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What is Bloom’s Taxonomy (and how it applies to online ESL)

By May 8, 2018 June 4th, 2019 3 Comments

What is one thing we do every day in our class with our students? We expand on the material. We ask students questions about the content of the lessons. We use the material and build on what we see and hear. Many online tutors use photographs, a virtual whiteboard, and sing songs in English. These are all ways we get students talking. Personally, I feel like I have had a successful class if my students were able to produce more than just what the objectives in the lesson asks of them.

When we expand, we are bound to run into hurdles. Sometimes we get the deer in the headlights look. We ask a question, and six eyes stare back just blinking. So, we ask another question…same reaction. I don’t know about you, but when this happens, it can feel a little awkward. I ask myself, “What went wrong? They were doing so well and speaking a lot.  All I did was ask ‘why?’” They express their opinions and tell me what they like and dislike all the time. Surely, they can explain why. Well, what if I told you that “why?” can be one of the trickiest questions we can ask? It is disguised as easy, but it is not. Two questions to consider are:

  •    How are we to know which questions and activities are too complicated or too easy for our students?
  •    How can we gauge the questions we ask?

Those are the same questions teachers have been asking for a very long time, long before computers were in every home—when online teaching was something from a science fiction book. What if I told you that there was a classification system that teachers have been using for more than sixty years that was designed to help the teacher gauge the difficulty level of the students while setting educational goals? It is called Bloom’s Taxonomy. I am confident some of you have heard of it or are even using it in your classrooms if you teach at a school.

Why do we expand on the material? What is the purpose? First, it adds overall richness to the content. Also, it permits the students to apply what was learned in a meaningful dialogue. They get to put their knowledge to use with an English speaker. Let’s consider another factor: What if we work on developing students’ cognition in English as well? Children and teenagers are still developing their thinking skills. These are abilities that will help them solve problems and work through many different kinds of situations in life. Acquiring facts is more useful when one knows how to think. Why not develop these cognitive skills in their target language as well?

The objective is not only to know how to expand the material in the courseware, so students can communicate more effectively but also to develop their higher-order thinking skills: to move from the concrete to the more abstract using different cognitive abilities. It is important to note that children do not typically develop abstract thinking until they reach the age of 11 or 12. This does not mean that they cannot analyze, evaluate or create, but it does mean that the skills are undeveloped as children still think concretely. As we question our students, we must consider the Stages of Second Language Acquisition (Adapted from Krashen and Terrell. 1983) A student could master any stage at any age. What are the characteristics of each stage?

  • Pre-Production: The student has minimal comprehension, does not verbalize, nods “yes” and “no,” and draws and points.
  • Early Production: The student has limited understanding, produces one or two-word responses, participates using keywords and familiar phrases, and uses present-tense verbs.
  • Speech Emergence: The student has good comprehension, can construct simple sentences, makes grammar and pronunciation errors, and frequently misunderstands jokes.
  • Intermediate Fluency: The student has excellent perception and makes few grammatical errors.
  • Advanced Fluency: The students have a near-native level of speech.

Think about the stage of the majority of your students. For example, at this time, most of my students fall into the early production and speech emergence stages. This gives me an idea as to the complexity of the language I must focus on.

After considering the students’ ages and their stages of second language acquisition, let’s ask the question: What is Bloom’s Taxonomy? Simply stated, it is a framework that classifies levels of cognition. It was designed so teachers would be able to reach educational goals. It was created in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom and revised in 2001 by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl. We will focus on the revised taxonomy. What is important to consider is the word cognition.

The Order of Bloom’s Taxonomy

We can carefully develop students’ cognition by gauging the questions we ask. How? Let’s take a look at Bloom’s Taxonomy (updated). It looks like a pyramid with six levels: each one represents a level of cognition. The most basic level is at the bottom of the pyramid, and the most advanced is at the top.

The best way to explain the levels of cognition in Bloom’s Taxonomy is to walk you through it using a scenario that could come from any lesson. Picture a photograph of a dog in that lesson. The students are talking about pets and one of the new vocabulary words is dog. Let’s walk through the levels of the pyramid using the word dog.

