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.
Lower Grade Activities
- In lower grades, the teacher should present this lesson as a whole group activity.
- 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.
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.
- Have students read a story and 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.
This site offers an introduction to different stages of Bloom's Taxonomy theory, as well as methods for applying the theory in lesson plans.
This article describes Howard Gardner, the creator of the Multiple Intelligences theory, and his "seven intelligences."
This site explains in depth what critical thinking is and why teachers need to teach these skills.