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Help your students become critical readers – Critical thinking and reading in the ELT classroom

November 21, 2013 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Improving your students' critical thinking skills will help them achieve their learning objectives more easily, and it will also make reading a more successful and enjoyable activity. We have prepared this Q&A to provide you with some background information, as well as practical ideas and activities.

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Discussion box and illustration from Next Door by Robert Campbell. © Helbling Languages

What is critical thinking?

It is important to note that 'critical' thinking does not have any negative connotations. If we study the etymology of the word 'critical', we'll have a clear understanding of the term. The word 'critical' comes from the Greek word krinein, meaning 'to judge' or 'to decide'. It implies an analytical and inquiry-based approach in our thinking.

Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder provide us with two simple definitions of the term:

'Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.'

‘Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It requires rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism’.

What are critical thinking skills?

This Wordle image presents the key terms which are most frequently used to describe critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking Wordle
Critical thinking Wordle image.

What is critical reading?

When we read critically, we think about and reflect on our reading. It entails a conscious reading approach, in which we predict what we are reading, we seek information, we have expectations. It also means that we analyse and evaluate our reading process.

What can we expect from critical readers?

Barnet and Bedau (p.3) prepared the following list:

'Probably most students and instructors would agree that, as critical readers, students should be able to:

  • Summarize accurately an argument they have read;
  • Locate the thesis of an argument;
  • Locate the assumptions, stated and unstated;
  • Analyze and evaluate the strength and the evidence and the soundness of the reasoning offered in support of the thesis;
  • Analyze, evaluate, and account for discrepancies among various readings on a topic.'

What are the main reading strategies?

Our reading process is interactive and intertextual, and it is a combination of the traditional bottom-up and top-down strategies. We approach the text with a certain amount of background knowledge, and our interest and reading strategies help us with our comprehension. At the same time, vocabulary, grammar and syntax form an equally important part of our comprehension of a text, especially when we read in a foreign language. As our students improve their English, and obtain more vocabulary, they will become better readers and will be able to combine different strategies.

For a successful reading process your students should use these reading strategies:

  1. define the purpose of our reading;
  2. predict the content of the text;
  3. activate our background knowledge;
  4. make a reading plan;
  5. understand text structure;
  6. check if our predictions were right;
  7. ask questions that help us understand the structure;
  8. ask questions that help us reflect on the topic and storyline;
  9. find the answers to these questions;
  10. make summaries;
  11. draw conclusions;
  12. find evidence to support our inferences and conclusions;
  13. guess new words from context;
  14. check our own comprehension;
  15. discuss and reflect on our reading experience.

We would like our students to arrive at the level of reading for pleasure, but at the same time we would like critical readers who enjoy and benefit from what they are reading.

How are critical thinking and critical reading connected?

How does it gain significance in language learning? Good language learners are good critical thinkers, as they constantly analyse, evaluate what they read, say, hear and write. They learn to think in structures, in different patterns, and they think about their thinking in another language. When you think in another language, you use reference points, ask questions, and form opinions in a more conscious way.

'metacognition: awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes'

Metacognitive strategies in reading are closely connected with critical thinking skills. Guo and Roehrig explain that 'metacongitive awareness is conceptualized as the "knowledge of the reader cognition relative to the reading process and the self-control mechanism they use to monitor and enhance comprehension" (Sheorey & Mokhtari, 2001, p. 423), which is a critical component of skilled reading.' (p. 45) They add that 'many researchers concluded that metacognitive awareness grows with the age of the reader; older and more successful readers are more likely to approach different genres in different ways and utilize more reading strategies'. (p.46) But this does not mean that we cannot start working with critical awareness from an early age.

As we can see, critical thinking and critical reading share a lot of characteristics, and they support each other. Good readers will be good learners. It also means that they will be good thinkers.

What activities and strategies can I use in the reading lesson?

  • Read aloud – think aloud. You can demonstrate thinking strategies and thinking processes by reading together with your students, and reflecting on what you are reading. Choose a short paragraph that your students might find difficult. Read it aloud, stopping at difficult words or sentences. Comment on and analyse these paragraphs.
  • Ask open-ended questions. During classroom reading sessions stop after a longer section (for example at the end of a 15-minute reading session), and pose open-ended questions. In the Helbling Readers you will find discussion boxes that help you focus on the text, tap into your students’ experiences and activate their background knowledge. These discussion questions are also good for recycling new vocabulary.
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Discussion box from To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


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Discussion box from Time Capsule by Robert Campbell

These simple and great questions also work well in the classroom:

  1. Why do you say that?
  2. What have you read/seen/heard that makes you say that?
  3. What evidence can you find in the text/picture?
  4. What else can you find/see?
  • Be patient.  Give your students time to think and reflect. It seems to be an obvious approach but we are often short of time and want a quick answer. If your students feel safe and comfortable, they will think and read more confidently.
  •  Start debates. Group debates work very well when we'd like to practise reasoning and arugmentation. During debates students recycle new vocabulary and consciously use functional language.
  • Character interview and analysis. It is a kind of hot seating activity. Choose a character from a story and put him or her in the hot-seat.

Are there other posts about this topic on this Blog?

Where can I learn more about Critical Thinking?

Visit the Helbling Languages website to learn more about our resource books:


  • Barnet, Sylvan, and Bedau, Hugo. Critical Thinking, Reading and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument. Bedford/St. Martin's. 2010.
  • Guo, Ying, and Roehrig Alysia D. "Roles of general versus second language (L2) knowledge in L2 reading comprehension." Reading in a Foreign Language. 23.1 (2011): 42-64.
  • Paul, Richard, and Elder, Linda. A Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2006.