Developing Contextual Literacy English for Academic Purposes Through Content and Language Integrated Learning

  • Jim McKinleyEmail author
Part of the Multilingual Education book series (MULT, volume 30)


Contextual literacy English for academic purposes (EAP) provides a valuable perspective on the increasing focus on the social and contextual aspects of academic and critical English literacy education. The focus on these aspects is in response to the perceived need to develop students’ literacies to keep up with changing global trends in education and language use. This is especially evident in countries where English has a foreign-language status but where English is being used by bi- and multilingual speakers. In this chapter, a study examining an English-language public speaking course in a Japanese university using a content and language integrated learning (CLIL) pedagogy is used to illustrate the potential benefit of a novel, socio-historically contextualised approach, known as Reacting to the Past, to teaching English language skills. The use of CLIL pedagogies allows for contextual literacy EAP to develop through resourcing other languages, i.e., translanguaging, in the study of content that requires practicing the use of English for persuasive purposes. The chapter provides a further discussion to clarify that while academic literacy and critical literacy cover these concepts, it is significant to explore contextual literacy development as a way of understanding the learning and critical thinking that occurs in English language studies in an evolving, global context.


Contextual literacy EAP CLIL Socio-historic language teaching Translanguaging Japanese university Argumentation Public speaking 

1 Introduction

The definition of contextual literacy used in this chapter is taken from Paulo Freire’s highly contextualized perspective of critical literacy. I define contextual literacy as an understanding of the complex ways historical change and perspective allow us to recognize and challenge the shaping of context through historical, socio-cultural and socio-political circumstances of human experience. Freire’s theory of critical pedagogy is built on the idea of social movement, borrowing from critical theory and cultural studies. It provided an ideal foundation on which to build contemporary concepts of contextual literacy.

Scribner (1986) highlights Freire’s work in her discussion of a socially contextual literacy, stating.

Paulo Freire (1970) bases his influential theory of literacy education on the need to make literacy a resource for fundamental social transformation. Effective literacy education, in his view, creates a critical consciousness through which a community can analyse its conditions of social existence and engage in effective action for a just society. (p. 12).

Scribner offered three metaphors for a socially contextual literacy: literacy as adaptation, as power and as a state of grace. Scribner’s focus on social change is key here, as the changes in recognition of the status of English, moving away from issues of linguicism and language imperialism, are having a profound effect on our understanding of what it means to teach and learn English. In ‘norm-dependent’ higher education especially, the development of contextual literacy is not a new movement, but instead an ongoing phenomenon that is finally being recognized and targeted as the expectations of students move increasingly toward building critical literacy in tandem with cultural and academic literacy in English.

Students’ development of contextual literacy in an English medium-instructed university program occurs in learning through content and language integrated learning (CLIL). Students focusing on both content and language are in a better position to advance beyond their own values and belief systems toward a cultural and contextual literacy that is more expansive. This chapter proposes ‘contextual literacy English for academic purposes’ (EAP) as a conceptual theory targeting the changing literacy development practices in English-medium higher education in Japan.

Taking a contextual literacy approach to teaching EAP through CLIL in an English as a foreign language (EFL) context has not yet been widely explored. However, with developments in English as an international language in English-medium instruction (EMI) in Kachru’s outer circle, or ‘norm-developing’ countries (i.e., have their own institutionalized variety of English; these include British colonial countries such as India and Singapore) and expanding circle, or ‘norm-dependent’ countries (i.e., do not have their own institutionalized variety of English of their own; these include academic EMI strongholds such as Denmark and Sweden, as well as East and Southeast Asia and the country of focus in this study, Japan), taking a contextual literacy approach to teaching EAP seems a significant area of inquiry, given the expectations of students to build both critical literacy and cultural and academic literacy in English. Taking the definition of contextual literacy from Freire’s perspective of critical literacy, this chapter seeks to establish clarity on what it means to develop contextual literacy in EAP studies at the university level.

This chapter sees contextualizing academic literacy in terms of EFL and English as a second language (ESL) as increasingly irrelevant with the growth of English as an international language (EIL), and recognition that English no longer ‘belongs’ to Kachru’s inner circle (i.e., ‘norm-providing’ countries). Haberland (2011), in a special issue of the Journal of Pragmatics focused on English as a lingua franca, distinguishes between an ownership discourse (‘belonging to’) and a maintenance discourse (‘cultivated by’) to make the argument that these discourses should no longer be left to the old norm providers. He points out that due to increased transnational student mobility, the use of English as a lingua franca in university teaching is the focus, rather than the use of English that reflects native norms. Haberland admits that a language in some sense does ‘belong’ to its first or native speakers, but argues that the concept of belonging should not be one that excludes others. As for language maintenance, Haberland claims that generally it is first-language speakers of a language who attempt to maintain or cultivate the language, but regarding the English language, this is not especially clear. The only argument in support of English ownership seems to be in the discussion of written English, in that the norms ‘are not any direct result of informal language socialization, but have to be acquired through schooling’ (Haberland 2011, p. 940). Indeed, written academic English has been described as a foreign language for everyone (Siegel 2007). With the understanding that academic English is a foreign language for everyone, it is significant now to take a more universal approach to contextual literacy, especially in higher education EMI in norm-dependent countries, such as Japan.

