The Language Teacher
July 2003

Teaching Critical Thinking and Discussion

Richard R. Day

University of Hawaii

At this year's JALT Conference, I will conduct a workshop on critical thinking and discussion in the foreign language (FL) classroom. In this article, I discuss what I mean by the term critical thinking, as well as the pros and cons of putting critical thinking in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) curriculum.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Despite the plethora of definitions given for critical thinking, I offer two from the literature that I find the most straightforward. John Dewey defined the nature of reflective thought as "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends" (1938, p. 9). Beyer (1995) puts his definition of critical thinking in these terms: "Critical thinking . . . means making reasoned judgments" (p. 8). Beyer sees critical thinking as using criteria to judge the quality of something, whether it be cooking or the conclusion of a research paper.

After this brief look at critical thinking, we are now in a position to examine the concept as it relates to the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language.

Critical Thinking and Language Teaching

During the final decade of the 20th century, critical thinking became a focus in the field of language teaching. For several decades prior to the 1990s, critical thinking had been widely discussed and implemented in first language settings, particularly in Western educational institutions, such as the United States. Given that a number of educational concepts have entered second and foreign language teaching and learning from the general educational field, it is therefore not surprising that critical thinking has now become part of our profession.

When we examine the literature in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL), we often find critical thinking called cognitive skills. For example, Short (1989) regards clarifying as a cognitive thinking skill. To make the situation even muddier, Chamot and O'Malley (1987) use both terms, cognitive and critical, with no clear distinction. Moreover, critical thinking is often used synonymously with critical reading, often in the context of English for academic purposes (e.g., Eskey & Grabe, 1988; Richard-Amato & Snow, 1992; Shih, 1992).

Given this lack of clarity, let me give you the manner in which I define critical thinking. As I use it, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought with which we assess the validity of things such as statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc. I include in critical thinking the evaluation of the worth, accuracy, or authenticity of various statements or propositions; this evaluation then leads to a supportable decision or direction for action.

In teaching my EFL students to think critically, I usually limit the scope to the following three characteristics:

  1. differentiation between fact and opinion;
  2. examination of assumptions, including their own; and
  3. flexibility and open-mindedness whilst looking for explanations, causes, and solutions to problems.

Concerns about Critical Thinking in the EFL Classroom

Critical thinking has become widely accepted in the ESL/EFL field. It was used first in composition, but has also become a component in both ESL and EFL reading texts and courses. Nevertheless, there are those who have presented a variety of arguments against using a critical thinking pedagogy in EFL classrooms.

Atkinson (1997), for example, discusses four reasons that "should give TESOL educators pause for thought—and pause long enough carefully and critically on the notion of critical thinking" (p. 89). I see two of Atkinson's reasons as related in that they are concerned with critical thinking as being a cultural practice which may be difficult to teach to ESL and EFL students (p. 72).

Let's look at this view of critical thinking as cultural, and therefore difficult for ESL/EFL students to grasp. I interpret them this way: Teaching critical thinking is a type of Western imperialism; it is an attempt to force an individualistic, often adversarial type of thinking onto students whose cultures often view the world rather differently. For example, Asian learners may be viewed as members of cultures that are group-oriented and non-adversarial, often seeking harmony rather than conflict. Thus, not only would it be an attempt to impose a Western orientation toward thinking and behaving on Asian learners, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, given their cultural ways of thinking and dealing with the world.

I disagree with this interpretation. In my work at the University of Hawaii, I have found students from Taiwan, China, Korea, and Japan receptive to instruction in critical thinking. Not only are they receptive, they have no difficulty in engaging in the process.

As a rebuttal, however, it might be observed that I work in an ESL situation, and Asian students who go to the United States might be more open to learning a Western view of thinking and behaving. In an EFL situation, it cannot be assumed that critical thinking will be approached the same way.

Are Asian students who learn English in their own countries bound by their cultural constructs? There are a number of studies that tend to refute this line of reasoning. Littlewood (2000) examined 2,307 students from eight Asian countries: Brunei, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The students completed a 12-item questionnaire, which included these three statements:

  1. In the classroom I see the teacher as somebody whose authority should not be questioned.
  2. I see knowledge as something that the teacher should pass on to me rather than something I should discover myself.
  3. I expect the teacher (rather than me myself) to be responsible for evaluating how much I have learnt. (Littlewood, 2000, p. 32)

The students were instructed to indicate whether they "strongly agreed, agreed, were neutral, disagreed, or strongly disagreed" with each statement. (p. 32). Littlewood interprets the results of his survey this way: "The overall message that emerges is that Asian students do not, in fact, wish to be spoon-fed with facts from an all-knowing ''fount of knowledge.' They want to explore knowledge themselves and find their own answers" (p. 34).

A second study is also helpful. Stapleton (2002) conducted a survey of the attitudes of 70 Japanese university students. He administered a nine-item questionnaire to students in an EFL writing class, asking them to score their degree of agreement that concerned several aspects of critical thinking (e.g., ". . . it is important to state my opinion clearly, even if the topic is controversial"; ". . . it is important to agree with the teacher") (p. 252). Stapleton followed the questionnaire with interviews of ten students randomly selected.

These interviews showed that the students were not hesitant to voice opinions that were contrary to their teachers. Stapleton also found that the students had a firm grasp of elements of critical thinking (p. 250).


I hope that this brief introduction to critical thinking has given you some food for thought. In my workshop at the national conference in November, I plan to stimulate the participants to think about why they teach English. Then I want to link critical thinking to their teaching. This will provide the framework for the presentation and discussion of a methodology that my colleagues and I have developed which can help students begin to think critically and express their opinions in English. Participants will work through the methodology and prepare activities that they can use in their own classrooms to help their students start thinking critically.


Atkinson, D. (1997). A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 71-94.
Beyer, B. K. (1995). Critical thinking. New York: McGraw Hill.
Chamot, A. U., & O'Malley, J. M. (1987). The cognitive academic language learning approach: A bridge to the mainstream. TESOL Quarterly, 21(2), 227-249.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.
Eskey, D. E., & Grabe, W. (1988). Interactive models for second language reading: Perspectives on instruction. In P. L. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. E. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 223-238). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Littlewood, W. (2000). Do Asian students really want to listen and obey? ELT Journal, 54(1), 31-36.
Richard-Amato, P. A., & Snow, M. A. (1992). Strategies for content-area teachers. In P. A. Richard-Amato & M. A. Snow (Eds.), The multicultural classroom: Readings for content-area teachers (pp. 145-163). White Plains, NY: Longman.
Shih, M. (1992). Beyond comprehension exercises in the ESL academic reading class. TESOL Quarterly, 26(2), 289- 318.
Short, D. (1989). Adapting materials for content-based language instruction. ERIC/CLL News Bulletin, 13(1), 1, 4-8.
Stapleton, P. (2002). Critical thinking in Japanese L2 writing: Rethinking tired constructs. ELT Journal, 56(3), 250-257.

Richard Day is the author and editor of numerous articles and books, focusing primarily on second language reading and teacher development. He has taught English in Ethiopia and Korea, and was a materials developer at the Center for Applied Linguistics. Currently he teaches at the University of Hawaii, where he has held a number of administrative positions, including chair of the Department of ESL.

All materials on this site are copyright © by JALT and their respective authors.
For more information on JALT, visit the JALT National Website