Critical Thinking or Critical Expression? Meeting Students’ Critical Needs

David Hill, Author from the Academic Connections series David Hill


Critical thinking, while not a traditional language skill, is a common focus within English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses, often bundled together with other study skills or with reading and listening. However, while the teaching of speaking, reading, grammar and other such aspects of the language is covered extensively in teacher training literature and courses, relatively little has been said about the teaching of critical thinking. This article will, it is hoped, go some way toward closing this gap.

This article will suggest that a focus on critical expression — the expression of critical thinking in a context-appropriate way — may be more effective than attempting to teach critical thinking per se, while at the same time recognizing that students may already have some critical thinking skills. Further, a set of critical thinking sub-skills will be proposed.

Why is critical thinking useful?

To begin with, it is helpful to look at why critical thinking is so important in EAP. A long-standing argument is that critical thinking has a much higher prominence in Western as opposed to Eastern academic cultures, and thus students moving from east to west to study at university would need to develop new skills (see, for example, Ballard & Clanchy, 1991). It is clear from looking at course aims and assessment criteria in degree courses in countries such as the UK, the USA and Australia that critical thinking – or rather, the expression of critical thinking – plays an important part in academic cultures in these countries.

What is critical thinking?

A large number of definitions of critical thinking exist in the literature. Unfortunately, most are expressed in very vague terms. Indeed, one paper on the topic even carries the title of “The unbearable vagueness of critical thinking” (Vandermensbrugghe, 2004). Definitions are also often cumbersome: one commonly-cited example (Scriven & Paul, 2004) is the size of a long web page. While that particular definition is too lengthy to be easily used, its essence can be discerned by created a Wordle (a Wordle is a diagram in which the size of the words is proportional to the frequency in which they occur in the text); see below.


It is apparent that concepts such as intellectual, reasoning, use, quality, information, and thought feature prominently. However, several of these concepts are of little help to us as language teachers as it is very difficult for us to know our students’ thinking processes. We can, though, look at how learners express the results of their thinking and also help them to understand the conventions of how critical thinking is expressed within academic contexts. Indeed, as language teachers, helping our students express themselves is central to what we do. By putting critical expression front and center, we can make critical thinking more accessible to our learners and give ourselves something concrete with which to deal with the topic.

A provisional definition of critical thinking, consistent with most other definitions, will be proposed here: critical thinking is questioning information, not simply accepting it, and using the questioning to develop well-supported opinions. Later in this article, we will see more detail about the steps in this process.

A provisional definition of critical thinking, consistent with most other definitions, will be proposed here: critical thinking is questioning information, not simply accepting it, and using the questioning to develop well-supported opinions. Later in this article, we will see more detail about the steps in this process.

Might students already have some critical thinking skills?

Even in everyday life, people exercise critical thinking skills. For example, when choosing a restaurant, people will discuss a variety of factors such as price, the quality of the food, the ambience and popularity, before reaching a decision. In many cases, this process is not dissimilar to critical thinking processes within academia.

Western-style Socratic education, involving questioning, has often been contrasted with the Confucian tradition in the East (see Scollon, 1999, for example). As usual with any situation involving humans, though, the reality is much more complex than any broad generalization. For example, a number of commonly quoted sayings from Confucius look surprisingly similar to Western exhortations to think critically:

He who learns but does not think, is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.

There may be men who act without understanding why. I do not. To listen much, pick out the good and follow it; to see much and ponder it: this comes next to understanding.

If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.

When anger rises, think of the consequences.

Eliot & Neilson (1909)

While other Confucian quotations may appear closer to the stereotype, it seems likely that Confucius himself did not expect learners only to reiterate the facts fed to them by teachers.

Other writers have described how important it is to avoid using stereotypes to make assumptions about individuals. Guest (2002) makes a particularly clear appeal; his very accessible article is useful reading for all whose work involves intercultural communication. More specifically, Stapleton (2002), for example, reports that there was “little hesitation to voice opinions contrary to authority figures” among the Japanese undergraduates who took part in his study.

One point worth mentioning is that just because learners are not expressing critical thinking does not mean that they are not doing any critical thinking. The reason may be that in previous educational contexts, students were not expected to express critical thinking in class and have had little or no exposure to formal contexts where critical thinking is valued. Second, there is an etiquette about how critical thinking can be expressed in academia; students may expect that this exists but may not know how to follow it.

Why is critical expression a useful concept?

We mentioned earlier that “critical expression” may be a more useful term than critical thinking in language learning contexts. There are several reasons for this. First, this term acknowledges that students — especially adult students — may already have some critical thinking skills. Critical expression is also easier to explain to learners. It’s very hard to tell learners how to think, but relatively straightforward to show them accepted ways of expressing their thinking that will help them to obtain good grades in higher education. Further, as mentioned above, critical expression ties in naturally with language education; helping learners to express themselves in a new language and in new contexts is what we’re trained to do. It allows a pragmatic focus on the end result, which is for students to produce the kind of work that will lead to success at university and, potentially, other contexts as well. This focus on the end result fits well with traditional EAP/ESP needs analysis approaches.

