Teaching Critical Thinking in ESL Classes

by Hall Houston

Critical thinking has been a buzzword in education for many years. There is vast disagreement on how to define it as well as how to teach it. In this article, I will explain what critical thinking is, list some reasons why critical thinking has a place in ESL teaching, describe some common skills taught in critical thinking courses, then provide a few activities teachers might wish to use in their own classes.

According to Ruggiero (2004) critical thinking is "the process by which we test claims and arguments and determine which have merit and which do not" (p. 17). The definition gives us the core of critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking involves preparing students to examine claims made by advertisers, politicians, pundits, newspaper columnists, and even other students, then articulate the merits of these claims. Although we often think of a critic as someone who is constantly finding fault, a critical thinker seeks what is praiseworthy about a claim just as much as he or she looks for areas for improvement.

Critical thinking is closely related to creative thinking. While creative work involves producing an abundance of fresh ideas, critical thinking entails judging ideas. These two types of thinking are highly symbiotic and both are instrumental in promoting student autonomy.

I can suggest several reasons why critical thinking has its place in the world of ESL. Students who plan to take university or graduate level classes will benefit from training in critical thinking, as writing academic papers and defending dissertations demand that students be able to argue cogently for or against a point. Students will also grow at a personal level, as they learn to respond more deeply to news, advertising, and political speeches. Critical thinking activities can bring more variety into an ESL class. Critical thinking challenges students to express themselves more precisely, thus helping students improve their accuracy in a second language.

While critical thinking certainly has its strengths, I would like to add a few notes about its limitations. Critical thinking is ideal for high intermediate or advanced level students. Basic and elementary level students do not have the vocabulary to participate in critical thinking exercises. In addition, critical thinking might be unappealing to students who prefer light conversation or games over serious discussion. Perhaps it might be better to try out a few exercises with a class before launching into an entire course designed around a critical thinking approach. Finally, exercise caution in your choice of topics. While discussions and debates are ideal for improving critical thinking skills, you may want to avoid exploring topics that are too controversial.

One of the central tasks of a critical thinking course is getting students to understand the structure of an argument. An argument consists of three parts: an issue, a conclusion and a reason or reasons. The issue is the topic you wish to discuss, such as gun control or immigration. A conclusion is your position on the topic. The reason is the support, or explanations for your position. Getting students to understand the three parts of an argument builds the foundation for later work, such as participating in a debate or writing an academic essay. It also emphasizes the importance of having reasons to back up your opinions. Students should get a lot of practice analyzing arguments, as well as creating their own arguments for discussion. Students should be taught to find background information and learn to find appropriate examples and citations that support their arguments.

Another key feature of critical thinking courses involves looking at how language can be misleading. Weasel words are words (or phrases) that are used to deliberately mislead listeners. One example is the phrase "mistakes were made", which uses the passive to evade responsibility. It allows the speaker to escape being blamed for the mistakes. Another example is the use of "Some say" by TV anchors to introduce facts or opinions into a news segment. Without revealing who the "some" are, the TV anchor gets away with introducing some ideas into a newscast without stating his or her sources. This is unfair as journalists are expected to give their sources. Loaded words are also worth mentioning here. Loaded words are words that have very strong positive or negative connotations. Referring to someone as a terrorist has very different connotations than calling someone a freedom fighter. Teachers should give students ample opportunities to look for these types of language and speculate what the speaker's intention was.

Students can also be taught to identify fallacies of logic that are used by advertisers and pundits. These are found in most books on critical thinking, and they are beneficial to the development of understanding how speakers can mislead. Bandwagon, for example, refers to a speaker's attempts to convince us that everyone around us is following the same trend or believing the same thing. Another fallacy is Straw Man, where a speaker directly attacks another person��s character instead of addressing the issue in question. Students should practice identifying these fallacies in the media.

Students can also be made aware of other types of deception, such as misuse of images. Images appeal directly to the emotions in ways that words do not. For example, a magazine might print a photograph that puts a candidate in a negative light, perhaps where the candidate has an awkward facial expression. While it could be argued that such a photograph might reveal the true character of the candidate, this kind of photograph can unconsciously bias readers. Also, with modern computer technology, it's far too easy to doctor photographs. Students should be taught to be more skeptical of images in the media.

Here are a few sample activities that can be used in the classroom to promote critical thinking.

* debates
* discussions
* writing argumentative essays
* speeches
* books, articles and films related to important issues

Below are a few activities that you can use in class to enhance students critical thinking skills.

Collaborative Arguments

Materials Chalk, chalkboard, pens, paper
Time 45 minutes

1. Explain to your class the different parts of an argument. Tell them that there should be an issue, a conclusion and one or more reasons. Put an example on the board such as: Issue: Gun control Conclusion: The government should create stricter laws controlling the purchase and use of guns.Reason: Limiting the use of guns will lower the level of violence.

2. Give each student a sheet of paper and ask them to write an issue on their paper. Encourage them to choose controversial issues that everyone may not agree with. Give them a few minutes to write.

3. When they are finished, redistribute the papers so that everyone has another student's paper.

4. Ask students to write a conclusion based on the issue written on their paper.

5. Next redistribute the papers once again, and ask students to write 3 reasons that support the conclusion.

6. Invite several students to read out their arguments. Ask other students to comment on the strength of the arguments.

Newspaper Pie Chart

Materials Several newspapers
Time 30 minutes

1. Put students in groups of 4 or 5. Give each group a newspaper.

2. Tell students to look through the entire paper and examine how much of the paper includes important news. Allow them to first establish their own criteria for what constitutes important news.

3. Tell each group to create a pie chart that shows how much of the newspaper contains important news, and how much it contains other things (advertising, entertainment news, etc.). Encourage them to create their own categories for the pie chart.

4. Ask each group to present their pie chart to the class.

5. Now put students in groups of 3 and have them discuss these questions:

What was your reaction to the amount of important news in your newspaper?
Do you think there should be more or less important news? Why?
What type of news would you like to see more of? What would you like to see less of?Explain your answers.
Why do you think news editors use so much space for things other than important news?
Can you recommend any news sources that provide more important news?
What complaints do you have about the news media?
How are newspapers different in your country?

Where You Stand

Materials Chalk, chalkboard
Time 20 minutes

1. Write two statements on the far left and far right sides of the chalkboard. These statements should represent two opposing points of view on an issue. For example, on one side you might write "TV is garbage" and on the other side, "TV is educational."

2. Draw a horizontal line between the two statements.

3. Invite students to come to the board and write their names somewhere on the line, based on their opinions about the issue.

4. When everyone has finished, ask several students for their opinion on the issue.

5. (Optional) Ask a student to erase the two statements on the board and write two more opposing statements about a different issue. Repeat steps 3 and 4.

I recommend the following resources for more information about critical thinking.


Browne, N. & Keeley, S. M. (2007). Asking the right questions. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Diestler, S. (2008). Becoming a critical thinker. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Moore, B. N. & Parker R. (2005). Critical thinking. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Ruggiero, V.R. (2004).Beyond feelings: an introduction to critical thinking. Boston: McGraw-Hill.


Critical thinking on the web

The fallacy files

Mission: critical

This article was published in September 2008 in ESL Magazine.
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