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Critical Thinking in the Language Classroom: Four questions

Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on January 8, 2016

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Critical thinking is not new; it’s been around since Socrates and reframed, generation after generation. Elder and Paul (2008) define it as “a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and … the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior (p. 59). Essentially, students need to think critically and apply critical thinking in their actions. But only recently has critical thinking become an important component of language teaching and learning.

Four questions help clarify how language learning benefits from critical thinking.

Are critical thinking skills necessary to learn a language?

The short answer is no. For centuries people have learned languages by rote. But it doesn’t mean rote learning is efficient or effective. In a primary classroom in Peru, I watched a teacher drill her young students with a series of job-related questions.

“What does a cook do?” she asked.

“A cook cooks food!” the students shouted in unison.

“Very good. What does a baker do?”

“A baker bakes bread!”

There is no doubt that a test on what cooks and bakers do would show the students had mastered the content. But memorization alone does not prepare students for complex language interactions in the real world particularly as these are not the types of questions one is commonly asked. A critical thinking task would be to pose the question, “What do your parents do?” and then have the students interview each other. Pertinent personal language would be practiced and reinforced as students thought about their parents’ occupations and built new schema.

Can language tasks be inherently subversive?

In subversive language tasks, students think they are doing one thing but are really doing something else—developing language skills. In the example of exploring students’ parents’ occupations, the surface objective in the minds of the students is to identify a couple of facts (Mom’s a cook. Dad’s a baker.). But the task encourages students to talk more than they would in the usual choral recitation of a small set of sentences. Students will practice questions “What do your parents do?” but also engage in clarification and negotiation of meaning strategies: “What’s an accountant?” “What do you mean your dad is an escritor? What’s that in English?” “Is writer the same as novelist?”

Where do critical thinking tasks best take place?

Consider three continua of classroom tasks. The first is group size: individual, pair, group, and whole class. If the aim is for students to produce language, having them work alone or in a large group can be counter-productive; individually, students only think on their own without speaking. In a large group or class, students can slink into silence and let others do the thinking and talking; pair work and small-group work are best.

The second continuum is the number of skills required to do a task. Students who only have to use one skill—reading, writing, speaking, or listening—do not develop critical thinking as much as those who need to analyze and synthesize information to present it in some new form. For example, reading is good, but reading and then writing or talking about it to others helps develop critical reflection.

The third continuum is the degree of authenticity. The question, “What does a baker do?” is inauthentic because it’s not something people usually ask. Constructed discourse is what you find in communicative textbooks, for example, “What does your mother do?” It mirrors reality but softens the rough edges of more authentic discourse such as “What’s your mom up to for work these days?” Constructed language is good for modeling, but exposure to authentic discourse promotes critical thinking because it forces students to use mental processes and clarification strategies to decode what exactly is being said.

How do we assess critical thinking?

Critical thinking tasks should be open-ended with no single right answer. You could ask the question, “Why do bakers get up early?” but one student answering “So there’s fresh bread available first thing in the morning.” will discourage others from posing additional or innovative ideas, particularly if the teacher approves the answer as being correct. A better question would be, “What’s the most important part of a baker’s day?” This question forces students to do research, to weigh importance of various activities, and to make decisions. An additional requirement, “Discuss in pairs and then come to a class-wide agreement.” would encourage debate. As there is no correct answer, the focus of any evaluation shifts from rote memorization to genuine language use, the true aim of a language classroom.

Just as critical thinking is a necessary habit for students, the teaching of critical thinking needs to be a habit for teachers.


Elder, L. & Paul, R. (2008). The thinker's guide to intellectual standards: The words that name them and the criteria that define them. Tomales, CA: Foundation Critical Thinking

Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More

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