Small Group Critical Thinking Activities Esl

This type of thinking, though, isn’t very complex. Recall and memorization only require surface level thinking. If you are teaching ESL to children, teaching critical thinking is particularly important because it will serve them in their futures no matter what language they are speaking. Teaching critical thinking, though, isn’t always easy. The following are some ways to integrate critical thinking exercises into your ESL lessons while still meeting the language goals you set for your students.

  • Ask Questions

    Sometimes an easy answer isn’t much of an answer at all. Getting your students to think about how they came to the answer that they did will challenge them to think critically, and it gets them using more language and using it in practical ways. For example, in an activity for using the simple future, you might ask your students what they will be doing in five years. One student might answer that he is going to be a movie star. You can ask questions like the following to get your student to think more critically: What makes you think that? What evidence do you see in your life now that will make that true in the future? By asking these questions, you challenge your student to think about his thinking. At the same time, you provide an opportunity for him to use English to express his ideas.

  • Open Ended Questions

    In classes like grammar, one answer to a question is usually the right one. But giving these types of answers often doesn’t require anything more than memorization and recall. When you can (and it might not be during a grammar lesson) ask questions that don’t have a “right” answer and challenge your students to think on a deeper level. For example, if you were doing a vocabulary unit on food, you might ask a recall question about what a waiter says when taking someone’s order. (What will you have?) An open ended question that will challenge your students to think more deeply might look like the following. If you were a server in a restaurant and worked the night shift, how would your life be different? How would you balance school and work? Encourage this type of thinking and expression and your students will benefit in more ways than one.

  • Give a Minute

    Part of your role in getting your students to think critically is giving them the time and the encouragement to do so. When you ask a question, giving your students a few minutes to think before they have to answer can mean the difference between a short easy answer and one that comes from serious thought. Doing this is easy. Simply count to sixty after asking a question to give your students a chance to think before they answer. You can also teach your students phrases like, “Can I have a minute to think…Give me just a minute” when they would like time to process their ideas. When they use these phrases, it tells you that they are actively trying to answer your question and gives them the space they need to put their ideas and words together before speaking. In addition, using this technique with native speakers will help those not familiar with ESL students know that your students are not unable to answer their questions but that they need a bit of time before they do.

  • Encourage More

    For students of English as a second language, giving a quick answer is often appealing. A quick answer does the job and shows you can use language appropriately. However, a quick answer doesn’t necessarily encourage critical thinking. Using phrases to get your students to say (and think) more will help them use deeper thinking. You can say thinks like the following: Tell me more about that. What else do you think? Why is that good/bad/scary/difficult/or not? What part is most interesting to you? Why? Asking these questions challenges your students to say more.

  • Provide Scaffolds

    When learning something new or tackling a new problem, all people sometimes need support. You can support your ESL students as they are learning new skills by giving them tools to help them. Giving examples, breaking tasks into smaller more manageable steps, giving hints or clues, and providing reminders can all help your students by giving them temporary supports in a new and challenging task. As your students become more adept at that task, remove these supports and encourage their successes, big and small. In the meantime, be patient and give them the assistance they need to reach success.

  • Encourage Argument

    Encouraging argument doesn’t mean letting your students go for one another’s throats. Critical thinking means being able to make an argument for your beliefs or opinions. You can encourage your students to express logical and reasonable supports for their opinions during discussions and for writing assignments. Doing so will help them think analytically which is part of thinking critically. Have students give reasons or examples that support their ideas, and they will learn to support their arguments naturally.

  • Make Predictions

    Making predictions is a tool that is quite useful in the ESL classroom. You can ask your students to take a guess at what comes next in reading assignments (fiction, essays, informational articles) as well as video segments you play in class (movies, television shows, recorded dialogues). When they make these predictions, they not only have to think critically, they will be using the language skills they are learning. The next time your students are reading a passage or listening to a segment, hit pause and ask them what they think will come next.

  • Take Two Sides

    Thinking about both sides of an argument will challenge your students to think beyond their own opinions and beliefs. A simple way to do this is to take a controversial statement and challenge your students to list some reasons in support of the statement as well as some reasons against it. Take the thinking a step further and teach your students how to make a refutation, either spoken or in writing, a skill that is often useful in the academic world.

  • After all, so much of language learning is rote memorization. But critical thinking can and does fit in the language classroom. Getting your students think more gets them saying more, and saying more is using language creatively and communicatively. Try one or more of these techniques with your students and see how well they can express their thoughts with the language they are learning.

    How do you encourage your students to think critically?

    The Internet TESL Journal

    Incorporating Critical Thinking Skills Development into ESL/EFL Courses

    Andy Halvorsen
    Polytechnic University (Tirana, Albania)


    This article is intended to help teachers who are interested in developing and encouraging critical thought in their language classrooms. First I will explain briefly how I define critical thinking and why I feel it is important, relevant, and highly applicable to the EFL/ESL teaching context. Then I will look briefly at what I feel are two key elements teachers interested in this topic should keep in mind. The majority of this article however, is given over to an analysis of three classroom techniques which I feel teachers in most any circumstance or situation can begin to use almost immediately. I have tried to focus on techniques which I think help students to focus on the real world around them and which teachers may make use of even with limited resources.

