1 Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN May 2012, Vol. 9, No. 5, D DAVID PUBLISHING Cultivation of College Students Critical Thinking Ability Through the Reading-Discussion-Writing Approach XIE Xia-jun Chongqing Medical University of China, Chongqing, China Critical thinking ability is the core skill of higher education. How to train the non-english major students critical thinking ability in the English writing instruction plays an important role in the compound personnel training. In this paper, the reading-discussion-writing approach which guarantees the innovative construction of writing is proposed to train college students critical thinking ability, and specific suggestions on the practice are articulated such as designing diversified listening and speaking lead-in activities to activate or supplement the relative notion and background knowledge, using variety of challenging reading-discussion-writing tasks, and conducting mutual evaluation, etc., to let students deeply understand the text through discussion and promote their language competence and writing ability as well as their reflective thinking ability. Keywords: critical thinking ability, college students, reading-discussion-writing approach Introduction In the past 20 years, teaching for cultivating students critical thinking ability has been highly valued in the west countries and listed as one of the primary aims of undergraduate education. This is because critical thinking can not only improve students ability to analyze and solve problems but also enhance their innovation ability, which is recognized by experts both at home and abroad. Paul (1981) once said This is a new world for us to explore, one in which the power of critical thinking to turn back on itself in continual cycles and re-cycles of self-critique is crucial (pp. 1-2). This call for critical thinking has since been echoed and amplified time and again, especially in recent years. In our country, some experts and teachers also attach importance to the cultivation of students critical thinking and innovative ability and have done some relevant research in reading and writing. However, because the non-source-based writing practice has been prevalent in college writing instruction in China, there is ample evidence to suggest that university students in our country are not widely perceived as possessing this benchmark trait. Most students lack the capability of analysis, reasoning, and evaluation, which can be seen in their hollow content, superficial thinking, poor logicality, and insufficient demonstration of their oral and written English expressions. Students can hardly make the clear and deep thinking, let alone clear writing and speaking. So this reading-discussion-writing approach project arises from concerns about a perceived lack of critical thinking development in university students, whose aim is to help students develop their language knowledge and critical thinking ability and skills. XIE Xia-jun, associate professor, Foreign Language Department, Chongqing Medical University of China.
2 1146 CULTIVATION OF COLLEGE STUDENTS CRITICAL THINKING ABILITY Definitions of Critical Thinking While there is consensus that enhancement of students critical thinking skills is a primary and important outcome of undergraduate education, there is less consensus about what exactly constitutes critical thinking. P. Facione, N. Facione, and Giancarlo (2000) thought critical thinking is central to reflective thinking, and it is a principled process employing the cognitive skills of interpretation, analysis, inference, explanation, evaluation, and self-regulation of thinking recursively. Paul and Elder (2007, p. 2) thought it a mode of thinking in which the thinker improves the quality of his/her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. They even decomposed it into affective strategies, meta-cognitive strategies macro-abilities and cognitive strategies micro-abilities (Paul, Binker, Jensen, & Kreklau, 1990, p. 17). Scholars in our country identify with the view of regarding critical thinking as spiritual and mental elements. The representative viewpoint is that critical thinking is an individual quality of self-regulated judgment whether the standard of the process, theory, method, background, evidence, and assessment that produce knowledge is right (LUO, 2001, p. 216). To sum up, critical thinking is an intellectually disciplined process with multidimensionality such as analysis, evaluation, and improvement, etc., which can be cultivated by learning and training and through which we can actively and skillfully form concept, and analyze, synthesize, and assess the information observed. Building critical thinking skills will result in improvement in knowledge of the discipline as well as language itself. Adopting the Reading-Discussion-Writing Approach to Improve Students Critical Thinking Ways to Train Critical Thinking There are mainly two kinds of ways for teaching critical thinking. One is to set a special course to directly teaching critical thinking strategies and rules, emphasizing the cultivation of students critical thinking skills. The other is to combine subject teaching with the training of critical thinking, focusing on cultivating students query and analytical thinking about the subject, and combining the cultivation of critical thinking with individual quality. According to Freire, teaching is not simply to instruct facts and skills to students, but to ask students to critically think the task, materials, study process, and the society they live in, to make students discuss the problems about the teaching content. In pratical teaching, Freire proposes problem enriched instruction by discussing the content and scene, with dialog mode as the main approach (as cited in HONG, 2003, p. 85). Under such teaching ideas, there appears in our country a lot of teaching methods to improve students thinking ability such as case teaching, problem teaching, task-based approach, SOCC (situation, option, consequences, choice) method, and some other methods. Some put forward brain storming and using multi-medial, strengthening thesis writing, etc., to cultivate students critical thinking ability. However, limited by the course goal, the time, and the teaching ideas, how to combine foreign language teaching with critical thinking still puzzles teachers, for university students lack of critical thinking skills and innovation ability greatly hinders their development in discipline and language competence. Therefore it is urgent to find out ways to solve this problem. The Relationship Between Critical Thinking and Reading-Discussion-Writing Approach Critical thinking in ESL (English as a Second Language) is often listed as one or more of a number of hierarchically ordered cognitive skills and affective dispositions. The former includes the ability to explain, analyze, assess, reason, and argue, while the latter includes the courage to question, impartial attitude, modest
