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Honing Students’ Critical Thinking Using Fiction

If conducted well, infusing critical thinking into the learning of fiction through the situated practice, overt instruction, critical framing, and transformed practice stages model in a combined individual and group learning does not only hone students’ critical thinking and story mastery but also develop their language proficiency.

Researches and experiences have long acknowledged the importance of Critical Thinking (CT) to support every individual's success in academic, personal, and social life. Policymakers and business leaders all concur on it. The World Academic Forum and Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) list CT as a key skill that will even more important in the future. American Management Association found current and future workplace requires employees to think critically. Based on an analysis of 4.2 million online job postings from 6000 different sources in the period 2013-2015, The Foundation for Young Australians (2015) reports in The New Basics that the demand for new graduates’ critical thinking skills has increased 158% in three years.

Due to its growing importance, there is a crucial need to equip today’s students with CT. Therefore, regardless of their subject matters, all students should be facilitated to develop the abilities to analyze, interpret, evaluate, infer, explain any discourse they are handling, and self-regulate their thinking (Facione, 1990). To realize it, all learning activities should not merely let the students obtain and memorize, facts, information, concepts, and skills, but are used as the contexts, materials, and opportunities for thinking skills cultivation. In short, critical thinking skills must be integrated into every learning activity.

In my previous article, I describe how to incorporate critical thinking skills into an integrated language skills learning process. This article discusses how to use fiction to promote critical thinking.

Two underlying reasons support the use of fiction to promote CT. First, literature reading is a mental process necessitating CT skills to construct meaning which is usually allegorical (includes both literal and implied meanings). To get the appropriate meaning of literary works, a reader should practice CT skills, i.e., inferring, analyzing and synthesizing the presented information, and recalling, retrieving, reflecting on prior experiences. Employing these skills, readers frequently exercise their capacities to distinguish facts from opinions, comprehend the literal or implied meanings, to trace the details related to the issues discussed, determine the causal relationships, and so on.

Second, fictions (novels, novellas, short stories) are mirrors of life. They are even works which present life uniquely because different works are perceived using different viewpoints. The characters may look like people in reality. The actions and events are told as if they belong to daily life. Yet, they are different from the people and the actions and actions in actual life. Reading fictional works, one is exposed to various points of view and thus compelled him to think and rethink his own ideas and actions. Oatley says literary works can be perceived as a “simulation of society”. Studying such works containing matters directly related to daily life, students are required to evaluate evidence, draw conclusions, make inferences, and develop a line of thinking if they approach fiction through a problem-solving perspective. Lazere emphasizes, “literature…is the single academic discipline that can come closest to encompassing the full range of mental traits currently considered to comprise critical thinking”.

Before using fictions to develop CT, teachers need to carefully select suitable works to employ. In the selection process, it is necessary to ascertain that the fictions meet the following criteria: they suit the student’s language proficiency, they are interesting so that they stimulate personal involvement, their length suits the time available, they are contemporary (use modern English), they are not beyond students’ cultural competence, the issues and ideas explored in works should be relevant, interesting and challenging to students (intellectual merit), and the work is worthy of academic study (literary merit). Considering the length and complexity criteria, novels are recommended to use in advanced and upper intermediate classes, while short stories are appropriate in primary and intermediate levels.

It should be underlined that the objective of including CT in a fiction teaching-learning process is not to teach about CT but to let students infuse their CT while learning. To attain this aim, several teaching models for integrating CT into fiction learning have been proposed. The one employed in this article was developed by Bobkina and Stefanova, which consists of four stages: (1) situated practice, (2) overt instruction, (3) critical framing, and (4) transformed practice. This model is essentially generic. So, it could be easily adapted to suit any classroom environment and meet the students' needs. To see how the model works, the followings describe it in the scenario of studying The Story of an Hour, a short story by Chopin which tells about what Mrs. Mallard thinks and does after she is told that her husband has died in an accident but then discovers that he is alive after all.

The Situated Practice Stage aims to activate students' schemata in the story. In this stage, students are let to recall experiences and information they have got relevant to the story. Since The Story of an Hour centers on Mrs. Mallard who suffers from heart problems and the train accident, activities in this stage can be initiated by asking the students to answer and share questions like: Have you ever heart about heart disease? Do you know some symptoms of pain from heart disease? Why listening to bad news is risky for a person with heart disease? Do you think the death of one's loved one is a piece of bad news? And so on.

The Overt Instruction Stage aims to achieve two goals. First, to facilitate students’ general comprehension of the story by asking them to read it quickly, checking their understanding through a discussion of some key ideas of the story, or through a general comprehension test. Second, to enable students to achieve deep comprehension of the story’s inner logic by assigning them to apply the close reading. Through the close reading, for instance, students should be able to determine why Mrs. Mallard, after listening to his husband’s death, is in grief only for a moment. She quickly turns to be ‘joyful’ and utters “free, free, free!" "Free! Body and soul free!" While doing the close reading, students are encouraged to make notes and later compare them to their peers’ ideas. This enables them to understand other students’ perspectives.

The Critical Framing Stage concentrates on increasing students’ conscious attention to linguistic forms and social-cultural contexts relationship. For instance, they should be able to explain why Chopin describes Mrs. Mallard to have “a feverish triumph in her eyes”, and inadvertently walks “like a goddess of Victory” as he descends the stairs right before her husband turns up. The teacher can also ask the students to describe the issues, characters, and events in the story by encouraging them to question and analyze the text and explore the writer’s attitude, intention, and viewpoint through the author’s lexical and structural choices.

The Transformed Practice Stage concerns with students’ production of writing relevant to the story. Thus, students can be assigned to paraphrase the original texts into another mode (e.g. rewriting the second paragraph into a dialog), analyzing the characters or theme, writing a reader response, and so on. 

To conclude, integrating CT skills in fictions learning in using the model facilitating students to actively employ their CT skills in both individual and group learning as described above, students, students will develop CT, master the story, and develop their English proficiency. What is more, since the CT skills are developed in the contexts of literary works (which is close to life), they can be easily applied in the students’ daily life.

Author: Parlindungan Pardede (


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