Category Archives: critical thinking

Dialectical journals

If you are a high school English teacher, you might know about dialectical journals.  But elementary and lower grade teachers—and parents of younger children—might never have heard of them.  That’s too bad because they are a great alternative to a book report.

Quote word-for-word the text you are analyzing Citation

Q = question

C = Connect

CL = Clarify

P = Predict

R = Reflect

E = Evaluate

Write your response


A dialectical journal is a method of recording information about a book as you read the book.  It requires three types of information:

  • A direct quote of a passage which is worthy of consideration.
  • A one- or two-letter identification of the kind of response the student will make plus the page number or the act, scene and line.
  • The student response.

The response can take many forms.  Suppose the students are reading Lord of the Flies.  A response can ask a question about the text:  Why did Ralph decide on a conch shell to call the children to order?  Why not just whistle?  A response can notice a problem:  All the boys survive the plane crash without injuries while the pilot dies.  That seems unusual.  And items from the plane, like clothes, are not recovered.  A response can draw attention to the plot:  The naval officer arrives just as the boys are about to kill Ralph.  That timing seems unreal.

In using dialectical journals, students should strive to use higher level thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation so that the information can be used to spark class discussions.  Sometimes a response by one student can open the eyes of another without the adult intervening.  If no students are mentioning a concept that the adult thinks is important, the adult can suggest that they keep “tone” or “figures of speech” in mind when they do the next few pages of reading and responding.

By the kinds of responses students make, teachers can gauge what interests or perplexes students about a text and can provide supplementary materials.  If students can write, they can use dialectical journals.   They can be appropriate for students as young as third grade.

College writing is moving into high school

I am working with a high school sophomore who is writing an argumentative research paper, the kind of research paper I was required to write in college.

His teacher identified the type of information required for each paragraph in a handout.  It includes a hook leading into an introduction leading into a thesis, using a funnel effect to taper to the thesis.  The thesis must have several elements, all of which must be backed with data in the body.

The body must have at least three sections of data supporting the thesis, plus a counter argument which must be debunked.  The conclusion should not merely repeat the thesis but in some other way support the ideas of the essay.

This essay is due not for an A.P. course but for a regular sophomore English class.

With another high school sophomore, I worked on a Toulmin essay.  This kind of essay has a rigid structure for each body paragraph.  First comes a position statement or thesis; second, a claim or example supporting the position; third, data cited to support the claim; fourth, a warrant or a clarification of the connection between the claim and the data; fifth, a counterclaim which rebuts the thesis; and last, a rebuttal with data to destroy the counterclaim.

With another high school freshman I worked on a response to a news article using the SAOQ method:  summarize the article in a few sentences; analyze the main idea or some aspect of the article; offer your opinion on the ideas in the article, using logical arguments to back your opinion; and offer three discussion questions of a probing nature to show you have pondered the article.

These assignments call on higher level thinking skills:  analyzing information; researching, using and citing appropriate data; recognizing truth from stereotypes or “fake news”; recognizing valid counterclaims; evaluating ideas; and synthesizing information into new literary forms.

In short, these writing assignments require critical thinking, the kind of thinking the Common Core Standards advocate.  No matter what you may think of the Common Core Standards, they are putting pressure on schools to develop students who can think.  In the three schools where my three students study, the schools and the students are meeting the challenge.

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.

The five-paragraph essay is an obstacle to learning

The five-paragraph essay is a form of convergent thought.  It encourages the writer to fit information into a formula:  an introduction stating a main idea and sometimes naming three supporting points; three body  paragraphs, one for each point; and a conclusion renaming the main idea and three points.

The five-paragraph essay discourages writers from exploring new ideas.  Instead, it encourages writers to stick with what they already know.

For example, a student writer might choose for an essay topic an uncontroversial idea, such as that smoking is bad for health.  The writer might choose as the three points 1) smoking destroys lungs, 2) smoking leads to diseases like lung cancer, and 3) smoking leads to facial wrinkles.  But what if the writer thinks, wait a minute, wrinkles aren’t a health problem.  The writer ponders, searching for a third reason why smoking is bad for health, and can’t think of one.  So the writer changes his topic completely to fit the five-paragraph format.

What if the writer had instead researched wrinkles to see if there is any connection to smoking and health?    The writer might have learned that wrinkles are a health concern.  He might have learned about research connecting wrinkles and smoking and health.  He might have learned some open-ended questions which scientists are striving to answer.  He might have learned.

The problem with the five-paragraph essay is that it encourages closed-minded thinking, not learning.  It encourages simplistic, not complex, thinking.  It encourages safety, not exploration of ideas.  It encourages fill-in-the-blanks, not critical thinking.