This chapter provides a conceptual framework for contextual literacy as it is understood for the purposes of the study in order to establish the argument that contextual literacy is the most effective focus in CLIL practices, as it allows us to appropriately value the development of critical engagement in English language education, with a specific focus on the strength of developing argument and debate skills.

2 Literature Review

In a review of relevant literature, the idea of contextual literacy is supported by theory related to critical literacy and critical pedagogy. From Freire’s work on critical pedagogy, scholars have expanded the theory to consider the implications regarding context. This section will first provide an analysis of the conceptual framework for contextual literacy used for the study, followed by the role of CLIL in developing contextual literacy with a description of the specific contextual pedagogy used in the study.

2.1 Conceptual Framework for Contextual Literacy

In university-level EAP studies, contextual literacy development, or ‘contextual literacy EAP’, involves the study of English through an understanding of its historical, cultural and social implications, which includes rhetorical aspects of English as they concern the ability to use the English language persuasively in academic settings. As we can understand contextual literacy to be ‘premised upon the importance of meaningful content’ (Demetrion 2001, p. 106) and can understand a contextual approach to literacy to mean that ‘literacy is developed while it is being applied’ (Sticht 1997, p. 2), the linking of CLIL to contextual literacy is significant.

It is important to note that contextual literacy exists beyond language, and thus the development of contextual literacy is not only bound to the first language (L1) or second language (L2) but can be achieved via translanguaging practices. Translanguaging refers to communication involving the integrated, unconscious, meaning-making resourcing of multiple languages. Translanguaging in the language classroom therefore provides opportunities for teaching, as a variety of teaching approaches can be used drawing on language awareness from different languages, a concept supported by the literature on Global Englishes (e.g., Galloway and Rose 2015).

2.2 The Role of CLIL in Developing Contextual Literacy

In this section, CLIL will be discussed regarding its role in developing contextual literacy. The main argument here is that students focusing on both content and language are in a better position to advance beyond their own values and belief systems toward a cultural and contextual literacy that is more expansive (Brown et al. 2013). I also challenge the rejections of transferring notions of literacy from L1 literacy to EFL contexts (McKinley 2013a, 2017), while maintaining the view that we are moving toward a substantial acceptance of the contextualized nature of the reciprocated impact between L1 and L2 literacy behaviours (Rinnert and Kobayashi 2009).

First, the effectiveness of CLIL has been argued to depend on the L2 proficiency of students, teachers and management (e.g., Bruton 2013). However, with a view of CLIL in developing contextual literacy, there are a great many advantages regardless of proficiency levels if a translanguaging approach is taken. Studies have indicated that the role of students’ L1 in knowledge co-construction and academic language learning in CLIL classrooms is significant (e.g., Lin and Lo 2017; Nikula and Moore 2016). These studies present traditional teacher-led models in which the success of CLIL relied on the teachers’ bi- or multilingual understanding of the content and ability to teach it by resourcing perspectives from multiple languages. No studies on contextual literacy development have explored the student-led CLIL classroom, such as the one in the present study.

Brown et al. (2013), drawing on issues of globalization in education and evidence of the increasingly diverse student cohorts in higher education, highlight the need to clarify the meaning of ‘context’ and acknowledge students’ varying interpretations of it and their own contexts. They point out that this diversity demands a contextualized pedagogy, one that moves beyond both outdated stereotypes of wise instructors imparting knowledge to students (see discussions of ‘sage on the stage’) and contemporary university teaching that ignores students’ contexts. They clarify that contextual pedagogy is more than just recognition of cultural influences and diversity, emphasizing the value of experiential learning that draws on students’ backgrounds while engaging in the study of content in which they can reflect on their experiences.

Such reflective learning is at the heart of integrating content with language learning, in that language is contextualized by each student in consideration of the social, cultural and historical aspects of the content (Thompson and McKinley 2018). Developing contextual literacy in this way closes gaps between local and international students, which is of increasing importance in globalized higher education (Singh and Shrestha 2008). This is a clear example of an appropriate transfer of a notion of literacy to an EFL setting, such as Japan, made possible through a CLIL approach.

2.3 EMI and CLIL in Japanese Higher Education

Although I used Kachru’s model earlier to describe Japan’s English-learning context as EFL, as Japan is in Kachru’s list of norm-dependent countries, it is important here to emphasize that using national boundaries as the qualifying factor regarding the use of English is increasingly irrelevant, and newer models are needed to clarify Japan’s position in the discussion of EIL. Alternatively, Modiano’s (1999) emphasis on EIL language proficiency, where different varieties of English overlap, puts international usage and intelligibility at the core. With this understanding, the goal is not to move toward a particular variety of English, but instead toward the ability to use English proficiently among users of different Englishes. EMI in Japanese higher education has been around since the earlier part of last century, but traditionally it was focused on American models of English and education. With more current understanding of English as an international language, EMI in Japan has begun to reflect Modiano’s model (e.g., Hino 2018; McKinley 2018).

