Developing critical thinking in the english language lesson

Every teacher must have heard at some point throughout their teaching careers the term "critical thinking". This concept seems to be present daily in educational speeches, articles and syllabuses. Moreover, there seems to be a general agreement on

Х.Досмұхамедов атындағы А тырау МУ Хабаршысы - Вестник А тырауского государственного университета имени Х.Досмухамедова № 1(48), 2018 the "correctness" of such term and its usage. For that reason, it might be strange for the reader to discover that little is known about critical thinking, what it is, what it counts and how to incorporate it into our ELT lesson plans. The aim of this article is to share both theoretical and practical ideas about critical thinking and its application within English language teaching and learning contexts. First, we seek to answer three fundamental questions connected with the topic:

  1. What is critical thinking?
  2. Why to integrate and develop critical thinking in ELT?
  3. How to create lessons with an element of critical thinking development? Then some concepts concerning critical thinking development are introduced which prove useful when designing a lesson. Finally, we suggest three objectives with a critical component in each for a particular lesson.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not a new concept or practice. Most teachers might be impressed

to learn how critical thinking can be traced back many centuries ago. In fact, it has been practiced from times immemorial, notably, by Socrates and Plato [1, c.2008]. Defining critical thinking might seem difficult, especially because the term tends to be used repeatedly without actually reflecting on its true meaning. To begin with, we can state that critical thinking is a quality able to be developed throughout life. But critical thinking is not a dimension just applicable to education (in the formal sense of the term). So what it is? How can it be defined? "Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.

People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, emphatically. They are keenly aware ofthe inherently flawed nature of human thinking is not "survival thinking", it requires careful and intentional development Ofspecific skills in processing information, considering beliefs, opinions, solving problems [5, c.174]. states that "critical thinking means correct thinking in the pursuit of relevant and reliable knowledge about the world. Another way to describe it is reasonable, reflective, responsible, and skillful thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do. A person who thinks critically can ask appropriate questions, gather relevant information, efficiently and creatively sort through this information, reason logically from this information, and come to reliable and trustworthy conclusions about the world that enable one to live and act successfully in it". Raymond S. Nickerson (1987) provides us with a whole list of abilities and attitudes which characterize the individual who thinks critically. This individual is someone who:

  • organize thoughts and articulates them concisely and coherently;
  • suspends judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision;
  • attempts to anticipate the probable consequences of alternative actions;
  • can learn independently and has an abiding interest in doing so;
  • applies problem-solving techniques in domains other than those in which learned, to name just a few [3, c.289].

Why to integrate and develop critical thinking in the ELT?

Critical thinking is associated with quality thinking and, if sufficiently developed, provides lessons with a more skillful way of communicating with other people, acquiring new knowledge, and dealing with ideas, beliefs, and attitudes. In all these areas language plays a crucial role. We may need to distinguish between the language as a communicative vehicle in everyday situations and the use of the language beyond the survival level.

However, when a foreign language is taught/learned, even the survival language level may require more thinking of how to communicate in a foreign language. This is because languages are culturally determined. And as cultures differ, so do languages.

Traditions and mentality reflect in the language, its vocabulary, grammar structure, modality, etc. When learning the target language, students need to accept these cultural differences not as a deviations from the natural way associated, as they think, with their mother tongue but as a fully natural, though different, way of verbal expression within a different cultural domain. Practicing thinking critically when trying to identify similarities and differences in how one and the same cliche is put in words in another language makes the learning process more enjoyable and culturally enriching even at the beginning level.

One more aspect justifying and even requiring critical thinking introduction in the ELT class arises due to the rapidly growing international student mobility trends and the use of English as the language of instruction in universities around the world. Researchers argue that critical thinking is not as a natural skill as speaking or running, it is a deliberately developed complex set of skills and features which takes years to acquire. Similarity, a foreign language acquisition needs years of persistent training. So practicing both simultaneously saves time and provides a synergy effect: developing the former we improve the latter and vice versa [6, c.52].

