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Generating Questions: Using Critical Thinking Skills

By: Liz Fothergrill (2006)

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the process of actively analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information gathered from a variety of sources, using a framework designed to lend structure and clarity to the thinking process. As children think, they use their background knowledge, as well as information gathered from other sources, to draw their own conclusions. One of the challenges when teaching critical thinking skills to English language learners (ELLs) is helping them develop adequate background knowledge and adequate vocabulary to support this type of higher order thinking.

How can educators teach critical thinking skills?

The article Hooked on Thinking by Ann Paziotopoulos and Marianne Kroll, describes critical thinking using a skyscraper analogy. Using a construct based on Bloom's Taxonomy, the authors compare the different layers of critical thinking (see chart below) to the different levels of a building. The foundation of the building, or the lowest level of critical thinking, would be represented by such tasks as recalling facts from a story. At the second level, students might be expected to give a summary or an explanation of a story. At the third level, students would be expected to relate the story to their own lives. At the fourth level, they would compare and contrast elements within the story. The fifth level would require hypothesizing or creating something new based on the reading. To reach the top of the skyscraper, or the sixth level, students must be able to synthesize the information from the story and then formulate their own opinions.

An important element of higher order thinking is learning to ask critical questions. ELLs in particular need assistance in learning how to ask these types of questions that will enhance their understanding (i.e. What if Little Red Riding Hood did not take the long way to Granny's house? What would have happened to her?, etc.). Teachers can begin this process by pre-teaching vocabulary and helping students build background knowledge prior to reading.

Suggested Activities

Lower Grade Activities

In lower grades, the teacher should present this lesson as a whole group activity.

Chart image
  • Ensure ELLs receive a list of any challenging vocabulary words they might encounter. It's a good idea to provide an explanation and the meaning for each word before they begin to read the story.
  • Begin to model higher thinking skills, by evaluating your student's different levels of knowledge. Here, we provide you with a sample chart.

Upper Grade Activities

Teachers may choose to first model the first paragraph and then let students work in small groups as they find the main idea.

Chart image
  • Have students read a story and use the following steps to write several questions for each level (adapting Bloom's Taxonomy for use with literature).
  • Have students work in groups to answer the questions they have created.

Hot links


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Paziotopoulos, A. & Kroll, M. (2004). Hooked on thinking. The Reading Teacher, 57(7), 672-677.



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

Liz Fothergrill teaches at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, VT. She has a Master's degree in Speech Language Pathology and a specialization in Reading/Language Arts. She has been teaching for over 26 years, and her main interest is in language and vocabulary development. She also provides support in early literacy instruction and reading fluency. She provides professional development instruction within her school district in early literacy assessment and reading comprehension strategies.

Browse in:  Bright Ideas

Comments and Recommendations

Great site--great resources! What does WETA stand for?
Posted by: Jim  |  December 03, 2009 10:52 AM
As an educator working in ESL in Japan, I am constantly running up against this issue of critical thinking. I'd be really glad to have more input/dialogue about the materials you have developed for teaching kids the need for more awareness of models they're exposed to. Unfortunately your links are not working, so it's difficult to process the information presented here. If anyone is reading these comments, could you take a moment to drop me a line at ? I'd really appreciate it.
Posted by: Paul Lee Rumme  |  August 05, 2015 11:36 PM
I've reread my comment and noticed that I typed my email address incorrectly. The correct address is
Posted by: Paul Lee Rumme  |  August 11, 2015 04:50 AM
(Note: Comments are owned by the poster. We are not responsible for their content.)

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