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Critical Thinking Textbooks For Esl

Critical Thinking And English Language Teaching

Critical thinking is not only definable but teachable. That’s good news in general, but does this mean critical thinking has a role in ELT? Atkinson questions this notion. He argues that critical thinking should not be taught to language learners because:

  1. It is neither definable nor teachable.
  2. It is exclusive and reductive.
  3. It is culturally-based.
  4. Critical thinking skills are not transferable.

We have already examined claim one in some detail. Claim number two is highly debatable and holds little practical weight. It is the last two claims that deserve focus here.

First, is critical thinking a western construct? Most research shows that critical thinking – the seeking of reasons and alternative explanations –is quite common cross-culturally. However, the degree to which critical thinking is employed is controlled by culture and socialization. In some cultures, asking for reasons or challenging premises is considered taboo – silence, imitation, and conformity are instead features of the model student. In some cultures, education in schools is through memorization not reasoning.

Is it wrong to impose the critical thinking on students from cultures where it is not as cherished? That really depends. If the goal is to undermine the cultures from which students come, then imposing critical thinking is not a good idea. However, even traditionally “non-critical” cultures (in the Western sense) like China and Japan have expressed the desire to foster stronger critical thinking skills. The idea of undermining culture seems far-fetched, in particular because critical thinking does not replace other modes of thinking but rather works in conjunction with them. This is why you can be both a critical and creative thinker. They are not mutually exclusive modes of thought.

In addition, we must consider students’ needs. Will students have to interact with people from cultures where critical thinking is more overtly used? Are students trying to study in universities in which critical thinking is an important facet? If so, then, yes, we must teach critical thinking.

Davidson, in responding to Atkinson’s arguments, claims that “we as L2 teachers have good reason to introduce higher level students to aspects of critical thinking. If we do not, our students may well flounder when they are confronted with necessity of thinking critically, especially in an academic setting”.

Our final question regarding whether critical thinking should be taught to language learners is if it is transferable outside of the context of the language classroom. Research has shown that critical thinking can be transferred across domains, but, like the learning of critical thinking itself, is not an easy process (see Halpern [] for an overview). Some researchers recommend a “writing across the disciplines” approach to help expose students to the different permutations of critical thinking. Transferability is possible if it is part of critical thinking pedagogy.

All of this begs two more questions: 1) is teaching critical thinking to English language learners possible and 2) how does one actually go about doing this? The answers to these questions are related.

A quick search of research on ESL/EAP and critical thinking reveals a number of studies that have shown success in the teaching of critical thinking. Most of this comes through reading and writing instruction. Here are some ideas from the research.


General Strategies and Recommendations

A lot of the research points to explicitly teaching critical thinking strategies. Dalton recommends these strategies:

  • Connecting
  • Evaluating
  • Applying
  • Selecting
  • Prioritizing
  • Specifying (use/purpose)
  • Contextualizing (use/purpose)
  • Describing
  • Exemplifying
  • Linking

For students from more oral cultures (e.g. the Middle East), Nezami recommends using group discussions before reading to help foster critical skills. Nezami also recommends the explicit teaching of strategies, including summarization.

Parrish and Johnson recommend this same explicit strategy instruction but also emphasize graphic organizers as a way to help analyze a text.

Wong has created a curricular resource guide which offers a systematic ways of organizing and teaching critical thinking skills in the area of reading. The guide is available in her dissertation (pages ). It is organized as follows (p. 72):

  1. Interpreting texts based on personal knowledge
  2. Synthesizing from multiple sources
  3. Organizing and analyzing ideas
  4. Identifying assumptions and evaluating information


Peer editing

Mulnix highly recommends using the writing process to help foster practice critical thinking. Specifically, she recommends self- and peer-editing “with an eye to weeding out fallacies and also towards improving their argument pattern”. This is something that can easily be applied to writing in ELT.  


Argument mapping

Both Mulnix and van Gelder have argued for the extensive use of argument mapping, which is essentially a form of graphic organizers that help in analyzing an argument. Mulnix argues that by argument mapping, the organizational structure of a writing piece is often revealed and the writing of the paper becomes “straightforward”.


Close Reading

Close reading is a deep reading of a text that involves annotations, patterns, contradictions and similarities, and question asking. It is a great approach to reading. Harvard has a brief introduction to it here and a really good guide with practical examples and exercises can be found here.


Transactional Reading

Transactional reading is a form of close reading in which texts are interpreted through differing contexts found in the text, often placing the readers themselves in the text to interpret it. Gomez and Leal used transactional reading of urban legends to promote critical thinking skills among their students. The authors had students read short urban legends individually, completing comprehension worksheets and then critical post-reading tasks that were based on transactional reading. Following the individual reading, students worked in small groups to discuss the reading, followed by whole class discussions. These discussions were meant to help students “to evoke multiple meanings from the texts and to reflect critically on this process”.


