Questioning Strategies To Encourage Critical Thinking

The TESOL President’s Blog

One of the most challenging tasks for language teachers when working with English language learners is to engage students in critical thinking and encourage them to ask questions that go beyond factual information. In this blog, I’d like to share a few simple questioning techniques that I have been using to engage students in the learning process.

Asking the right questions and engaging learners in inquiry-based learning are important steps to help students develop critical thinking skills and metacognitive skills.

Question Hierarchy Techniques

For lower level learners, I often use a technique that I call Question Hierarchy Techniques. I model it to students before they begin to use it to ask each other questions.

It starts with a yes/no question. For example, if we use a picture to start a conversation about a classroom setting, a simple yes/ no question could be, “Is this room bright?” The next question is a choice question, such as “Is this classroom on the first floor or the second floor?”

Then I’ll use three levels of “WH” questions. Examples of Level 1 WH questions could include, “How many students are there in the room?” or “How many desks are there in the classroom?” Examples for Level 2 WH questions may include, “What are the three things that you like about this classroom?” Examples for Level 3 WH could include “Why do you like or dislike this classroom?” Students can expand the questions to ask about their workplace, neighborhoods, daily life, etc. They can practice yes/ no questions, choice questions, and WH questions at the same time.

F.I.R.E Questions

Another technique I often use for intermediate and advanced level students is named F.I.R.E. I learned this technique from an institutional assessment conference* quite a few years ago. I adapted the technique and have been sharing it ever since with my adult ESOL learners and TESOL teacher training students. F.I.R.E. stands for four areas of thinking: Factual, Insightful, Rational and Evaluative. The quotes below are from a handout at the assessment conference.

Factual Thinking
This type of thinking involves gathering factual information and applying it to a given problem in a way that is clear and relevant. If we use Bloom’s taxonomy, it fits well with the knowledge and comprehension domain (e.g., what are the relevant facts?). The question words we often use are: who, when, where, and how many.

Insightful Thinking
This is to “imagine and seek out a variety of possible goals, assumptions, interpretations, or perspectives which can give alternative meanings or solutions to given situations or problems.” They are often the “big picture” and “depth” questions (e.g., what is the larger context, or “big picture,” of the problem or a situation in the story?). The question words often used are what, which, why, how, and what if.

Rational Thinking
This is to “analyze the logical connections among the facts, goals, and implicit assumptions relevant to a problem or a situation” (e.g., what are the major components, necessary sequences or orders which structure this problem or situation, or what process did you use in working with this problem?). They are often “breadth” questions and require learners to make logical connections among facts and issues in a situation. The question words often used are what, how, and what steps. Insightful and Rational Thinking overlap with Bloom’s taxonomy Application, Analysis, and Synthesis domains.

Evaluative Thinking
This is “recognizing and articulating the feelings and value assumptions which underlie and affect decisions, interpretations, analyses and evaluations made by ourselves and others” (e.g., what feels most important to you in this situation and why?). Learners need to make a judgment, and reflect and relate to “real-life” experiences. The question words often used are what, how, and why.

With practice, students get better at using these questioning techniques whenever they read an article or a story, discuss a picture, or hold a debate on current issues.

Effective Questioning

James Cooper in his book, Classroom Teaching Skills (2006) outlined seven habits of highly effective questioners:

  • Asking fewer questions
  • Using wait time
  • Differentiating questions
  • Selecting students
  • Questioning for depth
  • Giving useful feedback
  • Questioning for breadth

I have found that Question Hierarchy Techniques and FIRE questions have helped me and my students become better questioners, and students become active language users and critical thinkers. I hope they will work for you and your learners, too.

Let me end this blog post with a quote from James Cooper: “Once in school, children’s natural tendency to learn by questioning mysteriously evaporates. On that first day of school, the adult becomes questioner, while the student becomes the answerer.” As a teacher, we need to value and nurture our children’s natural tendency to learn by questioning and help them become effective questioners, critical thinkers, and active language users.


*Minnesota Community College’s Transfer Curriculum Model, 1997

About Yilin Sun

Yilin Sun has served as president of TESOL International Association, as chair of the TESOL Affiliate Leadership Council, and president of Washington Association for the Education of Speakers of Other Languages (WAESOL). In 2011-2012, Dr. Sun was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Taiwan at the National Taiwan Normal University. Dr. Sun received her doctorate in applied linguistics/curriculum and instruction from the University of Toronto, Canada. She has more than 28 years of experience in the field of TESOL as a teacher educator, a researcher, a classroom teacher, and a program leader with various institutions of higher education in China, Canada, and the United States. She is the author and co-author of books, book chapters, and research papers in refereed professional journals. Her research interests include curriculum development, program assessment and evaluation, L2 reading, vocabulary learning, classroom-based action research, teacher education, adult education, teaching English to young learners, World Englishes, ESP and nonnative English speaking teachers (NNEST) in the ELT field.

