Critical Thinking In Foreign Language Classes

Prem Prasad Poudel

Mahendra Ratna Campus, Tribhuvan University

Learning is the continuous process of obtaining knowledge and skills. Language is the medium for learning and thinking. As Vygotsky said that learning proceeds from pre-intellectual speech that includes crying, cooing, babbling, bodily movements to the complete production of the linguistic utterances. Children learn better through sharing and playing. This is also true for language learning. There are various methods that focus on learners’ participation in the learning process. Children as well as adults learn through cooperation. In the countries like ours have inappropriate classroom management, which do not support learning through communication and cooperation. If the classroom situations and teachers help in learners thinking, they may develop decision and judgment skills.

Webster’s New World Dictionary (1988) defines the word ‘think’ as the general word which means to exercise the mental faculties so as to form ideas, arrive at conclusion, etc. If teachers foster thinking environment in the classroom, the learners will be the top class beneficiary. The most successful classrooms are those that encourage students to think for themselves and engage in critical thinking (Halpern, 1996, Kurland, 1995, Unrau, 1997). We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment that results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation and inference as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. Critical thinking is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, critical thinking is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one’s personal and civic life (Facione, 1990). Critical thinking has become a hot topic of discussion in the field of education today.

Critical thinking allows learners to think about their own thoughts and the reasons behind their points of view. It means that they reflect on their own ways of making decisions or solving problems. Thinking like this means that their thoughts are consciously directed to some goals. Their  thoughts and ideas are not only based on their biases or prejudices but also on logical or information they might gather and filter from many sources. As they think critically, they are always mindful of what and how they are thinking. When they detect an error or a different way to think about a problem, they explore it eagerly. Students who think critically are typically excited about their learning. They see challenges and opportunities for learning in even the most difficult intellectual tasks. Critical thinking methodology is useful in all the subject areas and it has been very much influential in the area of language teaching as well.

Language teaching classroom must foster critical thinking on the part of the learners. Some think that critical thinking is useful for only the adult learners, but there are a number of chances that we may engage children in wide range of thinking activities. Thinking activities depend on the objectives of teaching. The type of objectives and type of questions create active learning and thinking in the students. They may ask questions ranging from very lowest level to the highest level. The following list includes categories of question and objectives that range from the lowest level (simply remembering) to the highest level (creating).

Lower level activities:  drawing and coloring,  copying, reading aloud, silent reading and watching, memorizing, revising, simple comprehension, looking things up, etc.

Higher level activities: imaginative writing tasks, collecting evidence, problem solving, deducing, reasoning tasks, application tasks, analysis tasks, synthesis tasks, evaluation, creation, summarizing, etc.

In my reflection of my own teaching experience and observation of other language teachers’ (novice and experts) classroom presentations, I found the following problems-

  1. Teachers  don’t encourage students to think
  2. Their students do not want to spend time for thinking, if their teachers ask them to think for one or two minutes, they take it as a waste of time or an opportunity to make fuss.
  3. Teachers are not worried about students learning.
  4. Classrooms are not resourceful. The available resources are even not properly used.
  5. Most of the classroom situations do not favor group work or pair work activities.
  6. Teachers find difficulties in forming groups appropriately.
  7. The teaching is focused on some students only, teaching doesn’t cover whole class.
  8. Some students (especially shy and slow learners) get frustrated, humiliated and develop inferiority complex because of the class domination by some quick learners.
  9. Teachers teach the content more than the language. They do not realize ‘language focus’ in language classes.
  10. Students and teachers most often spend more time in single activity.
  11. Some teachers conduct group or pair work activities but they are ill-managed, not organized, etc.

To minimize most of the above mentioned problems, the critical thinking based activities will be more supportive.

Activities for generating critical thinking in the language classroom

  1. 1.      Jigsaw technique: Jigsaw is one of the highly influential techniques for generating students’ cooperative learning in the language classroom. This technique requires students to help each other learn some grammar topics or vocabulary items. It is equally useful in teaching listening, speaking, reading and writing. That means it can be used when students are reading a text, listening to presentations and even while carrying out a group investigation. This strategy of teaching learning employs both home groups and expert groups. This helps all the students to study and learn all of the materials. The learners may become experts as they teach each other parts of the material. Each student thus has an active role in teaching and learning and experience deep understanding and higher order thinking.


–          Teachers prepare beforehand. They review the learning materials, write questions to guide students’ learning.