3 CULTIVATION OF COLLEGE STUDENTS CRITICAL THINKING ABILITY 1147 character, persuasive belief, and persistent quality, etc.. Such thinking ability as self-regulation ability, cognitive skills, and affective dispositions can be trained through consistent activities in reading, writing, and discussion, for critical reading is categorized as both a cognitive demanding activity and a higher level reading comprehensive skill. And learning to write by discussing problems is to learn to gain ideas or concept, the whole process of which is a thinking process. To sum up, the task of writing through reading and discussion is to let students read the text analytically, ask some worthwhile questions about the author s viewpoint, the supporting evidence, and the structures, etc., to discuss with other participators, thus forming their own critical ideas and writing the book review, dissertation, or some articles about the relative topic to realize the natural link-up between reading, speaking, and writing. And in the hook-ups training process, students will think deeply, make hypothesis, investigate problems, and make conclusions and summery, thus gradually forming their thinking ability of questioning, introspection, and evaluation. Training Critical Thinking by Reading-Discussion-Writing Approach There are correlations between reading achievement and writing ability. Good readers make good writers, just as Krasen (1984) claimed, It is reading that gives the writer the feel for the look and texture of reader-based prose (p. 20). Their shared knowledge can stimulate each other s shared cognitive process, so reading for writing is generally thought a more effective way than traditional way, in which reading and writing are usually separated. On the other hand, discussion in group combines oral and written language closely. From the origin and development of language, spoken language is in the first place, while written language is in the second place, so a lot of linguists and educators value the relationship between oral and written language. Writing in combination with reading, oral expression, and logic thinking is to prepare students to be critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, and better speakers and writers. Suggestions of Practicing Constructivists regard reading and discussion for writing as the process of solving the problems, in which students need to use meta-cognitive and cognitive strategies to process reading materials and written materials (Grabe, 2003). In fact, the writing task of universities are based on reading and students need the information from reading to write, especially to do academic writing (Weigle, 2004). So it is feasible to use the reading-discussion-writing approach to teach writing. In the process of practice, the following rules must be followed. Designing the Activities Related to the Theme Before and After Reading Communication-oriented reading requires the teacher to design the listening and speaking lead-in activities to activate or supplement the relative notion and background knowledge to let students sample, test, and verify the activities so that students can creatively understand the meaning of the text. And after experiencing the text, students need to mutually exchange their ideas, which is the critical thinking result produced in the process of reading. Therefore teachers should design such activities as after-reading discussion and debating to create the opportunities for students to broaden their critical thinking, thus further creatively understanding the text. Such deep understanding is meaningful to innovative construction of the writing. Besides, the activities should be closely related to the theme. When the theme of reading, discussion, and writing are related, these reading and
4 1148 CULTIVATION OF COLLEGE STUDENTS CRITICAL THINKING ABILITY discussion provide more effective content, rhetoric, and language input for writing, making the students think critically in the relatively concentrated conceptual schema, and improve the process of writing. Using Varieties of Reading-Discussion Combined Writing Tasks Different reading and writing activate different organization plans, integrating and monitoring models. In doing different tasks, there are differences in constructive meaning and the process of using the original information and the depth of reasoning as well as the semantic transferring in the brain (Greene, 1993). Students need to use and develop different dimensions of their critical thinking ability, therefore it is necessary to design different reading-discussion-writing tasks. For example, we can ask students to compare and contrast two articles to find the similarities and differences and write a comparative composition. Or we can ask them to condense the materials by writing a summary or by retelling a story. We can also ask them to write what they have learned about some articles or make PowerPoint on certain topics, and then give the presentation in the seminar and finally write a paper in English. Choosing Suitable Materials and Relatively Familiar Topics According to Grabe s (2001) threshold hypothesis of language level, only when the learner s second language level reaches a certain degree, his/her reading and writing ability can have constructive transfer towards both ways. Difficult materials hinder students from integrating information and smoothly forming the new situation, and at the same time unfamiliar topics prevent them from both expressing ideas clearly and producing new ideas, thus making them turning to relying on reading the details instead of critically thinking about the deep meaning of the materials. So we should choose materials which are neither too easy nor too difficult to let students have as much positive input as possible. We should also design the thought-provoking topics and sublimate them on the basis of the text context to make students able to raise intelligent questions from different angles and exchange ideas with their classmates so as to consolidate and deepen their knowledge and improve their ability to analyze and solve problems. Organizing Evaluation Activities Evaluation is one of the key elements of critical thinking ability, and through it we reflect and improve our thinking ability. Teachers should let the students learn how to give evaluation to their classmates oral and written expressions from different angles such as whether the theme is clearly expressed, the structure are suitable, examples is full, reasoning is logical, and the angle of view is new, etc.. In this way, evaluators learn to think problems analytically and the evaluated can learn to accept criticism and reflect their work so as to be trained to have open and persistent affecting disposition. After the students mutual evaluation, the teacher should give students his/her positive evaluation and point out their shortcomings. Conclusions In the modern world, language teaching is no longer only to train students to have linguistic competence. Cultivating students with critical thinking ability is also the goal. Therefore, adopting the reading-discussion-writing approach to develop critical reflective thinkers fits for academic award and is helpful to cultivating the comprehensive talents with both language competence and critical thinking ability. It may be worth experimenting in the future.
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