English language teachers are trained to teach language skills, but they do not always learn how to teach the critical thinking skills that help guide learning. Critical thinking skills are part of many curriculum guidelines, but some teachers may be unsure how to teach these skills. For example, an academic reading curriculum might have the following objective: “Learners will analyze a variety of academic writing samples in an effort to determine the components, organization, and structure of academic writing texts.” Although English language teachers can think of any number of ways to teach and support reading as a skill, they may find it more difficult to achieve the first part of this objective—how to teach learners to analyze.
Critical thinking involves reflection and the analysis of ideas. Good critical thinkers are able to break a broad idea into many parts. They can examine each part, question biases, and come to a reasonable conclusion. This task is difficult for anyone and requires practice. Thinking critically is even more challenging when done in a second language.
This month’s Teacher’s Corner looks at the critical thinking skills that shape learning goals and outcomes. Each week presents a new activity that targets critical thinking skills while also encouraging language use and development. Some of the activities and tasks may seem familiar as they are based on long-established language teaching techniques. The activities are designed to support authentic language use while also encouraging critical thinking.
Brown, H. D. and Lee, H. (2015). Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Pearson Longman.
For additional information about critical thinking, check out the resource below and many others available on the American English website:
It takes time to design activities and tasks that both target language skills and encourage critical thinking. Project-based learning (also known as experiential learning) is one approach you can use to integrate language-learning goals with critical thinking skills. Project-based learning tasks and activities combine language and action so that learners learn by doing (Brown and Lee, 2015). Learners must understand, examine, analyze, evaluate, and create while using English to complete a task or activity. The result is a language skills task or activity that promotes critical thinking skills.
One of the most popular types of project-based learning in the language classroom is the Language Experience Approach (LEA). LEA gives language learners a chance to recount a personal experience in their own words (Brown and Lee, 2015). This week’s Teacher’s Corner offers an LEA activity that can be conducted in the classroom using minimal resources.
During this activity, students will be able to the following:
- Use English to talk about a special meal they shared with their family.
- Organize their experience into a written story.
- Write the following prompt on the board:
o Describe a special meal you ate with your family.
- When was it?
- What did you eat?
- Where were you?
- Who was with you?
- Have your own story of a special meal ready to share with students.
1. Begin class by telling students: “Today you are going to talk about a special meal you ate with your family.” Direct their attention to the prompt and questions on the board.
2. Ask students to think about a meal. You might say, “Do you remember a special meal with your family? Do you remember two?”
3. Encourage students to begin sharing what they remember. For example, one student might share that they remember a time when they had a family dinner for a birthday or holiday. Use the questions on the board to guide the discussion.
- Keep the conversation moving with different students responding and sharing their memories. The more students talk, the more it will encourage and support other students to remember and share additional details.
- Some student might not be able to think of all of the language required immediately. This is fine. Encourage those students to think about other parts of the meal, and tell them you will come back in a moment.
- Give plenty of time for the discussion so that all students have a clear idea of an occasion that they can write about.
4. Tell students that now they are going to work on writing their story of a special meal.
- Depending on the group, feel free to give them guidelines for writing, but try not to put limitations on what they write. For example, you could say that everyone needs to write at least 5 sentences, but they could write more if they choose.
- Part of LEA is to encourage a learner’s autonomy over their own experience. Allow learners to share their ideas in English without worrying about grammar or spelling. In this way, you can give learners freedom to play with the language, navigate their own story, and negotiate meaning through their language choices.
5. As students write, walk around and support them by helping them write down exactly what they say.
If you have a student who wants to know how to spell something correctly, you can tell them the correct spelling. On the other hand, if a student spells some words incorrectly, do not correct them. Encourage learners to use the English they know and are comfortable using in their stories.
6. After students have written their stories, give everyone a chance to share what they have written.
One way to share the stories is to divide the students into two groups. Have one group hang their stories on the wall and stand next to them. Tell the second group that they are visiting the story gallery, and they can go around the room reading the different stories and asking the authors questions. After students have circulated, the groups can switch tasks. The second group now hosts a story gallery, and the first group gets to read stories and ask questions.
7. Keep all of the stories up on the walls so students can see their work, or encourage students to take their stories home to share with their families.
One variation of this activity is to have learners write their stories in small groups of three or four students. Have one student tell their story out loud while the other students in the group write down the story as they hear it.
An additional variation could involve a whole-class shared experience. Rather than have learners share their individual experiences, you could ask the class to recount an experience you shared as a group. For example, if the class went on a field trip recently, ask the class to recount the field trip together. The teacher becomes the scribe and writes the story on the board, and the students can see their experiences taking shape in writing.
This activity can be extended to include a visual component. Once students have written their stories, ask them to draw a picture depicting the events in the story. This could be done simply with pencil and paper or, if magazines and pictures are available, students could make picture collages to go with their stories.
Reading aloud is a popular reading task in English language classrooms. The task typically targets skills associated with reading, such as fluency, word recognition, and pronunciation. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, a read-aloud task is used as the framework for a more demanding task that targets critical thinking skills as well. The task asks learners to process and then summarize the content of a story while reading aloud in a group.