View all posts by Yilin Sun →

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National surveys of college faculty reveal that their number-one instructional goal is to promote critical thinking (Milton, 1982; Stark et al., 1990), and national reports on the status of American higher education have consistently called for greater emphasis on the development of college students’ critical thinking skills (Association of American Colleges, 1985; National Institute of Education, 1984).

While the call for critical thinking has remained consistent since the early 1980s, there has been much less consistency in how critical thinking is defined or described by those who endorse it (Fisher & Scriven, 1997). For instance, following a 25-year review of the critical thinking literature, McMillan concluded that, “What is lacking in the research is a common definition of critical thinking and a clear definition of the nature of an experience that should enhance critical thinking” (1987, p. 37). Scholarly definitions of critical thinking have ranged from the very narrow—a well-reasoned evaluative judgment (King & Kitchener, 1994), to the very broad—all thinking that involves more than the mere acquisition and recall of factual information (Greeno, 1989).

In this article, I adopt a more inclusive definition of critical thinking that embraces all thought processes that are “deeper” than memorization and recall of factual information. When students think critically, they think deeply; they not only know the facts, but they take the additional step of going beyond the facts to do something with them. Critical thinking involves reflecting on the information received, moving away from “surface” memorization and toward deeper levels of learning. It also involves a shift away from viewing learning as the reception of information from teacher or text (in pre-packaged and final form) to viewing learning as an elaboration and transformation of received information into a different form by the learner.

This broad definition of critical thinking does not equate critical thinking with the cognitive process of evaluation or critique; instead, it incorporates evaluation as one specific form or type of critical thinking. This is an important distinction, not only for the purpose of definitional clarity, but also for the practical purpose of combating the prevalent student misconception that critical thinking means being “being critical.” Because of this common student misconception, I prefer to use the term “Deep Thinking” Skills (DTs) in my classes.

In an attempt to describe more clearly for students (and for myself) what critical thinking actually is, and how it can be identified and demonstrated, I developed a classification system to organize the variety of cognitive skills that would be embraced by an inclusive definition of critical thinking. The classification system or taxonomy appears in the Appendix to this article. This classification system may be viewed as a compilation of cognitive nouns translated into mental-action verbs, which could be used as a guide by instructors—to develop teaching strategies that intentionally promote the development of critical thinking skills, and by students—to assess whether they are engaging in effective critical thinking when speaking, writing, or studying. Each of the critical thinking skills included in the taxonomy is defined in terms of a corresponding mental action and is followed by a trio of sample questions designed to promote that particular form of thinking. The questions have been constructed in a generic manner that allows them to be adapted for use in specific courses and academic disciplines. Considerable research evidence indicates that such generic question stems can serve as effective prompts for promoting student use of specific thinking skills in different contexts (King, 1990, 1995).

In particular, I have employed the following two types of questioning strategies to promote critical thinking in my classes.

1. “Open-ended” questions intentionally designed to provoke divergent thinking.

Research indicates that college instructors spend little class time posing questions to students, and when questions are posed, the vast majority of them are memory-level questions that ask for factual recall rather than critical thinking (Gardiner, 1994). Furthermore, questions calling for factual recall are the type of questions that are least likely to promote student involvement. In contrast, studies show that “open-ended” questions calling for divergent thinking (i.e., questions that allow for a variety of possible answers and encourage students to think at a deeper level than rote memory) are more effective in eliciting student responses than “closed” questions calling for convergent thinking (i.e., questions that require students to narrow-in or converge on one, and only one, correct answer) (Andrews, 1980; Bligh, 2000). Ironically, and fortuitously, these results indicate that students are more likely to respond to questions that require deeper-level thought (critical thinking) than rote memory.

I insert open-ended, divergent-thinking questions (such as those included in the linked taxonomy) into my lecture notes as a reminder to pose them at certain points in class. I may pose them for general class discussion, or for discussion in small groups. Sometimes, I will ask students to write a minute-paper in response to the question. On other occasions, I have students write a minute paper first and then discuss their written responses. I have found that this strategy benefits the more reflective students by allowing them time to gather their thoughts prior to verbalizing them. It also benefits international students and students who may be fearful or self-conscious about public speaking, because it gives them a script to fall back on (or build on) and use as a support structure for communicating their ideas orally.  

