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Critical Thinking in your lessons – It’s easier than you think!

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Pensive girlIn the second blog post in our series on 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), Charles Vilina talks more specifically about critical thinking skills and how you can bring critical thinking into your lessons.

In my earlier blog, I introduced some of the main 21st Century skills, and argued that the English language classroom is a perfect environment to build those skills. After suggesting five “strategies” that I feel are essential to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning, I promised some more specifics in later blogs.

My focus for this particular post is on the skill known as “critical thinking.” I look at critical thinking as a series of abilities that take students beyond simple comprehension of information. A critical thinker uses logic and evidence to prioritize and classify information, find relationships, make judgments, and solve problems.

You might argue that our students don’t need to move beyond the simple comprehension of words and sentences. However, critical thinkers are better learners, because they explore meaning much more deeply. As English language curriculums continue to use more content to teach English, critical thinking strategies give students a chance to analyze and process the information in valuable ways.

Let’s look at one specific way in which you can begin to bring critical thinking into your lessons. It begins with vocabulary, one of the building blocks of language.

Vocabulary

In all vocabulary development, students must know a word in three ways: by its form, its meaning, and its use. Critical thinking takes this concept even further. Students should know a word as it relates to other words. For example, let’s say that you are teaching students the following lexical set about forms of transportation:

bicycle sailboat
airplane hot air balloon
rocket subway train
cruise ship bus
taxi skateboard

Once your students have a solid understanding of the above words, I’d suggest the following activity:

  1. Divide the class into groups of four students.
  2. Ask student groups to list the above forms of transportation in order from slowest to fastest.
  3. Ask each student group to discuss their list with another group.

This activity, as simple as it sounds, involves lots of logic and critical thinking. For example, students may decide that a skateboard is probably the slowest form of transportation on the list. However, it gets a bit more difficult after that. Is a bicycle faster than a sailboat? It depends on the wind speed. Therefore, does a sailboat move at the same speed as a hot air balloon, since they both move with the wind? Does a taxi move faster than a subway train? Sometimes, but then a taxi has to stop at intersections. How about a cruise ship? Perhaps we can find the average speed of one on the Internet. Is a rocket the fastest form of transportation? Yes, everyone agrees that it is.

The goal is actually NOT to arrive at a correct answer, but to get students to think more deeply about words, what they represent, how they are each part of bigger systems, how they relate to each other within those systems, and so on.

By doing so, students are required to use all of their language skills in the process. The lesson is no longer about memorization and simple meaning. It has transcended this and become an experience. Students are much more likely to remember and use these vocabulary words after such an activity.

Of course, any number of vocabulary sets can be used, with a variety of other critical thinking activities. For example:

1. The lexical set is “inventions”

Activity One:  List the words on a timeline in the order in which they were invented.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of importance to humans.

2. The lexical set is “sports”

Activity One:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing sports into those that can be played indoors only, outdoors only, and both indoors and outdoors.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of the amount of equipment needed to play them.

3. The lexical set is “adjectives”

Activity One:  List the words under the headings of Positive, Negative, and Neutral.

Activity Two:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing the adjectives into those that can describe people, things, or both.

As mentioned before, get students into groups to collaborate and to achieve the goals of each activity. Then, get groups talking together to discuss their choices.

These types of activities are especially helpful as students later create sentences using these words. After all, they’ve had a chance to explore the vocabulary more deeply with their fellow classmates.

In coming blogs, we’ll discuss many more ways to include critical thinking in your lessons. Until then, Happy Teaching!

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

13 thoughts on “Critical Thinking in your lessons – It’s easier than you think!

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Prepare Your Students for the 21st Century | Oxford University Press

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  6. Good stuff! Thanks.

    PS Forms of transport (like many others) lends itself to classification according to environmental friendliness and carbon footprint too.

  7. Hello, Alan. You’re right — our world environment is a big issue, and one worth bringing into our classrooms at every opportunity. Thanks for sharing a great idea with us.

  8. Thank you for the great ideas to try out with my younger learners. I’m sure such critical thinking activities is abound to add to the enjoyment of the my students.

  9. Deepest thanks for your helpful ideas and efforts to make teaching as well as learning an enjoyable experience

  10. Thank you for sharing this great idea of teaching vocabulary “not just on the surface”

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