Finally, critical thinking requires active and interactive learning. It does not tolerate passive learning, taking new things and opinions as ready-made words of wisdom. In our experience, students tend to learn better by actively communicating with each other in a particular academic content, especially if they are encouraged to apply critical thinking when comparing their views and ideas.Engaged in the interactive activities while practicing both communicative skills and critical thinking, students have a better chance to improve their selfconsciousness, their understanding of their abilities and limits and thus paving the road to self-improvement as learners, as future professional, and as individuals.

How to integrate critical thinking in a lesson plan?

So far we have focused our attention on exploring some theoretical aspects of critical thinking, but as every English language teacher knows, it might be hard to find the way to apply and develop lesson plans that address critical thinking in viable and realistic ways. As usual, there are different contexts and student characteristics that may influence the degree to which critical thinking can be introduced and developed, but we firmly believe that the first steps are planning, experimenting and reflecting. Undoubtedly, writing a lesson plan helps to organize our thoughts and have a framework that indicates how to take our students to certain "learning destinations". In order to develop plans that include the development of critical thinking some essential elements or components are typical for any lesson plans, yet some other components need to be added and adapted in order to integrate a critical thinking element. After all, if we want to develop critical thinking in our foreign language class, we need to include some specific lesson components onto the lesson plan, in addition to traditional components of the lesson description such as prerequisites, instructional objectives, supporting activities, and assessment. Typically, language teachers are quite happy if their students learn some linguistic structures including words and word collocations, as well as grammar structures and practice them, first, in a more controlled exercise and later in the production oftheir own pieces of text, oral or written [4, c.101].

This traditional approach is known as PPP, which stands for Presentation - Practice - Production. The purpose of the initial stage called 'Presentation' is obviously to expose the students to a new material which the students can remember, in other words, retrieve, recognize later, and understand, i.e. being able to interpret and explain what they learned, first, though exercises known as 'Practice' and, later, apply what they learned in a new context, a stage known as 'Production'. Such transfer of knowledge typically from a teacher to a student may not require active learning.

With a critical thinking objective in mind, this is not enough. By including a critical thinking objective, teachers are expected not only to plan a more inquisitive mode of learning new linguistic phenomena but also to engage their students in an interactive activity focused on various issues which can be of interest to a particular group of students like world events or problems of personal character. This can be done by relying on the students previous experience, by asking question for clarification in order to make the issue clearer, more accurate and precise, by comparing opinions, by identifying the underlying factors, etc. All this has an effect on the quality of arguments and thinking, thus becoming personal practice in using a foreign language and thinking critically at the same time.

Extra elements of a lesson with a critical thinking objective: ABCD Model for Writing Objectives:

ABCD Model provides a very convenient framework for the incorporation of all necessary components when designing a lesson. Indeed, it is useful to write each objective in one clear sentence structured according to the ABCD model, where 'A' stands for 'Audience', typically the students, 'B' for 'Behavior', i.e. lesson activities, 'C' for 'Condition' meaning the initial prerequisites for the lesson activities, and 'D' for 'Degree', by which we mean certain measurable criteria for the acceptable student performance. Writing objectives using the ABCD model proves beneficial because in this way objectives acquire such characteristics as being specific, observable, results oriented, and measurable by either quantitative or qualitative criteria. Three examples of ABCD modeled lesson objectives will be provided when describing the lesson plan.

Cognitive and Affective Domains in Learning:

There is a tendency among teachers, students and people in general, to believe that there is only one type of learning, namely, the one which relies on cognitive activity. Indeed, cognition as a mental process is crucial in learning, but this simplistic way of addressing such a complex phenomenon as human learning fails to recognize the role of emotions and attitudes in learning identified and emphasized by Benjamin Bloom in his Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals published in 1956. The cognitive domain "involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills. This includes the recall or recognition of specific facts, procedural patterns, and concepts that serve in the development of intellectual abilities and skills." The affective domain "includes the manner in which we deal with things emotionally, such as feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations, and attitudes" [1, c.208]. So for the sake of critical thinking development, it is crucial to consider the types of activities from the point of view of how they contribute both to the intellectual and to the affective development.

