The Internet TESL Journal

Incorporating Critical Thinking Skills Development into ESL/EFL Courses

Andy Halvorsen
Polytechnic University (Tirana, Albania)


This article is intended to help teachers who are interested in developing and encouraging critical thought in their language classrooms. First I will explain briefly how I define critical thinking and why I feel it is important, relevant, and highly applicable to the EFL/ESL teaching context. Then I will look briefly at what I feel are two key elements teachers interested in this topic should keep in mind. The majority of this article however, is given over to an analysis of three classroom techniques which I feel teachers in most any circumstance or situation can begin to use almost immediately. I have tried to focus on techniques which I think help students to focus on the real world around them and which teachers may make use of even with limited resources.

What Critical Thinking Means Generally

Critical thinking is not an easy concept to define as it can mean quite different things to different people in different contexts and cultures.

Despite this fact, I believe that ESL/EFL instructors can greatly benefit both themselves and their students by attempting to understand and incorporate some of its key elements into their classrooms.

Generally speaking, to think critically about an issue is to consider that issue from various perspectives, to look at and challenge any possible assumptions that may underlie the issue and to explore its possible alternatives.

More specifically, when we think critically about a given topic, we are forced to consider our own relationship to it and how we personally fit into the context of the issue (Brookfield, 7-9). This type of thinking does not always come easy, but I feel well-informed instructors can help a great deal in encouraging its development in their students.

How Critical Thinking Makes Classes Better

In my experience, the overall benefit to the classroom is twofold. Firstly, classes which involve elements of critical thought tend to be generally more interesting and engaging. Consider for example, two possible discussion topics related to a unit on the environment.
Though the teacher may find both approaches equal in terms of how well they facilitate language use in class, it is clear that the later topic will encourage a greater degree of participation and interest from the students. Secondly, using issues that encourage critical thinking helps to give the classroom a more meaningful and cohesive environment. Students who feel that they are working together will be more likely to attend classes and will be more involved while they are there.

Two Things to Keep in Mind When Getting Started

Knowing the Interest of Your Students is Essential

Most experienced teachers recognize that the more you know about the backgrounds and interests of your students the more appropriate and engaging your classes will become. This element is even more significant for classes with a focus on critical thinking. Well it is true that an experienced teacher can create a critical thinking component in most any lesson, it is not true that students will respond to each various lesson or topic equally. Consider as an example a grammatical unit on the use of the future tenses. A teacher wishing to help promote critical thought in their class might ask a series of discussion questions on the ethical issues surrounding future increases in life expectancy. This lesson could be highly successful if it is appropriate to the students' age level, background knowledge, and language proficiency. More appropriate questions could certainly be found however for an ESP Engineering class or for a group of 12-13 year old boys and girls. The point is that tailoring lessons specifically to the interests of your students can go quite far in encouraging student engagement, an element that is essential to the development of critical thinking.

Learning to Really "Discuss" the Discussion Questions

As a teacher it is essential that you understand and communicate to your students regularly the role of the questions they are being asked to answer. Virtually every language course book contains some form of "discussion questions" which are designed to give students some opportunity to practice language use. As a teacher trainer and observer however, far too often I see these questions being used simply as a tool, or even worse, as a kind of hurdle one needs to get over before moving on to the next grammar lecture or reading passage. It is true that these questions are often written in such a way as to almost discourage critical thought but teachers need to remember that they always have the ability to modify or adapt lessons to their own circumstances. Even the most overworked and underpaid of instructors, who claims to have no time for lesson planning, can make a difference here.

In my experience teachers often cite the frustration of having to "retrain" their students to really think about the questions they are discussing in class. It is much easier of course, if the questions just pass by with the students simply regurgitating some information from a reading or listening passage, but think about the long term message this sends to our students. We are telling them, in effect, that the content is not really of any importance. We need to encourage our students to really interact with the texts and materials they are given and we need to do this repeatedly. Ultimately this will help students to better interact with the world around them and to become more self-aware and reflective thinkers.

Three Classroom Techniques

Once teachers grasp the concept and value of critical thinking skills development in the classroom they will begin to see opportunities all around them for encouraging their students in this area. I am now going to provide a brief overview of three techniques which have served me well in the past but I would like to stress that these are only three techniques of many that are possible and I encourage teachers to develop techniques appropriate to their own situations. The three classroom techniques I am going to look at are debate, media analysis and problem solving. I have chosen these three in particular because I feel that they have a degree of universality and practicality that makes them almost immediately applicable to most teaching circumstances. I have used or seen these techniques used in large classes and small, in EFL and ESL, in levels ranging from lower intermediate to advanced, and generally in all manner of teaching situations.

1. Debate

Why it Works

Debate forces students to think about the multiple sides of an issue and it also forces them to interact not just with the details of a given topic, but also with one another. Also debates are versatile in the range of topics possible and the format that the debate may follow.

How it Works

      Things to Remember

      2. Media Analysis

      Why it Works

      Analyzing various forms of media, either in an ESL or EFL environment, gives the opportunity for students to think about important issues like media bias and censorship. When students look at the types of issues that may bias reporting, they are also forced to think in terms of their biases and to reflect on these in detail. This is not to say however, that media analysis needs only to focus explicitly on issues of bias and censorship as any analysis of media has the potential to raise students' general awareness and encourage them to think about the issues that affect their lives.

      How it Works

        Things to Remember

        3. Problem Solving

        Why it Works

        Problems exist everywhere, both inside the classroom and out, and their resolution is a popular source of conversation in all countries and cultures. Analyzing a somewhat complex problem like a city's poor public transport system can offer students a myriad of opportunities to analyze an issue critically. By asking students to look at pro's and con's and costs and benefits an instructor is forcing them to consider real world problems that impact their daily lives in a critical way.

        How it Works

            Things to Remember


            In conclusion, I hope that teachers are able to use this article and some of the techniques I have suggested as a starting point for the development of critical thinking in their own classes. I believe and hope that teachers will find their efforts in this regard to be both personally and professionally rewarding.


            The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3, March 2005