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October 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Cognitive Challenge of ESL Textbooks: Science-fiction or Reality?

Lenka Čileková has been a freelance ESL teacher for almost two decades. She runs in-company courses, focusing on delivering ESP lessons to professionals in various fields of industry and business. She also prepares adults and teenagers for Cambridge English exams.  Apart from teaching, Lenka translates technical documentation, and occasionally interprets. She lives and works in Slovakia. E-mail:

“The article deals with the incorporation of the principles of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy in the selected C1 level materials and their potential to develop higher-order thinking skills of students who use them.”



The world as we know it today will be different tomorrow. Some of the knowledge we currently possess will be deemed obsolete by the time we pass it on to our students or our children or use it in a meaningful way. As you are reading these lines someone might be uncovering a secret, hidden to the mankind for generations, which could alter our understanding of the whole universe. Somewhere else, in the other part of the world, a new coinage is being introduced and in a few months might replace a phrase you have been teaching your students for years. In this light, purposeless accumulation of information that has no relevance to your own life or further development of your personality seems irrational.

We all know that holding large quantities of facts in our memory in the era of high-capacity storage options doesn’t make much sense. We should bear this in mind when preparing lessons for our students. Almost everyone has come across a teacher who believed that the more vocabulary and grammar rules their students master, the better English speakers they become. However, building vocabulary without being able to use it correctly in any language is pointless. The objective today is to shape all aspects of the learners’ personality, including their ability to think critically and creatively in order to succeed in real life. Since the ability to think critically is not innate, the cognitive component of a learner’s personality has to be cultivated. In the recent years there has been a strong call for promoting cognitive challenge in teaching various subjects, foreign languages being no exception. You might object here that your task is to teach a second language, not critical thinking. Still, incorporating an activity or two to promote the development of higher-order thinking skills of your students can bring added value to your lessons. And it will not be at the expense of developing the language skills. So let’s go ahead!


HOTS and ESL: Two different concepts?

If your students are the lucky ones, you do not insist on memorising countless sets of lengthy sentences during your classes. Instead of passively absorbing knowledge, students should be encouraged to use higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) by doing intellectually engaging tasks and activities. This will ensure not only faster progress in their acquisition of the second language skills via the increase in interest and motivation, but also a chance for their cognitive development. That way they will be able to produce meaningful utterances themselves.

Cognition is inseparable from learning a language; especially the second language acquired after the mother tongue is mastered. In her study, Bialystok (2002) asserts that the interaction between the language acquisition and the cognitive processes is reciprocal. She believes that the employment of certain cognitive processes influences the level to which the given second language is mastered and vice versa: The process of acquiring a foreign language is paramount to developing cognition of a learner. It is, therefore, important to set tasks that are challenging for students of a second language.


Cognitive challenge: Is it measurable?

Cognition is an abstract concept and as such seems to be very subjective. Yet, there are tools that can be utilized to assess the cognitive difficulty of teaching resources. One of them is the Bloom´s Revised Taxonomy. As the title suggests, it stems from the original Bloom’s Taxonomy of the 1950s (Bloom at al., 1956), which marked the commencement of a new outlook on objectives setting and education in general. The primary ideas of the original classification are still reflected in the revised version of the framework. The authors (Anderson, Krathwohl, 2001), taking into account new findings in cognitive psychology and related fields, sought to make it more interconnected with the learning process and created a two-dimensional model. 

The Revised Taxonomy looks into the objectives from two different aspects – what the students are expected to learn (subject matter content or knowledge) and which cognitive processes they employ to acquire this knowledge or to use the existing one to learn something new. They depicted this relationship in the Taxonomy Table, which you as a teacher can use to prepare lesson or assess the cognitive level of your activities. And here comes our measuring tool. The cognitive process component of the framework consist of six hierarchically arranged categories - ‘remember’ is a process needed to retain information and knowledge, while the remaining ones – ‘understand’, ‘apply’, ‘analyze’, ‘evaluate’, and ‘create’, to transfer it (Anderson, Krathwohl, 2001). If your objective is to make your students recognize an English phrase in a text and use it correctly to answer the text-related questions, you are asking them to use lower-order thinking skills (LOTS). If you expect them to use their prior knowledge of the phrase included in the article to analyse the text and evaluate the appropriacy of its use to support the main message of the writer, they are practising their higher-order thinking skills (HOTS). The very top of cognition might be a task focused on creating a piece of writing or retelling a story while adding an alternative ending. Whether consciously or not many of you probably use tasks from both the lower as well as the higher end of the cognitive scale in a balanced proportion.


Cognitive challenge of ESL textbooks

I am sure most of you have faced the same dilemma at some point of your teaching career: to use a coursebook or not to use one? It is clear that ‘tailor-made’ teaching materials to suit the needs of your particular class are the best option. Still, a well-written coursebook is an invaluable resource when teaching a foreign language, especially for novice teachers, for whom it might be the only tool for delivering ESL instruction. Choosing good course material is the basis for successful teaching. The book market is flooded with ESL coursebooks and resource packs and teachers often lack time, money or knowledge of the issue of cognitive engagement necessary to evaluate the textbooks prior to their selection, especially when the main criterion is the way the second language is presented.  The level of cognitive complexity of textbooks is not obvious at first sight. It takes a thorough examination of the materials to determine the extent to which they offer cognitively challenging content.