Today, EMI in Japanese higher education has been expanded widely with the support of globalization initiatives set out by Japan’s education ministry (Rose and McKinley 2018). There are now EMI programs in many Japanese universities, and EMI classes in most Japanese universities. While there are several issues faced by universities across Japan implementing new EMI programs, including teacher training, English language proficiency concerns of teachers and students, and increasingly international student cohorts, there have been some important examples of successful EMI implementation (e.g., McKinley 2018). The focus in this study that uses data collected in an EMI program at a Japanese university is on the development of English public speaking skills, specifically argument and debate skills, as these address the education ministry’s push for increased critical engagement and critical thinking skills development in English language education.

CLIL in Japanese higher education has been explored in response to encouragement from Japan’s education ministry to develop English language education for critical engagement. Coyle (2007) explains that such engagement is made possible through teacher-student questioning that is open for discussion, rather than teachers confirming students’ understanding. In CLIL classrooms, situating language in social, cultural and historical contexts through content studies, questioning is more open than in traditional EFL classrooms, where students are asked questions to which instructors already know the answers. CLIL is promoted as ‘effective’ in this vein in Japanese higher education (e.g., Brown 2014; Pinner 2013) but is also difficult to implement depending on the content (e.g., Brown 2015 and Lockley 2014 on using Japanese history as the content).

The specific CLIL pedagogy I am exploring in this study was originally designed as a critical pedagogy for the teaching of history to students at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City. The pedagogy is called Reacting to the Past (RTTP) and, through some careful adaptation for CLIL purposes, is now in use in a required public speaking course for students in an EMI program at a university in Japan. RTTP is an educational approach that uses content in the form of a roleplaying game to get students to engage in debates and research and to prepare papers and speeches in a way that allows them to develop skills in critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork. These skills match up with the three core skills for working adults promoted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that are considered desirable from university graduates (McKinley 2013b):
  • Action: The ability to move forward and stay engaged, to get up when you fall down. This includes taking initiative, motivating others and achieving goals.

  • Thinking: The ability to question and think problems through. This includes identifying problems, planning and creative thinking.

  • Teamwork: The ability to work with other people in pursuit of a common goal. This includes communication, listening, flexibility, awareness, cooperation and stress control (Reed 2010).

In the RTTP pedagogy, students participate in roleplay with detailed character descriptions based on real historical figures. Through the game format, they give speeches and participate in debates based on actual historical events. It is an engaging approach that is student centred and highly motivating. In an EFL context such as Japan, this pedagogy is essentially a CLIL approach that language teachers can use to incorporate a focus on content while developing students’ ability to function academically through a second language.

Significant here is the operationalization of a critical pedagogy developed in the US for CLIL purposes in Japan, which, according to its status as a norm-dependent country, involves the teaching of English as a foreign language. This study examined a phenomenon that involved the transfer of a notion of literacy (in this case a critical literacy, developed through RTTP pedagogy) to an EFL context. This operationalization serves as an example of transferring notions of literacy to EFL contexts along the lines of Rinnert and Kobayashi (2009), who assert that the contextualized nature of the shared impact between L1 and L2 literacy behaviours is being increasingly accepted. Examples of this acceptance can be found in arguments in the areas of contrastive rhetoric (e.g., McKinley 2013a), writer identity (e.g., McKinley 2017) and translanguaging practices (Lin and Lo 2017; Nikula and Moore 2016). These arguments form a single challenge to the notion that literacy practices cannot be transferred from English L1 contexts to EFL contexts, as it is a matter of viewing English language education in EFL settings as informed and supported by the L1 of the context in forming more global conceptualizations of literacy.

The assertion that critical literacy practices of argumentation and rhetoric are not transferable to EFL contexts, specifically the Japanese EFL context, came commonly from examples of English L2 writing practices that indicated Japanese students were ‘unable’ to argue with qualification and certainty. The voice of Japanese students was often considered too indirect or too passive (Davidson 1995). However, such stereotypes are increasingly irrelevant in our globalized world, where argumentation and rhetorical moves in English output by Japanese EFL students is characteristically neither specific to Japanese nor English, but instead a balanced, compromised and resolute approach to argument and debate that borrows from both Japanese and English rhetoric (McKinley 2017).

3 Methods

The methods I used in this study included semi-structured classroom observations while preparing and giving of speeches and engaging in the debates using RTTP materials, specifically the game The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C. (Ober et al. 2015). Additionally, structured observations were made in the review of video recordings of the speeches and debates. This covered a period of 5 weeks, with 90-minute classes held twice each week. Additional data collected included students’ written reflections at the end of the period.

