English First – Chongqing China

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Too often we are asked the question at EF; what separates us from other ESL schools? A quick and easy answer would be that in our ESL lessons we don’t dismiss or even short cut past the development of crucial cognitive skills. Cognitive development (CD) skills include, but aren’t limited to;

• Sequencing (Determining the logical order of events in time)
• Predicting (Guessing what will happen next)
• Comparing (Discovering differences and similarities in data)
• Reasoning (Making deductions based on data)
• Identifying (Separating relevant from irrelevant data)
• Interacting with others (Expressing / Understanding)
• Evaluating (Drawing conclusions from data)

These CD skills have two things in common; especially in China.

1) They are overlooked in Chinese Public School Education
2) They are separate from explicit Language Learning

At EF, our students use most, if not all, of these skills many times over the course of any syllabus whether it be Young Learner, Teen or Adult classes. Perhaps we don’t consider these skills as something we should be teaching explicitly, since students use them anyway in school and life and through practice they will get better regardless.

However, by not making the most of these skills, and not telling parents we are doing it, we are selling our school and our students short.

Planning an ESL Lesson from a Cognitive Development Perspective

English First Chongqing 2At EF Chongqing, teachers are expected to state Linguistic, Communicative and Cognitive Lesson aims. This is the first stage in getting ourselves thinking seriously about whether we are providing opportunities to use the full range of their faculties in class, and not just the linguistic. During the planning stage we should ask ourselves;

1) Will this class provide opportunities for both peer to peer interaction and independent learning?
2) Have I adapted certain Linguistic Materials to allow opportunities for students to predict, compare, reason and identify?
3) Will this class provide the conditions for low-anxiety self or peer to peer evaluation of work or materials?

Incorporating Cognitive Development into an ESL Lesson

Once you have clear aims, it can be remarkably easy to convert your lessons so it satisfies the requirements for a CD rich session.

Very Young Learner class (Colors and Shapes)
Teacher Pre-Teachers colors and shapes
Students Color the correct shapes in the correct color

Linguistic Instructions: The square is blue

Simply telling your learners to color a square in a certain color satisfies the requirements for a purely linguistic class. You’ll see this kind of activity in Chinese Public School and many private training centers. Now, lets see how the activity changes when you consider a students CD requirements.

Teacher “Okay, look at the square. The square isn’t blue. The square isn’t green. The square isn’t yellow. So the square is…”
Student “Red!”

Here, the learner has the opportunities to reason, predict, identify and evaluate.

Teenage Class (Fears and Phobias)
Teacher Gets students thinking and talking about Phobias
Students Talk about what phobias they have or know about

Linguistic Instructions: Look at these list of phobias and try to match them to the definitions provided on the worksheet. Discuss your answers.

This activity is a standard matching exercise but it dos include some CD skills (interaction, reasoning and identifying). However the teacher here has missed a valuable opportunity to promote the usage of these skills in this class.

Cognitive Instructions Go online and find the strangest phobia you can find. Write down the key points and present to your group and decide which phobia is the strangest of all.

Now we have not only made the activity more interesting by allowing them to navigate the internet in search of data (see next section), but we’ve expanded on the use of interaction, reasoning, identifying while adding opportunities for comparing and evaluating.

Benefits of Incorporating CD in ESL Lessons

English First Chongqing 3Facilitating your ESL class from the perspective of CD has benefits for enhancing learner autonomy; which is a key component for motivating teenagers. (Students who were given the opportunity to choose homework assignments produced on average 60% more completed homework tasks compared to other classes).

For much younger learners, we can greatly improve their cognitive functions which will reduce the requirements for tedious concept and instruction checking, closely monitoring the completion of tasks and reviewing or previous language learned.

We can also, without hyperbole or exaggeration inform parents that at EF your child will not just learn English, but learn how to learn greatly improving the prospects for public school success and achievement later on in a competitive economy.


We’ve all had classes that felt like nothing was achieved. Students didn’t produce sentences, they weren’t able to use the target language in context, maybe some were too shy to speak or still couldn’t spell ‘Elephant’ by the end of class. As DoSes in particular we often have to spend time encouraging teachers who wrongly feel that just because the linguistic aims weren’t met this time, they are bad teachers.

Teachers should view the time spent with their students from a cognitive as well as linguistic development perspective. It is then likely that some success can be gleamed from an otherwise disappointing lesson. Maybe the shy student was able to share an idea (even in L1) with another student? Maybe your students felt confident enough to ask for help a little less or were able to solve a small problem independently.

CD in ESL classes improves learner skills, increases autonomy and motivation, helps you to feel more positive about your lessons and clearly explains the differences between EF, Public School and other training centers. CD practice features in all our lessons already, so let’s start talking about it!


English First – Chongqing China

This school is holding interviews for teaching jobs now, apply today!

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