Critical Thinking‪ and EFL Learners’ L2 Development

Abstract

Critical thinking is traditionally discussed in the literature on the topic as an important component for the progress of the learners of English as a foreign language (EFL). The purpose of this research was to determine whether there are any differences between the critical thinking skills of EFL students depending on their language proficiency levels. A quantitative methodology combined with a case study approach was selected for this research in order to address the purpose.

For the purpose of this study, 40 EFL students were recruited from the selected university and then divided into two groups to compare their critical thinking skills and the language development levels. According to the study findings, there is no statistically significant difference between critical thinking and language development levels of students in general, but there is a difference when focusing on Deduction and Evaluation as important critical thinking skills. These findings indicate that differences in critical thinking skills can be typical of students with different levels of proficiency in English.

Introduction

The specifics of the 21st century determine a variety of competencies that are in the great demand in the modern world of technology and information, reflecting the capability to communicate efficaciously, cooperative activities, decision making, and critical thinking. Thus, these tendencies influence the area of education and Applied Linguistics and create the necessity for improving the development of language-related skills in diverse students (Pei et al. 2017).

Critical thinking represents a decision system that is used to analyse the phenomenal occurrence, things, and events with the subsequent formulation of reasonable conclusions (Li 2019; Navaie, Saeedi & Khatami 2018). In recent years, the investigation and testing of modern educational methods of teaching a foreign language (second language or L2) have become relevant for the field of Applied Linguistics.

In this context, much attention is currently paid to understanding any possible connection between the development of critical thinking skills and L2 development in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students with the purpose of improving teaching and learning techniques and the utilisation of new study environments and other tools. In a complex process of teaching and learning a foreign language, the development of critical thinking is possible to consider as one of the key factors in the formation of communicative competence (Iman 2017; Zhao, Pandian & Singh 2016). EFL students are more likely to take part in the mastery and practical use of diversified types of speech activities when their language level is appropriate, and critical thinking skills are developed.

Nevertheless, critical and logical thinking never has to be confused inasmuch as the first involves the application of the second. According to Iman (2017), critical thinking is associated with an impartial look at notions, decisions, and acts, allows an individual to identify weaknesses and establish the authenticity of facts and suppositions, constructed on logic and cause-effect relationships. Logic and the construction of logical chains and patterns are fundamental criteria of criticism (Lu & Xie 2019; Ramezani, Larsari & Kiasi 2016). It frequently serves as the foundation for critical inferences and judgments made by EFL students.

Critical thinking, in conjunction with logical argumentation, allows a person to discover regularity, forecast the development of occurrences, determine the intercommunication of objects, subjects, and phenomena without the necessity to scrutinise into complicated research, and competently articulate the standpoint with the assistance of language tools. According to Ramezani, Larsari and Kiasi (2016), these skills are also important when students learn the second language in order to improve their progress. Thus, the complete comprehension of a foreign language requires the presence of not only factual knowledge of it but also certain additional skills (Marin & de la Pava 2017).

To see the interconnections and dependencies between the described phenomenal occurrence or events and express them verbally at an exceptional level of linguistic competence, the knowledge of vocabulary, concepts, truths, idiomatic expressions and professional terms is needed (Marin & de la Pava 2017). The ability to estimate the language tools utilised by a speaker to achieve his or her intention and the capability to use these tools to formulate his or her thoughts are related to critical thinking skills.

The basis of argumentation is logic, and the basis of learning, as it is discussed by some researchers, is critical thinking. The available research on this issue indicates that EFL students are frequently incompetent to argue their standpoint consistently and persuasively, and they substitute the critical reasoning with unsubstantiated statements and emotions (Marin & de la Pava 2017; Rahimi 2016). This fact leads to the inability of some students to think critically and control their learning of L2 in order to achieve significant positive results. In this context, the teacher of English as a foreign language has two tasks to accomplish (Navaie, Saeedi & Khatami 2018).