Although various studies on the issue of cognitive appropriacy of books showed alarming results, showing the tendency of textbooks to prevail in task engaging LOTS, there are numerous ways of making activities cognitively challenging. And, surprisingly, you can do it using your regular materials.  Instead of sticking to the ‘prescribed procedure’, you can rephrase the problem using synonyms, ask open-ended questions, include synthesis or analysis in problem-solving, stimulate creativity by requiring learners to predict what might happen in the story or apply other strategies to pose an intellectual challenge to them. The cognitive challenge and its lack is one of the reasons for material adaptation. Islam and Mares (2003, p. 89) assume that adapting materials can make them more engaging, and at the same time, apart from other thing, “encourage higher-level cognitive skills”. If an article included in your textbook is below your students’ level or their existing knowledge on the issue makes them answer mechanically, just replace the text with a new one or add extra tasks to the original one to generate interest of your class. It is important to realise that students who are challenged in the classroom by solving tasks that are intellectually demanding are likely to succeed when they face real-life issues outside the classroom. And if nothing else, you are bound to catch your class’s full attention.


Research on cognitive complexity: ‘Objective Advanced’ and ‘Complete Advanced’

When teaching English, it is crucial to select materials that pose cognitive challenge to learners while adequately promoting the acquisition of language skills and vice versa.

The analyses of Objective Advanced: Student’s Book [Objective] (O’Dell, Broadhead, 2014) and Complete Advanced: Student’s Book [Complete] (Brook-Hart, Haines, 2014), conducted earlier this year as part of academic research produced quite optimistic results. If you are thinking of introducing a new C1 textbook, the findings might contribute to your informed selection.

The procedure

The research exploited the techniques of the content analyses of the two selected textbooks and a comparative analysis, followed by a post-use semi-structured interview with five teachers. The data collected in the initial phase of the research were analyzed and quantified prior to their interpretation.

In order to determine the cognitive demands of each of the two textbooks, the tasks had to be categorized based on the cognitive category they represented.  The type of knowledge was not relevant. When analyzing materials in the textbooks, our research took into account the highest level of the cognitive spectre they require to be accomplished. If a single task comprised of several lower-level subtasks leading to the completion of the main assignment, only the level of the main task was graded. Similarly, if the main task consisted of several questions of the same cognitive value, they were categorized as one occurrence.

First, the material was coded – each main task labelled as one of the ‘C’ categories - C1 (remember), C2 (understand), C3 (apply), C4 (analyze), C5 (evaluate), and C6 (create), then the occurrence of each category was counted and the frequencies were transformed into percentages in order to make the final data interpretable.

Note: The grouping of tasks in this research was arbitrary and other researchers might decide to group them by units or other criteria.

The textbooks’ structure

As the textbooks are predominantly used as a preparation material for the CAE exam, they contain the same components – ‘Reading and Use of English’, ‘Writing’, ‘Listening’ and ‘Speaking’. Within these blocks of skills, also systems - vocabulary, grammar, phonology and discourse are dealt with, featuring all types of tasks, which can also contribute to the depth of cognitive challenge of the books. Despite the difference in the overall number of pages, the main body of the textbooks is comparable with Objective having 383 tasks and activities on 152 pages and Complete covering 374 tasks and activities over 154 pages.

Research findings

The data were analysed in two ways. The first computation was done as the percentage of tasks within the cognitive process category calculated per total number of tasks (383 for Objective and 374 for Complete).  The second set of data was calculated as the percentage of tasks within the cognitive process category per number of tasks in the given skill or system category. The reason for such a dual approach was an uneven distribution of tasks, which led to distorted data. The calculations produced the following figures:

Tab.  1  Comparison: Total percentages

Comparison: Total percentages

Cognitive Process



C1: remember



C2: understand



C3: apply



LOTS: Total

 63.6  %

 66.9 %

C4: analyze



C5: evaluate



C6: create



HOTS: Total

 36.4 %

 33.1 %


Tab. 1, depicting the overall display of tasks, shows that the lower-order cognitive processes cover over 60 % of all the tasks in both textbooks – at the expense of higher-order thinking skills that amount only to something over 30 %.

It is true that the overall distribution of tasks according to the cognitive processes is in favour of the lower spectre of the dimension. However, the largest proportion of the tasks in categories C1 to C3 can be located in the receptive skills and systems in both books. With the receptive skills of listening and reading, the understanding of what was heard or read is often the main objective. The tasks are often just a set of closed Wh- questions that do not require divergent thinking, or multiple-choice exercises where students just need to recognize the connection between parts of the recording or a reading passage and the provided options.

To illustrate the significance of the distribution of tasks, here is an example: In Objective, the vocabulary category takes up the largest proportion of all 383 tasks – 86 (22.5 %), out of which only 4 tasks (1 % of the whole textbook) belong to the HOTS spectre. Similarly, in Complete, 93 out of 373 tasks (24.9 % of the whole textbook) are from the vocabulary category with only 1.6 % in HOTS. The trend is similar for grammar and the receptive skills, which contributes to the distortion of data.