3.1 The Setting and Participants

The university where the study took place is typical of Japanese universities in that the role of English varies in its different EMI offerings and atypical in that the level of English in the EMI program studied is much higher than most across Japan. This is due to the reputation of the program and the regular enrolment of students graduating from international schools, as well as international students, of whom some are native English speakers. Classes also include Japanese nationals who achieved high scores on standardized English language tests (mostly the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL) or were recommended for the program by a selection of schools in Japan. The result is a mix of backgrounds and English proficiency levels, where, according to faculty policy goals, program and curriculum designers need to aim for an egalitarian classroom, not advantaging or disadvantaging any students according to proficiency. Pedagogical approaches in the faculty are meant to be inclusive and considerate of varying student needs. Aiming to develop contextual literacy in content and assessment was considered the best way to create more egalitarian environments in the required English courses, which involved completion of one to three writing courses before doing the public speaking course, depending on the students’ needs.

The public speaking course was required for all undergraduate students in the EMI program at the university where the data were collected. The course was 15 weeks in length, the final 4 weeks of which were dedicated to using the Reacting to the Past materials in what was set as the ‘debate module’. Leading up to this point, students were trained in researching and giving speeches focused on persuading their audience. So, by this stage, students had gained a certain level of comfort in speaking in front of the same group of students. There were 12 students in the class selected for the study, which is smaller than the average class size of about 16 for the public speaking course at this university. All students consented to participation in the study and use of data collected for both study and assessment purposes. The students, all in their second or third years, covered a typical range in the EMI program, as follows:
  • Three Japanese nationals with Japanese schooling background

  • Three Japanese nationals with international schooling background

  • Three Japanese nationals with overseas schooling background (US)

  • Two international students with international schooling background (South American, Southeast Asian)

  • One international student with native English speaking background (US)

While these different backgrounds suggest varying levels of language ability to participate in an open group debate, it was understood that personality and character would play more of a role in their willingness to participate actively with the group in the preparation stage. In the assessed debates, as students played roles and were assessed not only on their displays of contextual knowledge but also the ability to get others to speak (scoring points for challenging others); participation was designed to be fairly balanced between students.

3.2 The Materials and Assessment

The debate ‘game’ used in the course was The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C. This game’s premise is the historical event that was the rebuilding of Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars, including the fate of Socrates, as the foundations of Western civilization and democracy were being established. In preparation, students were given several reading materials, most from the RTTP Athens textbook, including character role descriptions and game strategies, but additional readings were provided from Plato’s The Republic and other sources. Students were also encouraged to check materials published in their first language in order to provide potential differences of perspective on the materials, thus breaking down language borders. Such practices are in line with current trends to incorporate translanguaging into language pedagogical practice. The preparation tasks involved checking comprehension of the content readings through discussions, group quizzes and debating skills practices, including a roleplayed interrupting activity (discussed later), pointing out opponents’ errors and making rhetorical moves to develop an argument. In the third lesson in the preparation period, students were given their ‘character sheets’, which included a description of their character, their goals in the debate, some strategies for winning the debates in line with their characters and some ideas for additional readings. Therefore, a great deal of time was spent outside class researching character information so students could better understand their goals in the debates.

While the structure of the debates was originally designed to be entirely student led, in this environment in Japan, it was decided, in agreement with all instructors of the public speaking course, that the structure would be much more guided. This was due to the mix of proficiency levels and varying cultural backgrounds of the students in a single classroom, which amounted to those with international experience dominating classroom participation and discussions, often silencing those with Japan-only experience. The more guided version involved assigning students the specific topics of the debates, and scheduling them so students could prepare and submit outlines of their speeches beforehand to be checked by the instructor. In the lessons when debates were scheduled, students who were assigned speeches gave in-character speeches each limited to a maximum of 3 min using their outlines and/or other notes. Once the assigned students finished their speeches, the debate was then held, timed by the instructor for anywhere from 8 to 18 min, depending on the number of topics covered in the debate. Students were assessed on the content and delivery of the speeches and debate. Further assessment was made based on students’ submission of a 1000-word written reflection of each speech and debate in which they participated.

3.3 Data Collection

The observation data were collected through semi-structured observation in the form of brief note-taking as well as after-lesson written reflections, as I was an instructor on the course. Having taught in Japanese higher education for many years with a wide variety of students, I was in a good position to understand the students’ different backgrounds and perspectives on their learning. Structured observation notes were made in reviewing videos of the speech and debate sessions, which made up the final 3 weeks of the four-week module.

The approaches to the observations were taken from the literature on action research (e.g., Leedy and Ormrod 2005; Mertler 2008). Semi-structured observations (sometimes referred to as unstructured observations) allow flexibility for the teacher to facilitate classroom activities, while taking occasional notes when possible. Mertler (2008) explains that ‘unstructured observations are more typical of qualitative data collection, since they are “free flowing”, allowing the teacher-researcher to shift focus from one event to another as new, and perhaps more interesting, events arise’ (p. 107). Structured observations, requiring my full attention to students’ actions and interactions, were made with the use of video recordings. The video recordings were made only of the speeches and debates, with a total of approximately 8 h of recordings.

