How to integrate critical thinking at lower levels

Critical thinking is often associated with teaching students at higher language levels. Perhaps it’s because the kinds of problem-solving tasks which are associated with critical thinking require a level of English at Intermediate or above. Maybe it’s also that the kind of language used to describe critical thinking skills includes high level terminology including analysis, evaluation, reflection, reasoned, rationale, bias and so on. Whatever the reason(s), there’s a tendency when we teach students with lower levels of English to only use activities and tasks which draw on lower order thinking (remembering, understanding, applying) instead of using higher order thinking tasks (analyzing, evaluating, creating). There’s also the danger that low-level speakers of English can be treated as if they have low-level intelligence when this is clearly this is not the case.

The challenge therefore is to include activities and tasks which encourage lower and higher order thinking but which are achievable with language at an elementary or pre-intermediate level, an even at beginner level in some situations. Here are some suggestions of ways to start integrating critical thinking at lower levels. They are taken from my webinar on the topic which you can watch in full at the end of this post.

1. Make the most of the language that your students already have

Many critical thinking tasks often require students to ask questions, expression opinions and give reasons. Even students with a low-level of English can achieve this by using the following words and phrases which are normally introduced at beginner-elementary (A1-A2) level:

  • Question words: what, where, who, why, when, which, how
  • Expressing opinion: I think/believe/know that…I agree/disagree that…What do you think?
  • Giving reasons and options: because, so, or
  • Comparing and contrasting: it’s better than/best, more/most important, but, however
  • Adding and exemplifying: and, also, for example

2. Get students to say ‘why’

Encouraging students to give reasons for their answers or opinions at lower levels is a useful step towards developing critical thinking. To do this, we often follow-up on a students’ viewpoint by asking them to answer the question, ‘Why do you think that?’ or when we have classroom group discussions, saying to the group to give reasons for their ideas.

Here’s a simple way (below) to extend a vocabulary exercise using this same principle. In the first task, (taken from Life Elementary second edition) students categorize opinion words and phrases in the table. The second step is a personalization task in which students choose an opinion adjective to complete the four sentences that follow but also to add the reason for their answer after the word because. It’s a simple but effective way to increase the challenge and make the vocabulary more memorable.

 3. Have students create exercises

We often teach new vocabulary using lower order exercises such as fill-the-gaps. This is fine for helping students to remember and understand but it doesn’t make use of higher order thinking. Once students have become familiar with the format of many basic language exercise, one solution is to have students create their own exercise and test their partner. Here’s an example of this from a lesson on the topic of household furniture. Having completed exercise 1, the students create their own version using other vocabulary. It’s effective practice of both language and higher order thinking.


4. Go beyond the basic comprehension question.

When using reading and listening texts in the classroom, we often set comprehension questions with yes/no answers or true/false solutions. These types of questions are useful but it’s also important to go beyond them. Use texts which demand a personal response from the students, or set tasks where the students have to read or listen again more deeply. For example, in the reading task below, students read about the same topic (a city in Colombia) but written in two different ways.

Read two different paragraphs about the same topic. In each paragraph, who is the reader? (students? tourists? locals? etc.)

  1. Cali in southwest Colombia is a city with a lot of new business. It has a good airport for visitors, with comfortable hotels. There is good public transport, but the taxis are the fastest way to get around. Most good restaurants are in the centre of Cali and serve a mix of traditional and international food.

2.People in Cali work hard and play even harder! The city is famous for its music and nightclubs. It’s the home of Salsa in Colombia and you can take courses with some of the best dancers in the world. August and September are good months to visit because of the Festival of Pacific music and the World Festival of Salsa.

Instead of using comprehension questions, the task makes students analyse the two texts for the type of vocabulary and topics that the writer uses. It gives them a sense how we write for specific readers which will inform their own writing skills.

5. Grade the critical thinking task as well as the language

In the same way that we assume it’s appropriate to grade the language for lower levels, you can also take the same critical thinking skill and adjust it according to the level. The examples below are based on exercises from Life Elementary and Life Pre-Intermediate. They both develop students’ awareness of how to distinguish fact from opinion in a reading text. However, example 2 from the pre-intermediate level increases the level of difficulty by adding a third category where students have to notice how a writer reports other people’s opinions as well as his/her own.

Example 1


Example 2


For more ideas on how to integrate critical thinking at lower levels and for more detail on the ideas mentioned in this post, watch a recording of the webinar by John Hughes on this topic.


Author: John Hughes

John Hughes is a teacher, teacher trainer and course book author. He currently combines a variety of roles including part-time teaching, running online training courses, and lecturing on ELT methodology at Oxford University. He is an author of many National Geographic Learning titles including Life, a six-level general English course, Spotlight on First, Practical Grammar, Total Business, Success with BEC Vantage, and Aspire. He lives near Oxford, United Kingdom.


  1. In the short “text” – Author : John Hughes – , shouldn’t it be ” … combines a variety OF roles including…”?

  2. Good Morning
    Mr. Hughes , I would like to ask you about a email that I already receive today, in which It said that I did´t attend to the online course, But I did. Please could you check it. please

  3. I could not find the survey, though I have just seen it asynchronously. Great webinar! It was assigned to us, students at a licenciatura course, by our teacher of Materials Design II! Excellent choice I think! Thanks!

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