Intermediate and above
During this activity, students will be able to complete the following tasks:
- Read a story aloud.
- Consider, evaluate, and plan a summary of a story while reading.
- Present a verbal summary of a story.
Reading: “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe
- Print enough copies of the story “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe for each student.
- Place students into groups of 3-4 students before class by creating a list of students in each group.
1. Begin by putting students in the groups planned before class.
2. Tell the class that today they are going to read a story by Edgar Allen Poe called “The Black Cat.”
3. Have each group discuss what they expect the story might be about based on the title and on what they know about Edgar Allen Poe.
4. Ask the class to share what they’ve discussed in groups, and write the ideas on the board. For example, one group might say they know Edgar Allen Poe wrote scary stories so they expect this story to be scary. Another group might say that black cats are believed to be bad luck in some cultures.
5. Give each group a single copy of the story. Tell the class that one student will read three paragraphs aloud to the group. As the person reads, they will stop at the end of each paragraph to summarize the paragraph for the group. After the first student has read and summarized three paragraphs, the next student in the group will read and summarize the next three paragraphs. The group will continue reading the story by taking turns reading aloud and summarizing.
a. If possible, model the activity for students using Appendix A as a sample of reading and summarizing. For example, read the first paragraph in Appendix A aloud to the students. At the end, summarize the paragraph using the suggested summary in Appendix A.
6. Once all of the groups have completed the story, hand out more copies of the story so each student has a copy.
7. Direct students to read the story silently.
8. While students read, write the following questions on the board:
a. What was difficult about reading aloud while summarizing?
b. What part of the activity was easiest?
c. Were your group’s summaries accurate?
9. When everyone has finished reading, ask students to discuss the questions written on the board in their groups.
10. Finally, bring the class back together and ask for some responses to the questions.
Any reading can be used for this activity. The reading should be easy enough for the students to successfully complete the activity, but also difficult enough for them to find the activity challenging.
Another variation might include giving each student a different short text. For example, each student gets a different poem. Students would read aloud and summarize their text, and then the group would evaluate the reader’s performance.
Sample Annotated Read-Aloud
The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allen Poe
It’s true! Yes, I have been ill, very ill. But why do you say that I have lost control of my mind, why do you say that I am mad? Can you not see that I have full control of my mind? Is it not clear that I am not mad? Indeed, the illness only made my mind, my feelings, my senses stronger, more powerful. My sense of hearing especially became more powerful. I could hear sounds I had never heard before. I heard sounds from heaven; and I heard sounds from hell!
The person has been sick, but is not crazy. The sickness made the person smarter and improved his hearing. He heard wonderful sounds and horrible sounds.
Making predictions in reading and listening activities is a great way to develop learners’ critical thinking skills. In order to make predictions, learners need to evaluate the components of the information they have while also making reasonable judgments about possible outcomes. Evaluating, reflecting, and making judgments are all part of the critical thinking skills needed for learners to fully engage in learning and to use what they learn beyond the classroom.
In this Teacher’s Corner activity, students use the first part of a comic strip as a starting point for creating their own endings. This activity is simple and fun, and can be used with any age group at any level. As you work through the activity, think about possible variations in addition to those offered below.
Beginning and above
During this activity, students will be able to do the following tasks:
- Read a comic strip and make a reasonable prediction about an ending.
- Plan, write, and draw their own version of the comic strip’s ending.
- Comic strip from American English: Why English? Comics for the Classroom (see Appendix A)
- Comic strip template (see Appendix B)
- Paper, pencils, or any drawing materials available
- Print enough copies of the comic for each student in the class.
1. Begin class by asking students to describe a comic strip.
- Let students offer suggestions, but also ensure that they know comic strips are short stories presented through pictures and words.
2. Write the title of the comic strip on the board, “Lost in the Desert.” Ask learners what they think the comic might be about, based on the title.
3. Tell students that they will read the first part of the comic strip in class and then write new endings.
4. Hand out a copy of the comic strip to each student in the class.
5. Tell learners to look at the pictures and read the language silently.
6. After giving learners time to work individually, read the comic as a group by calling on different students to read aloud.
7. Check learners’ reading comprehension by asking the following questions of the whole class:
- Where is the person in the comic?
- What problem does the person have?
- What does the person try to do to solve the problem?
8. Once the story has been discussed, begin a group brainstorm.
- Ask learners to think about what happens next in the comic strip.
- Encourage students to share some of their ideas with the class.
- Write students’ ideas on the board for everyone to see. Spend at least 5-7 minutes listening and writing their ideas on the board so that students have a chance to hear from their classmates and refine their own ideas.
9. Tell students that it’s now their turn to write and draw the rest of the comic.
- Give them a blank comic strip template (Appendix B) and any additional drawing materials you have available.
- Tell students to use all six squares to complete the story. All six squares must have a drawing. At least three squares must include language.
10. After students have finished their comics, put students into pairs by having students work with the person sitting to their left.