  1. The first level is Remember: recognizing and recalling facts. Simple statements such as “I say dog. You say dog.” help students remember and recognize the image. If they are able to answer the question, “What do you see?”, they are ready to answer more questions and move up the pyramid.
  2. The second level is Understand: understanding what the facts mean. They can answer questions that test their ability to understand the dog, such as describing the color and number of ears it has. (Remember to use TPR. Perhaps the student is 100% capable of describing the dog but is hindered in his response simply because he lacks the language. You may need to show him what “ears” are or hold up your fingers to represent the question, “How many?”.) In this way, you can continue to move up the pyramid.
  3. The third level is Apply: applying the facts, rules, concepts, and ideas. Apply what they know about the dog to ask what sound it makes. This usually makes them laugh as they bark like a dog! If students feel comfortable applying what they know, you can expand even more by continuing to move up the pyramid. (Don’t be surprised if you stop at Understand or Apply: students still need time to develop their language skills to move up the levels of cognition.)
  4. The fourth level is Analyze: breaking down information into parts. You can have students analyze what they know by asking which animal is bigger: a dog or a bird.
  5. The fifth level is Evaluate: judging the value of information or ideas. If you continue to evaluate and ask them if they like dogs, they may answer that with ease. Keep in mind that the question Why might be too difficult to answer. They may know why and lack the ability to explain why in English.
  6. The sixth and final level is Create: combining parts to make a new whole. If they would like to create, they could create a new dog. For example, students can use their imaginations and create a dog with wings, two tails, and feathers. Of course, they could describe why it is important for the dog to have these characteristics. Keep in mind that if they were to draw a replica of an average dog, they are not really creating anything. They would be drawing what they recall about a dog (the bottom level).

Notice that these questions are fundamental and seem very easy. Let’s assume the students are placed in a basic level course and are probably anywhere from five to nine years old. However, despite appearances, the questions may not be easy. Starting at the bottom of the pyramid and working your way up is a way to gauge the appropriate level of difficulty for each one of your students. It is important to consider that just because a student struggles to answer questions or contribute to an activity does not mean she has not mastered that particular level of cognition. It may mean she merely lacks the language to express herself in English. She may know the answer in her mind, but conveying the message is challenging if she doesn’t know the English words or the verb tense. We can help the student by guiding and nudging her in the right direction. With time, we will be able to determine what students will and will not be able to produce.

The levels of cognition in the revised taxonomy are all verbs. The idea is to focus on what students can do and what better way to describe this than to use action words? Under each level, there are even more verbs. Each verb represents a specific skill that develops that level of cognition:

  1. Remember: arrange, define, label, list, match, memorize, name recall, recognize, repeat, reproduce, restate, state
  2. Understand: classify, describe, discuss, explain, express, give examples, give the main idea, infer, interpret, paraphrase, report, review, select, summarize
  3. Apply: choose, demonstrate, dramatize, execute, illustrate, implement, interpret, outline, point out, role play, show, sketch, solve, use
  4. Analyze: attribute, break down, calculate, categorize, compare, contrast, differentiate, discriminate, dissect, distinguish, examine, organize, question, test
  5. Evaluate: argue, appraise, assess, critique, check, conclude, criticize, defend, estimate, judge, justify, predict, rate, select, support, value
  6. Create: assemble, combine, compile, compose, construct, design, develop, devise, formulate, generate, invent, organize, plan, prepare, produce, propose, revise, write

Think of the endless possibilities to the questions we can ask and the activities we can prepare for our students! Oh, the ways we can expand on the material! Our ability to expand on the courseware is our superpower as tutors. Getting students to produce English and improve their levels of cognition in the target language is something any tutor can do that goes above and beyond what is demanded of them. I have a copy of Bloom’s Taxonomy (with the verbs!) placed next to my computer, and I refer to it as I work with my students in our online classes. I even use it to prepare questions and activities. With practice and time, I have gotten faster and have developed a sixth sense for anticipating what will work and what won’t.

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Megann Wither
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Megann Wither

Susan, thank you so much for bringing light to this important subject! Great article!

Jan Millsaps
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Very interesting article! I enjoy how your put the whole Bloom’s Taxonomy in layman’s terms for everyone to understand and follow. Thank you!

Megann Wither
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Megann Wither

Great article, Susan! I love how easily this concept applies to online teaching!

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