On the one hand, an instructor should teach students regarding the skills of how to formulate their thoughts in a foreign language properly. On the other hand, this instructor has to develop students’ critical and rational thinking along with the ability to prove their point of view consistently and earnestly.

All techniques of teaching English at school can be classified with reference to the fact of whether the native language is used in the educating process and who is in the core of the learning process. The second model is determined by two approaches when either the student or the teacher is at the centre of the learning process (Zhao, Pandian & Singh 2016). The most effective approach is focused on the requirements of the listener or learner. From this perspective, the initiative should be transmitted to the student, and the instructor acts as an adviser. Thereby, it is possible to achieve the most efficient work of each student individually and in a group.

This approach is based on a substantial number of methods and techniques that many teachers use in a vast multiplicity of combinations, creating an exceedingly thrilling learning process (Zhao, Pandian & Singh 2016). The instructor himself decides how and in what form to conduct the lesson, whom to ask and what home assignments to provide. The method focuses on the acquisition of ultimate results in students’ individual work.

The project method is one of the most prevalent methods that is utilised in new comprehensive schools. Its essence lies in the fact that students practice the studied material when working on projects (Zhao, Pandian & Singh 2016). The task is usually accomplished utilising new vocabulary words necessary for reading, writing and speaking to promote L2 development. There is an intangible bond between the project method and critical thinking skills (Navaie, Saeedi & Khatami 2018). The reason why the project method is so efficacious and extensively used is in the fact that it also teaches critical thinking and reasoning skills (Zhao, Pandian & Singh 2016). Working on solving any problem requires a specific amount of reasoning and logic.

The method of critical thinking development through reading and writing was offered by such American Scientists as D. Steele, C. Meredith, C. Temple, and S. Walter, and it was taken as the didactic basis for many studies (Li 2019; Lin 2018). The structure of this approach is adequate and logical, since its stages correspond to the regular steps of a person’s cognitive activity, and can be expressed in the form of an ERR technological model (Evocation, Realisation, Reflection).

In the adapted version, the investigators retained the ERR algorithm, and during the selection of methodological ways, they were guided by the educational standards for the students of linguistics (Lin 2018). In other words, the investigation consisted of those pedagogical approaches, environments, and techniques that furnished both written and reading activities and oral speech exercises for the students.

For the development of critical thinking, the researchers used the problem-based learning approach and its methods that were tested in advance, while preserving the logical algorithm of the ERR. The latter method was used to organise the whole experiment and constitute its logical structure. The PBL approach is also stimulating because its methods involve the activation of related knowledge and competencies (Navaie, Saeedi & Khatami 2018). For instance, EFL students who also study IT and need to learn technical terms can be trained more efficiently by grinding away the language, by solving the problems in the context of IT (Rahimi 2016). Thus, PBL facilitates the cognitive activity of students and increases their motivation due to a fundamentally different way of mastering the subject with the teacher or instructor.

The methods of the PBL approach can be used when EFL students are asked to solve a problem or discuss a case on the topic of the lesson. For this mission, the group can be divided into two subunits in which brainstorming took place collectively, and a possible solution to the problem should be prepared (Kobayashi 2019; Navaie, Saeedi & Khatami 2018). At this stage, the comprehension chart technique adds to the further progress of critical thinking and L2 development.

Students become involved in the process of discussing the problem, record the course of their thinking in the concept diagram, graphically showing the interrelation of emerging ideas and thoughts (Ghanizadeh 2017; Lin 2018). Consequently, project-based or problem-based learning can be considered as an effective mechanism of teaching English as the second language. The popularity of this method is another cause to find out more about language skills, the second language acquisition process and their correlation with the critical thinking abilities of EFL students.

According to researchers, in teaching a foreign language, different methods of knowledge visualisation can be used as an aid tool to generate possible solutions and organise high-level ideas in the context of critical thinking and development of language-related skills. Certain maps that are used to organise the knowledge into categories are among these methods (Lin 2018). It is a pre-defined analytical framework that can ease the process of evaluation, and it should be clarified that this technique is more efficient to utilise in a group of students with a sufficient level of knowledge of a foreign language (Li 2019). In other words, it is not appropriate during the initial stages of studying the topic. It should be used after systematising lexical material on the subject, provided that students have sufficient knowledge of professional terminology, lexical and grammatical structures.

