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Problem-solving activities in teaching English


People constantly solve problems. Very often there is a definite way of doing something and we follow it in a definite situation, but sometimes, we may feel that the rules are not applicable and we face a new problem and we must then find out our own solution. Doing this, we learn and expand our knowledge. We learn best by solving problems or having personal share in the result.

According to the definition: Problem solving is a mental process and is part of the larger problem process that includes problem finding and problem shaping. Considered the most complex of all intellectual functions, problem solving has been defined as higher-order cognitive process that requires the modulation and control of more routine or fundamental skills.

In fact, many teachers may say that problem-solving in their subject is not possible. But this activity can be successfully used at the English classes.

Problem-solving activity, which is task-based and has a purpose beyond the production of correct speech, is one of the most preferable communicative activities. They show not only the competence and knowledge but also the performance of the learner and their communicative skills. Questions which require students to be reasonable and logical and help students to learn language in an interesting way are the types of problem-solving activities. In problem solving activities, the problems may be based on real or imaginary situations, and students are expected to find possible solutions for the problems.

Problem-solving activities can be used at all levels. Regarding students knowledge of English, age and their experience, appropriate activities might be successfully applied. It is also important to work out clear and easy directions for these activities.

Problem-solving activities have many advantages, which shouldnt be ignored. While talking about the problem, students use the target language and improve their communicative skills. They learn to interact with others as they discuss solutions and outcomes of the solution. They learn to negotiate when they try to agree on different points of the solution, thus they develop critical thinking skills.

It is a learner-centered activity where the students communicate with each other while studying the problem and looking for possible solutions for possible future actions. The teacher can only observe and sometimes coordinate the process, helping the students to develop their communicative skills.

In a way, students acquire language unconsciously since their whole attention is engaged by the activity. By providing personal, social, and cross-cultural issues to define, they sometimes simulate real life situations

It is also possible to integrate all skills in such activities. Reading or listening to a situation, a problem, or a question; responding or commenting either through speaking or writing. It is also necessary to keep in mind that as Professor Linda W. Little states: such activities provide opportunities to practice thinking clearly while focusing on the form unconsciously.

In such activities the teacher should act as a facilitator rather than a teacher. He introduces the problem and guides the process of discussion while the students are involved in the process of learning. He should create friendly and relaxed teaching-learning atmosphere in which students will not be embarrassed. As Stephen Krashen the Professor of the University of Southern California says: it requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.

How should problem-solving activity applied in an English class? Before choosing the problem we should thoroughly study it as there are problems with different levels of difficulty and require different skills and knowledge. That is why the choice of the problem which you want to solve in class is closely connected with the level of your students knowledge.

We can divide the process of problem-solving into several stages:

The first stage of introducing the problem could be warm-up activity where the teacher can ask students to answer some questions related to the problem and thus giving a chance to predict what the problem might be and motivate the students. It can be a picture shown on the active-board, or a video. The teacher may ask low level students to describe the picture, when high level students may pay more attention to the situation, shown in the picture. The questions will help students to review some grammar, which can be used in the process of discussion.

The second stage is reading of the story or watching video. Find out what words are unfamiliar for the students and write down them on the blackboard. Be sure that the students understand the situation.

The third stage is comprehension check. Comprehension check can be done in different ways, for example as listening or reading exercises. At first the teacher can ask yes or no questions then go to special questions and then offers the students to ask their own questions. Or the teacher may offer different statements, which can be right and wrong and ask students to say whether they are correct or not and correct the wrong ones.

The next stage is discussion. Here the students are encouraged to talk about the issues presented in the reading and also their personal experience. The questions may require students to make suppositions and use their judgment. There are no correct answers.

Now the students are ready to identify the problems and to find the solutions and talk about the consequences. The problems can be written on the blackboard. The teacher may begin the discussion by asking the questions: Whats the problem?, then What can be done? and at last What is the solution of the problem? Encourage the students to present their ideas and it is important here not to make emphasis on their grammar mistakes. Dont correct their mistakes; try to help them with the questions which can give them a hint if they are in a difficulty what to say next. When the solutions are ready the teacher should write them on the blackboard and ask students about the possible consequences. Encourage them to use their imagination and critical thinking to come up with the possible consequences.

In order to choose the best solution the teacher may divide students into several groups of three or four people and ask them to discuss the possible consequences of their decision. In this activity the teacher gives the chance to shy students who cant speak in public, express his opinion. It is possible for students to come up with new solutions if the consider them to be more successful. In each group there should be a moderator, who facilitates the discussion and is responsible for the groups decision. On this stage the teacher shouldnt interrupt students to correct their mistakes, but he should write them down I order to discuss them the next day. When the groups are ready to come up with their solution, ask the leader of the group to sound it and explain why it was chosen. Ask the students from other groups if they agree with it or not. Encourage the students to take active part in this discussion as it develops their ability to persist in opinion, giving his reasons in the target language.

The last stages of this activity is the discussion of mistakes made in the process of problem solving, but do it after careful consideration in order not to hurt students and encourage them to take an active part in the next problem solving activity.

In conclusion, problem solving activities provide favorable usages for extended communicative practice. They are motivating and create a meaningful context for language usage. The application of such activities increases cooperation and competition in the classroom and stimulates students interest to the learning process.



1. Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics

2. Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (Eds.). (1998). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Linda W. Little Critical thinking and Communication Skills. Longman

4. Krashen, S. (2003) Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heimemann.