An additional source of data collected for the study was the students’ approximately 1000-word written reflections at the end of the module. This collection of this additional source of data provided reliability for the findings through triangulation, as my observation notes could be mapped onto the students’ reflections.

3.4 Method of Analysis

Observation data were kept carefully as reflective notes after each lesson and further notes made using the video recordings of the debate sessions. Notations were made of students’ individual development through the process for the purposes of assessment and this study. To systematize the notes, it is important here to point out that a subjective, etic analysis was avoided as much as possible by using an emic analysis that was based on the conceptual framework of ‘contextual literacy EAP’. As explained earlier, contextual literacy EAP is the study of English through an understanding of its historical, cultural and social implications, with a focus on rhetorical aspects of English in use in academic settings. Therefore, this framework was used to develop the following criteria for which evidence from observation data were identified:
  • Students engaging with rhetorical moves (based on Swales 1990)

  • Students using structured argumentation

The rhetorical moves were identified using Swales’ (1990) four standard rhetorical moves, as these were explicitly taught in the public speaking course. The moves are: demonstration of interest in the topic, selective review of what is known, establishment of a problem or gap to address, and focus on the currency of evidence. The use of structured argumentation was identified according to a typical internal structure, including one or more premises; a method of reasoning; and a conclusion.

The students’ written reflections were analysed using thematic analysis for evidence of development of contextual literacy. This evidence was identified according to the themes of references to culture, references to history and references to society.

4 Findings

The historical nature of the materials in this CLIL pedagogy is ideal for the development of contextual literacy for students in an EIL context. The focus on history, society and culture in the content materials directed students toward reflecting on the use of English in persuading others, beyond lexical and syntactic forms, into critical thinking in English as an international language. From the preparations to the speeches and debates to the final reflection paper, students showed recognition of the roles that history, society and culture play in the shaping of persuasive interactions in English.

4.1 Semi–structured Observations

Field notes from the semi-structured observations were generally limited, as they were handwritten in the classroom while students were engaged in various activities. I was selective with what I wrote down, paying specific attention to students’ engagement in activities designed to develop their persuasive skills. Many notes were recorded during the ‘interrupting’ activity, in which students were given short texts and roles to play in interacting with each other. I made notes according to individual students’ ability to successfully complete the activity, but as four groups were doing the task simultaneously, I could focus only on one group at a time. In this activity, I found that students did not generally utilize the rhetorical move strategies they had read about for homework, but instead relied more on stereotypical ideas about aggressive approaches to interrupting and challenging others while speaking (which was led by the three Japanese students who had done most of their schooling in the US, perhaps embodying what they believed to be effective styles of arguing in English). Common approaches included actions such as shouting that resulted in laughter or awkward silence (most notably these responses were often from the three Japanese students who had done their schooling in Japan) as a form of interruption.

The other activity for which there were more notes recorded was the strategizing time in the two lessons before the debates started. At this point all students had their character role sheets and moved around the room negotiating with other characters to prepare to achieve their prescribed goals. Again, I took notes on individual students’ efforts in negotiation, but as this was happening in multiple pairings simultaneously, I was only able to focus on one pair or group at a time. Here I noted that as students now had their role sheets, they were changing some of their stereotypical behaviour noted in the interrupting activity, and instead seemed to be getting into character, which created a more egalitarian atmosphere, with more balanced participation and mutual support. They seemed to be very conscious of the game aspect of the debates and wanted to achieve their goals to win the game. Several students attempted to make deals with others, offering mutual support.

4.2 Structured Observations

The video recordings of the speeches and debates were clear and complete, allowing for comprehensive field notes to be taken in the structured observations. Notes were taken for each speech and debate that each student participated in, and were kept as a ‘case file’ for each student, which was shared with the students. Following are summarized notes for the four days of debates given by several students, with the roles they played:

Role: Thrasybulus
  • Assembly Day 1: Good emphasis on the value of tributes from a military expedition, which certainly paid off! It would have helped to explain why Athens lost the Peloponnesian Wars and to emphasize the defeats caused by a divided Athens.

  • Assembly Day 2: Well done drawing people’s attention to individuals and the bigger issues from the past—the consistent reference to history helped make your arguments solid. You provided good, important support for Lysias for citizenship and maintained a strong focus on the importance of social welfare.

  • Assembly Day 3: The supporting points were less clear and your participation was limited, but you somewhat made up for these deficiencies through appropriately challenging others. Your question to Aristocles was good and important, as was your challenge to Aristides. These challenges were consistent with your character, and very effective in moving toward your goals.

  • Assembly Day 4: Your message that Socrates should be silenced and your emphasis on the importance of democracy to stabilize Athens were clear and seemingly well received by the audience, but some of your challenges to others fell flat (e.g., that Socrates ridiculed people) and needed more strength to support them.