    What Critical Thinking Means Generally

    Critical thinking is not an easy concept to define as it can mean quite different things to different people in different contexts and cultures.

    Despite this fact, I believe that ESL/EFL instructors can greatly benefit both themselves and their students by attempting to understand and incorporate some of its key elements into their classrooms.

    Generally speaking, to think critically about an issue is to consider that issue from various perspectives, to look at and challenge any possible assumptions that may underlie the issue and to explore its possible alternatives.

    More specifically, when we think critically about a given topic, we are forced to consider our own relationship to it and how we personally fit into the context of the issue (Brookfield, 7-9). This type of thinking does not always come easy, but I feel well-informed instructors can help a great deal in encouraging its development in their students.

    How Critical Thinking Makes Classes Better

    In my experience, the overall benefit to the classroom is twofold. Firstly, classes which involve elements of critical thought tend to be generally more interesting and engaging. Consider for example, two possible discussion topics related to a unit on the environment.
    • Topic one asks students to summarize the main issues covered in the class in preparation for a final writing activity.
    • Topic two asks students to outline the draft of a letter to be sent to the city's mayor addressing their concerns about environmental issues in and around the city.
    Though the teacher may find both approaches equal in terms of how well they facilitate language use in class, it is clear that the later topic will encourage a greater degree of participation and interest from the students. Secondly, using issues that encourage critical thinking helps to give the classroom a more meaningful and cohesive environment. Students who feel that they are working together will be more likely to attend classes and will be more involved while they are there.

    Two Things to Keep in Mind When Getting Started

    Knowing the Interest of Your Students is Essential

    Most experienced teachers recognize that the more you know about the backgrounds and interests of your students the more appropriate and engaging your classes will become. This element is even more significant for classes with a focus on critical thinking. Well it is true that an experienced teacher can create a critical thinking component in most any lesson, it is not true that students will respond to each various lesson or topic equally. Consider as an example a grammatical unit on the use of the future tenses. A teacher wishing to help promote critical thought in their class might ask a series of discussion questions on the ethical issues surrounding future increases in life expectancy. This lesson could be highly successful if it is appropriate to the students' age level, background knowledge, and language proficiency. More appropriate questions could certainly be found however for an ESP Engineering class or for a group of 12-13 year old boys and girls. The point is that tailoring lessons specifically to the interests of your students can go quite far in encouraging student engagement, an element that is essential to the development of critical thinking.

    Learning to Really "Discuss" the Discussion Questions

    As a teacher it is essential that you understand and communicate to your students regularly the role of the questions they are being asked to answer. Virtually every language course book contains some form of "discussion questions" which are designed to give students some opportunity to practice language use. As a teacher trainer and observer however, far too often I see these questions being used simply as a tool, or even worse, as a kind of hurdle one needs to get over before moving on to the next grammar lecture or reading passage. It is true that these questions are often written in such a way as to almost discourage critical thought but teachers need to remember that they always have the ability to modify or adapt lessons to their own circumstances. Even the most overworked and underpaid of instructors, who claims to have no time for lesson planning, can make a difference here.

    In my experience teachers often cite the frustration of having to "retrain" their students to really think about the questions they are discussing in class. It is much easier of course, if the questions just pass by with the students simply regurgitating some information from a reading or listening passage, but think about the long term message this sends to our students. We are telling them, in effect, that the content is not really of any importance. We need to encourage our students to really interact with the texts and materials they are given and we need to do this repeatedly. Ultimately this will help students to better interact with the world around them and to become more self-aware and reflective thinkers.

    Three Classroom Techniques

    Once teachers grasp the concept and value of critical thinking skills development in the classroom they will begin to see opportunities all around them for encouraging their students in this area. I am now going to provide a brief overview of three techniques which have served me well in the past but I would like to stress that these are only three techniques of many that are possible and I encourage teachers to develop techniques appropriate to their own situations. The three classroom techniques I am going to look at are debate, media analysis and problem solving. I have chosen these three in particular because I feel that they have a degree of universality and practicality that makes them almost immediately applicable to most teaching circumstances. I have used or seen these techniques used in large classes and small, in EFL and ESL, in levels ranging from lower intermediate to advanced, and generally in all manner of teaching situations.

    1. Debate

    Why it Works

    Debate forces students to think about the multiple sides of an issue and it also forces them to interact not just with the details of a given topic, but also with one another. Also debates are versatile in the range of topics possible and the format that the debate may follow.