–          Teachers assign students to groups. The students count the number one-two-three-four-five- six and students counting from one to the other number (the number may depend on the number of the students kept in a group)stay in one group. Other groups are formed in the same way. Each group includes the reasonable number of students. Groups are formed based on the nature of learning material and availability of the resources. The groups comprise of the boys and girls, more capable and less capable students.

–          The tasks are assigned, the tasks may be ‘reading stories, writing paragraphs, summarizing paragraphs, solving problems or project works’, etc. Each group is given a different task of the same teaching lesson.

–          Student work in their groups, they select their leader. Teachers need to control during the nomination of the group leader. In every next learning session, there will be a different leader so that all the student may be participating and working as a leader.

–          The teacher invites expert group and instructs the group about the activity. The  experts go to their respective group and help others do the task accordingly.

–          Students complete the task, come with an outcome within a stipulated timeframe. They become expert in the task provided to them.

–          Teacher monitors, assists and makes sure that they are engaged in the task assigned.

–          The students remix to form another type of group. The students counting number one stay in one group, two in another group and this continues until the last group is formed. Here, all the groups include the students having knowledge on the different task assigned to different groups before. There is information gap. They discuss each other and make complete information of the whole learning material.

–          Group leaders make presentations of the tasks one by one, other members of groups  comment on the presentation and finally they consolidate the learning outcome.

Let me discuss about a lesson I presented using this technique at grade eleven. The presentation was on reading a story that included five paragraphs, the number of students in the class was 32.

I prepared one day before I taught. I prepared separate reading texts breaking down the story into five paragraphs. I divided the student into five groups. Three groups consisted of six students and two groups consisted of seven students. In the class I asked the student speak out the numbers from one to five and asked students with the number one to five in one group and another one to five into another group and so on so the five groups were formed. After formation of the group, I asked each group to select one student to be an expert. I invited five experts in an expert group, instructed them about the learning task (the task that each had to do- it was reading a paragraph). The experts went back to their home group and instructed others about the task. They read the paragraph assigned to them. Again I asked each member of the group to form group of the similar numbers. For example, group A was formed of the students who had the number ‘one’. In the similar way, other groups were formed. Each group included students who were experts of all the paragraphs of the story. There was information gap among them. The student from the first group shared the information of the first paragraph; the student of second group shared the information of the second paragraph and so on. Finally the new groups made understanding of the whole story. If any of the members was confused, they discussed again in the group and finally came to the teacher with the summary of the story. There was a quick write exercise to check if they understood the story. Some comprehension questions were designed and they were further suggested to answer working in the pairs. Their queries were answered. They were also asked to make critical judgment of the story.


From this activity, I found that students experienced being teachers and also had developed a sense of being responsible for learning and sharing. They were more empowered and had to speak at least something. While sharing, they had good confidence and all of them were very much attentive and active in the learning process. From this activity, I found jigsaw to be useful for teaching language skills and vocabulary too.

  1. 2.      Pair reading-pair summarizing technique:  This technique is mostly used to practice reading and speaking. It can be used in the very beginning classes and the advanced levels also. The nature of the reading text will be different accordingly. This technique also allows students to take more initiative in their own and each other’s learning. It may take times more than simply reading aloud but there is more chance of making comprehension of the text more closely. It could be used in the large classes also.


–          Teachers choose more informative text with short paragraphs. If paragraphs are not available, they may indicate the limitation of the text for each pair to read.

–          Students pair up.

–          One student of the pair reads one paragraph or marked section of the text and provides summary of it.

–          Teachers ask some cross questions to other students in order to check understanding, some of them may report the summary they heard from their peer.

–          Other students are asked to make questions related to the paragraph if they have confusion.

–          The same procedure continues till all the paragraphs are finished and all pairs do the activity. If the text is short, some pairs may read and summarize and other pairs may re-summarize, ask questions and give opinion on what was mentioned in the text.

My own experience of using this:

I used the same procedure in class eight (it was a class presented as a model class during teacher training). At first students were hesitant doing this. They thought that they will be unable to do the task. I encouraged them and finally they did it. There were 46 students. I made 23 pairs. The pairs were heterogeneous. There was a reading passage of 35 lines. I instructed each pair read three to four lines. Once a student of the pair read the text, s/he immediately summarized. Other student of other pair summarized the text again, and another student of another pair asked questions related to the text. I asked other interested students to deliver their own opinion on the text information mentioned on the text too. It was very much interesting because students were acting and reacting, making judgment and giving their own logic. In the similar way, reading all the paragraphs of the text was finished successfully. Finally I asked all the students to summarize the whole story working in groups of five for five minutes. I requested two groups make presentations of the summary of the text. They shared and other added more information that were missing. At the end of the session, they said that it was really good way to practice.  