Role: Hippocleides
  • Assembly Day 1: Your speech emphasized the pride and glory of Athens—lovely hyperbole, but it lacked substance. It wasn’t clear why you wanted to go on the expedition until later in the debate, where your ‘honour the gods’ thesis went a long way.

  • Assembly Day 2: There was good clarity on your reasoning, but not specifically why you were against the agreement. Although the indirect approach makes sense for your character’s strategies in reaching his objective, since you pretty much already reached them, a good preview for the speech would have been very welcome as several audience members were a little lost. The reminder to everyone that Hippocleides is wealthy and has slaves added to the successful logical appeals.

  • Assembly Day 3: Again, very good logos in your speech and debate. Your thesis was clear (although a preview would have really helped here!) and your references to Sicily and to the law were effective (although the name of the law was needed). Good facilitating in the debate with logical, historically accurate challenges to both Aristides and Herodion in the first debate. In the second debate, it was particularly effective to stay focused on the initiative to educate by council decision and argue that the Socratics can teach, but it got a little confusing when you also mentioned the need for public education.

  • Assembly Day 4: Wonderfully poetic speech to your faithful followers, but this was too rushed, and without a preview; it wasn’t clear what the full intention was for this speech. Similarly, the speech given to the full assembly was also rushed and a little unclear. In the debate you were making statements that should have drawn boos from others, but suspiciously there were none. Did you have any prearrangement with the democrats as well? Otherwise the emphasis on trying Socrates, and statement that a Socratic utopia is legitimate (as long as they’re not arrogant rule breakers like Socrates) was good, but I think some people were confused on the argument about tyranny toward the end. But congratulations on getting Socrates executed, paving the way to an easy coup to overtake Athens!

Role: Aristocles
  • Assembly Day 1: Your call to examples of past failures and a corrupt democracy provided excellent support that should have helped you reach your objectives, but it seems Hippocleides had gotten to the others first, so your argument was falling on deaf ears. This required some re-strategizing on your part in order to overcome this unforeseen dilemma. But you stayed strong with your ‘down with the expedition’ thesis anyway.

  • Assembly Day 2: Very good previewing and signposting in today’s speech, but you were too reliant on your notes, causing others to stop paying attention. Nevertheless, your speech contained excellent logos, and your emphasis on good, factual support was very effective as far as I was concerned. In the debate, your messages of look to the future and down with mythos were character-appropriate and clear. In the second debate you provided important support for Ion with his focus on culture, but the question about payment to attend the assembly was off the mark.

  • Assembly Day 3: Good thesis, logos, and emphasis in your speech, but a preview was needed, and you needed to address the indeterminates directly. But you did well to re-emphasize and focus your argument. Your participation in the debate seemed similarly too well rehearsed and not flexible enough to change with the direction the discussion was going in. You provided a good reminder about slaves, but needed to focus the argument on elite women. Otherwise you provided a good, clear response to the challenge from Timon.

  • Assembly Day 4: Great speech, but too reliant on notes…good focus on the charges against Socrates—very well researched. The impiety of Aristophanes was an excellent example. The move to no trial OR give Socrates a chance to clear his name was good, but needed to respond to the general sense of the crowd. You provided an excellent quote from Socrates, but mentioned he had already been convicted, which was confusing.

These notes from the individual students’ participation in the debates focused on both content and performance in terms of their strategy and approaches in attempting to persuade others. In terms of contextual literacy EAP development, the notes here indicate that rhetorical strategies such as logos, ethos, pathos, and mythos may or may not have been used effectively through appropriate argumentation structuring and contextualization of the argument within the character role and historical period. Displays of content knowledge were important, but not to be done at the expense of proper contextualization (i.e., historical accuracy) of those displays. There was more of a focus on language maintained in the speech notes. Like the notes from the debates, the speech notes were summarized and shared with each student. Following are some examples from the notes on the same three students.

Role: Thrasybulus

Your speeches were well-focused but you needed to take your time—slow down so everyone can follow easily what you say and make notes of the important points, which you emphasized well, but rushed. There was some difficult vocabulary in your speeches that your audience struggled to follow. Always remember to check that your audience understands what you’re saying. While previews also would have helped guide your audience, your thesis was always clear.

Role: Hippocleides

Your enthusiasm and dedication is what made your speeches so successful. While you often spoke rather quickly (which meant members of the audience were unable to follow) and there were moments lacking clarity or emphasis on the key ideas (understandably strategically vague) and speech previews were notably missing, these approaches were character-appropriate and effective in persuading your audience.

Role: Aristocles

Your careful research allowed you to form very well-supported arguments that were well structured and delivered. You were generally careful about articulating difficult language, but rushed when you appeared to be less confident. While some stronger emphasis on key ideas might have helped generate better-directed discussions, the speech was effective in directing the content of the discussion toward achieving your goals.

