Indeed, the three students adroitly commented on their class- miss something . . . but it does help me to make revisions on my mates’ writing from the three dimensions, such as the appro- own. priate use of modal verbs in relation to evidence. Exemplification of the students’ critical thinking through As seen from the above excerpt, the students’ mastery of evaluating their classmates’ writings are shown as follows: hands-on skills also enabled them to go beyond their knowl- edge boundary and realize the importance of regulating their Ideational meaning: The students could evaluate the ide- own writing. ational meaning of their classmates’ writings, includ- Indeed, over the semester, the students were requested to ing their choice of verbs or participants as well as the improve their writing following their instructor’s or their logical relationships. For instance, Laura commented classmates’ implicit feedback on the levels of language and on her classmate’s essay that “It [the writing] is clear content (the three meanings; e.g., Do you think these para- and logical. The author used proper words and brings graphs are logically connected? Do you think it is a good readers close to the text.” Laura also commented on lexical choice here?). An SFL-based analysis conducted on another classmate’s essay that “[please] watch the cir- the students’ early writings and final writings showed that cular reasoning here when you make interpretations.” the three focal students’ critical thinking skills in regulation Interpersonal meaning: The students could comment on were obviously mapped to their own writings, which sug- the appraisal resources used in their classmates’ writ- gests an increased imprint of SFL-based critical thinking ings. For example, Clair commented, “You [one of skills development. The quality of these students’ final ver- Clair’s classmates’] used ‘lead to’ and ‘suffer’ well, sions of their essays was also endorsed by an expert whose showing your negative stance.” For another student, first language is English and who has years of writing Clair also commented that “You [the classmate] also instruction experience at the college level. The changes in used engagement well to elaborate on your supporting the students before and after their familiarity with SFL are details.” Similarly, Kim made the comments, “He shown below, out of a discourse analysis of the participating hides his stance, and makes his essay objective”; “He students’ essays, including their early writings (the first two used ‘immediately’ to show an implicit attitude.” In a essays) and later writings (the last two essays and their final different way, Laura commented, “Modal verbs should version of the first two essays submitted at the end of the be watched when you make statements or provide semester): details.” Textual meaning: The students could comment on the Ideational meaning: Prior to the students’ familiarity use of cohesive devices and theme pattern. For with the new curriculum, the students’ writing lacked example, as Kim commented, “The text is fluent, but explicit logical relationships, overused animate sub- there are places where the use of thematic progres- jects, including the first person, and verbs were chosen sion is not good.” “Try to use linguistic signals, such randomly (e.g., inappropriate use of there be struc- as, ‘in addition,’ when you split your main claim into ture). However, in the final writings submitted, the two sub-claims in one paragraph.” Kim also com- logical relationships between sentences had improved mented on another student’s writing, “The transition through the explicit use of linguistic markers (e.g., 10 SAGE Open however, as a result). There was also appropriate use of became better able to adjust to the teaching and learning of nominalized phrases or the third person (researchers’ online resources, along with teacher mediation, as shown names). In addition, appropriate verbs were chosen to when composing writing instead of focusing on structural show actions related to a topic, not random choices. rules (e.g., their understanding of cohesive devices and dis- Interpersonal meaning: In their early writings, the stu- course fluency or the use of implicit words denoting authors’ dents sometimes used spoken language (e.g., the use of attitudes). In this regard, while research exists that explores pretty as an intensifier). The students also used ques- the relationship between the use of online resources and the tions to emotionally engage readers. There was also development of students’ critical thinking skills, it has mainly inappropriate projection of personal comments through focused on the role of online resources as technology itself the use of the modal verb should. In addition, the stu- (e.g., the use of online discussion forums), and was centered dents’ writings made limited use of reporting verbs on speaking and listening (e.g., Yang & Chou, 2008; Yang (i.e., predominant use of “say,” regardless of the evi- et al., 2013). In contrast, this study particularly shows the dence available in the process of citation). However, in power of an SFL-based design of online materials in offering their latter writings, the students used written English students an in-depth understanding of linguistic resources to language to create a formal tone, and there was good construct meaning. In other words, this case study has filled control of evaluative language (e.g., flexible use of an important gap and contributed to research on the co-rela- modal verbs, not abusing the use of should; the use of tionship between online material development and critical non-adjectives to indirectly show evaluative stance). thinking in the writing classroom (cf. Taffs & Holt, 2013; They also projected their knowledge of semantic varia- Tomlinson, 2012). In addition, the finding illustrates the rela- tions of reporting verbs based on the strength of evi- tionships among students’ knowledge repertoire, teacher dence (e.g., flexible use of the words say, implicate, mediation, and learning motivation, in which the former two suggest, and claim). facilitate students’ learning engagement (Ushioda, 2011). Textural meaning: The students’ early writings lacked Most importantly, the finding empirically illuminates the the use of cohesive devices, and many sentences feasibility of an SFL-based design of online resources in fos- seemed isolated without connection. However, in their tering language learners’ critical thinking in the EFL class- latter writings, there was flexible use of cohesive room (Siegel & Carey, 1989). However, emerging literature devices (e.g., the use of lexical chain through syn- has merely demonstrated the positive impact of SFL on ESL onyms). They also used theme patterns (e.g., linear learners’ critical thinking in the traditional classroom where patterns that are characterized by starting sentences hardcopy textbooks are used (cf., Ryan, 2011). with similar semantic content) to create connections In addition, the SFL-based critical thinking, characterized between sentences. by students’ understanding of writing