  1. 3.      Read- summarize-question technique: This technique of teaching and learning is useful for practicing reading, listening and speaking skill simultaneously. It also develops their thinking too. People find it more difficult to use at the very beginning level. It is certainly fruitful in the upper grades.


–          Teacher selects the reading passage or paragraphs.

–          S/he clarifies the way it takes place in the classroom.

–          One student reads the text, s/he points another student to summarize what    he read, the student summarizes it after making close listening to the       paragraph read by the first student and that student again asks another             student sitting little further in the class ask questions about the text    read     and summarized  before. The answer of the question may be given by          somebody other than those who participated.

–          This process continues until the whole task is finished. The teacher monitors            and guides in order to make sure that all students took part in the learning   process.

My experience of using this technique

When I used this technique in the classroom, my students were very much attentive on what was going on. They were so because they thought that they might need to say about it at any time. This worked well in the classes like ours where the benches are fixed in such a way that sometimes there is no space for the teacher to move around. Once I clarified the process, students themselves conducted it well. Finally I summarized the text following some questions asked to check their comprehension. To develop their higher order thinking skills, we may modify the questions and activities and relate them to synthesizing, evaluating and creating.



Thinking activities develop learner’s motivation. There are many other activities that generate critical thinking on the part of the learners. If the teachers are well-known and prepared, they may design their own activities that help the learners  develop lower level to higher level thinking skills. The three techniques I mentioned above develop integrated learning of language skills of aspects. All of these activities enhance learners’ readiness, feeling of responsibility and sharing. Finally they will be the critical thinkers. Many of the present classroom related problems could be solved and some of them could be minimized.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 1st, 2013 at 01:05 and is filed under Critical Outlook, Scholarly Article. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to #langchat! We hope your holidays were filled with joy and good companionship.

This past Thursday, we had a fantastic first #langchat of 2012 with some quality discussion and professional development. Our topic, “How do we develop higher-order thinking skills in the world language classroom?“, was a big hit and we’re sure you’ll find some useful tips and tricks in the summary below. For the archive of the chat, please go here.

Also, be sure to check out the conclusion of this summary below for a special holiday offering from all of us at #langchat!

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Higher-Order Thinking Skills: A Rundown

Higher-order thinking skills include such skills as critical thinking, analysis and problem solving. These skills differ from lower-order thinking skills such as remembering and understanding in that they prepare students to apply existing knowledge in new areas. These are cross-discipline skills that stick with students throughout life.

One characteristic of higher-order skill instruction is the importance of modeling what happens in real life as much as possible (@tonitheisen). These skills involve analyzing, evaluating and creating material, and students need to have a real-life foundation.

With all instruction, it’s a good idea to praise students’ efforts even when they are having problems communicating. With critical thinking and other higher-order skills’ assignments, this is even more important. Be sure to praise the message, not kill it (@tonitheisen).

Critical thinking can be multiple choice, but it’s tough to make it work. Instead of asking “A, B or C,” try asking “How, why and what if” (@SECottrell).

Finally, critical thinking takes time. It’s important for us to remember to slow down and allow students the time to make the meaning. Try giving students more opportunities to ask questions, rather than ask all the questions yourself (@GlastonburyFL).

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Examples of Higher-Order Skills

Critical thinking involves solving problems, such as with situational prompts and questions like why, how and what if (@tonitheisen). Creating with the language involves critical thinking by taking words that students have learned in one context and putting them in another (@Lauren_Scheller).

Determining and debating why cultures are different by comparing products and practices is an example of evaluation (@Lauren_Scheller). Any evaluating or analyzing activity is good practice. Students often have different — but good — answers that they can debate with their classmates (@SECottrell).

Inferring from context is a skill that many students have difficulties with or are afraid of doing. Students are often trained to have right or wrong answers, but with higher-order thinking skills there shouldn’t be any right or wrong responses (@tonitheisen).

Circumlocution is another higher-order skill that language students will find extremely useful. It’s also a simple matter to practice in class, and many students will develop it on their own in a communicative atmosphere.

Higher-Order Thinking Skills in the World Language Classroom

Participants shared a wealth of ideas for activities and assessments you can try in the classroom to develop your students’ higher-order thinking skills. Check some of them out below.

