Critical Thinking and Beginning Writing Skills

Critical thinking is one of those key skills that all disciplines, ELT included, have been trying to implement in their curricula. This is because good critical thinking skills often require explicit instruction and practice to come to fruition. There are a number of different strategies that can be implemented to teach critical thinking, and these vary depending on whether you are teaching general or discipline-specific critical thinking skills, or even critical sub-skills such as critical reading. Writing seems to be perfectly poised for the challenge of critical thinking instruction. The authors quote Bean (2011):

The most intensive and demanding tool for eliciting sustained critical thought is a well-designed writing assignment . . . . When we make students struggle with their writing we are making them struggle with thought itself

Chason, Loyet, Sorenson, and Stoops (2017) looked at how to teach critical thinking through academic writing skills that are still focused at the paragraph level. They did so with a writing framework called TBSIR (topic, bridge, support, interpretation, return). The following article explains their approach, offers examples and instructional sequences, and also contains supplementary material graciously provided by the authors!

A Note about Formulaic Writing

There has been much said about formulaic writing, especially the five-paragraph essay, which is seen as a framework that does more harm than good, essentially hampering critical thinking skills while forcing students to conform to an inauthentic genre. However, most detractors concede that formulaic writing might be suitable for lower-level burgeoning writers. The authors justify their use of a framework by stating that the demands required by writing are many (spelling, grammar, translating, content, organization), which causes great cognitive load and reduces the availability of working memory, leading to an overall decline in quality of writing. They cite research from Ong and Zhang (2013) which found that writing frameworks can serve to reduce such demands, freeing working memory for other aspects of writing. The purpose of the TBSIR framework is to offer structure while freeing resources for critical thinking.

The Traditional TSR Paragraph

Crack open any writing coursebook and you will find the traditional TSR paragraph with its topic sentence, support, and return (conclusion). Here is an example from the supplementary material the authors provided me with, colors indicating paragraph parts:

In the world of track and field, there are three different types of runners: sprinters, middle distance runners, and distance runners. Sprinters run the shortest distances, in which the races usually last just a few seconds. Sprinters are often characterized by their tremendous speed, and therefore, they typically have large muscles. The second type, middle distance runners, run races such as the quarter-mile dash or the 800-meter run. A good middle distance runner must be versatile; he or she must possess a combination of speed and endurance. Physically speaking, a distance runner is on the other end of the spectrum from a sprinter. The final type is the distance runner. He or she typically runs races that are anywhere from 1,600 to 10,000 meters long. Distance runners are usually small and lightweight. Because their races are longer and take more time to complete, distance runners need to be mentally strong in addition to their physical strength, so that they can put forth their best performance over the duration of the race. Because of the variations, almost any runner can be classified by one of the three categories.

The authors argue that such a paragraph often seems too simplistic, mechanical, and abrupt, more like a list of facts than a cogent analysis of something.

The TBSIR Framework

This framework is meant to expand upon TSR, allowing students to incorporate critical thinking skills through “analysis (in the bridge) and synthesis and reflection (in the interpretation)” (p. 588). At the same time, it is meant to be a practical tool to facilitate the teaching of critical thinking. The bridge serves as a connection between the topic sentence and the first major support, allowing writers to avoid the abrupt change of focus while helping narrow down the topic through analysis. The interpretation, which comes after support sentences, answers the question “Why are you writing this?”, or as I often put it, “So what?” It forces the writer to employ higher order thinking skills in order to explain the significance of the support just written.

Here is the paragraph above with the bridge and interpretation included:

In the world of track and field, there are three different types of runners: sprinters, middle distance runners, and distance runners. All these athletes have different skills according to the distance of the race. Sprinters run the shortest distances, in which the races usually last just a few seconds. Sprinters are often characterized by their tremendous speed, and therefore, they typically have large muscles. The second type, middle distance runners, run races such as the quarter-mile dash or the 800-meter run. A good middle distance runner must be versatile; he or she must possess a combination of speed and endurance. Physically speaking, a distance runner is on the other end of the spectrum from a sprinter. The final type is the distance runner. He or she typically runs races that are anywhere from 1,600 to 10,000 meters long. Distance runners are usually small and lightweight. Because their races are longer and take more time to complete, distance runners need to be mentally strong in addition to their physical strength, so that they can put forth their best performance over the duration of the race. Although all these runners must possess speed, strength, and endurance, the type of runner determines what skill they need the most. Because of the variations, almost any runner can be classified by one of the three categories.