Research Focus

The reviewed literature indicates that different approaches and technologies are used by EFL teachers in order to promote L2 development in their students, and the focus on facilitating critical thinking is among the methods that have been recently applied in practice. Critical thinking is defined as a universal competence or the ability to investigate, critically dissect and synthesise information, and the capability to apply a systematic approach to solve the tasks (Kobayashi 2019).

In this investigation, it is important to examine the competence of critical thinking and its influence in the framework of learning English as a foreign language to stimulate the development of the English language proficiency. There is a substantial amount of evidence to request that critical thinking is positively associated with a student’s success in the contemplation of a foreign language (Indah 2017). Therefore, in this study, English is referred to as the second language (a foreign language, L2), and the results are not expected to be generalisable to the sample of students studying other languages.

The modern literature comprises the analysis of critical thinking capabilities of students in Associate, Bachelor, and Master level programs. The investigation has been done in order to determine the dynamics of the development of critical thinking from one educational level to another (Ghanizadeh 2017). In the recent study, EFL students were given tasks, and the interpretation of the results allowed the scientific community to set the degree of development of critical thinking in three levels of formation: low (0–33%), medium (34–77%), high (78–100%) (Marin & de la Pava 2017). The results made it clear that associate-level students can demonstrate a low degree of development of critical thinking in comparison to other groups. Undergraduate students have an average and close to a low degree; master-level students have a medium degree (Marin & de la Pava 2017).

These results were also discussed in other studies on the topic (Tosuncuoglu 2018). These findings have allowed the academic community to conclude that the dynamics of the development of critical thinking in Associate, Bachelor, and Master level programs are quite mediocre.

Researchers also state that there is a critical necessity for the organisation of pedagogical support for the development of critical thinking among students. There is evidence in some studies that critical thinking can directly be associated with the second-language acquisition capabilities of EFL students, and all language programs need to integrate critical thinking into their curriculum (Marin & de la Pava 2017; Wang & Seepho 2017).

Furthermore, EFL students can be enthusiastically engaged in the development of their critical thinking, and the promotion of critical thinking can be separated as a discipline to be taught in a universally according to the recognised requirement of the standard of higher education in some countries (Marin & de la Pava 2017). At the present time, a significant amount of particularised test material has been developed to determine the level of critical thinking for examinations, the outcomes of which are one of the most important indicators of student learning success (Pei et al. 2017; Wang & Seepho 2017).

In the United Kingdom, the focus of the academic community on the study of critical thinking has increased for the last decade (Marin & de la Pava 2017; Wang & Seepho 2017). The inferences made in the preceding study shaped the purposes of this research, narrowing the scope of scientific interests. The following research question has been formulated in the context of this research to address the study purpose:

RQ: Are there differences between critical thinking skills of EFL students and L2 development depending on their language proficiency levels?

In order to answer the set research question, the null and alternative hypotheses were formulated, and they should be presented in the following way:

  • H0: There are no differences between critical thinking skills of EFL students and L2 development depending on their language proficiency levels.
  • H1: There are differences between critical thinking skills of EFL students and L2 development depending on their language proficiency levels.

Research Method

Methodology and Design

For this study, a quantitative methodology should be applied in order to find the answer to the set research question. A quantitative methodology allows for analysing the numerical data for the purpose of testing the formulated hypotheses. As a result, the researcher receives findings that can be applicable to a wider population depending on the size of the sample (Barnham 2015). A qualitative method is not appropriate for this study because of its focus on analysing subjective data related to participants, and the findings of qualitative studies cannot be generalised to discuss the problem in a wider context.

In this research, a quantitative methodology is used for determining the differences in the set variables (critical thinking skills and EFL learners’ levels) in the context of a case study (Barnham 2015). The selection of a case study approach is justified with reference to the fact that it is necessary to focus on identifying possible differences in scores only with reference to a limited number of EFL learners studying English as their second language in the selected university.