Critical thinking strategies: In the past decade, learning/teaching strategies have come into light for teachers to take into account in lesson plans. However, we need to be aware of specific critical thinking strategies if we declare our commitment to their developments when teaching anything, including foreign languages. Strategies related to critical thinking can be classified in two categories: cognitive strategies and affective strategies. By these we should understand the way we address issues in question. For examples, critical thinking development can take place if students are given the task involving such critical thinking strategies as 'Giving Reasons and Evaluating Evidence', or 'Recognizing Contradictions', or 'Distinguishing Relevant from Irrelevant Facts', etc. As the students, according to our lesson plan, are expected to discuss personal relations and attitudes, we suggest they also deal with the affective domain, involving such affective strategies as 'Exercising Fair-mindedness' and 'Developing Intellectual Humility'.

A lesson plan: reading a story and thinking critically Let us take a lesson which has been developed for university undergraduates in order to develop their reading comprehension and speaking skills by applying some critical strategies relevant for the activities of the lesson. For that purpose we have chosen a humorous story of a failed romantic relationship between a boy and a girl in a university context with the plot development around teaching/learning some elements of logic, namely, logical fallacies. So there are two areas of speculation which we thought are open for our students to practice communicative skills of reading, listening, and talking by applying some of critical thinking strategies. We thought that an exchange of ideas concerning the plot should be supplemented by more complex activities related to the cognitive and affective domains as the students have an opportunity to learn some elements of the science of logic and to think deeply about the factors which have an impact on the relationship developments. We have planned three objectives, which incorporate critical thinking, for a two hour lesson and used the ABCD model in the description ofthe lesson objectives.

Objective #1: Given the introductory part of the story for reading ( C), students divided into small groups (A) will evaluate the main hero's attitude to the girl and compose (B) one clear and error-free paragraph per group of 60 words assessing the hero's his plan to improve the girl's intellectual skills (D).

Objective #2: Given one of the two following parts of the story for skimming and scanning ( C) students divided into two groups (A) will interpret and explain to each other the fallacies of logic they learned about in their parts (four fallacies per group) fostering understanding by asking questions for clarification; and elaborate a clear definition of a fallacy (B) in less than 30 words (D).

Objective #3: Having read the last part ofthe story ( C), the students (A) will fill out the gaps with the correct names of appropriate logical fallacies (D) and justify their choice in the following discussion (B).

Thus the verbs we used to write the objectives (evaluate, compose, interpret and explain, elaborate, justify) can be attributed to different levels of the cognitive domain of the revised Bloom's taxonomy namely, the levels of Understanding, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating.

Final reflections

Incorporating critical thinking in lesson plans is a challenge which language teachers should experience in order to provide their students with a quality learning experience. The important element to bear in mind is that critical thinking cannot be developed overnight, it is a process and as such there are many steps to be taken. We understand that teaching contexts and routines can easily lead to frustration and a quick discharge of innovative practices and that is why careful planning is required. A "trial and error" approach may be the best way to move towards the incorporation of critical thinking as well as understanding that there is not one exclusive or "right" way to develop and promote it. Ultimately, each teaching and learning context provides the teacher with some food for thought he/she will need to process by applying his/her own critical thinking when making changes in lesson plans. We also acknowledge that, ideally, a move in this direction in a unit and in a curriculum design would be best, so that students could benefit from the critical thinking component throughout their academic and non-academic lives, but we believe that changes can be made from inside the classrooms and this may eventually lead to changes in educational policies. To conclude, we would like to quote William Graham Sumner [4, c.103]. When he mentions the paramount influence of critical thinking within societies and among human beings: "The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators... they are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizen".



  1. Clark D. R. Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Domains. - London, 2012.-208p.
  2. Elder L. A brief conceptualization of critical thinking.Retrieved August 21, 2012. Access mode:
  3. Nickerson R. Critical Thinking. - New York, 1987. - P.287-305.
  4. Paul R. and Elder L. The miniature guide to critical thinking.Concepts and tools.The Foundation for Critical Thinking. - Dillon Beach, 2009 - P.87-104.
  5. Schafersman S. An introduction to Critical Thinking. - New York. 1991. -174p.
  6. Vdovina E. Critical Thinking. - St.Petersburg. 2013.-52p.
Year: 2018
City: Atyrau
Category: Pedagogy