Standard Lesson

Developing Students' Critical Thinking Skills Through Whole-Class Dialogue

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
One 60-minute session (small class) or three 30-minute sessions (large class)
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Students take positions all the time. They defend their love of a television show or character with evidence or support that justifies their position. However, students may struggle to think critically about the books they've read and take a position about events from those books. In this lesson, students either listen to the instructor read a book aloud or read the book silently. (The book used in this lesson is My Freedom Trip by Frances Park and Ginger Park.) After reading, students answer an open-ended question about an issue that could have multiple perspectives. Students take positions, then identify reasons to support their positions. They then evaluate the reasons and draw their own conclusions. The lesson may be followed by additional whole-class discussion sessions that place emphasis on dialogue, eventually transferring more and more responsibility to the students for their learning.

From Theory to Practice

  • Dialogical-Thinking Reading Lessons (D-TRLs), in which students articulate their thoughts in response to literature through dialogue, go beyond the question-and-answer and recitation methods that usually deal only with literal thinking.

  • Students develop critical thinking as they learn to justify their reasons for a certain position on a story-specific issue.

  • The basic format of a D-TRL provides practice with identifying and evaluating reasons as well as drawing conclusions. As more responsibility for the elements of the D-TRL is transferred to students, they receive additional practice in formulating hypotheses and identifying central themes and issues
  • When students have opportunities to pose questions, they assume more responsibility for determining what needs to be understood and for directing their own learning processes.

  • Literature discussions based on student-posed questions address an array of reading, writing, and oral language core curriculum objectives.

  • When student questioning reigns in literature discussions, students generate many questions, help one another clarify questions, listen carefully to their peers, engage in critical thinking, and appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their own questions.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • My Freedom Trip by Frances Park and Ginger Park (Boyds Mills Press, 1998)

  • Chart paper, board, or overhead




1. You may want to provide your students with some background information about the situation between North and South Korea before and during the Korean War. This background information may help students better understand and relate to the young girl in the story.

The following webpages may be useful for background information:

2. Depending on text availability and whether students will be reading silently or whether you will be reading the book aloud, have one copy of My Freedom Trip per student or one copy for the class.

3. Make a Central Question Chart on chart paper, the board, or overhead that includes the central question, two possible positions, and room for supporting reasons. Include two columns for evaluating the supporting reasons.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Develop and demonstrate critical thinking skills as they take positions in response to a question, consider other viewpoints, identify reasons in support of their positions, evaluate supporting reasons for truth and acceptability, and draw final conclusions based on discussion

  • Take responsibility for their own learning and for evaluating their own thoughts

  • Participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical persons in respectful dialogue with one another

Instruction and Activities

Before reading (15 minutes)
Open the lesson with an informal discussion of what students already know about the Korean War. Tell them that they will be reading and discussing a book about one girl's experience during that war. Can they make predictions about the book based on its title and cover and what they already know about the war?

Let students know that after reading the book, they're going to be asked a question that will take the whole class to answer-and everyone's answer could be different. What will be important is whether they can provide acceptable reasons to support their answers.

Reading phase (about 15 minutes, depending on the length of the text and the reading comprehension method you use)
Depending on your students' needs and the availability of book copies, you can read the book to your students using the guided reading approach, have the students partner/group read, or have the students read silently. The important thing to consider when conducting the reading phase is to make sure students understand the text entirely. This will allow them to fully participate in the discussion phase to follow.

  • With the guided reading approach, intermittent discussion should take place. The discussion breaks should be informal and focus on sharing an understanding of what is happening in the text.

  • If you use another approach, check in with the individuals or groups to ensure understanding by asking questions during or after the reading. Keep the questions focused for now on students' comprehension of the book, making sure everyone understands the basic story well enough to be able to participate in the discussion phase to follow.

Discussion phase (30 to 60 minutes, depending on class size)
There are four basic components to this part of the lesson:

  • Posing a central question and possible answers

  • Identifying reasons to support the possible answers

  • Evaluating the truth and acceptability of the supporting reasons

  • Drawing final conclusions on the merit of the possible answers

As students become familiar with the critical-thinking process, these components can be modified to give students greater responsibility for their learning. (See Modifications for examples.)

Before proceeding with the discussion, make sure to establish a few guidelines with the students. These guidelines can include

  • Listening carefully to other students' questions, opinions, and reasons and responding to them in a helpful manner

  • Respecting everyone's questions and everyone's responses

  • Agreeing or disagreeing, but giving reasons to support your opinion

  • Respecting everyone's opportunity to speak and waiting your turn

Central question. At this point, introduce a question that will be of interest to students and in response to which they will each have to take a position. The question should be thought-provoking, the answer to which can be debated. A sample question for this book (as listed on the Central Question Chart) is, "Why did Mr. Han try to convince the soldier to let Soo go across the river instead of himself?"

Once you have a question, you should offer two hypotheses (or positions) as answers to it. Record the two positions on chart paper, the board, or overhead. Sample positions are listed on the Central Question Chart. (Until students have practiced the subsequent processes of identifying and evaluating reasons, it is important to limit the position options for now to two.)