11. In the pairs, students will read the comic with their new endings to their partners.
Instead of having students finish a comic strip, students can make their own comic strips. Then they give the first half of their comic strip to a partner. The partner will then write their own endings to their classmate’s comic strip.
Another alternative is to give students short stories or poems to finish. American English has both poems and short stories available for free to teachers and learners.
Academic writing teachers try to help learners understand and imitate the various rhetorical styles used in academic texts. Understanding academic writing involves careful and repeated reading, analysis, and evaluation of many texts. It then requires further analysis, synthesis, and creation to imitate the writing style. All of this work involves using critical thinking and language skills. One way to engage learners in this process and support the acquisition of advanced writing skills is to use students’ existing critical thinking skills in an activity that analyzes the components of academic writing.
This Teacher’s Corner offers a strategy to introduce learners to academic writing through the familiar task of outlining. Writers use outlining as a way to plan and organize their ideas at the beginning of the writing process. In this activity, learners use the outline in reverse as a way to break down and analyze the structure of an academic text. This process is called a reverse outline and is explained in detail here. Keep in mind that a reverse outline can be adapted to fit the needs of intermediate writers as well, as long as the reading is selected to meet learners’ language level.
Advanced (university level)
During this activity, students will be able to complete the following tasks:
- Read an academic text to identify the organization and structure of ideas.
- Organize the information presented in an academic text into an outline template in order to recognize the structure and organization of an academic text.
- Reading: “Helping Students Develop Coherence in Writing” by Icy Lee
- Outline Template in Appendix A
- Paper and pencils or pens
- Print enough copies of the reading for each student.
- Print enough copies of the outline template for each student.
1. Start class with a warm-up discussion to elicit ideas about the structure of academic writing. Use these questions as a guide:
- What are the important parts of an academic essay?
- What do we call the first paragraph(s)? The main paragraphs? The final paragraph(s)?
- What have you been told to include in the first paragraph(s) of an essay?
- What is included in the main paragraphs?
- What is included in the final paragraph(s)?
2. Hand out the outline template (Appendix A) to students. (The outline template can be adapted and adjusted to meet the needs of essay writing in your specific class. Feel free to add components to this outline or delete components that are unnecessary.) Ask learners to review the template for similarities between what they said in the discussion and what the template lists as components of academic writing.
- Is there anything on the outline template that was not mentioned in the discussion? If so, what are the differences? Is there anything that students think the outline template needs to include that is not listed?
3. Explain that this outline is a model of the structure, but that every article differs slightly as to how each of the core parts is structured. For example, one essay might have 10 body paragraphs but another essay might only have 4.
4. Tell students they are now going to use the outline to read an academic article. They will complete an outline, using the template as a model, based on the information from the article they read.
5. Give everyone a copy of the article. Explain that before trying to complete the outline, they should read the article once and make notes. Reading once will help them process the article, ask questions, and get an overview of the structure of the article.
6. Have learners read, make notes, and complete their outlines. While they are working, circulate to answer any questions they have.
7. After learners have completed the outlines, bring the class back together as a group.
8. Place students in pairs by dividing the class in half and counting off each group (for example: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). The two students who are assigned 1 will work together, the students assigned 2 will work together, etc.
9. Once learners are in their pairs, ask them to read over their partners’ outlines, paying attention to similarities and differences.
10. While they are reading, write these directions on the board.
- Compare the two outlines and identify any areas where the information is different or where information is on one outline but not the other.
- Work together to complete a new outline that combines the information from both outlines.
- Work together to decide how to include information that is different on personal outlines.
11. Then give each pair a new outline template. Explain that students will work together to create a new outline, using the directions on the board.
12. When pairs have finished, bring the class back together to discuss what they learned from the outline activity.
- What information on the outline did they expect to see? What information was unexpected in the article’s structure? What else did they learn about how academic writing is structured?
One simple variation is to have students read the text at home and take notes before working on the outline in class. This variation allows students to read at their own pace so that when students come to class, they are all familiar with the text.
Another alternative to this assignment is to have students work in pairs from the beginning of the process. After everyone in the class reads the article, put students in pairs and have them work together to complete the outlines. This variation ensures that learners will vocalize, discuss, and negotiate what is included on the outline and what is not.
A possible extension to this activity is to revisit the reverse outline when students are writing their own essays. During the revision process students could complete a reverse outline of their own work or complete reverse outlines of their classmates’ work. For example, if students have written a first draft of an essay, before they revise it or write a second draft, they could do a reverse outline of their first draft. By doing so, they could recognize areas in their writing to improve. Then, students could use their reverse outline for help in preparing and writing a second draft.
- Attention grabbing device
- Background/Contextual information
- Thesis statement
II. Main Paragraphs (repeat for each paragraph)
- Topic statements/ideas
- Supporting evidence (data, anecdotes, stories, definitions, etc.): paraphrase, summary, quotes
- Connections to thesis
- Final thoughts
- Implications and areas for future analysis
- Suggestions for next steps