How can we deal with critical expression systematically?

Teachers will be familiar with the way in which the four main macro skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening are split into sub-skills. This type of taxonomy can help teachers to present skills in easily digestible chunks, and help curriculum developers, materials writers and assessors ensure that skills have been covered in a comprehensive way – though of course, just as with the macro- kills and grammar, it makes no sense to teach the sub-skills in isolation from each other.

The list of sub-skills was compiled by looking at critical thinking as a process and examining the steps taken. This process has three steps: gathering information, analyzing it, and expressing the results. As the diagram below shows, this is not linear: often during and after analyzing information, more reading or even re-reading is necessary. Also, after the first attempt at critical expression (such as the first draft of an essay or a plan for a presentation), some re-drafting is usually necessary, involving further analysis of the information.


The table below shows sub-skills and strategies within each of the stages; many will already be familiar to teachers. Not all would apply at every level or for all academic disciplines. The next section will give examples of how some of these skills can be dealt with in class.


 What are some strategies to help students’ critical expression?

While it’s not possible to be very comprehensive in a short article, here are some examples of how some of ideas above can be applied in class.

1. Start from where the students are
Teachers commonly begin reading or listening lessons by asking interest-raising lead-in questions. By ensuring that these start from the students’ own experiences (and not just by discussing points assumed by teachers to be interesting), not only can old knowledge be linked with the new knowledge gained from the text, but a more personal engagement with the topic can also be achieved. Even where students do not have direct experience of the topic of the text, it is usually possible to think of similar situations that are within the students’ experiences, or that they can imagine themselves being involved in. See, for example, Academic Connections 3, introduction to Unit 3 (Williams & Hill, 2010).

2. Show them where they’re going
As mentioned above, one of the potential barriers to critical expression is that learners may not be aware of how to express critical thinking appropriately in their target educational contexts. Thus, examples are useful. By showing example essays with staging clearly marked, and examining recordings of discussions with examples of functional language, learners can see the kind of critical expression that is valued, allowing them to emulate it. See, for example, EAP Now!, Second Edition, page 41 for a genre approach and page 165 for some functional language for spoken opinions, such as in tutorials (Cox & Hill, 2011).

3. Habituate the questioning
By asking students to react personally to each text they come across, we can encourage the habit of questioning texts. For example, ask students which points were most interesting to them, how they might apply the ideas in their own lives, or whether they have had any experiences which parallel what they have just read or heard about. As with other examples above, this approach to questioning not only encourages a critical approach, but also helps students to engage personally with the text, creating good conditions for learning. See for example Academic Connections 2, page 10, Ex 6 (Hill, 2010).

4. Have students do things with texts, not just answer questions
One problem with traditional comprehension and inference questions is that asking these is not an authentic experience; in real life, people do not answer a set of questions every time they read something. Instead, in academia, students will use ideas from the texts in discussions, presentations and essays. This can be replicated in the classroom. For instance, learners can be asked to compare texts that treat the same topic from different angles. Alternatively, students can be asked to take on different roles in discussions that simulate university tutorials. For examples, see the end of every unit in the Academic Connections series of course books.


We have seen that many learners will have some critical thinking skills, though they may be unfamiliar with the forms and purpose of expressing critical thinking in educational contexts. This is where we as EAP teachers can help. Allowing critical expression, rather than critical thinking, to drive the teaching of this skill, as well as taking a systematic approach to critical thinking sub-skills, can help to make critical thinking easier for students to demonstrate and for us to teach.

References and further reading

Ballard, B. & Clanchy, J. (1991). Teaching Students from Overseas: A Brief Guide for Lecturers and Supervisors. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.
Cassriel, B. & Ter-Mate Martinsen, Marit (2010). Academic Connections 1. New York: Pearson.
Cox, K. & Hill, D. (2011). EAP Now! English for Academic Purposes – Student Book. 2nd ed., Sydney: Pearson.
Eliot, C.W. & Neilson, W.A. (eds) (1909). Sacred Writings 1: The Sayings of Confucius. Harvard Classics, Volume 44. Ohio: PF Collier & Son.
Guest, M. (2002). “A critical ‘checkbook’ for culture teaching and learning.” ELT Journal, 56(2), 154 -161.
Hill, D., 2010. Academic Connections 2. New York: Pearson.
Scollon, S. (1999). “Not to waste words or students: Confucian and Socratic discourse in the classroom,” in Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. E. Hinkel, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scriven, M., & Paul, R. (2009). Defining Critical Thinking. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from
Stapleton, P. (2002). “Critical thinking in Japanese L2 writing: rethinking tired constructs.” ELT Journal, 56(3), 250 -257.
University of Wollongong. (2000). Critical Thinking: Critical reading checklist. Unilearning. Retrieved February 20, 2011, from
Vandermensbrugghe, J. (2004). “The Unbearable Vagueness of Critical Thinking in the Context of the Anglo-Saxonisation of Education.” International Education Journal 5(3), 417-422
Williams, J. & Hill, D. (2010). Academic Connections 3. New York: Pearson
Williams, J., (2010). Academic Connections 4. New York: Pearson