More Practical Examples

Lower-Level Classes

In my lower level classes, I do utilize Bloom’s taxonomy as it serves as a structured introduction to critical thinking. In particular, I use this chart with special attention on the question prompts (I have never used verb clusters):


Typically, after completing various comprehension questions for readings and listenings, I begin utilizing this chart. At first, I typically draft a question for each level. After students are used to the question types and the thinking required of them &#; usually after several texts and question rounds, students begin drafting their own. Answers are given through short-answer writing and often through small group discussion. This has been a very successful activity in terms of getting students to move beyond basic comprehension questions.

Furthermore, that higher level skills are not necessarily more difficult than lower level skills is supported by my experience with this chart. Students have as much difficulty answering level 5 and 6 questions as they do level 2. The research on critical thinking that shows engagement in critical thinking is more important than addressing a hierarchy becomes very clear after working with this chart. Still, it serves as a very good introductory tool and I highly recommend it to any teacher.

Other activities for promoting critical thinking include

  • A Claim Chart in which students read a paragraph or article and find claims, evidence, and explanation of evidence. This is very similar to the argument mapping I referred to last week.
  • Fix the Claim, in which students read sample paragraphs, identify a problem with claims (usually lacking evidence), and then re-write the paragraph to include a properly worded claim, relevant research that supports the claim, and full reference and citation.
  • Critical Thinking Role Play in which students are given a situation and a role (e.g. different stakeholders in a pharmaceutical company that disposes of chemicals in the sea), research their role and find evidence for their claims, and then finally hold a small-group discussion based on their roles.


There are a lot of ideas out there, but they all seem to share an overlap: critical thinking needs to be deliberate, explicit, and extensive. Students need to engage in critical thinking in order to learn it. How they engage in it can be realized in a multitude of ways but, in general, these engagements typically address several aspects of the polysemous definitions of critical thinking.

Critical thinking exists cross-culturally, has consistent and identifiable aspects, and is teachable in both L1 and L2 contexts. Critical thinking is a buzzword that rightly deserves attention, as it is an important and valuable skill to possess. It is my hope that by recognizing these aspects of critical thinking it moves from the empty jargonized position it occupies and moves toward the forefront of pedagogy and instruction in English language teaching.



Atkinson, D. (). A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL. TESOL quarterly31(1),

Case, R. (). The Unfortuate Consequences of Bloom&#;s Taxonomy.Social Education77(4),

Dalton, D. F. (, December). An investigation of an approach to teaching critical

reading to native Arabic-speaking students. Arab World English Journal, 2(4),

Davidson, B. W. (). Comments on Dwight Atkinson&#;s&#; A Critical Approach to Critical Thinking in TESOL&#;: A case for critical thinking in the English language classroom. TESOL quarterly32(1),

Hernandez, M. L., & Rodríguez, L. F. G. (). Transactional Reading in EFL Learning: A Path to Promote Critical Thinking through Urban Legends.Colombian Applied Linguistics Journal17(2),

Halpern, D. F. (). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains: Disposition, skills, structure training, and metacognitive monitoring.American Psychologist53(4).

Moore, T. (). Critical thinking: seven definitions in search of a concept.Studies in Higher Education38(4),

Mulnix, J. W. (). Thinking critically about critical thinking. Educational Philosophy and Theory44(5),

Nezami, S. R. A. (). A critical study of comprehension strategies and general

problems in reading faced by Arab EFL learners with special reference to Najran

University in Saudi Arabia. International Journal of Social Sciences and

Education, 2(3),

Parrish, B., & Johnson, K. (, April). Promoting learner transitions to post-secondary

education and work: Developing academic readiness from the beginning. CAELA

Network Briefs. Retrieved June 1, from


Ramanathan, V., & Kaplan, R. B. (). Some problematic&#; channels&#; in the teaching of critical thinking in current LI composition textbooks: Implications for L2 student-writers. Issues in Applied Linguistics7(2).

van Gelder, T. (). Teaching critical thinking: Some lessons from cognitive science. College teaching53(1),

Wong, B. L. (). Using Critical-Thinking Strategies To Develop Academic Reading Skills Among Saudi Iep Students.