    How it Works

    • Students must first be made aware of a debatable topic and of the variety of potential positions that can be taken on the topic. These topics can come from course materials, from classroom discussion, or from the local community.
    • Students should then be given an opportunity to research the topic somehow and form their own opinions on the issue.
    • Next pairs or small groups should be formed where like-minded students can share their opinions on the topic and gain information from others. During this step students should be encouraged to think about the potential arguments that will come from the other side and how they can respond to these arguments.
    • Now some form of debate must take place where the two (or three or four) sides share their opinions and present their arguments. This could take the form of a classic debate, with opening and closing arguments from both sides and time for rebuttals all done as a class. Alternatively, it could simply be small groups or pairs sharing their differing points of view with one another.
    • Then, the instructor should follow-up with a summary of the opinions and views expressed by all sides and an assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
    • In the final step, the class and instructor should be allowed to express their opinions on which side made the case most convincingly. This step is important in that it helps the students to understand that this type of thinking and debate process can lead to real results and provide some sense of closure on the topic.

    Things to Remember

    • The debate itself can take many forms.
    • Students need to be allowed to form their own opinions rather than having the teacher assign "sides" to the debate.
    • Choosing a topic appropriate to the interests of the students is essential.

    2. Media Analysis

    Why it Works

    Analyzing various forms of media, either in an ESL or EFL environment, gives the opportunity for students to think about important issues like media bias and censorship. When students look at the types of issues that may bias reporting, they are also forced to think in terms of their biases and to reflect on these in detail. This is not to say however, that media analysis needs only to focus explicitly on issues of bias and censorship as any analysis of media has the potential to raise students' general awareness and encourage them to think about the issues that affect their lives.

    How it Works

    • A form of media and topic need to be chosen, either by the instructor or the students, that reflects the interests of the class and has the potential to encourage critical thought.
    • Time for analysis (reading, watching, listening, etc.) must then be provided to give the students ample time to absorb the material they will be asked to work with.
    • Class, small group, or pair discussions should then be undertaken on the content of the piece to give students the opportunity to work out any problems or questions they may have.
    • Once the students are comfortable with the content of the piece, the instructor should then introduce questions designed to encourage critical reflection. Some possible examples are as follows:
      • Who is the author? Why did they write or report this piece?
      • Do you feel the facts are accurate? Why or why not?
      • Is the author or reporter giving equal attention to all sides of the issue?
      • How does this piece make you feel personally? How do you feel others (from other countries, cultures, political groups, etc.) would feel about it?
      • Do you see examples of bias, either in the piece itself or in the language chosen?
    • With ample time, a good follow-up to this activity is to ask students to write a response either to the author or an editor of the piece expressing their opinions.

    Things to Remember

    • The media is all around us and finding material for classroom use is just a matter of opening a newspaper or watching the news
    • The focus of this type of activity does not need to be on traditional topics like bias and censorship
    • Teachers must know their students and their interests in order to source appropriate material for classroom use
    • Working with local media outlets may give the opportunity for real correspondence between the class and a writer or editor

    3. Problem Solving

    Why it Works

    Problems exist everywhere, both inside the classroom and out, and their resolution is a popular source of conversation in all countries and cultures. Analyzing a somewhat complex problem like a city's poor public transport system can offer students a myriad of opportunities to analyze an issue critically. By asking students to look at pro's and con's and costs and benefits an instructor is forcing them to consider real world problems that impact their daily lives in a critical way.

    How it Works

    • First the class must identify a problem that is relevant to their lives and interests. Some examples might include:
      • The high cost of education at their school
      • Overcrowding in the city
      • Local noise pollution
      • Corruption of city officials
      • Visa difficulties for international students
    • Next the class should work together to clearly define the problem. This step is important for the completion of the task and the instructor needs to work to make sure everyone is starting with a similar definition.
    • Divide the class into pairs, groups, or teams and ask them to list the root causes of the problem.
    • The instructor should then identify two or three causes that seem appropriate to the task and ask the students to discuss steps for their correction. Here the instructor must ask the students to keep in mind the real-world consequences to their actions and prevent solutions from becoming imaginary.
    • With a little work from the instructor, the students' ideas can be collected into an action plan which can be posted around class or sent to an appropriate official for review. This works particularly well in a university setting where an instructor's colleague can write a response to the class.

    Things to Remember

    • Problems are everywhere but the instructor must think through the steps in the process clearly before introducing a given problem to the class
    • Student generated solutions need to be as concrete and realistic as possible
    • Working with an outside agent (city official, university representative, lawyer) for correspondence is helpful as it lends weight and a sense of accomplishment to the project.


    In conclusion, I hope that teachers are able to use this article and some of the techniques I have suggested as a starting point for the development of critical thinking in their own classes. I believe and hope that teachers will find their efforts in this regard to be both personally and professionally rewarding.


    • Atkinson, D. (1997). A Critical Approach to Critical Thinking. TESOL Quarterly, 31 (1), 71-94.
    • Benesch, S. (1993). Critical Thinking: A Learning Process for Democracy. TESOL Quarterly, 27(3), 545.
    • Brookfield, S. (1987). Developing Critical Thinking: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting. San Francisco: Jossey – Bass.

    The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3, March 2005

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