Implementing TBSIR and Critical Thinking

After developing their framework, the authors explored how to properly implement the framework into the curriculum. This included (from the appendix):

  • how to provide instruction
    • They decided on a sequence of activities that could help students understand the framework. This sequence was composed of:
      • Day 1 (75 mins): Introduction to TSR, analyze model TSRs, TSR activity, write a TSR
      • Day 2 (85 mins): TSR analysis, introduction to TBSIR, TBSIR model analysis, TBSIR activity, bridge writing practice, rewrite TSR as TBSIR
  • how to help teachers use the framework
    • It was seen as important to establish agreement on critical thinking instruction and assessment, so teacher  “norming” included time during teacher workshops devoted to understanding the instructional approach above, reading model paragraphs, and calibrating on a TBSIR rubric.
  • how to assess the framework
    • An in-house rubric was designed that rated each element of the paragraph, along with vocabulary, cohesion, grammar, and mechanics on a numeric scale with descriptors.

The Study

The authors also conducted a study “[t]o test empirically whether incorporation of critical thinking elements into writing instruction via TBSIR improves overall quality of writing” (p. 590). Students wrote diagnostic essays, learned about TBSIR, and then wrote TBSIR essays. The authors used the TBSIR rubric to evaluate the diagnostic and TBSIR essays. It’s no surprise that the TBSIR essays scored significantly higher since the students were specifically trained to score higher on the rubric. The findings of the study in no way empirically show TBSIR as improving quality of writing. All it shows is how successful they were in getting students to use TBSIR. Whether quality has truly improved cannot be established until a control and treatment group write paragraphs that are evaluated by outside raters using a rubric that is not designed for one type of framework but is meant to assess overall quality (TOEFL iBT, perhaps?).

Comments

I thought the TBSIR approach was quite interesting and useful, despite the flaws in the research design. Formulaic writing, especially at the paragraph level, is something that is taught in many composition classrooms, and, although there are justifiable arguments against it, it does help structure and simplify the writing process for students who must struggle with not only a different language but different writing conventions. The basic TSR does not take long to learn and the TBSIR seems to be a natural extension that builds in some critical thinking. However, I would argue that including one sentence of higher order thinking (the interpretation, as the bridge doesn’t seem to require much more higher level thinking) may not be enough. In my experience, each main point and its supporting sentences needs to answer the “So what?” question and prove the significance of the examples, explanations, and evidence through interpretation. I think increasing the interpretation throughout the writing will increase critical thinking and writing quality. The TBSIR framework is certainly a good start at scaffolding writing beyond the TSR, but it could be expanded to provide more chances for critical thinking and eventually, perhaps, the transcendence of genre.

Supplementary Materials

Thank you to LuAnn Sorenson for providing me with the following documents, copywritten to the University of Illinois.

References

Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd
ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chason, L., Loyet, D., Sorenson, L., & Stoops, A. (2016). An Approach for Embedding Critical Thinking in Second Language Paragraph Writing. TESOL Journal, 8(3).

Ong, J., & Zhang, L. J. (2013). Effects of the manipulation of cognitive processes on EFL writers’ text quality. TESOL Quarterly, 47, 375–398. doi:10.1002/tesq.55

Featured photo by Monoar (Pixabay)

Anthony Schmidt on TwitterAnthony Schmidt on Wordpress
Anthony Schmidt
English language Instructor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anthony Schmidt is editor of ELT Research Bites. He also has his own blog at anthonyteacher.com. Offline, he is a full-time English language instructor in a university IEP program. He is interested in all aspects of applied linguistics, in particular English for Academic Purposes.

Leave a Reply