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On a journey to think critically


students critical thinkingColin Ward looks at how to support students to think critically in the language classroom. Colin is a Professor of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, Texas. He is also a co-author of Q: Skills for Success and the forthcoming Trio Writing, both published by Oxford University Press.

As teachers, it’s not always easy to embrace uncertainty.  There is comfort in knowing exactly what a lesson will cover, what questions are going to be asked, and how students are supposed to respond.

However, a paradigm shift often occurs when teachers push students toward thinking critically.  By its very nature, critical thinking brings teachers and students to a much more ambiguous place.  There is no single correct answer—but many.  Teachers are asked to adopt a “pedagogy of questions” instead of a “pedagogy of answers.” 4  They might not have all the answers, and answers might themselves be in the form of questions.

Managing such ambiguity in the classroom is no simple task, yet many researchers continue to cite the benefits of teaching students to think critically.  Evidence suggests that teaching critical thinking in the language classroom improves both speaking and writing and increases motivation.11  Kabilan goes so far as to suggest that foreign language learners are not truly proficient until they can think critically and creatively in the target language. 7

In addition to embracing ambiguity, teachers must grapple with what “critical thinking” actually is, for there are countless definitions in the literature.9  Is it making decisions independently? Developing criteria for analyzing one’s own thinking? Evaluating different perspectives, forming opinions, and taking action?  Making inferences?  Challenging assumptions?  Withholding judgment?

In fact, critical thinking has become an umbrella term encompassing all of these skills.  In looking at the literature, it also becomes clear that critical thinking is not a one-off task, but a journey, where students must discover and evaluate what they believe, why they believe it, and how new evidence challenges or supports what they believe.  It is a journey, but one that requires several stops along the way.  Part of our role as educators is to scaffold this journey of inquiry for our students.

In class, the first step of this journey often starts with a thought-provoking question.  What does it mean to be polite?  Why do things yourself?   Does advertising harm or help us?  Questions such as these allow for multiple viewpoints and set a trajectory. Questions also motivate students because they become a puzzle to be solved. 3

At this stage, teachers must consider students’ abilities, and scaffold appropriately. 8 Before asking students to share their opinions, for example, instructors may first need to give them the language necessary to do so.  This may involve teaching basic chunks such as I believe that or One reason is because before a discussion.

Teachers can also reinforce critical thinking skills by paying careful attention to the language they use in class.  Using higher-level terminology from Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as compare, predict, analyze, and recommend, will help students acquire the meta-language needed to understand what critical thinking is and what it does.

There is also art to asking questions.  A student may say, I think that advertising helps consumers.  It is natural for teachers to follow-up with Why? to encourage critical thinking.  Too often, however, the Why? question can feel like an assault and lead to uncomfortable silence.  Instead, rephrasing Why? to Can you explain that? can result in less student anxiety, and a more immediate and relaxed response.

Once the journey of inquiry has been established, new content helps to keep the momentum going.  However, interacting with the content will require careful pauses.  After a reading text or a listening, for example, students often need opportunities to stop and think, considering how the new information has modified their understanding of the question.  Here teachers can scaffold new perspectives by adding on to the initial question. What does it mean to be polite….at work?  At school?  With family?  With friends?

Students may also be encouraged to challenge or support their initial beliefs based on new evidence from the text.  When mediating such discussions, teachers must be mindful of their students’ cultural backgrounds.  Atkinson, for example, points out that in some cultures, the nature of critical thinking as an act of self-expression is not encouraged. 1  In culturally sensitive contexts, a lighter approach could involve asking students to think about how their experiences connect to those explored in a reading or listening, rather than demanding an outright opinion.  This can still lead students toward re-evaluating beliefs, but in less intrusive way.

Often the journey must be messy in order to allow disparate elements to come together in the discovery of something new.  That “aha” moment may come at one stop or another, but more often than not, it appears at the final destination.  This is when students synthesize what they think with the knowledge they have gathered through a formal speaking or writing task.   Students’ answers to the question may take a new direction, or several directions.  Graphic organizers that help students organize their ideas can help scaffold this process of discovery.  For example, when answering the question, Does advertising help or harm us?, students could use a T-chart to list reasons that support “yes” and “no” answers.

Another way to support critical thinking at the end of the journey is to ask students to reflect on their responses to the question when revising.  When students revise the final assignment, for example, they could directly compare how their response of the question compares to their response from the beginning of the journey.  To scaffold, teachers could offer chunks of language to frame the comparison: Originally, I believed that…but now, I think that…because…  This kind of reflection will push them to see and summarize the journey as a whole and could be added to their concluding remarks.

Seeing critical thinking as a journey with several stops treats it as an essential part of the lesson plan, which explains why critical thinking is often paired with content-based instruction. 3 It also acknowledges that students may not have a complete answer to a question right away, but will build on their answer as they travel through the lesson and encounter additional input.  It is a means to an end.

It is tempting to assume that teaching content and skills will result in higher-order thinking without explicit instruction, but research suggests otherwise.  Fostering critical thinking in the classroom becomes the teacher’s responsibility.  However, when done effectively, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences for students and teachers alike.  There is great satisfaction in witnessing students think about what they think, and taking them through that journey of discovery, one stop at a time.


1Atkinson, D. (1997). A critical approach to critical thinking. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 71-94.

2Brookfield, S. (2011). Teaching for Critical Thinking.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

3Crocker, J.L., & Bowden, M.R. (2011). Thinking in English: A content-based approach.  In A. Stewart (Ed.), JALT2010 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

4Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Seabury press.

5Freire, P. (1973). Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: The Seabury Press

6Halvorsen, A. (2005). Incorporating critical thinking skills development into ESL/EFL courses. Internet TESL Journal, 11(3).  Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Halvorsen-CriticalThinking.html

7Kabilan, M. (2000). Creative and critical thinking in language classrooms. Internet TESL Journal, 6(6).  Available: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Kabilan-CriticalThinking.html

8Liaw, M. (2007). Content-based reading and writing for critical thinking skills in an EFL context. English Teaching and Learning, 31(2), 45-87.

9Long, C.J. (2009). Teaching critical thinking in Asian EFL contexts: theoretic and practical applications. Proceedings of the 8th Conference of Pan-Pacific Associate of Applied Linguistics.

10Mayfield, M. (2001). Thinking for Yourself: Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Reading and Writing (5th ed.). United States: Thomas Learning.

11Shirkhani, S. & Fahim, M. (2011).  Enhancing critical thinking in foreign language learners.  Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 29, 111-115. Available: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811026759

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+.

4 thoughts on “On a journey to think critically

  1. Interesting read indeed; there is only 1 huge problem: teens in particular are not critical in their own native language, how can we expect them to be in a second language ????!:)

    • I understand the frustration in your question. However, the tips presented here seem designed to develop critical thinking, not simply tap into it. This approach could work in both a native language and 2nd language context. Consider if you will language acting as the facilitator in the development of the student’s thinking process which can then be applied in either language, and either culture.

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