One of the questions teachers often ask is, ‘Where and when in a lesson it is appropriate to include critical thinking activities?’ The problem with this question is that it seems to imply that critical thinking is a separate, discrete activity, a kind of esoteric add-on. In fact, as John Hughes and I argue in Critical Thinking in ELT, critical thinking is a mindset integral to all learning, a way of approaching the object of study with a questioning mind. That being so, the answer to the question is that critical thinking activities may appear anywhere and should appear as often as there is value to be gained – be that interest value or learning value – by reflecting on a subject more deeply.

In practice, it means including both implicit and explicit critical thinking activities in our lessons. Implicit activities are those questions or directions embedded in an exercise and not flagged specifically as ‘critical thinking’. Explicit activities, on the other hand, often comprise more than one exercise and openly direct students to reflect more deeply and systematically on the aims and effectiveness of a piece of discourse.

Implicit critical thinking activities have been around a lot longer than explicit ones, which only started to appear around 20 years ago.  We are probably most familiar with them in grammar teaching. For example, when a teacher stimulates reflection on language use in an error feedback session: ‘Someone said: “She did a good work.” Why can’t we say that?’. In fact, any use of an inductive approach to teaching grammar can be deemed an implicit critical thinking activity. For example, picking out the sentence She’s just being selfish from a text and asking learners the difference in meaning between it and She’s just selfish. Encouraging learners to form their own hypotheses about how language works is a core critical thinking skill and has long been seen as necessary for assimilating language properly. 

An implicit activity could be something as simple as adding the words ‘why’ or ‘give reasons’ to a rubric. For example, in an opening to a lesson under a photo of two people being served a four-course meal on a remote beach, we find the discussion question ‘Is this a luxury you would buy, if money were not an issue?’ (LIFE Upper Intermediate). To stimulate learners’ deeper interest and engagement we might add: ‘Why / Why not?’ or ‘What luxuries would you buy or would you never buy? Make a list. Then compare with your partner.

We can also use implicit critical thinking activities in productive tasks. Imagine your B1 level students have been learning should for advice in the context of common health complaints and are going to act out a patient-doctor role play. Their basic instructions are: ‘Explain your problem to the doctor and then listen to their advice.’ To increase their engagement in the task and produce more authentic output, the rubric contains this critical thinking element, asking them to reflect on the conversation they are about to have: ‘Think about how you are feeling (worried, embarrassed etc.). Think also about the result you want from this conversation.’.

Explicit critical thinking tasks most typically appear in receptive skills lessons where having tested basic comprehension of a text, students are then asked to evaluate it by examining what the real purpose of the text is, whether the author has been successful in this aim and if so, how, and if not, why not. Typically, an explicit task will home in on a specific aspect of argumentation or of language use and guide the student in their analysis. An example of this would be examining a talk for what was not said, rather than only looking at the arguments presented, as in the extract below taken from Keynote Intermediate about the famous marshmallow experiment. 


Critical thinking: considering counter-arguments

  1. According to Posada, a child’s ability to delay gratification is the most important factor for future success. But he did not mention any possible arguments against this idea. Can you think of any?
  2. Now look at these counter-arguments. Which do you agree with and why?

A Sometimes if you wait for things, you miss an opportunity.

B The parents’ economic circumstances is a much bigger factor in determining future success.



Similarly, having read an amusing description of an unusual hotel, a converted jail in Latvia (LIFE Upper Intermediate), and answered comprehension questions, students are asked to analyse their reaction to the article in the following way.


Critical thinking: tone of voice

  1. Did you enjoy reading the article?
  2. Did you feel attracted to the hotel?

  3. Circle the words that best describe the writer’s tone of voice?
    conversational    formal    informative   professional   sarcastic   funny   negative  enthusiastic  

  4. Why do you think the speaker chose this tone of voice? Did it influence your answers to questions 1 and 2?


We can also use explicit critical thinking tasks in productive skills lessons by asking learners to set guidelines or criteria for writing and speaking tasks. For example, what elements must I include in an effective application letter? Or, what does my audience expect from this talk and how can I best meet these expectations?

These are a few examples of what implicit and explicit critical thinking activities look like. In a subsequent article, John Hughes will discuss how critical thinking can be an everyday and integral part of our lesson planning.

Click here to learn more about Critical Thinking in ELT: A Working Model for the Classroom by Paul Dummett and John Hughes.


Paul Dummett

Paul Dummett is a teacher and writer based in Oxford, UK, where he ran his own school teaching English to professionals from 1996 to 2006. He currently teaches refugee children in Palestine and Jordan with The Hands Up project. His main interests are the use of images and narrative in language teaching and how these can aid deeper learning and memory. Seeking out writing projects that explore these interests he has found a natural home at National Geographic Learning, co-authoring titles such as Life and Keynote and acting as a Course Consultant for Look, a seven-level primary series. He enjoys travel, exercise and live music/spoken word performance.

The content for this page was paid for and provided by National Geographic Learning.