Among the many goals of English language development at various levels of study, we find critical literacy, critical thinking and critical reading development. With the flood of information that our students encounter on various online platforms, it has become a central concern to equip them with the skills to critically approach and evaluate the texts they read. Let’s look at some key terms and strategies to help students become critical thinkers and readers.
1 What are critical thinking skills?
Unfortunately, critical thinking is often seen as a blurry area and students are often confused by what exactly is expected from them. However, both critical thinking and reading can be modelled, taught and developed in classrooms. As teachers, we need to reflect on what our subject area values as critical thinking skills. What do we, teachers, perceive as the demonstration of critical thinking and reading practices? When we have a clear view of our own expectations, it becomes easier to prepare students for critical thinking tasks. First of all, it is important that the students need to possess the language and reading strategies to engage with a text and to approach it critically. We will look at these strategies below.
2 What is critical reading?
The word 'critical' comes from the Greek word krinein, meaning 'to separate' or 'to decide'. It implies an analytical and inquiry-based approach in our thinking.
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, and we have expectations. It also means that we analyse and evaluate our reading process and materials with the intention of judging their value. Although we can define universal characteristics of critical thinkers, it is important to mention that different school subjects and academic disciplines approach texts in different ways.
3 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.'
4 What else do critical thinking and reading involve?
When students develop critical literacy skills they are able to rely on different types of arguments and use different types of evidence to prove a point. For example, hard sciences such as physics or biology progress by integrating lower levels of learning and understanding into newly presented ones. Each new area of knowledge is built on a previous one in a pyramid-like manner. On the other hand, humanities like literature and visual arts often progress as separate entities along a horizontal line, as explained by educational sociologists such as Basil Bernstein (1999). This is why critical thinking and reading skills are trained and manifested differently in different disciplines. It is important to remind students to pay attention to the specific requirements of different school subjects and to ask their teachers for feedback on valued expressions of critical thinking.
5 Why are critical thinking and reading so important?
The proliferation in use of terms such as ‘fake news’ and ‘misinformation’ shows how easily readers can be misled by different information portals. Another burning issue of contemporary literacy skills is the ability to distinguish opinion from fact. By giving students strategies to work with texts critically, we can help them become well-informed and confident readers and thinkers.
6 What are the main reading strategies?
The reading process is interactive and intertextual, and it is a combination of traditional bottom-up and top-down strategies. We generally approach a text with a certain amount of background knowledge, and our interest/motivation combined with 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.
Help your students improve their reading process with these general reading strategies:
- define the purpose of their reading;
- predict the content of the text;
- activate their background knowledge;
- make a reading plan;
- understand text structure;
- check if their predictions were right;
- ask questions that help them understand the structure;
- ask questions that help them reflect on the topic and storyline;
- find the answers to these questions;
- make summaries;
- draw conclusions;
- find evidence to support their inferences and conclusions;
- guess new words from context;
- check their own comprehension;
- discuss and reflect on their reading experience.
As a language teacher, you are already doing a lot to develop your students’ critical thinking and reading skills. Just think about the various reading and writing activities you carry out in class. You ask students to understand, analyze, interpret and find evidence in reading comprehension tasks. When you prepare them for writing tasks, they need to follow clear instructions and produce arguments and stories with details.
7 Here are some specific questions to ask to encourage critical reading.
Here are some questions to help your students approach texts critically. You can select and adapt these questions for your students’ language and reading levels. Remind your students that critical reading always has a purpose. They can start by asking why this author has written this text, Did s/he simply want to entertain their readers? Does the author share their point of view from the perspective of a certain gender, social class or cultural group? Is the author trying to tell you something? Is the author trying to convince you of their values and opinions?
- Who wrote the text?
- When and where was it written?
- Why did the author write the text? If there is a narrator, what is his/her point of view?
- How do the time and place of the writing influence the views expressed in the texts? Are there any cultural, social or scientific assumptions in the texts?
- Can you evaluate the source? What points of view are presented in the text?
- Would the phenomena described in the text be approached in a similar or different way today?
- If it is a scientific text, is it well-researched? Are there reliable sources and references listed?
- If it is a news item (print or Internet), what is the source? How reliable is it? Is it a neutral website or group sharing the news?
- Is the information (historical, scientific, cultural) reliable? Even if it is a work of fiction, you can check if the background information is well-researched.
- What is the author’s / main character’s / narrator’s point of view? Is s/he critical of a phenomenon or event in the story? Here it is important to underline that in a scientific text or opinion essay you will read the author’s perspectives, but in narrative fiction it might be a narrator's or character's experiences you are reading.
For example, when you are reading Great Expectations by Dickens, you are reading a love story, but you are also reading a social criticism of 19th century England. Similarly, when you are reading Jane Austen, you are learning about different social classes in a specific historical setting through a critical magnifying glass. Of course, you are also reading about the universal themes of love, family and friendship. Both authors represent a critical perspective on 19th century England. You can reflect on how these views have changed since the time of the novels.
Remind your students that the author’s voice is not the same as the narrative voice. There might be similarities between the opinions and values represented by an author and his/her narrator, but they need to be analyzed as different entities.
8 Extending critical reading skills
When your students are reading a story, an article or a news item, remind them to pay attention to all the details. In the language class we tend to concentrate on written and spoken texts, however, our overall judgement of a text also depends on visual elements. Ask questions about the following details.
- What does the cover tell you about the text?
- What does the title suggest?
- What do the colours of the book / website make you feel and think about?
- Is the text illustrated? If so, what are the illustrations like? How do they make you feel? Do they help you understand the text?
- Does the text look easy or hard to read? Does it come across as funny, serious or boring? Pay attention to the fonts in the texts.
9 How are critical thinking and critical reading connected?
Good readers 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 'metacognitive 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.
10 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 Series 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 consolidating new vocabulary.
Discussion box from To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Discussion box from Time Capsule by Robert Campbell
These simple and great questions also work well in the classroom:
- Why do you say that?
- What have you read/seen/heard that makes you say that?
- What evidence can you find in the text/picture?
- What else can you find/see?
Be patient. Give your students time to think and reflect. This may seem obvious 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 argumentation. During debates students recycle new vocabulary and consciously use functional language.
Character interview and analysis. This is a kind of hot seating activity. Choose a character from a story and put him or her in the hot-seat, then ask him/her questions.
Further reading on the topics in this Blog
- 5 + 5 Tips on Extensive Reading in the Classroom
- Vocabulary Development with Graded Readers
- Using the illustrations in graded readers – visualization
- Using the illustrations in graded readers – practical ideas and activities
Where can I learn more about Critical Thinking?
Visit the Helbling Languages website to learn more about our resource books:
- Thinking in the EFL Class by Tessa Woodward
- Teaching Young Learners to Think by Herbert Puchta and Marion Williams
- 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.