Experimental research indicates that students who are asked higher-level thinking questions in class are more likely to display higher-level thinking on course examinations (Hunkins, cited in Bligh, 2000). Classroom-based research conducted by Alison King (1990, 1995) demonstrates that students can also learn to generate their own higher-level thinking questions. Using a technique she calls “guided peer questioning,” students are first provided with a series of generic question stems that serve as cognitive prompts to trigger or stimulate different forms of critical thinking, such as:

(a) “What are the implications of ___?”

(b) “Why is ___ important?”

(c) “What is another way to look at ___?” 

2. Questions that ask students to reflect on their own thinking processes and to identify what particular form of critical thinking they are using.

After students have communicated their ideas, either orally via group discussions or in writing via minute papers, I periodically ask them to reflect on what type of critical thinking my question was designed to promote and whether they think they demonstrated that critical thinking in their response. I typically ask them to record their personal reflections in writing, either working individually or in pairs; in the latter case, their task is to listen and record the reflections shared by their partner. Research has shown that one distinguishing characteristic of high-achieving college students is that they tend to reflect on their thought processes during learning and are aware of the cognitive strategies they use (Weinstein & Underwood, 1985). Additional research indicates that students can learn to engage in such “meta-cognition” (thinking about thinking) if they are regularly asked self-assessment questions, which require reflection on their own thought processes. When students learn to routinely ask themselves these questions, the depth and quality of their thinking are enhanced (Resnick, 1986).

Skip Downing (founder of On Course Workshops and author of the On Course text) is known to promote teaching students the skill of asking “beautiful” questions. Naturally, this raises another question: “What makes a question “beautiful?” I would argue that one criterion for determining the beauty of a question is its capacity for promoting deep, reflective thinking; in effect, it launches the learner on a quest for critical thinking.


Andrews, J. D. (1980). The verbal structure of teacher questions: Its impact on class discussion. POD Quarterly, 2, 130-163.

Association of American Colleges. (1985). Integrity in the curriculum: A report to the academic community. Project on redefining the meaning and purpose of baccalaureate degrees.Washington, DC: Author.

Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures?San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fisher, A. & Scriven, M. (1997). Critical thinking: Its definition and assessment. Point Reyes, CA: Edgepress.

Gardiner, L. F. (1994). Redesigning higher education: Producing dramatic gains in student learning. Report No. 7. Washington, D.C.: GraduateSchoolof Education and HumanDevelopment, The GeorgeWashingtonUniversity.

Greeno, J. (1989). A perspective on thinking. American Psychologist, 44(2), 134-141.  

King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Educational Research Journal, 27(4), 664-687.

King, A. (1995). Guided peer questioning: A cooperative learning approach to critical thinking. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching, 5(2), pp. 15-19.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.

McMillan, J. (1987). Enhancing college students’ critical thinking: A review of studies. Research in Higher Education, 26, 3-29.

Milton, O. (1982). Will that be on the final? Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.  

National Institute of Education. (1984). Involvement in learning. Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Resnick, L. B. (1986). Education and learning to think. Special Report. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.

Stark, J. S., Lowther, M. A., Bentley, R.J., Ryan, M. P., Martens, G. G., Genthon, M. L., Wren, P. A., & Shaw, K. M. (1990). Planning introductory college courses: Influences on faculty.Ann Arbor: University of Michigan: NationalCenter for Research to Improve Postsecondary

Weinstein, C. E., & Underwood, V. L. (1985). Learning strategies: The how of learning. In J. W. Segal, S. F. Chapman, & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills (pp. 241-258).Hillsdale, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum.


Classification of Critical Thinking Skills

1. Comprehension (Understanding): to convert information into a form that is personally meaningful, i.e., that makes sense to the individual who is learning it.

     Representative Questions:

     – How would you put ____ into your own words? (Paraphrasing)

     – What would be an example of _____? (Illustrating)

     – How would you translate ____ into visual form? (Concept-Mapping)

2. Application: to apply abstract or theoretical principles to concrete, practical situations.  

    Representative Questions:   

    – How can you make use of ____?

    – How could ____ be put into practice?

    – How would ____ be converted into an action plan?

3. Analysis: to break down or dissect information into its component parts in order to detect the relationship among the parts, or the relationship between the parts and the whole. (For example, identifying the underlying causes or sources of disagreement during a class discussion.)

