Critical thinking is
widely recognized as an essential component of academic English, yet it does
not receive the attention
that it merits in English as a second
language education. This article will examine why
critical thinking needs to be more emphasized in teaching English for academic
purposes , the scope
of thinking strategies that it entails ,
and various ways in which it can be applied in
In the 1980s, a critical thinking
boom took place in the
this book, though quite advanced, is a
good example of a text which focuses on systematic critical thinking skills
Critical thinking ought to have a more central role in academic instruction
because this is what students need to
succeed in an academic environment. Toward
this end, it is necessary to provide explicit training in the specific critical
thinking skills which students are expected to demonstrate proficiency in.
What is Critical Thinking?
There is no simple definition for critical thinking because it consists of an array of skills and sub skills, some of which apply more than others to English language teaching. Here are some definitions to consider:
○ "Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do." Ennis (1989, cited in Fisher)
○ "Critical thinking consists of an awareness of a set of interrelated critical questions, plus the ability and willingness to ask and answer them at appropriate times." Keeley and Browne (1994)
○ "Critical thinking is that mode of thinking¾about any subject, content or program¾in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them." Paul (2003)
○ "Critical thinking is skilled and active interpretation and evaluation of observations and communications, information and argumentation" Fisher (2001)
○ "Critical thinking is an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and can therefore be convincingly justified."
Kurfiss (1988, cited in
Though general, from these quotes some key concepts can be gleaned. Critical thinking is reflective; it consists of questions and desire to answer them; it furthers the improvement of thought by applying intellectual standards; and it is an investigation aimed at reaching a conclusion which can be supported with evidence.
The main benefit of critical thinking is that it encourages
active learning by teaching students how
to think rather than what to
think. This is the antidote to
uncritical, unreflective, and
thinking and this is what is expected
of students in English-speaking academic settings. In order to meet these expectations, students need
to be trained in these skills to increase their chances of academic
success. It is incorrect to assume that
students will figure out how to do this on their own. Due to the fact that native speakers require
special instruction in critical thinking, it logically follows that non-native
speakers need it as well. In fact, their
need is even greater because critical thinking strategies in English are
possibly culturally alien to them. According to Atkinson (1997 , 72),
"not only is critical thinking a culturally based concept, but many
cultures endorse modes of thought and education that almost diametrically
oppose it." For Atkinson, this is reason to be skeptical of the enterprise
of teaching critical thinking.
However, Richard Day (2003) observes: "I have found students from The
bottom line is that critical
thinking skills are required for students to succeed in academic English
settings, despite the caveat of Atkinson (1997) that it may be an
"exclusive" social practice which may not transfer into other subject
areas. The fact that critical thinking
skills may be unfamiliar, difficult and culturally challenging for students is
not a substantial reason to abstain from teaching them. On the contrary, that is precisely why they
require focused attention, and it is the teacher's responsibility to help
non-native speakers surmount this challenge.
Although critical thinking encompasses a broad range of skills and sub skills, for the purpose of English teaching, it can be framed in terms of the specific linguistic and cognitive skills¾thinking strategies¾that are used to accomplish a variety of academic tasks. The major skills include: information processing, inquiry, reasoning, creative thinking, and evaluation skills¾all of which are crucial for academic success. The following taxonomy, loosely adapted from the UK Department for Education and Skills (1999), clarifies the main skills and provides a detailed description of the sub skills which this author considers to be the most relevant to teaching English to non-native speakers.
1. Information-Processing Skills
○ Gathering relevant information:
researching on the internet
, the library ,
by conducting a survey or any other means of finding information ,
assembling the data in a meaningful way and then determining how to apply it
for a given purpose.
○ Analyzing a text:
text refers to any form of
language input. Analysis of a
what the students do with the input ,
consists of functions such as prioritizing, classifying, sequencing, comparing
○ Interpreting a text: assigning
meaning to a text
, such as: a story, an
article, an audio clip, a video clip, a statement, an advertisement.
○ Summarizing and paraphrasing: abstracting key points of a text and putting them into their own words.
2. Inquiry Skills
○ Asking relevant questions: asking questions which are purposeful and which generate thought.
○ Sustaining a dialogue: by asking probing follow-up questions, students can urge each other to provide more thought out answers. This discourse strategy may not be the norm in their native language. Some examples of questions which could be used to sustain a dialogue include:
¾ Why do you think that?
¾ Can you give me another reason?
¾ What do you mean by that?
¾ How do you know that is true?
¾ Can you think of another example?
3. Reasoning Skills
○ Stating and logically supporting opinions: expressing an opinion and providing solid support to justify it and withstand scrutiny.
○ Drawing inferences: reading between the lines of a text by using individual facts to reach a conclusion.
○ Solving problems: making decisions
informed by reasons or evidence to
reach a solution for a problem. Students
need to reason logically to determine if their solution is a good one.
○ Using clear and precise language: striving for clarity in an effort to explain their ideas in a simple and clear way. Precise language entails appropriate word choice and structuring an argument with discourse markers for indicating opinions, reasons, agreement, disagreement, elaboration, etc.
4. Creative Thinking Skills
○ Generating ideas: brainstorming for new ideas and improving the quality of their ideas.