This level of observation was useful for identifying students’ rhetorical moves, structured argumentation and use of supporting evidence. The findings are summarized in the following table showing the criteria for which the structured observation data were analysed (Table 1).
Table 1

Criteria for analysis of structured observation

Engaging with rhetorical moves

Demonstration of interest in the topic

All students utilized this move in opening their speeches in order to focus the audience on their specific argument as a way of attempting to achieve their game objectives.

Selective review of what is known

Most students used a single fact on which to build their argument in their speeches rather than reviewing all known relevant facts; however, students who provided a more extensive coverage of a review of the facts had more to draw on for the debates (although this appeared to happen inconsistently with the more prepared students who appeared to be nervous or shy).

Establishment of a problem or gap to address

Most students successfully identified a problem, although most often based on a single fact; those students who reviewed more facts appeared to have persuaded their audience better in establishing the problem the way they wanted the audience to understand it.

Focus on the currency of evidence

Very few students referred to the most up-to-date evidence (which, to remain in character, would have been ‘word from the street’), occasionally referring to examples from The Republic, but more often referring instead to the general information from their character role sheets.

Using structured argumentation


All students made initial claims in support of their arguments, almost exclusively a single premise.

Method of reasoning

Most students provided a single, specific argument based on logic, but some students attempted to use an emotional appeal to persuade their audience; some students faltered here, sometimes presenting logical fallacies.


In all speeches, students concluded with the point they wanted their audience to understand and hopefully agree with them on, but the conclusion was often just a repetition of the premise rather than a point reached through the reasoning provided in the body of the speech; in the debates the points made in the speeches that were most problematic became the premises that were debated, and in most cases no conclusion was drawn as the students attempted to reason with each other until the end of the allotted time period for the debate.

The structured observation notes provided valuable insights in consideration of the students’ development of contextual literacy, maintaining a focus on the CLIL elements of the debate module. With the historical content providing boundaries for the context, the students’ language use was targeted for efforts made to persuade their audiences, including the audience’s reception of and responses to the speeches, which depended largely on their ability to understand the speaker. Speakers who spoke too quickly or too softly, especially those with accents that were more difficult for the audience to understand, were encouraged to keep a balanced focus on the content and delivery. Structured observation notes were shared with students after each lesson so students could reflect on the notes in the delivery of later speeches and debates.

4.3 Students’ Written Texts

The students’ 1000-word written reflections were analysed using a thematic analysis based on the three main themes of the conceptual theory supporting contextual literacy EAP. All 12 students’ reflections were found to contain evidence of all three themes, summarized as follows:

References to Culture

Reflections on the role of culture in the English language were often concrete, with examples of the experience of the debates being associated with instances of disagreement or discord with people from other cultures. Many students focused on the experience of debating as a Western construct; students with backgrounds in the Americas described feeling ‘advantaged’ by this aspect, but also recognized that given the mixed audience, a purely Western (i.e., American) approach to the debate was ineffective, as it was their task to persuade the others, not bully them into agreement or defeat them. Several of the six students with more Japanese backgrounds described a feeling of ‘disadvantage’ as less vocal participants in the debates, but expressed an astute understanding of the value of recognizing the different cultural backgrounds of the group and using language appealing to those group members who could support them. Some Japanese-background students described the experience as ‘good training’ for assertiveness, and a ‘good opportunity’ to better understand approaches to persuading people from other cultural backgrounds.

References to History

Students commented on how much they learned about democratic societies and ideologies from the content material. There were many references to a clearer understanding of who Socrates was and the impact he had on contemporary approaches to argument and persuading others. Many students were also critical of the material, recognizing the oversimplification of the use of the material for the purposes of the activities in class meant they could only use the experience as an introduction to the history content. Notable was the number of students who drew connections between the content topics of social justice and welfare that were significant in 403 B.C. and their continuing significance today, reflecting on the possibility that these topics were central to human existence and would continue to be debated and negotiated in different ways, depending on context.

References to Society

The references to society were all related to the impact the experience of the debate module had on their understanding of how society functions and their role in society. Some students commented on “the failure of democracy” in modern society and contemplated the value of oligarchy, wondering if an oligarchy might not be a better description of the governments of Japan and the United States.

These summaries highlight the references to each of the three themes with a focus on a development of contextual literacy EAP. The references extended to thoughts about the role of the themes in the rhetorical functions of English, considering ways in which different cultures that use English influence the way rhetoric is used. For example, a Japanese-background student wrote (mildly edited for clarity):

I feel like my Japanese way of using English is different from other people, especially the ones from America. I wanted to argue against their words like they did, but I guess it was my Japanese way that I didn’t. Instead I told people what I prepared, and then let other people do a lot of talking. I listened to arguments, and waited until I heard enough to understand the whole picture. I tried to find compromise of their arguments to solve the problem. I think I missed some important chances to achieve my goals sooner because I was too gentle with my argument, but I still won because I achieved my goals. I think at first aggressive attitude is better, but later I saw aggressive speakers didn’t achieve their goals. English compromise is stronger than shouting.