    Representative Questions:    

    – What are the most important/significant ideas or elements of ____? (Prioritization)

    – What assumptions/biases underlie or are hidden within ____? (Deconstruction)

    – What parts of _____ would be similar to/different than  _____? (Comparison-and-Contrast)

4. Synthesis: to build up or connect separate pieces of information to form a larger, more coherent pattern. (Examples: Connecting related ideas discussed in separate sections or units of a course into a single, unified product, such as a concept map. Integrating ethical concepts learned in a course and philosophy with marketing concepts learned in a business course to produce a set of ethical guidelines for business marketing and advertising practices.)

    Representative Questions:   

    – How can this idea be combined with _____ to create a more compete or comprehensive understanding of ____? (Integration)

    – How could these different ideas be grouped together into a more general category? (classification)

    – How could these separate ____ be reorganized or rearranged to produce a more comprehensive understanding of the “big  picture?”

5. Evaluation: to critically judge the validity (truth), morality (ethics), or aesthetic (artistic) value of ideas, data, or products by using relevant assessment criteria (standards for judging quality).

    Representative Questions:   

    – How would you judge the accuracy or validity of _______?

    – How would you evaluate the ethical (moral) implications or consequences of _____?

    – How would you rate the aesthetic quality (beauty) of ____?

6. Deduction: to draw conclusions about particular instances that are logically consistent with, or derive from general principles and premises.

    Representative Questions:   

    – What specific conclusions can be drawn from this general  ____?

    – If this general  ____ were true, then it would logically follow that ____ 

    – What particular actions or practices would be consistent with this general ____?

7. Induction: to infer (derive or draw out) well-reasoned generalizations or principles from individual instances or specific examples. (For example, identifying recurrent themes or categories that emerge during a class discussion.) Note: One form of induction is the ability to abstract and extrapolate a concept learned in one context and transfer that learning to another context—a cognitive process often referred to as “decontextualization.” This capacity to transfer knowledge, i.e., to apply a concept learned in one context to contexts different than the one in which the concept was originally learned, is often presumed to be the “litmus test” of whether a student has really (deeply) learned the concept, or has simply memorized it in its original form. (For example, if a student can solve different versions or examples of math problems that require comprehension of the same, underlying mathematical concept, then the student is demonstrating deep learning or critical understanding of that concept.)

    Representative Questions:   

    – What are the broader implications of ____?

    – What patterns or themes emerge from ____?

    – What can be extrapolated or extended from this particular ____ that may have more general or universal value? 

8. Adduction: to make a case for an argument or position by accumulating supporting evidence in the form of logical arguments (rational thinking) or research evidence (empirical reasoning).

    Representative Questions:   

    – What proof exists for ____?

    – What are logical arguments for _____?

    – What research evidence supports _____?

9. Refutation: to make a caseagainst an argument or position by accumulating contradictory evidence in the form of logical arguments (rational thinking) or research findings (empirical reasoning).

    Representative Questions:   

    – What proof exists that ____ is false?

    – What are logical arguments against _____?

    – What research evidence contradicts ____?

10. Balanced Thinking: to carefully consider arguments/evidence for and against a particular position or viewpoint.

      Representative Questions:

    – What are the strengths/advantages and weaknesses/disadvantages of ____?

    – What evidence supports and contradicts ____?

    – What are arguments for and counterarguments against ____?

11. Multiple Perspective-Taking: to view an issue from a variety of viewpoints, standpoints, or positions in order to gain a more comprehensive and holistic understanding. 

      Representative Questions:   

      – How would people from different ethnic or racial groups view this ____?

      – How would people from different socioeconomic backgrounds be affected by ____?

      – How would people who differ in age or gender react to ____?

12. Causal Reasoning: to identify cause-effect relationships between different ideas or actions.

      Representative Questions:    

      – How would you explain why ______ occurred?

      – What is responsible for ____?

       – How would ____ affect or influence ____?

13. Ethical Reasoning: to identify what is morally right/ wrong or good/bad about particular ideas, attitudes, or practices.

      Representative Questions:   

      – What does ____say about a person’s values?

      – What are the moral implications of ____?

      – Are the expressed or professed convictions of ____ consistent with actual commitments and observable actions?

14. Creative Thinking: to generate imaginative ideas, unique perspectives, innovative strategies, or novel (alternative) approaches to traditional practices. Note: Although critical and creative thinking have often been seen as separate cognitive skills, the latter is included in this typology, because it does involve thought processes that are deeper or higher than memorization.

      Representative Questions:   

      – What might be a metaphor or analogy for ____?

      – What could be invented to ____?

      – What might happen if ____? (hypothetical reasoning).

-Joe Cuseo, Faculty, Psychology & Director, Freshman Seminar, Marymount College, CA

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