  • Finding errors is a fantastic critical-thinking activity. Try using it before an assessment to get your students warmed up.
  • Anything interacting with the real world is good. Production for a purpose (@Lauren_Scheller). For example, try using prompts with food such as what food should we put in the box that is nutritional (@tonitheisen). @SECottrell recommends having students think about what food means to them and to people around the world.
  • @HJGiffin regularly uses language classes as an opportunity to discuss advanced topics in the target language, such as the concept of self.
    • For example, looking at self portraits, ask students how the portrait shows the artist’s definition of self? What would they put on a portrait to define themselves?
  • @Lauren_Scheller suggests hosting an evening for ESL parents at the school to help with the school website when learning technology vocabulary.
  • If they’re up for it, try and have your higher-level students teach lower-levels an essential grammar or culture point. @klafrench’s French 5 students taught the future tense to French 4 this week, for example!
  • Similarly, have students investigate target-language ads or periodicals on the Internet and then write or develop questions for other students to answer (@atschwei).
  • Try writing some target-language prompts or questions on various Jenga blocks, then play a game in the class (@HJGiffin).
  • Use tools such as Google Maps and Google Street View to plan a virtual trip of students’ choice using a set amount of money (@kc_lewis).

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Higher-Order Thinking with Novice Students

Developing novice students’ higher-order thinking skills is difficult. These skills usually require that students already have an established knowledge base, as they generally involve applying existing knowledge in new areas. Still, there are quite a few activities you can do to develop your students’ skills. Some of the ideas above can be used for novice kids, and some of those below can be used with more advanced students — adapt accordingly.

  • Have students label classmates with descriptive words (@SECottrell).
  • Making Venn diagrams for compare and contrast on stories, photos and more works well (@CalicoSpanish).
  • Show images to students and ask them to describe the situation. Then go into detail. For example, “What needs do these people have? What can you imagine they were doing before and after this photo?” (@CalicoTeach).
    • This works well with other levels, too. @klafrench likes to show images of the target culture to intermediate students and ask them to write the story of the painting.
    • @tonitheisen likes to use art images where students play a role from the painting in a skit or dialogue.
  • This is a great method with all ages, but particularly well-suited to young and novice learners: rather than test vocabulary and knowledge with English translations, try using images. For example, @suarez712002 likes to use images for matching exercises and @klafrench often asks students to draw pictures instead of writing definitions, which makes for much improved connections.
  • @GlastonburyFL shows novice students maps (try Google Maps) and asks them to decide the best transportation method from place to place. Use real locations in target-language countries and cities and ask questions such as “Can you walk from el Prado to el Palacio Real? What would be a better way to go?”
    • @CalicoTeach suggests adding to the descriptions to give students more to consider, for example “You have two toddlers with you…”
  • @GlastonburyFL suggests letting young, novice students describe a fruit to classmates. The classmates have to guess what the fruit is. An alternative is to put a picture of a fruit on the blackboard behind a student, and the class has to describe it for the student to guess. Or in pairs, put a picture of a fruit on one student’s forehead for the other to describe.
    • These activities are actually good for any vocabulary or set depending on the students’ ages — from fruit and sports to movie plots and celebrities (@klafrench).
  • Try using irrational questions to get kids thinking and responding critically. For example, “Do you brush your hair with bacon? Why not?” (@ProfaEsp). Students interact with the real world by defining items and their use.

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Tips and Resources

Thank You!

Thanks to all our participants for joining us for our first #langchat of the new year — you shared so many great resources and ideas, and everyone appreciates your support! As we’ve mentioned for the past several weeks, we’ve been working on compiling a #langchat e-book, Web Tools for 21st-Century World Language Classroom, and we’d like to make it available to you, absolutely free!

Over the past year, #langchat has really turned into some of the best professional development out there for world language (and other) teachers. This is possible because of you joining us every week and so freely sharing your ideas for your colleagues’ benefit. We’ve compiled some of your best ideas and resources from the past year in this book for everyone’s reading pleasure, and you can download the free e-book here.

Please, accept this token of our thanks and check out the e-book soon. It’s designed to be a resource for you to consult as time goes by, no need to read it from cover to cover (though that’s a fine choice, too!). When you’re finished looking it over, please let us know what you think on Twitter or by commenting on the download page.

Thanks again, and see you next Thursday on #langchat!

Filed Under: #langchat SummariesTagged With: blooms taxonomy, world language

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