The role of history in shaping the English language was also a focus point with several examples provided. One international-background student reflected on the way English was used in the debates, wondering about how different it was from the way ancient Greek was used in 403 B.C.:

I really liked learning the historical part of the debates, because it was interesting to see many of the topics are still relevant today. I tried to stay in character through the whole thing, but it was really hard. How did ancient Greeks make these arguments 2,000 years ago? Did they preview their arguments and provide supporting evidence like we had to? I think they probably did, and that’s why we do those things now. Socrates was a very persuasive person, and there were the Sophists too. They figured out good ways of persuading that we still use. I think maybe we try to improve our strategies all the time, but it must always go back to those powerful ways of using clever language to win the argument.

The use of English in understanding society was a common point of reflection, with students considering how a democratic society means having equality, hearing what everyone has to say, and letting everyone be part of the decision-making process, regardless of English language proficiency. One English L1 international-background student found this aspect important:

I was fascinated by the ways different people in the group tried to be democratic in the debates, encouraging the quieter students to be heard. The art of getting others to speak and make mistakes that you could use to win the debate was an important skill, and it didn’t matter how good your English was, what mattered was the ability to create a balanced discussion. I thought this was something that only happened because we were told to do it, but then it felt very natural. People’s arguments weren’t stronger because their English was better, they were stronger when other people’s arguments were weaker … [this] really showed me both the strengths and weaknesses of our democratic society, and how much it’s not really a democracy.

The examples from the written reflections above were especially clear in illustrating the themes, but these were not common sentiments of the reflections. Instead, most students wrote about the learning experience in comparison with other, less critical pedagogies, and emphasized the nervousness they felt in facing a pedagogy such as RTTP. The following example from the Southeast Asian student highlights the processes of debate that the student thought was a particularly valuable aspect of the experience:

During the debate I was particularly motivated by the opposition who since the beginning already putting their best effort to bring us down. I felt like I had to match their enthusiasm. Searching for the flaws of the opposition’s characters was done throughout the debates as I try to find loopholes of their ideas and opinions. At times it worked but not always. Strength in my performance I would say was facilitating. I did not see many other characters do that. I tried to bring people into the discussion, particularly the indeterminates, by calling their names and asking for their thoughts about the topic. Other strengths I could recall was by using a lot of Socrates’ teaching into the argument. One memorable moment when I used the argument about women and men being equal in soul. I felt very satisfied after I successfully brought it out. This would not have been possible if I had not spent times to research about what is it actually was Socrates meant. I did it to contribute significantly in the discussion.

In this example, it is evident that in addition to qualities such as ‘enthusiasm’ and being strategic in ‘searching for the flaws of the opposition’, doing research in the process of persuading others was equally valuable. This idea was common in the reflections, showing that students were gaining not only academic and critical literacies, but a more comprehensive contextual literacy that gave them a deeper understanding of the objectives of the public speaking course.

5 Conclusion

The reflections from the students were overwhelmingly positive about the experience of learning public speaking through the CLIL pedagogy adapted from the Reacting to the Past series. The game selected, The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C., proved to be particularly effective with its focus on the origins of Western civilization and rhetoric. Students learned valuable content about the history and culture that helped form the way rhetoric is used in shaping argument and debate in European languages. This was especially effective given the mixed group of students, as cultural backgrounds and English language proficiency played a much smaller role in their interactions with each other in developing contextual literacy EAP.

Supporting a ‘contextual literacy EAP’ means providing a valuable perspective on the increasing focus on the social and contextual aspects of academic and critical English literacy education. The focus on these aspects is in response to the perceived need to develop students’ literacies to keep up with changing global trends in education and language use. This is especially evident in countries where English has a foreign language status but where it is being used by bi- and multi-lingual speakers. The use of CLIL pedagogies allows for contextual literacy EAP to develop through resourcing other languages, i.e., translanguaging, in the study of content that requires practicing the use of English for persuasive purposes. While academic literacy and critical literacy cover these concepts, it is significant to explore contextual literacy development as a way of understanding the learning and critical thinking that occurs in English language studies in an evolving global context.

As EMI programs are currently being developed in higher education in Japan and elsewhere, it is helpful to look at examples of good practice regarding the development of contextual literacy. In our globalized world, contextual norms are being challenged, and stereotypes of the differences between peoples of different cultural backgrounds are becoming increasingly irrelevant. As the students in this study showed, through engaging in a critical pedagogy such as that of the Reacting to the Past series that puts students at the centre and requires them to discuss, debate, problem-solve and compromise to find solutions, a balanced, global approach to using English rhetoric can create a more egalitarian classroom in which every student is better positioned to gain an equal development of contextual literacy.



I am grateful to Dr. Hanako Okada, for introducing me to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announcement as reported by Reed (2010) and for her unwavering support in working with me on adapting the Reacting to the Past pedagogy for use in Japan.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCL Institute of EducationUniversity of LondonLondonUK

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