Once the two positions are listed, ask each student to decide which position he or she thinks best answers the central question and to be prepared to explain why. Let students know that they can change their positions after the discussion.

Identifying reasons. Have students explore each position by identifying supporting reasons for it. Talk to a student who supports the first position, for example. Ask the student why he or she believes it's correct. How about a student who supports the second position?

Get the students to begin talking to each other, with you acting as facilitator between them. This may be a good time to abandon a rule of raising hands; instead, let students dialogue freely but respectfully.

As they cite reasons, encourage them to use examples from the text, from their own background knowledge of not only the Korean War but any experiences they have had that help them understand the text, and from what they feel makes sense.

Record all reasons on the chart underneath their respective positions, even those that make little sense or seem wrong. (In the course of the discussion, students will be evaluating the truth and acceptability of the reasons. If you filter out reasons according to your judgment, it will deny students the opportunity to evaluate their own thinking.)

Evaluating reasons. After all the reasons are listed (and perhaps even as they are being listed), students should decide whether they are completely true, completely false, or are true or false depending on certain factors. As the facilitator, put each reason before the group for discussion and let students decide amongst themselves the truth and acceptability of each reason.

For each reason, ask students the following kinds of questions (and eventually encourage them to ask each other and themselves): What makes this reason true? Or what makes it false? Are there times that it could be true, but other times when it could be false? What examples can you give from the book to support a reason as acceptable? Does it make sense? Why or why not? Should we accept this as a supporting reason for the position?

Throughout this discussion, you may need to question the students or rephrase their ideas to help them formulate their thoughts. However, be sure not to put words in students' mouths.

As students discuss the reasons, record their decisions about the reasons in the truth column of the chart. You can use a 'T' for true, 'F' for false, and 'D' for depends. For the 'T' and 'D' reasons, mark what makes them acceptable: 'TXT' for text support, 'BK' for background knowledge support, and 'LOG' for logical support.

Students themselves may not know at first that an acceptable reason is based on text, background knowledge, or logic (i.e., what seems to make sense), but they should be able to decide if it's acceptable or not. As you classify the reasons, help them to understand why you are categorizing them as you are-that their discussion is leading you to figure out the kind of support each reason is based upon. Guide them in this thought process until they are able to tell you what justifies the reasons.

Drawing conclusions. After all reasons have been evaluated, give students the opportunity to say what their positions are based on the discussion. Has anyone changed his or her mind? For those who are sticking with their original positions, do they feel more strongly about them now? Also, give students the option to say they have not made up their minds (for the ability to withhold judgment is central to critical thinking). Another way to end the lesson could be to have the students write their conclusions and justify their reasons in a journal entry or a more formal writing assignment.


After a few lessons with the same book or subsequent readings, students will have had practice identifying and evaluating reasons for positions you hypothesize. Next, allow them to generate several positions of their own to new central questions. This will help them to develop hypothesizing skills.

After practice at hypothesizing, move on to allowing them to generate their own central questions. You will have to determine their readiness for identifying central themes and issues, but also, you can expect by this time for students to help guide each other in this process.

Another modification as students become more and more responsible for their own learning may include switching to peer discussion groups, which then report their results in writing or to the class.


My Freedom Trip does not have a great deal of factual information, so creating a K-W-L chart may help lead the class into a research project as an extension of the book. Ask the students what they already know about Korea and the issues that arose around the Korean War. Use the W column in the K-W-L as a springboard for research. As examples, students could research why the soldiers divided the country of Korea or why North Korea was oppressed while South Korea was "the freedom land."

Since My Freedom Trip has a theme of bravery and not giving up, ask each student to write a personal narrative about a time when he or she was faced with a tough situation, but stuck it out. Remind students that their stories do not have to be of the same magnitude and that we all face challenges, big and small. You may want to take these pieces through the entire writing process to publication.

Invite people who have lived through challenging situations to speak to the class about their ordeals. Send a letter to parents and community members to see if they would like to share their experiences. Students can respond to guest speakers' experiences through discussion afterward or in journal entries.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Observe the following in students:

  • Do they participate in the discussion before the book is read, as well as during the reading (whether using the guided reading approach or other method)?

  • Do they offer reasons for their positions that can be verified by the text, background knowledge, or logic?

  • Do they rightfully evaluate and dismiss reasons that are not acceptable or valid?

  • Do they participate fully in the discussion, giving due regard for differing opinions and viewpoints?

Provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate their critical thinking skills with the following assessment:

  • Have students read a new text or read it aloud to the entire class

  • Present students with a central question and two positions

  • Have students, on an individual basis, provide support for both positions and evaluate each as they did in the lessons

  • Have students give a written response regarding one of the positions

  • Evaluate the written response the same way as the journal entry (see below)

Evaluate student journal entries on the following (minimum) criteria:

  • Do the students justify their conclusions using reasons supported by the text, background knowledge, or logic?

  • Do the students' writing responses reflect your expectations for them?