Participants

The participants for this case study were recruited from the selected university, and the focus was on third-year students who are EFL learners (“English as a Foreign Language”). The factor of race or ethnicity was not determined as an inclusion criterion for this study. The level of proficiency in English was determined as an inclusion criterion as students only with B1-2 and C1-2 levels were selected for this study. Both female and male EFL learners were recruited for the study with the help of the faculty members who spread the information about the research among EFL students. The specifics of the study limit the application of probability sampling approaches because of the present inclusion criteria (B1-2 and C1-2 levels of English proficiency, the equal distribution of female and male learners). Therefore, the non-probability purposive sampling approach was selected in order to address the purpose of this study.

Thus, 119 EFL students agreed to participate in the study and reveal their English language scores and levels of proficiency addressing to the university’s confidentiality policies. As a result, 20 female students (50%) and 20 male students (50%) were selected among them as the participants for this research. The age of participants was in the range between 20 and 29 years. Two groups of students were formed: 20 EFL students having the B1-2 level of language proficiency (10 males and 10 females) and 20 EFL students having the C1-2 level of language proficiency (10 males and 10 females).

Data Collection

Instruments

To collect data on the participants’ critical thinking skills, the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal was used. The assessment includes 40 questions, and the participants were asked to answer them within 30 minutes. This critical thinking assessment covers such areas of critical thinking skills as deduction, interpretation, making assumptions, inference, and evaluation (D’Alessio, Avolio & Charles 2019).

Deduction skills are measured with a focus on determining the relationship between statements and conclusions. The ability to interpret information is assessed with reference to analysing the proposed evidence. Making assumptions is related to recognising unstated information, and inference is connected with determining the degrees of truth and lie in relation to the provided data. The evaluation of arguments is measured with reference to the ability to determine strong and weak arguments among the proposed ones.

The reliability of the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking test is reported by researchers to be comparably high as the internal consistency of the test is high, as well as the stability of the scores. Referring to Cronbach’s alpha, it is possible to state that the reliability of the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking assessment is 0.78-0.8, as it was determined in previous studies on the topic (D’Alessio, Avolio & Charles 2019). From this perspective, the selection of this instrument for assessing EFL students’ critical thinking skills is reasonable and evidence-based as this tool was effectively applied in studies on related topics.

The information on EFL students’ scores and levels related to their L2 development was collected at the very beginning of the study in order to inform the researcher on the levels of English proficiency of the selected participants. The focus was on selecting students who have B1-2 and C1-2 levels of the English language proficiency reported for the previous academic year. These two proficiency levels were determined as two levels of the dependent variable in this study.

Procedure

At the first stage of the study development, the participants were asked to provide consent forms in order to confirm their agreement to participate in the study. It is important to note that the students were assured that their scores received after completing the critical thinking test would have no impact on their further scores and grades received during their English language classes. The results of the test and findings will be used only for the purpose of this research, and the personality of the participants will not be revealed as confidentiality is guaranteed.

Then, the students were divided into two groups depending on their level of the language proficiency (B1-2 as Group 1 and C1-2 as Group 2). After that, the participants were provided with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking test and given 30 minutes in order to accomplish the assessment. Before the assessment, students were not given the opportunity to review any material previously studied during classes or review the questions included in the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking test. They were provided with the instruction on how to fill in tests, and they were prohibited to communicate with other students during the completion of the assessment. When students completed the questionnaires, they put the file with the answers into an envelope with an individual randomly assigned code to avoid disclosing the personality of the responder.

Data Analysis

In order to assess the distinctions between the level of development of critical thinking in Group 1 and Group 2, the researcher used the Mann-Whitney U test. The reason was that this non-parametric statistical tool is usually utilised in order to compare two independent samples according to the level of any quantitatively measured characteristic (Weaver et al. 2017). This method is based on determining whether the zone of intersecting values ​​between two diverse series is small enough (a ranked series of parameter values ​​in the first sample and the same series in the second sample).

