• Tom Garside

4 ways to increase critical thinking in the English language classroom


Much of what we do in th language classroom is focused on fluency and accuracy. Most teachers aim for students to use vocabulary and grammar accurately, and be able to read and listen with enough understanding to answer comprehension questions. However, language learning is different from other academic subjects, many of which are based around retention of knowledge.


Learning a second language involves a lot more than simply remembering the right words to use. The more that students activate their critical thinking brains, and employ Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), the more they will develop flexibility, confidence and the ability to self-evaluate in the work that they do, making them better language users in any situation where they have to use the language they learn.


Critical thinking includes a range of HOTS which can be useful to language learning, enabling students to develop learning strategies which can help them to work independently and develop in their own ways beyond the classroom and the set curriculum that you teach. Fostering a critical / analytical environment takes students further than simply supplying correct answers to pass tests, or repeating memorised chunks of language which may not apply to their real lives. Here are some simple ways of facilitating critical thinking in your classroom:


Ask for more than just information


The vast majority of questions asked by teachers in the language classroom are designed for students to answer based on something they have just been told, or that they need to remember from previous classes. In most cases, the teacher already knows the answer to the questions, which have been designed for teaching rather than actual sharing of information. Questions where the answer is already known are called ‘display’ questions, and are a useful teaching tool. However, the level of thinking required to answer them is not highly cognitive. Often, students either know the answer or they don’t - there is little room for calculation, deduction or other higher types of reasoning.


Rather than simply asking students for the answers to the questions they are studying, or for the information in the texts they read, push them to tell you more about aspects of the text which are not explicitly mentioned in the writing. This type of ‘referential’ question leads to much more authentic, spontaneous and personal information sharing, and requires more reflective and critical thought. Examples of higher-order referential questions (here, for a reading or listening exercise) might be:

  • Why does the writer use the word ‘_______’ in this sentence?

  • Why do you think the writer starts the article in this way?

  • Do you agree with the writer when she says ‘________’? Why?

  • Do you think the writer feels positive / negative / happy / sad / worried… by the topic? Why?

  • What does the word/sentence ‘__________’ make you think of?


Some of these questions are quite high-level in terms of the language needed to respond, but questions about simple tone or feeling, or emotional response questions, can be used with lower-level learners to help them reflect on their reaction (and the author’s feeling) about the writing. This takes the student out of the traditional understanding / comprehending / answering factual questions from the text that may restrict their thinking as they read.


Get students deducing meaning from context


Another area of language where critical thinking can be used is in vocabulary study. Traditionally, teachers focus very strongly on accuracy of meaning when teaching new words, then find ways of helping students to remember the words effectively. However, the majority of new words that a student meets, both in and out of the classroom, will not be the focus of specific teaching stages with a teacher going through pronunciation, meaning and use.


More critical/analytical approaches to vocabulary can help students to develop independent strategies for dealing with new words without constant support. The skill of deducing meaning based on language clues is an invaluable skill for anyone using a second language, and a skills which can be developed in the classroom. All that is needed are some ways of spotting the clues in a new word, sentence or paragraph, which can reveal different aspects of meaning:


At word level, a lot of meaning can be deduced from prefixes, suffixes and stems. By getting students to identify the stem meaning of a word, then applying prefixes and suffixes, they will be surprised at how they can decode new meanings more easily, as in:


Undeniable = prefix: un- + stem: -deny- + suffix: -able


If a student knows the word ‘deny’, they can build the meaning of


un- (not) + -deny- (refuse) + -able (be able to)


This kind of inductive work leads to activities with word families, where one stem word can be explored for all its related forms: deny, denial, deniable, undeniable, etc., building several words form a single, known root.


In sentence examples, clues to meaning (contextual clues) can be designed and added in to help students deduce new meanings, as in:


Janine was happy, but Bob was miserable


The key clue here comes from the contrast marker ‘but’ - if students know the meaning of happy, and they know that ‘but’ is followed by a contrasting idea, then they can deduce that ‘miserable’ means ‘unhappy’, even if they have never seen the word before.


Presenting vocabulary in a sentence context like this takes students beyond the level of single word meanings, and gets them using other information around a new word to think critically and engage with meaning in different ways. By teaching your students the skill of deducing meaning, you can save a lot of time teaching new words one by one, and get them working with different examples on their own, or working with a partner.


Use project-based activities


Another way of developing higher-order skills is by focusing students on the processes that they follow when they learn. A great way of doing this is to get them working on projects rather than individual language tasks. Projects are different toothed types of activity because they involve collaboration and allocation of work between different members of a group to get the job done. The process of planning, delegating and taking responsibility for different aspects of a project can involve some high-level critical thinking and reflection (if it is planned into the project by the teacher).


Projects usually result in more complex outcomes than single activities, so require more different skills than just language use. The discussion, role-setting, preparation and creative processes all require different types of interaction and communication, all of which are more authentic than general language-focused pair-work.


Working together to create a poster presentation, a board game or a labelled model involves different language and social skills, leadership, compromise and strategy-setting, which can be performed in English if the students’ level is high enough, or in the students’ first language (in a specific planning stage) if it isn’t. By following the procedure below, you can incorporate HOTS, language and other skills to produce an effective project outcome:


  1. inform students of the goal of the project - what product are they working towards?

  2. Students break the project into parts and assign roles to each group member (in first language with lower-level groups)

  3. Students produce a plan for creation of the project, step by step to get everything done in good order and within the time limit (again, in first language if necessary)

  4. Students each work on their role for the project, keeping in communication with each other at each step

  5. Group members check each others’ work for accuracy of language, quality and how well it fits the project brief from 1)

  6. In larger classes, further critical thinking can be developed by having each group present their work to another group for feedback - what do the other group(s) think of their work? Each group writes action points to improve their product and goes back to make any changes they think are necessary.

  7. Each group presents their project to the class, either in a show-and-tell style, or by moving from project to project to view each others’ work.

Develop students’ reflective skills

Self-reflection is one of the highest of the HOTS. Without stopping to evaluate any task that we have done, it is much more difficult to develop better ways of doing a good job in future. This applies to language learning as much as it does to any other kind of activity.


A simple way of bringing self-reflection into he classroom is to include a short stage at the end of each activity that you do, or at the end of each class, which focuses on how students performed. Some simple questions that can prompt self-reflection after a period of class activity are:

  • How do you feel after completing this activity?

  • Did you find it easy or difficult? Why?

  • What did you find most useful in that activity?

  • How did you complete the activity? What did you do first, then what did you do?

  • If you did it again, what would you do differently?

You don’t need to ask all of these questions after every activity, but questions like these can prompt a little bit of thought about how students are working, not just whether they succeeded in a task or not. This can raise awareness about learning strategies, thought processes and how different students approach different types of activity. They can also inform you about how your students work, and therefore how they might benefit from different types of support from your teaching.


As we have seen, critical, analytical and higher-order work can be incorporated into the language classroom without too much disturbance of your planned work. A few small additions here and there, and some rethinking of tasks and activities, can raise the level of thinking that goes on, and help students to help themselves when they come to perform in English in situations outside the classroom. Start by including some small critical or reflective questions in your classes, and see how your students respond. You (and they) might be surprised at the results!

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.


If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

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