critical thinking in elt

Critical Thinking in ELT

After years of talking and writing about critical thinking (CT) and of reading and listening to others do the same, my colleague John Hughes and I decided that we should codify our thoughts on the subject. What came out of it two years later was Critical Thinking in ELT: a practical model for the classroom from National Geographic Learning. We knew what constituted a critical thinking activity and what did not, having already written many such activities for Life, an integrated-skills course for young adults and adults published by National Geographic Learning. But we were less clear about how to define critical thinking’s place in ELT materials. What did it mean in relation to the teaching of the four skills and to grammar and vocabulary? Was critical thinking something that could be ‘taught’ or was it simply an innate ability within the learner that needed awakening? And were we asking students to think critically about language or about the ideas that were being communicated?   

critical thinking illustration

It would be fair to say that most of the calls in recent years for greater inclusion of critical thinking activities in the language classroom stem from two prevalent notions. One is the idea that education needs to get its priorities right: to spend less time training students for tests of knowledge and start stimulating them to think for themselves. The other notion is that we live in an age of misinformation in which only the critically minded can avoid manipulation or slavish conformity. These are both valid points. The unfortunate thing is that they tend to lead to a narrow application of critical thinking in ELT materials: that is to say, the analysis of texts and evaluation of the ideas expressed in them. 

For us, critical thinking had a more far-reaching relevance to language study. If, as we argue in the book – and as most people would probably agree – critical thinking is a mindset or a global approach to learning rather than simply a box of tools to be used and put away again, then it must inform every aspect of language study. What’s more it must affect every level, from beginner to advanced. And it must have a place in every lesson.

Essentially, critical thinking activities are those parts of a lesson or exercise that require a learner to enquire more thoroughly about language or ideas in order to achieve a better understanding, to ask, ‘What is really going on here?’ For instance:

  • in grammar, to ask how this structure is different from that one.
  • in vocabulary, to ask what the limitations of a particular word are.
  • in reading or listening, to ask if the author has used balanced or emotive language.
  • in writing or speaking, to ask what the reader or listener knows already about the subject.

In Critical Thinking in ELT, we describe many such examples of activities which stimulate reflection on individual language items, on longer pieces of discourse, and on ideas. We also present a framework for critical thinking that will enable teachers to develop their own critical thinking activities. John Hughes will describe this framework in a future article, but for now I’ll conclude by outlining the three core beliefs about language learning on which it is based:

  • that language learning involves a balance of different thinking skills, of which critical thinking is just one.
  • that all lesson planning should take account of this balance of thinking skills, just as it would a balance of input and output,
  • that critical thinking plays a key role in the deeper processing and production of language.

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Author: Paul Dummett

Paul Dummett is a teacher and writer based in Oxford, UK, where he ran his own school teaching English to professionals from 1996 to 2006. He currently teaches refugee children in Palestine and Jordan with the Handsupproject. His main interests are the use of images and narrative in language teaching and how these can aid deeper learning and memory. Seeking out writing projects that explore these interests he has found a natural home at National Geographic Learning, co-authoring titles such as Life and Keynote , and acting as a Course Consultant for Look, a seven-level primary series from National Geographic Learning. He enjoys travel, exercise and live music/spoken word performance.

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