Bloom`s TaxonomyTeaching Reading

Anthony Schmidt

Anthony Schmidt is a language instructor at the English Language Institute, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He holds a Master's degree in language education and TESOL and has almost ten years of teaching experience, including seven years teaching in Asia. He is interested in evidence-based pedagogy, applied linguistics, and international education. Anthony is also an active blogger, writing about many of his interests on his blog woaknb.wz.sk

This type of thinking, though, isn’t very complex. Recall and memorization only require surface level thinking. If you are teaching ESL to children, teaching critical thinking is particularly important because it will serve them in their futures no matter what language they are speaking. Teaching critical thinking, though, isn’t always easy. The following are some ways to integrate critical thinking exercises into your ESL lessons while still meeting the language goals you set for your students.

  • Ask Questions

    Sometimes an easy answer isn’t much of an answer at all. Getting your students to think about how they came to the answer that they did will challenge them to think critically, and it gets them using more language and using it in practical ways. For example, in an activity for using the simple future, you might ask your students what they will be doing in five years. One student might answer that he is going to be a movie star. You can ask questions like the following to get your student to think more critically: What makes you think that? What evidence do you see in your life now that will make that true in the future? By asking these questions, you challenge your student to think about his thinking. At the same time, you provide an opportunity for him to use English to express his ideas.

  • Open Ended Questions

    In classes like grammar, one answer to a question is usually the right one. But giving these types of answers often doesn’t require anything more than memorization and recall. When you can (and it might not be during a grammar lesson) ask questions that don’t have a “right” answer and challenge your students to think on a deeper level. For example, if you were doing a vocabulary unit on food, you might ask a recall question about what a waiter says when taking someone’s order. (What will you have?) An open ended question that will challenge your students to think more deeply might look like the following. If you were a server in a restaurant and worked the night shift, how would your life be different? How would you balance school and work? Encourage this type of thinking and expression and your students will benefit in more ways than one.

  • Give a Minute

    Part of your role in getting your students to think critically is giving them the time and the encouragement to do so. When you ask a question, giving your students a few minutes to think before they have to answer can mean the difference between a short easy answer and one that comes from serious thought. Doing this is easy. Simply count to sixty after asking a question to give your students a chance to think before they answer. You can also teach your students phrases like, “Can I have a minute to think…Give me just a minute” when they would like time to process their ideas. When they use these phrases, it tells you that they are actively trying to answer your question and gives them the space they need to put their ideas and words together before speaking. In addition, using this technique with native speakers will help those not familiar with ESL students know that your students are not unable to answer their questions but that they need a bit of time before they do.

  • Encourage More

    For students of English as a second language, giving a quick answer is often appealing. A quick answer does the job and shows you can use language appropriately. However, a quick answer doesn’t necessarily encourage critical thinking. Using phrases to get your students to say (and think) more will help them use deeper thinking. You can say thinks like the following: Tell me more about that. What else do you think? Why is that good/bad/scary/difficult/or not? What part is most interesting to you? Why? Asking these questions challenges your students to say more.

  • Provide Scaffolds

    When learning something new or tackling a new problem, all people sometimes need support. You can support your ESL students as they are learning new skills by giving them tools to help them. Giving examples, breaking tasks into smaller more manageable steps, giving hints or clues, and providing reminders can all help your students by giving them temporary supports in a new and challenging task. As your students become more adept at that task, remove these supports and encourage their successes, big and small. In the meantime, be patient and give them the assistance they need to reach success.

  • Encourage Argument

    Encouraging argument doesn’t mean letting your students go for one another’s throats. Critical thinking means being able to make an argument for your beliefs or opinions. You can encourage your students to express logical and reasonable supports for their opinions during discussions and for writing assignments. Doing so will help them think analytically which is part of thinking critically. Have students give reasons or examples that support their ideas, and they will learn to support their arguments naturally.

  • Make Predictions

    Making predictions is a tool that is quite useful in the ESL classroom. You can ask your students to take a guess at what comes next in reading assignments (fiction, essays, informational articles) as well as video segments you play in class (movies, television shows, recorded dialogues). When they make these predictions, they not only have to think critically, they will be using the language skills they are learning. The next time your students are reading a passage or listening to a segment, hit pause and ask them what they think will come next.

  • Take Two Sides

    Thinking about both sides of an argument will challenge your students to think beyond their own opinions and beliefs. A simple way to do this is to take a controversial statement and challenge your students to list some reasons in support of the statement as well as some reasons against it. Take the thinking a step further and teach your students how to make a refutation, either spoken or in writing, a skill that is often useful in the academic world.

  • After all, so much of language learning is rote memorization. But critical thinking can and does fit in the language classroom. Getting your students think more gets them saying more, and saying more is using language creatively and communicatively. Try one or more of these techniques with your students and see how well they can express their thoughts with the language they are learning.

    How do you encourage your students to think critically?

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