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Author Insights

Critical thinking in Academic Reading

Louis Rogers, author of Delta Academic Objectives: Reading Skills and Delta Academic Objectives: Writing Skills, discusses critical thinking in EAP.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is a key skill of any discipline at university, and has been a much talked about concept in many articles and conferences. The challenge in defining critical thinking and how best to teach it has led to a wide range of interpretations in published materials. At one conference recently someone said to me Arent you really just talking about thinking in general? and I do think the lines blur a little. Sometimes critical thinking tasks in books feel like the Discussion section just relabelled with a buzz term. However, cri tical thinking done well should be much more than simply reacting to and discussing something they have read. Students need to question what they read, look for assumptions and weaknesses and respond to what they have read. Importantly, in EAP they also need to look at the bigger picture and to make connections between theories or to understand how they influenced each other. In both the academic reading and writing skills books from Delta Publishing students look at a wide range of areas related to critical thinking from formulating critical questions to aid reading to understanding the organisation of an argument and looking at evaluating evidence.

Can critical thinking be taught?

Critical thinking has been key in numerous educational settings for centuries. Nowadays students can take entire modules or an A level in the subject, and books such as Critical thinking for Students (van den Brink-Budgen, 2010) is now in its fourth edition. Some though, such as Morgan (2009) raise the question of whether or not critical thinking skills can be taught. Are they an innate skill or a product of our culture, or are they something that can be taught and developed? I would argue that they can be taught and developed not in a direct way such as the development of knowledge, but in a way that the skill emerges in stages. They are also vital as I find many students access sources of questionable quality in their research.


Discipline specific?
Beaufort (2007) argues that each subject or discipline area has its own methods of argument, selection and use of evidence and approaches to referring to research. For example, it could be argued that sciences predominantly require students to analyse data that has been collected, the methods of collection, and the interpretation of this data set. However, in a Law course, critical thinking might be applied in using your knowledge of the legal system and applying it critically to the given facts of a case. That is not to say these are the only ways in which critical thinking skills are used in these subjects, but that these are two approaches that are perhaps more discipline specific. However, a number of critical thinking skills are arguably transferable. Firstly, academic reading texts can be used as models to show how and where evaluation and analysis occur. For example in Unit 8 of Delta Academic Objectives: Reading Skills, students first read a text on Belbins theory of team roles. After discussing their criticisms in groups they are then presented with an academic text which evaluat es Belbins theory. Students compare their own ideas and see how the literature extends them. They then do work on identifying specific language features used in the evaluation. Secondly, students can be taught a number of basic principles as to the structure of an argument such as identifying premises, conclusions, implicit arguments and underlying assumptions. Academic writing classes can deal with not only the structure of paragraphs and essays, but also that of an argument. Thirdly, students can be taught to analyse data, to assess the collection methods, the limitations of the study, the analysis and conclusions drawn and the application of the theory to different contexts and settings. Take this short example from Delta Academic Objectives: Writing Skills McGregors theories of motivation McGregor presented two sets of assumptions underlying management practice: Theory X, which he called the traditional view of direction and control, and Theory Y, which suggests that people accept responsibility, and apply imagination, ingenuity and creativity to organisational problems. McGregors work was based on Maslows hierarchy of needs. He grouped Maslows hierarchy into lower order (Theory X) needs and higher order (Theory Y) needs. Students can then discuss what else we need to know to be able to judge McGregors claims, what we need to know about Maslows and the idea of one theory being based on the other. Later in the lesson students then look at some of the criticisms of both Maslows and McGregors theories.


I also believe it should be highlighted to students that critical thinking does not only mean finding the weaknesses, such as bias, neutrality and sample size, but that it is also about finding the strengths. Unfortunately, the word critical seems to have taken on solely a negative meaning in much the same way as the word subjective has. For example, in the section called interpreting the criticisms of others students are clearly shown that the analysis looks at both the strengths and weaknesses o f Belbins theory.

Many students can feel a sense of significant academic development as they become critical readers in their discipline. It is important that critical thinking is gaining prominence in EAP and certain aspects of language and structure can be taught to enable students to express their ideas critically. Without good critical thinking skills many students will struggle with the autonomous nature of studying at university level.

Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The professors guide to Integrated Writing, Critical Thinking and Active learning in the classroom. 2nd edition. USA: Jossy-Bass. Beaufort, A. (2007). College Writing and Beyond. Utah: Utah State University Press. Light, R. (2001). Making the most of college: students speak their minds. Harvard: Harvard University Press. Morgan, B. (2009). Fostering transformative practitioners for critical EAP: Possibilities and challenges. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Vol. 8:2, 86-99. Rogers, L. (2011). Delta Academic Objectives: Reading Skills. Peaslake: Delta Publishing. Rogers, L. (2011). Delta Academic Objectives: Writing Skills. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.