Unit 5: Facilitating Critical Thinking through Literature


Literature is an effective tool for engaging students in critical thinking. By teaching children to analyse and evaluate literary texts appropriate to their age and interests, we can help them develop critical thinking skills. This involves seeing relationships between events, drawing inferences, analysing events, synthesising evidence and evaluating both the content of a text and the language used to the express ideas contained within it.

Unit outcomes

Upon completion of this unit you will be able to:


  • develop students’ critical thinking abilities;

  • engage students in activities that activate their higher-order thinking skills such as logical reasoning, evaluative comprehension, drawing inferences, etc.; and

  • develop students’ ability to express an opinion, argue their case, initiate and sum up ideas, and illustrate opinions with examples.



Critical thinking:

This involves analysing, drawing inferences, synthesising, and evaluating concepts and information in literary texts.

Creative writing:

Writing that is original and imaginative.


Explaining to students the principles or theories behind any practical activity that has just taken place during a workshop.

Drawing inferences:

The skill of forming opinions, or developing ideas, about something from information supplied in a text.

Cause-and-effect relationship:

The unity between what makes something happen and the result of it happening.

Teacher support information

The literature class gives a teacher the opportunity to engage students in discussions about the ideas expressed in literary texts. This exercise benefits students in two ways: firstly, it gives them an opportunity to express their own ideas about life and relationships, values and beliefs, and interests and dislikes; secondly, it forces them to use a more complex set of structures and a more “advanced” range of vocabulary. As a language teacher in a literature class, you can exploit this situation by engaging students in group and pair activities to read sections of texts and then give their opinions about characters in the text, for example, or the style of writing — whether it is interesting, humorous, tragic, and so on. This will let students practise expressing opinions, drawing inferences, explaining cause-and-effect relationships, comparing facts and applying ideas they have gleaned from literature to new situations. In addition, they will learn how to analyse texts based on logical reasoning and to synthesise and evaluate the information in the texts.

Case study

Case study

Mallam Abdullahi Musa’s Grade 9 students were an enthusiastic group of children who especially loved reading literature. They regularly visited the school library, and delighted in reading storybooks from both their own culture and other cultures. Teacher Musa often found them having hearty discussions of the texts they had read. He realised this was an opportunity to develop their world-view, and to sharpen their skills of observation, analysis and critical thinking. Teacher Musa decided to offer two sessions per week for what he called Literary Appreciation classes. He announced this as an optional class, to be held after school hours twice a week, and was surprised when all his Grade 9 students signed up for it.

In these classes, Teacher Musa put his students in groups of five and gave each group a chapter or excerpt from a literary book to read. He made sure that each time the groups had a sample from a variety of reading texts, such as novels, biographies, travelogues, short stories, film reviews and so on. The groups’ task was to read the text, say why they liked/disliked it, which characters they liked/disliked, and why and so on. He instructed them to discuss these points in their groups, come to a consensus and then have a group member present their opinions to the class. The class then decided whether their arguments were sound and convincing. The group that presented their arguments best would then be asked to write a review for the weekly wall magazine. This gave the students an opportunity to read different genres of literary/non-literary texts, and they also learned to analyse them critically. This improved their language skills tremendously and subsequently also helped them score better in their examinations.

Points to ponder

  1. How do you create opportunities for your own students to read literature?

  2. Do you encourage your students to discuss books that they have read, plays and movies that they have watched, poetry readings that they might have attended, in the class? Do they look forward to such class discussions?


Activity 1: Using literature to develop critical thinking: Drawing inferences from a text

Activity 1

The term critical thinking suggests the idea of not readily accepting any given viewpoint. In terms of school students reading a literary text, critical thinking would involve asking why or how questions about the text: why has the writer used this character as the hero?/why is the story narrated in the first person?/how does the climax resolve the conflict? Engaging critically with a text implies not taking anything at face value; it means inferring the different meanings underlying a text.

In this activity, students will practise their inferential skills by reading excerpts of literary texts critically to try to discover the underlying meanings and themes in the text. To prepare them for this activity, you need to give them some practice in inferring information not directly said or given. Play the extract, or read the transcript, given in Resource 1, and ask the accompanying questions. The students should explain their answers. Then have a discussion on the answers to the questions, bringing to the students’ notice the strategies they had to use to come up with the answers. Tell them that such questions are called inferring questions and that they help us understand the underlying meanings of a text.

After some practice, give the students the main activity, which gives them practice in drawing inferences from a literary text. Put the students in pairs and distribute copies of a short literary text (you can use a prose text from their English course book or any passage from an actual piece of literature meant for adolescents). Each partner must think of three inferential questions to ask the other. Then each pair should select their best question, and ask the rest of the class for the answer. The pairs will take turns to ask a question until the whole class has had a chance to present. The students will have to support their answers by quoting related sections from the text. You could note down three of the best questions, and have a discussion on how these questions best bring out the theme(s) of the text and any underlying meanings. Ask your students to use the language expressions used for inferring, such as I feel the underlying meaning of the novel is…/In my opinion the focus of this piece…/In the climax of the novel, the actual message is…, etc. This exercise will expose them to the underlying meanings of a text and will prepare them to read and enjoy original and more challenging pieces of literature.

To make this activity more interesting, put the students in small groups and ask them to think of opposite arguments to the events described in the extracts: If the author had written this in the first person…/The main character in this play dies in the end… Then ask them to think of an opposite viewpoint to the one expressed in the text they have just read. They should then write a short paragraph, changing the story by changing the main character/climax/storyline/beginning, etc., to make the story more interesting. Give them about 30 minutes to write and present their story from this new perspective.

Activity 2: Evaluating a literary text

Activity 2

One way to develop higher-order thinking skills is to have students evaluate a text. This involves judging the merit of a text; that is, saying whether one liked/disliked the storyline and why, or what, in the reader’s opinion, are the special merits/demerits of the text. This activity benefits students in many ways: they learn to be self-confident and value their own opinions, they are forced to think and present their views in a more logical and creative manner, and they become motivated to read more.

This activity is divided into three stages; the students work individually at first, then in pairs with a partner and finally in groups. For this activity, give the students a selected extract from a literary text. If you used a prose text for Activity 1, you could use a play or a poem this time. The students should read the text, and answer evaluative questions like the ones given in Resource 2a.

The students, working in pairs now, should then share their opinions with their partners and decide on the reasons behind their opinion (whether they liked it, for example). Then each pair should present their point of view to the class. In the third step, pairs who share the same point of view (like/dislike, happy/sad ending, etc.) should be put in groups of six. In their groups, the students should pool their arguments and prepare a paragraph on their views, giving reasons for their decisions. At the end of the activity, group leaders should read out the reviews for the class to comment. The best two viewpoints, arguing two opposite positions, can then be selected and, if possible, included in the school magazine.

Students should also keep a record of what they read, with evaluative comments, by making a journal entry, as shown in Resource 2b.

Activity 3: From critical to creative skills: Participating in creative writing workshops

Activity 3

Now that the students have had some practice in critical reading, they can build on their skills for more creative purposes. In this activity, they will learn to extend the ideas they read in the literary texts in their own creative ways.

  • At a creative writing workshop, divide the students into groups of five or six and let them choose a short text from a selection you have provided (samples of a short story, a short extract from a play, a chapter from a novel or a good abridged version, and a poem, for example). Then ask them, in their groups, to imagine what will happen after the events described in the story/play/poem/novel.

  • In their groups, the students will discuss and finalise an alternative ending to the story, poem or play. That is, if the story ends on a sad note, they should change it to a happy ending or vice versa.

  • The students should make a draft of their alternative endings, adding, removing or modifying characters or situations. Working collaboratively, they should take ideas from each group member and include these in the new version, so that everyone contributes. Then the groups can take a day or two to finalise their drafts, with feedback from each other and the teacher.

  • In a weekly creative response class, the groups should read their drafts to the class. The other students should comment on the drafts, evaluating them and suggesting modifications. These sessions are meant to be learning experiences, so you need not select the best pieces. Instead, you should focus on extracting constructive comments from the listeners to boost the students’ confidence in their creative skills and motivate them to improve.

  • The second session of the workshop should start with the students writing down one or two life experiences and sharing them with their peer group for critical comments and feedback. They should then turn the life experiences into a short story with a captivating title, storyline and setting, and one major as well as two minor characters.

  • The writing process should include making a first draft, re-drafting, editing and making a final draft.

  • Working in pairs, the students should read their stories to their partner. After both partners have read their stories, the stories can be modified if necessary and then read to the whole class.

  • The workshop ends with a whole class assignment that requires the students to choose a topic then write a short play. The theme of the play can be based on childhood experiences relating to regrets, surprise, happiness or sorrow, as well as recent challenges. The students decide on the number of acts or scenes, the characters, setting and plot. Then they assign actors to perform the play to the school. The performance can be videotaped and played back to the class so that they can review it and improve upon it if necessary. The recording can then form the discussion of the next creative writing workshop.

Activity 4: Collaborative creative writing: Creating a big book

Activity 4

The concept of a big book is an exciting model for collaborative writing exercises. A big book is, as the name suggests, a large book containing an interesting and varied collection of literary and non-literary texts on a theme, with illustrations.

  • Divide your students into five groups to work on a big book. Each group chooses the theme and genre — such as poetry, short story, science fiction, short play, myth, folklore — of their book.

  • Then they decide on the contents of the big book. They can include about ten pieces on their chosen theme; try to encourage a variety of texts, including illustrations and pictures, fictional texts such as a story or an anecdote, and non-fictional texts such as a poster or a descriptive passage.

  • The students discuss and share their topics with their group members under your guidance.

  • To prepare the drafts of the contents of the big book, the students should read diverse literary and non-literary texts on the topics and gather materials that can be used during the creative writing process.

  • Each group collates all the literary texts produced by each member and binds them into a large book. They jointly produce the captions, a table of contents, notes on contributors, a preface and acknowledgements.

  • After drafting, editing and proofreading the contents, and finalising the illustrative designs, the final drafts of the literary texts can be produced.

Unit summary


In this unit you learned strategies for developing your students’ critical and creative thinking abilities by analysing literary texts. Some of the skills that the unit aimed to develop were the ability to draw inferences from a text and to synthesise information to evaluate a text, and to then apply this knowledge to produce their own texts. The activities described in the unit should help you make your students more aware of the interesting ways in which writers use language to convey their thoughts and ideas. Using this knowledge, students should be able to use their imagination and language skills to express themselves creatively.



  • Did the activities in this unit motivate your students to draw inferences from their own lives? Did you encourage them to read and appreciate the literary texts as reflections of events in real life? Did you manage to make them aware of the ways in which literature connects us to our life experiences?

  • Is reading literature simply an emotional experience or does literature appreciation include logical reasoning? Did the activities help you show your students that we react to literature both emotionally and logically?



  • Think of two or three short literary texts that you enjoyed reading. Would your students enjoy reading them as well? What kinds of skills (e.g., language skills) and knowledge (e.g., about the background) would your students need to appreciate these texts? Devise one activity to help your students notice the literary features of the text.


Resource 1: Inferring information from a literary text: A sample text

Resource 1

“Study! Study! STUDY!” Trudy was tired of hearing the same old line every day. Couldn’t her parents think of anything else to say?? After all, her grandparents were such fun — she couldn’t believe these were their children, for God’s sake! “Don’t swear, Trudy!” shot her mother, catching the last part of Trudy’s parting shot. Trudy didn’t bother to respond. She strode into her room and slammed the door shut. Her school books were lying all around in her room, and somewhere under the pile her weekend project was also waiting patiently for her. “Damn the project, and damn studies!” she muttered under her breath as her right foot bumped into the chair which had overturned with the weight of her clothes on it.

Trudy had no idea what she’d do now that she’d come out of the TV room, so she started opening the drawers of the old study table her grandfather had recently given her. Slipping her hand into the first drawer, she pulled out something. It seemed to be a very old book — it was a diary. Excited now, she turned it over. It was her grandfather’s diary! She flipped through the pages. It was written in a very neat hand, with each page dated meticulously. Curious to know more about her grandfather as a young man, she opened a page. It was dated February 12, 1945. She calculated his age — he was probably 18 then. She read about some girl called Betty, and how she had looked at him and smiled when they crossed at the corner of his street every morning. He wrote about his plans to give her a single red rose on Valentine’s Day, which was just two days away.

Trudy flipped two more pages. There it was — 14 February! This was a very long entry, but the page was just filled with the words “Betty, I love you!” scrawled over and over in every inch of available space! There was even a dried out petal… it must have been from a rose. Sure enough, on the next page was the entry — it seems Betty had shyly accepted his rose, and had quickly handed him a rose herself and run away. And so the romance blossomed. Trudy read about their first date, the war and their painful separation for two months! Who was this Betty, Trudy wondered. Her grandmother’s name was Caroline, not Betty. Trudy decided to visit her grandparents on Sunday to find out more about the story. Her anger forgotten, she settled down with the diary and spent the rest of the evening quietly finishing it. Her parents, noticing her silence, were happy that she was finally paying attention to her studies.



Resource file

See in the enclosed DVD an audio recording of the activity:

  • Scripts\Module5\Unit5\Activity1\Resource1\Audio\Inferring_Information_from_a_Literary_Text.mp3

Inferential questions:

  1. Why do you think Trudy’s mother was shouting at her?

  2. Does Trudy understand her responsibilities?

  3. Is Trudy a tidy person?

  4. Look up the meaning of the word “curious” in your dictionary. Is Trudy a curious person?

  5. Did Trudy’s grandfather finally get to spend his life with Betty?

  6. Do you think it was normal for girls and boys to meet freely during Trudy’s grandfather’s time?

Resource 2a: Critically reflecting on and responding to literary texts: Asking evaluative questions

Resource 2a

You can use the following questions as prompts to sensitise your students to the special nuances of the text.

  • What traits/qualities do you notice in the main and minor characters in the text?

  • Which characters do you like or dislike, and why?

  • What parts of the text did you like, and why? Which parts did you not like? How would you have told the story differently, if given the opportunity?

  • What different interpretations could you give to the text? Is it a story about personal relationships, a romantic story, a story about sacrifice or patriotism or bravery?

  • Is the language of the text easy to understand? Did you notice any unusual words, phrases or grammatical patterns? Do the characters speak like normal people? Do the descriptions of people, places and events resemble real life?

Resource 2b: How to write a journal entry (worksheet)

Resource 2b

Ask your students to read their books silently in class, if they are short story or poetry books, or read them at home, if they are longer ones. Ask them to keep a reading record of the parts they liked best, quotable quotes or beautiful expressions they want to remember, characters they like best, characters they dislike most. And ask them to write down why they want to record these things.

A journal entry is similar to a book report. It is also a way of keeping a record of books read. Students’ journal entries can be kept in a portfolio and assessed periodically.

You may follow the format given below or devise your own format.

  • Name of book:

  • Author:

  • Date started:

  • Date finished:

  • Type of text and period written:

  • Brief summary of the plot/structure and its effectiveness:

  • The areas enjoyed in the text:

  • Areas not enjoyed:

  • The aspects of the story that were interesting:

  • Aspects of the literary text not found interesting:

  • Language structures, words and expressions learned:

Teacher question and answer


Question: Is it not too early to start to teach critical thinking and creativity at the JSS level, especially where English is a second language and students are generally not proficient in it?

Answer: Critical thinking and creativity are skills that should be developed as early as possible However, we cannot expect the critical thinking and creative writing of students at this level to be at a very high level. The critical thinking and creative potential expected of the students should be appropriate to their level and scope of interest.