When you’re an ESL teacher, you get to the stage when your students need to go further. They’ve learned a lot of the basics and can have conversations in English, but you need to push them. And one of the best ways to do that is by encouraging critical thinking in English. This will take them further than memorisation exercises and grammar structures. And it’s a skill that they can use in any language and situation.

What is Critical Thinking?
Before you teach critical thinking to your ESL students, you need to properly understand what it is. Critical thinking involves a wide variety of mental skills. It’s the ability to think clearly and rationally about issues, to reflect and independently come to a conclusion. When you’re a good critical thinker, you regularly question ideas and assumptions that other people accept. You seek out and evaluate the rational evidence that supports ideas and discard anything that can’t be justified logically. You also work on metacognition, the ability to think about and evaluate your own thought processes. Basically, this means that you analyse and solve problems logically rather than by emotion or instinct.

Most people use critical thinking skills to make decisions, but not everyone is good at it. Fortunately, this is a skill you can learn as part of your teacher development. And that means that you can teach your advanced ESL students to think critically in their new language. Hopefully, you will start this process early in their learning. But there are several things you can do to help them actively build their critical thinking abilities once they get to a higher level.

Start with You

If you’re going to teach critical thinking skills, it has to start with you. Working on critical thinking and metacognition will encourage better learning in you students. it will probably also unearth problems with your own knowledge base and thinking. The best way to start is by asking questions. So, if you’re starting to teach a new topic to your students, you can ask yourself:

  • What knowledge do I have about this topic?

  • Where did this knowledge come from?

  • Have I re-checked grammar and vocabulary sites to see if I’m correct?

  • Are there any exceptions to the rules I’m teaching?

  • Are there different ways to use the grammar or vocabulary that might be more effective or realistic?

  • Why am I teaching this instead of something else?

Teach While Learning

There’s no point in having one class on critical thinking and then going back to your regular teaching schedule. Your students need to keep using these skills in every lesson, in as many interactions and discussions as possible. Some ideas for doing this include:

  • Ask why constantly and encourage your students to do the same.

  • Give your students a minute after you ask a question, so they have the time to properly organise their responses.

  • Encourage your students to support their ideas or opinions in discussions and in written assignments.

  • Introduce alternatives and exceptions to grammar and vocabulary so they’re forced to think about how to properly use the language rather than just mimicking or assuming.

  • Ask open-ended questions that have no ‘right’ answer and encourage elaboration.

  • Introduce them to a wide variety of sources from different subjects so they can understand how to use these skills no matter what life path they choose.

Scaffold at First

You need to remember that thinking critically in English is probably a new skill. And if your students are quite young, consciously thinking critically may be new to them as well. You don’t want this to be too difficult for your class, because it will just scare them away. So, if they’re really struggling, then start by scaffolding the language you want them to use.

You can do this by giving them examples of a well thought out argument or hinting what kind of evidence you would like to see. You can even break the tasks down into smaller steps that they should follow. So, if you want them to think critically about the best food choices in English, give them the steps for doing so. You probably won’t have to do this for long. After some practice, your class will just start doing it naturally.

Hold a Debate

Holding a debate in your ESL class is one of the best ways to encourage your students to think critically. During a debate, they have to think about an idea or point of view and back it up with evidence. This is the very definition of thinking critically. You could hold a formal debate, and split students into teams to be evaluated on how well they argue. And you can also do this informally, during discussions. What’s important is that your students learn how to organise, present, and evaluate an argument.

A good way to take this further is by having your ESL students argue each side of a debate. You can even teach them how to create a rebuttal. After all, looking for weaknesses in evidence is a vital critical thinking skill and it’s often essential in the professional world too.

Debates and discussions in your ESL classroom shouldn’t turn into arguments or devolve into accusations or criticism. Just remember to keep the focus on the issue and don’t let students get personal.

Teach Your ESL Students to Predict

Being able to predict what will happen is a good way for your ESL students to exercise their critical thinking skills. To give accurate predictions, students will need to evaluate and analyse what has happened and discern the most logical direction. This can be done while watching a movie, reading a text, or listening to a dialogue. Pausing briefly to encourage this is a good way to add critical thinking to a lesson on grammar or vocabulary as well.

Critical thinking is a skill that’s difficult to learn and teach. But if you make it a part of every ESL lesson, even in the smallest of ways, your students will one day thank you for it. 

About the Author

Gayle Aggiss is an ESL teacher and a dedicated traveller. She’s taught in Fuzhou, China, and Hanoi, Vietnam and much prefers smaller cities to the larger options. When she’s not on the road, she lives in Perth, Australia. She writes about health, travel, and ESL teaching, and you can view more examples of her work at www.gayleaggiss.com.

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