○ Speculating: making intelligent guesses. Speculation can consist of making predictions, considering consequences of an action or policy, or examining an issue from different points of view. The question "what if" can serve as a stimulus for thinking hypothetically.
5. Evaluation Skills
○ Evaluating peers and self: judging the quality of a process or product according to specific criteria.
○ Distinguishing false from accurate images: examining biases, prejudice and stereotypes in a text or introspectively.
Although there is nothing new about the above skills,
the emphasis in this methodology is to teach the skills
making them tangible activity objectives. Having such objectives clarifies for
the teacher and students what they are doing, why, and if the objectives are
reached. It is because of the difficulty and possible unfamiliarity of many of
these skills that special attention is called for. For example, quite often students simply pick
the first ideas which come to mind if they are not instructed to brainstorm. Also, in
countries which use Confucian-based pedagogy, students are not trained to express
opinions, inquire, and critically evaluate ideas because the focus is on rote
, 1999). Nevertheless, though their former education
did not teach them how to think critically, these students can be trained
to listen better,
write more clearly and read more carefully in order to determine for themselves
the worth of ideas which are presented to them and to avoid tempting habits of
stereotyping and prejudice to which uncritical thinking renders them vulnerable.
For this reason, the above skills should be practiced on a regular basis in
class, the goal being to turn these thinking strategies into habits which will
help students throughout their academic career.
In a typical English-speaking
academic setting, students are often required to present their ideas
through persuasive speaking/writing and by participating in discussions. It is in these areas that critical thinking
training ought to be focused because of the
fact that students are required to demonstrate this ability in these
modes. Persuasive speaking/writing entails constructing an
argument which listeners/readers bear the responsibility of evaluating, i.e.
the quality of reasoning. Persuasive speaking/writing is a relevant place to
practice argumentation discourse and serves to reinforce the standard academic
English convention of stating an opinion and supporting it logically. One activity that is exceptionally well-suited to
this is debate, in which all of the students get involved and
have the opportunity to practice a range of critical thinking skills as debaters and evaluators. In addition
to providing authentic listening, speaking and writing practice, debate is an effective
activity for developing critical thinking skills because of its clear
incorporate all five main skill areas. The research and experience of Krieger
(2005), Davidson (1996), Day (2003) and Fukuda (2003) all bear out the claim
that these skills are learnable and that with practice students show progress
in their ability to perform functions such as: stating opinions, giving logical
recognizing the flaws in each other's arguments, generating ideas, sustaining a
dialogue, analyzing a text.
enable students to delve into an issue
and to explore it rather than manipulate language for its own sake and
unreflectively speak and
write. Due to the difficulty of this, it is the responsibility
of the teacher to oversee the process by providing structured practice. The following principles
are useful for facilitating critical thinking objectives in the classroom.
1. Use activities that have various answers or solutions
This gives students more options in
the ways that they can go
about solving a problem.
Moreover, the fact that students come up
with different answers and solutions provides an additional
opportunity for them to explain their process of reasoning. This make students
more aware of the gray of issues.
2. Give students ample time for challenging tasks
of the difficulty of some critical thinking tasks, students may need a lot of
time to accomplish them. That may entail
preparation time before the task for them to gather their thoughts. Respecting the
students’ need for time helps facilitate the training of the
3. Model clearly what students are to do
A model involves demonstrating how the teacher would
approach an activity. This will
uncertainties that the
students have as they are
going into an activity which may appear to be daunting
them at first.
4. Outline the steps that students are to follow
by breaking them down into
This makes it easier for students to understand the activity, helping them to organize what they are doing and enabling the teacher to follow along, making sure that they are on track.
5. Promote interaction among the students and
As a facilitator, it is the teacher's job to get students
going and give them a jumpstart if they need it. Quite often students gravitate toward their
friends and feel comfortable this way every
class. Yet students will benefit from talking to students who they would not
otherwise associate with in order to
exposed to different points of view.
6. Encourage students to have a sense of curiosity and a community of inquiry
A good way to inspire curiosity is by modeling it and encouraging students to maintain a questioning attitude in a respectful manner.
7. Challenge students to explain and justify their views clearly
It is worthwhile to urge students to provide support for
their views, judgments and decisions.
Sometimes it is necessary to ask a student, can you say it in another
way? to elicit a clearer answer. Challenging students
them to evaluate their own ideas. This can also be don e
by encouraging students to sustain their dialogues by probing each other with
follow-up questions in discussions.
Although students may spontaneously engage in critical
thinking, due to the discipline that it requires in a
language classroom and the fact that it may be culturally foreign to them,
it is necessary for teachers to structure activities within a methodology based
on critical thinking skills development. This is essential for foreign students
who aim to study at an English-speaking university or high school because they
are expected to adopt the academic practices of English and are assessed
accordingly. Furthermore, a critical thinking
approach to English education facilitates language learning because such thinking strategies deepen the learning
experience, making the language more meaningful for the students¾a
vehicle through which they can gradually discover themselves in the process. This
leading out of the self through thinking is how the function of education can
more fully be achieved, according to the origin of the word educate: to lead out.
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