from the triadic rela- tionship among meaning, linguistic features, and context is As shown above, the students apparently displayed their crit- obviously more enriched thinking than what has been ical thinking skills in regulating their writing when con- revealed among EFL learners in previous studies (e.g., their structing or revising their own texts by the end of the awareness of challenging authority in the process of writing; semester, in comparison with their previous writing. As Clair Liu & Stapleton, 2014), in that it provides multiple con- further noted in the interview by the end of the semester, structs (e.g., register, lexico-grammar) for language learners’ “Using these dimensions [SFL-based constructs] and com- orchestration of cognitive activities (e.g., analysis or evalua- posing my writing beyond grammar . . . obviously refreshed tion). The study particularly reveals that the students’ SFL- my way of constructing academic writing and boosted my based critical thinking skills could be exemplified in their confidence.” literacy practices where they used their knowledge to ana- lyze and evaluate texts, and regulate writing. For instance, by utilizing their critical thinking, EFL students broke the Discussions and Implications silence in class and felt capable of projecting their critical In response to the importance of learning materials and edu- readership or authorship through analyzing and evaluating cators’ struggle for accessible tools to develop students’ criti- texts available to them in and out of their classroom. In addi- cal thinking skills in EFL classrooms, this study shows that tion, through a new curriculum, as shown in this study, the in a writing classroom that synergized online resources and EFL writers challenged their previous learning practices and SFL, students gained knowledge on how online linguistic regulated their own writing using the three dimensions from resources could be utilized for text analysis, evaluation, and SFL. In other words, the current study answered Mok’s regulation. Albeit, the process was not smooth in that their (2009) call for “creating a context that supports student adjustment was constrained by their first language back- inquiry, genuine communication and reflection in class” (p. ground and the contents of learning materials as well as their 265) and furthers our understanding of the role of SFL in previous learning experiences. However, with the increased supporting language learners’ critical thinking in the interna- knowledge gained from online resources, the students tional community (e.g., O’Hallaron et al., 2015). In the Zhang 11 meantime, these findings complement previous studies that expository writing; future research on developing language ignore linguistic challenges of EFL students and focus on learners’ critical thinking skills could be conducted on other teaching EFL students’ critical thinking at the non-linguistic genres of writing instruction (e.g., argumentative writing). level, such as questioning strategies (cf. DeWaelsche, 2015) Limitations of this study have to be acknowledged. First, or the use of counterargument in writing (e.g., Liu & the case study was only focused on three students. Their high Stapleton, 2014). proficiency in the English language may help facilitate their The findings of this study have several implications for adaptation to the curriculum. In addition, this study relied on enhancing EFL students’ critical thinking in academic writ- qualitative analyses of three EFL students’ writing and in- ing. First, given the importance of materials in the classroom, class performance. A quantitative analysis of more EFL stu- the urgent need to develop EFL students’ critical thinking, dents’ writing samples or an adoption of questionnaires to and the limited studies on SFL-based teacher education in survey students may provide further evidence of their critical EFL contexts (Zhang, 2017), it seems promising to promote thinking development. SFL-based language education and the use of online resources among educators, thus, providing them with an Declaration of Conflicting Interests accessible praxis and learning materials to harness when The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect developing students’ critical thinking in the language class- to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. room. Second, this study suggests that students’ silence or lack of critical thinking in EFL classrooms could be due to Funding their lack of a linguistic repertoire to participate in in-class The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support discussions. To promote in-class discussions, it seems plau- for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The sible to promote SFL in the language classroom (including project is funded by a grant from the Ministry of Education’s (MOE reading and writing literacy), so that students have more in China) key project of humanities and social sciences practical skills to use in critically deconstructing texts at (16JJD740002). multiple dimensions beyond the sentence level. Most impor- tantly, the study also suggests that exposing students to dual ORCID iD focus of language form and meaning in academic contexts Xiaodong Zhang https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7216-6542 may facilitate students’ development of critical thinking. In other words, second language acquisitions theories, such as References SFL, that emphasize the role of language as social semiotics, Bloom, B. S. (1956). Committee of college and university exam- may be taken into critical thinking–based classrooms. iners: Handbook 1 cognitive domain. New York, NY: David McKay. Creswell, J. W. (2012). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Conclusion Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. DeWaelsche, S. A. (2015). Critical thinking, questioning and Through a case study, this research shows that an SFL-based student engagement in Korean university English courses. design of online materials was helpful for developing stu- Linguistics and Education, 32, 131-147. dents’ knowledge of writing at the linguistic level in terms of Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2010). Disciplinary literacies the co-relationship between language form and meaning. across content areas: Supporting secondary reading through This facilitated students’ demonstration of critical thinking functional language analysis. Journal of Adolescent & Adult skills as student writers. Literacy, 53, 587-597. 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Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading Cultural Education (De Gruyter), International Review of Research and Communication Skills. in Open and Distributed Learning, and Croatian Journal of Sun, Y. (2011). Toward a critical thinking-oriented curriculum for English majors. Foreign Languages in China, 8, 49-58. Education.

Journal

SAGE OpenSAGE

Published: Dec 21, 2018

Keywords: academic writing; critical thinking; EFL learners; online resources; systemic functional linguistics

References