The lower the value of the criterion, the more likely it is that the differences between the parameter values ​​in the samples are significant (Weaver et al. 2017). Therefore, this test is appropriate to analyse non-parametric data related to this study with a focus on the significance level of p <.05.

The analysis of collected numerical data was completed with the help of SPSS software. The Mann-Whitney U test was conducted in order to test null and alternative hypotheses formulated for this research to address the research question and find any possible differences between critical thinking skills and the language development in EFL students with a focus on the chosen sample for this case study. The application of a statistical tool for data analysis is effective to determine the differences between data collected for Group 1 and Group 2 depending on their level of English proficiency.

Findings and Discussions

The application of the Mann-Whitney U test to assess the differences between the language development of EFL students depending on their critical thinking skills led to determining the findings important for testing the hypotheses and answering the research question in this study. In this study, it was critical to compare the language development and critical thinking skills in two groups of the participants. Thus, the statistical estimates indicate that differences in critical thinking levels. Table 1 represents descriptive statistics for the sample used in this case study.

Table 1: Descriptive Statistics for the Test Results.

Group Category N Mean SD Skewness Kurtosis
Statistic Statistic Statistic Statistic Std. Error Statistic Std. Error
1 (B1-B2) Deduction 20 3.46 1.18 .954 .345 .297 .675
Interpretation 20 2.51 1.67 -.219 .345 .243 .675
Making Assumptions 20 4.57 1.04 .078 .345 -.235 .675
Inference 20 5.17 2.57 .751 .345 -.209 .675
Evaluation 20 4.83 1.52 .162 .345 -.026 .675
Total 20 8.98 2.92 .845 .345 -.215 .675
Valid N 20
2 (C1-C2) Deduction 20 2.89 1.83 -.276 .276 .080 .547
Interpretation 20 3.66 1.57 -.480 .276 -.377 .547
Making Assumptions 20 2.82 2.05 -.235 .276 .182 .547
Inference 20 5.89 2.07 .614 .276 .199 .547
Evaluation 20 2.7 3 1.58 -.276 .276 .181 .547
Total 20 2.58 2.82 -.441 .276 -.477 .547
Valid N 20

The results of the Mann-Whitney U test for each subscale in the critical thinking test and the total score compared across different levels of language development in Group 1 and Group 2 are provided in Table 2. The skewed distribution of the test scores for Group 1 and Group 2 is provided in Appendix A.

Table 2: The Mann-Whitney U Test Results.

Deduction Interpretation Making Assumptions Inference Evaluation Total
Mann-Whitney U 1346.00 1567.50 1465.00 1289.00 1537.50 1569.00
Sig. (2-tailed) .000 .456 .896 .112 .001 .189
a. Grouping Variable: Group

The results of the Mann-Whitney U test indicate that the language development of the participants representing Group 1 and Group 2 significantly different only with reference to their critical thinking skills in Deduction and Evaluation (p < 0.05). However, there is no statistically significant difference between critical thinking of EFL students with B1-B2 levels of English proficiency and EFL students with C1-C2 levels of English proficiency and their language development in general. Furthermore, no statistically significant differences are observed from such aspects of critical thinking as Interpretation, Making Assumptions, and Inference. From this perspective, the alternative hypothesis formulated for this case study was supported only partially because not all the critical thinking abilities were determined as associated with differences in the participants’ critical thinking and their language development levels. The null hypothesis was rejected.

The results of this study are in correlation with the findings of some previous research on the topic. Thus, in their study, Pei et al. (2017) also stated that EFL and ESL students with different levels of critical thinking skills can have different success in developing their English learning skills. Furthermore, the possible correlation between the development of critical thinking and the language capacity was also studied by Indah (2017), Iman (2017), and Rahimi (2016).

As a result, it is possible to state that the findings of this research are supported by some conclusions made during recent years (Iman 2017; Ramezani, Larsari & Kiasi 2016). The focus on the presence of any differences observed for EFL students having developed or non-developed critical thinking skills in relation to their ability to learn English and improve the proficiency level is an approach that adds to the existing research on the correlation between critical thinking in performance in English learning.

