Critical thinking, though universally hailed as an important skill for students to develop doesn't appear to have a "universal" definition.

I describe it as the ability to seek-out, elicit, and consider different information and various perspectives of situations, fairly weigh the evidence on all sides and how it all connects to existing background knowledge, and then use that process to come to an independent conclusion.   

Critical thinking skills have been found to help English Language Learners in language acquisition, particularly through increasing problem-solving abilities, oral communication skills, writing competence, and student motivation. However, teaching critical thinking skills is considered to be a major challenge by many ELL teachers because of a number of issues, including students' lack of vocabulary and, in some cases, students coming from prior school environments where that skill was not promoted. 

There are ways to help ELLs, even at the Beginning Level, to begin developing critical thinking skills.  Here are some ideas: 


Inductive Learning is the process of providing examples to students and having them categorize them to identify patterns and concepts, and can be an exceptional instructional strategy for developing critical thinking skills.  It contrasts with "deductive" learning, which is when the teacher starts with the concept, and then students are given examples to reinforce it.   

In these types of inductive lessons, students can categorize words, text passages, images, etc., provide evidence to support their conclusions, and find additional examples to expand the content in their categories.  This method can be used to teach grammar, text structures, phonics, etc., as well as knowledge needed in content classes.  I've written a previous British Council post where I describe examples of inductive learning in detail.

Researchers suggest that learning a second-language is directly linked to a person's ability to discern patterns . Concepts learned through pattern identification are more easily transferable to new situations by students than knowledge learned in other ways, so inductive learning helps develop a critical thinking skill that is especially beneficial to English Language Learners. 


A lesson based on the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire includes several steps, which you can read about more in-depth here and in one of my New York Times posts.   A quick summary is that the lesson begins with a visual illustrating a problem (for example, a child being bullied on a playground); students are then asked to describe the problem, explain if they have experienced it or know others who have, and then identify solutions to the problem.

This lesson can easily be adapted to any English Language Learner level.


Learning to ask questions is an essential element of developing any kind of critical thinking ability.

One way to emphasize the importance of asking good questions is to teach students the difference between "literal" (also called "Right There") questions and "interpretative" (also called "Think About") questions.  The teacher could model these two types of questions by first asking "What color is my hair?" and then "How do you think I'm feeling today?"  Then, provide students with this list: 

Literal Question-Starters: Where..., When..., What is..., What happened, Who..., How many..., Which... 

Interpretive Question-Starters: Why..., How...,  What if..., How would you compare..., What would you predict...,  

A teacher could have students practice writing different literal and interpretive questions about simple texts and emphasize the fact that interpretive questions will challenge you to think and learn more. 


"What if?" history projects and alternative endings to stories can promote critical thinking, though to maximize that value it's important to ensure that these alternatives are not just fanciful.  Instead, they need to have some basis in evidence. 

You can see examples my Intermediate English Language Learners have created here and here, as well as finding a downloadable version of the planning form they used.

I'd love to hear your experiences in promoting critical thinking!

Average: 5 (2 votes)

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight