Vocabulary and Teaching for Critical Thinking

A rising number of educational systems across the globe have positioned critical thinking as an essential skill for meeting the challenges of the new world. The ability to think critically is indeed an imperative in a rapidly changing world that demands more of individuals in their personal, social and professional domains.

Research has found that the more often a student is exposed to critical thinking, the greater the possibility that the student will transfer critical thinking to other areas of his or her life. Unfortunately, teaching critical thinking has not been a priority in the Romanian educational system and, consequently, in our schools. For a long time, teaching has been regarded more as transmitting information, rather than teaching students how to think and process the information received at school. Most students are used to learn “by heart” what the teachers tell them to, not wondering too much if they understand what they learn or if they agree with what they have been told. Learning for them is only a way to get good marks, graduate and move on to the next level of education.

Thinking skills are very little used in our educational system, and this is something we must start to change if we want our children to become independent, self-confident people. Rather than teaching them to increase understanding and mastering of the rules and definitions, we need to teach our students the logical criteria, the skills necessary to think clearly and systematically, to analyze information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems, to justify and reflect on their values and decisions, and ultimately to provide them with the tools for the processes of self-evaluation and self-reflection.

Vocabulary is an essential part of teaching, as teaching obviously uses words, and vocabulary plays an important role in learning a foreign language. It is the element that links the four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing all together. In order to express themselves and communicate well in a foreign language, students should acquire an adequate number of words and should know how to use them accurately.

Traditionally, in Romania vocabulary has not been a particular subject for students to learn, but has been taught within lessons of speaking, listening, reading and writing. During the lessons students use their own vocabulary and are introduced to new words provided by the teacher, which they apply in classroom activities. Even though students realize the importance of vocabulary when learning a new language, most Romanian students learn vocabulary passively due to several factors.

First, they consider the teacher’s explanations for meaning or definition, pronunciation, spelling and grammatical functions boring. In this case scenario, language learners have nothing to do in a vocabulary learning section but to listen to their teacher. Second, students only think of vocabulary learning as knowing the primary meaning of new words. Therefore, they ignore all other functions of the words. Third, students usually acquire new vocabulary through new words in their textbooks or when given by teachers during classroom lessons. For example, learners find new words in a text and then ask the teacher to explain the meaning or give the translation in Romanian. Fourth, students may recognize a word in a written or spoken form and think that they “already know the word”, but they may not be able to use that word properly in different contexts or pronounce it correctly.

That is why entire generations of learners of English are unable to “really” communicate with native speakers or adjust to a certain situation, despite the fact that they are considered good readers or listeners. Many of them still struggle to find better ways of communication. They don’t use their thinking skills to learn the language logically, employing the instruments belonging to the apparatus of rationality, which would help them identify and clarify mistakes and ambiguous expressions, understand language differences, cultural differences, find errors in their thinking.

Teaching vocabulary can become a good way of learning/teaching critical thinking, as it enhances our students’ ability to think critically, which will help them to look at issues from different viewpoints, express their opinions/decisions/solutions, exercise good judgement, develop problem solving skills, acknowledge errors in their thinking and basically become independent thinkers who learn, think and act for themselves.

At the same time, teaching vocabulary through critical thinking activities is a way to develop their critical thinking abilities and to help them explore and understand phenomena such as multiple-meaning words, collocations, lexical relationships, word formation and translational equivalence.

In order to do that, teachers should use vocabulary activities that stimulate critical thinking, exercise good judgement, reinforce communication skills, debating skills, argumentation skills and work with different genre texts and also, texts from different media: films, cartoons, TV shows. At the same time, students should be explicitly trained and encouraged to express and defend their opinions/points of view, debate, give reasons, analyze analogies, create categories and classify items appropriately, identify relevant information, construct and recognize valid deductive arguments, recognize logical fallacies, acknowledge errors in their thinking, discuss how meanings can be modified by contextual circumstances, analyze arguments, test hypothesis. Here are some examples of activities that can be done in class in order to achieve that:

  • The odd one out
  • The quadrants method
  • The Venn diagram
  • Asking questions
  • Guided journal writing
  • Reading journals
  • Using comics
  • Grammar and lexis – analyzing vocabulary and grammatical usage in a written passage
  • Writing argumentative essays
  • Debate
  • Guessing from context
  • Class discussions – addressing the same issue from different perspectives
  • Translation – noticing and dealing with differences in structure and vocabulary
  • Analyzing texts to increase the learners’ vocabulary awareness

Doing this kind of activities would benefit the students by teaching them to “produce, not just reproduce knowledge” (Bontilă, 2009:45). However good their memory skills are, they are not robots, they aren’t supposed to just learn lists and rules, without questioning, analyzing and understanding them. All the activities mentioned above involve teaching/learning vocabulary, but not in the traditional way. They teach words, but at the same time, they teach students what to do with the words: they teach them to “express their own determinations, verdicts of inquest, decisions on deliberations, solutions to actual problems, classifications.” (Lipman, cited by Bontilă, 2009:45). This is how, in time, students become better at “using the words”.

Teachers should teach vocabulary for critical thinking skills and encourage students to read more, to question, to engage in divergent thinking, to look for relationships among ideas and to grapple with real-life issues, as learning to think critically will help them not only in school, but also later, in front of the problems of life.

Allen, V. 1983. Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary. Oxford University Press.
Bontilă, R. 2009. Critical thinking and the internet. A new educational dilemma, Analele Universității “Dunărea de Jos” Galați. Fascicola XXI, Psihologie și Științele Educației, An IV Nr. VII, pp. 41-46. Editura Fundației Universitare “Dunărea de Jos” Galați.
Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. 1988. Vocabulary and language teaching. London: Longman.
Lipman, M. 2007. Education for Critical Thinking. Randall Curren ed. Philosophy of Education. An Anthology. London: Blackwell, pp. 427-435.
McCarthy, M. 1990. Vocabulary. Oxford University Press.
Rundell, M. 2005. What makes a word difficult? 4th Macmillan Romania Conference. Universitatea Ovidius Constanta. (lecture notes)
Scrivener, J. 2005. Learning teaching. A Guidebook for English Language Teachers. 2nd ed. Oxford: Macmillan.
Thornbury, S. 2002. How to teach vocabulary. London: Pearson Education Limited.


prof. Dorina Sacu

Școala Gimnazială Nr. 30 Gheorghe Țițeica, Constanța (Constanţa) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/dorina.sacu

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