However, it is also important to pay attention to the fact that the limitations of this study are in the fact that the selected sample and the applied methodology based on the use of the Mann-Whitney U test do not allow for speaking about the correlation or relationship between EFL students’ critical thinking and their L2 development in this study. This specific research is concentrated only on finding and discussing the observed differences between scores in EFL students demonstrating different levels of English proficiency. The recent academic literature on the topic provides the relevant background for discussing these differences in critical thinking levels and L2 development in the current research (Lu & Xie 2019; Pei et al. 2017; Ramezani, Larsari & Kiasi 2016).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The findings of the current study partially support the alternative hypothesis formulated for this research, indicating that there are some differences between critical thinking skills of EFL students and L2 development depending on their language proficiency levels if the focus is on the development of deduction and evaluation skills. These findings support the assumption that the development of critical thinking can contribute to the more effective mastery of a foreign language.

The comparison of critical thinking skills with reference to the L2 development according to the B1-B2 and C1-C2 levels of English proficiency in EFL students indicates that there are possibilities that those students who have developed skills in deduction and evaluation can also have C1-C2 levels of English proficiency in comparison to B1-B2 levels. As critical thinking demands the high level of development of students’ cognitive skills, it is possible to state that the development of these skills can be associated with L2 development.

Still, further quantitative research is required on the topic in order to support the existence of the clear relationship between critical thinking of EFL students and their English proficiency level to conclude about their L2 development. In spite of the fact that the researcher observed a definite difference in the level of critical thinking and the knowledge of English as a foreign language in Group 2 students compared to Group 1 students, there is still a need for determining how the overall development of critical thinking in EFL learners can be associated with their progress in English.

A further an in-depth examination of critical thinking skills that can lead to the more efficient development of specific professional industry knowledge and competencies can be vital. From this perspective, it is important to discuss the contribution of this study to theory and practice related to Applied Linguistics with reference to certain recommendations.

The contribution of this study to theory is in the fact that it supports the necessity for the further research on the relationship between interpretation, making assumptions, and inference skills in EFL students and their progress in language learning. Furthermore, this study provides implications for the field of Applied Linguistics with reference to improving teaching and learning practices to be used for EFL students.

Thus, referring to the study results, it is possible to recommend the application of activities that stimulate the development of students’ critical thinking skills in order to promote their active interest in learning English, practicing, problem-solving, making conclusions, and making decisions. As a result, it possible to expect that those students who know how to think critically can also change their approach to learning the language and improve their results.

In order to promote critical thinking during English lessons for EFL students, it is possible to apply different techniques that are proposed in the context of Applied Linguistics and can contribute to the progress of students’ critical skills and L2 development. The mental map technique as a graphical way to record information in hierarchies can be used during the initial phases of a lesson, when an instructor, having enunciated the topic, commences to systematise the existing knowledge on the subject with the students, and arrange the information on the cells in the hierarchy. This technique is extensively used in teaching foreign languages, as it allows for grouping lexical units into associative groups conveniently while indicating semantic connections between these groups.

It is also possible to promote the application of the multi-level cascading knowledge map technique. The maps should be filled by the acquired information after the discussions are completed. This method is beneficial for determining the significance of gained information. It also allows EFL students to organise the knowledge that was acquired throughout the whole course. All these techniques (the mental map, concept diagram, multi-level cascading map of knowledge) can be viewed as related to ontological models of data visualisation (visual cognitive maps).

They also represent what manifold correlations different clusters of knowledge and information have with each other. The mental map, for instance, allows one to show a tree-like hierarchical correlation of the pieces of information. These relationships help EFL students group lexical units that are semantically subordinate to each other. They also allow students to learn more about the subject through the initial analysis of general concepts and the further exploration of sophisticated notions.

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Appendix A

The skewed distribution of the test scores for Group 1 and Group 2.
Figure 1: The skewed distribution of the test scores for Group 1 and Group 2.