It needs to be stressed here that systems and receptive skills often create a bridge to tasks where production of language is expected and where HOTS need to be employed.

To make the findings more reliable, another way of handling and interpreting the data was implemented. Tab. 2 shows the comparison of the percentages between Objective and Complete, separately for the lower-order and higher-order processes within their own skills or system categories. When tasks are stratified based not only on the cognitive challenge they pose to learners, but also according to the skill or system they belong to, the results are not as straightforward as for the overall analysis. The following display of data shows also the percentage difference (see the last column) between the two textbook, although the figures are just informative.

Tab. 2 Comparison by Skills and Systems

Δ = % difference

Within the particular skill or system, the highest percentage of tasks in the higher-order range is among the productive skills. The explanation behind this result lies in the principle of setting writing assignments, especially those for the CAE exam. Most tasks require learners and test takers to create a unique piece of writing although they have to follow certain criteria. As for Objective, speaking tasks cover 76.5 %, followed closely by another productive skill, writing with 74.5 %. The opposite trend is in vocabulary with only 4.7 % in the higher-order range and 95.3 % in the lower-order spectre. Regarding Complete, the highest percentage of tasks in the higher-order range is occupied by writing, totalling 84.6 % and speaking with 68.0 %.  The leader in the lower-order range is vocabulary with 93.5 % of tasks in categories C1 to C3 cumulatively.

The interview with teachers was a post-use evaluation of the given textbooks, shedding light on the practical implications of the varying difficulty of the tasks in the teaching materials. All the participants expressed their positive reflections, recommending the book they use as one that poses adequate cognitive challenge and has a potential to develop the higher-order thinking skills of students. Some believe that the extent to which it is capable to achieve this depends on the teacher’s skills, others think that if a student has a potential to develop cognitively, either of the two books can be of great help.

For more detailed data and their interpretation, please refer to the complete research at



In both textbooks, systems and receptive skills proved to be inclined towards the lower-order cognitive skills needed for solving the tasks. Still, it needs to be emphasized here, that the system tasks serve as a gateway to cognitively more challenging tasks present at speaking or writing. Remembering, understanding and correctly applying the given lexical or grammatical item is a prerequisite to solving speaking or writing tasks. The allocation of tasks within the productive skills of speaking and writing shows more favourable results with the prevalence of higher-order cognitive processes. These pose cognitive challenge to learners and thus aid at developing their cognitive skills.  It promotes cognitively challenging tasks in categories where it is appropriate and expected.

It can be concluded that both textbook are comparably comprehensive in promoting the development of higher-order thinking skills and either of the two, Objective or Complete can be recommended to be used to deliver instruction in ESL classes with the secondary objective of developing higher-order thinking skills as specified by the Bloom´s Revised Taxonomy.


The final word

Regardless of whether you opt for either of the two analysed books or use your regular materials, it is important to realize that in teaching languages no task is superior due to its placement in the cognitive hierarchy. All of them are necessary at some stage of the learning process and most of the time the objectives require employing more processes at the same time in order to complete a task or acquire new knowledge. Our research showed that cognitively demanding assignments often stem from simple, repetitive tasks and activities that should not be disregarded in the process of teaching. We all ought to be aware of this fact when preparing lessons for our students.

Creative and cognitively challenging education is the key to producing critical thinkers instead of ‘knowledge holders’. If teaching is innovative and tasks students are required to do have a high cognitive demand, students can benefit from them in multiple ways. They avoid repetitiveness of tasks, which leads to boredom, they evade simplicity and directness of instruction that might cause indifference and passivity in learning and escape the risk of remaining at the same language proficiency level. This motivates them towards further studying and learning for life.

Good textbooks in combination with creative teachers form students who are developed in all aspects of their personality and it is not necessary to search for cognitively challenging ESL textbooks in science-fiction literature or movies. With a bit of effort, any textbook can be adapted to achieve this end. Good luck in meeting your classes’ objectives.



ANDERSON, L.W., KRATHWOHL, D.R., Eds. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2001, 302 pp. ISBN 0-8013-1903-X.

BIALYSTOK, E. Cognitive processes of L2 user. In: COOK, V. (Ed.) Portraits of the L2 user. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2002. pp. 147–165.

BLOOM, B. S. at al. Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goal: Handbook I Cognitive domain. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1956,  207 pp.

BROOK-HART, G., HAINES, S. Complete Advanced: Student’s Book with answers. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 256 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-67090-7.

ČILEKOVÁ, L. Development of Cognitive Processes at C1 Level of ELT [diploma thesis]. Nitra: Constantine the Philosopher University, 2020, 122 pp. Available from

ISLAM, C., MARES, C. Adapting Classroom Materials. In: TOMLINSON, B. (Ed.). Developing Materials for Language Teaching. London: Continuum, 2003. pp. 86–100. ISBN 0-8264-5917-X.

O’DELL, F., BROADHEAD, A. Objective Advanced: Student’s Book with answers. 4th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 232 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-65755-7.


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