Critical Thinking Skills

Critical Thinking is all about learning how to ask yourself the right questions.

Essay writing at A Level and degree level requires ability to analyse ideas and information and organise these mentally according to the specific type of academic argument required for any given assignment. This can be very difficult for dyslexic students. While some students work out how to harness complex thoughts for this process without being taught how to do so explicitly, many dyslexic students benefit from being shown that there is a clear process that can be followed to develop their analytical thinking.

Being aware that there are different ways to develop essays depending on what type of argument is required by each assignment can be very helpful for dyslexic students or students with other SpLDs. As can using checklists of useful steps to follow when researching, planning, organising and checking extended written work. This way of working can be described as using Critical Thinking skills. The tips below summarise some of the ways to use Critical Thinking to make essay writing more manageable.

Using Critical Thinking for Written Assignments

1 In order to “Understand the Question”, refer to all of the following before diving in:

– Lecture notes

– Clarification from tutor

– Advice from classmates

– Uni of Kent guidance:

– Uni of Leicester guidance on question terminology:

(Other universities also give guidance. These are just examples.)

As part of this stage of preparation:

Identify the PURPOSE of the writing (i.e. it will not be “to get a good essay mark”, but something like, “to demonstrate understanding of …..”

Identify the intended READER for your essay – this helps to determine the level of detail and technical language you need to go into. ( e.g. Are you writing for the tutor/ an expert in your subject, or does the question ask you to explain something to a layman?)

2 Next, you need to “Identify the Type of Argument”

(Your “argument” is your written assertion/ claim/ statement of opinion together with the evidence you have found in support of your point of view).

Choose from frequent types of argument the question might ask for:

– Schematic Argument: have you been asked to break down a concept or idea, in order to simplify/explain it?

– Experimental Argument: have you been asked to argue “What would Happen If …”?

– Problem Solving Argument: have you been asked to identify a problem & a solution to that problem, then to explain how you would implement & evaluate the solution?

– Comparison Argument: have you been asked to describe advantages/disadvantages or similarities/differences between two concepts?

– Prioritisation Argument: have you been asked to choose which element of a solution is most important/ most effective?

– Cause & Effect Argument: have you been asked to state the cause and effect of an event/ action/ process?

– Developmental Argument: is your task to outline the development stages of a process/ state of being?

– Synthesis Argument: have you been tasked with combining two or more arguments or concepts to make something new?

– Combative Argument: is the assignment to deconstruct an argument logically, according to evidence available to you?

– Moral/ Ethical Argument: is this a case of identifying what is right or wrong?

– Philosophical Argument: Is the task to explore the fundamentals of a belief/ approach

– Applying Standards Argument: have you been asked to use guidelines / standards to critique a process/ topic

3 Choose the appropriate Essay Structure for your type of argument – there are recognised essay plan structures for each different type of argument.

By familiarising yourself with the nature of your type of argument, you have made planning your essay easier. It is not always a case of need for creating a structure from scratch each time. Following a recognised template structure can be very effective.

Map your argument visually (e.g. using Mind Map), using the Typical Structure for that type of argument.

Stella Cottrell’s Critical Thinking Skills book (MacMillan Education) outlines how you can map different types of argument to different types of essay structure.

4 Once you have an idea of what structure you will follow, start collecting evidence for your research phase.

Collect, Read, Analyse & Record Evidence from Source Materials

Use a template Source Material Analysis Sheet to take notes of information you learn when researching, to make it easier to include references and specific quotes when writing finished pieces.

A source material template could be a copied A 4 sheet on which you include reference to and space to record: title of publication; author; date of publication; publisher; summary of author’s argument; relevance of source to essay; page numbers of useful quotes)

Use self questioning to get the most out of source texts. For example, actively ask yourself:

I) Where you have heard similar ideas before? How might this be linked to what you know already?

II) How might a specific fact, reference or opinion be important for your essay?

III) How credible is an assertion/claim being made by the author?

IV) How exactly can what you are reading be applied to the subject you are exploring?

Critical Thinking is primarily learning to constantly ask open questions to understand concepts, to develop new ideas and to produce rigorous, logical arguments.)

Always take considerable time looking at how points of view and evidence in source material might support your argument, rather than just reading without specific focus.

5 Overcome Belief Preservation when Reading Sources

This means, make sure you are not interpreting what you read in a way which is coloured by what you already think. Keep an open mind.

For a thorough academic argument, you need to make sure you:

– Don’t just look for evidence for your existing belief

– Don’t avoid/ dismiss evidence which contradicts your belief. Look closely at it

– Rate evidence equally, whether it supports or contradicts your belief

– Change your belief if necessary!

Overcoming a natural instinct to look for evidence for what you already believe is an essential part of Critical Thinking theory.

6 When you have done your research, you can start a detailed plan

Plan out your points, within your chosen Argument Structure, using your source evidence. Here are some ideas you could use:

– A2 paper & stick post its on it with points from different sources. You can then move them around.

– Or use a whiteboard, use arrows to change organisation as you develop thinking. Take a photo of the plan, especially if you make several attempts and rub them off each time.

– Or use an online planning tool.

Put source references on the plan now! It is much easier than trying to do it later!

Make sure you are following an appropriate structure for the type of argument being developed when working on paper or whiteboard (or with an online planning tool.)

Keep referring to the question as you plan, using self questioning:

– Am I focused on the main issue?

– How is this evidence relevant? Have I recorded it in the right place on the plan?

– Am I forgetting a viewpoint I should consider? What else is there to think about?

– Is this the right level of detail? Do I need more? Less? Whom am I writing for?

– What facts from sources/ my knowledge, help me answer the question? Have I included all the useful bits I found? Have I included bits that weren’t as useful as I thought?

– Have I got diverted from the main task? If so, what needs to come out?

7 Finally, when you have collected all your data, arranged in an appropriate structure, you can plan out each individual paragraph:

– Make your Point

– Give your Explanation of the point

– Provide the Evidence for what you are saying

– Make an Evaluation of how secure your evidence and assertion is

– Reaffirm your Point & lead into your next paragraph, using signposting words (n.b. * Very useful signposting words to move from one point to another can be found at :

Always include references to source material and quotes as you go along (at least page number and name so you can easily go back for all information for references). This is much easier and less time consuming (really!) than going through it all again.

8 Then you are ready to Check and proofread. This is the Evaluate stage of your essay:

– Check each part of the argument against the original question

– Check themes/ evidence are grouped effectively

– Ask someone else to read/ check it – Take their feedback into account, but don’t make changes without checking their comments are valid. Different people will have different types of feedback which is useful.

– Take time when checking, to consider how points of view and evidence in source material support your argument: Have you got the right balance? Should you add something? Should you reduce the emphasis of a particular source which may not be in line with the key messages required in the question?


The information above is a very useful checklist of steps to go through when approaching a daunting extended academic essay. Don’t forget to ask for help from as many valid sources as possible. Don’t make any assumptions early on, which could damage the effectiveness of all your work. Leave yourself enough time. Be prepared to do multiple versions, and to take time, with breaks in between. This is a lengthy process that cannot be done in a couple of days.

FREE Speech & language, OT & other SEN resources for families – ChatterPack

This is a useful list of resources for a wide variety of SpLDs often co-occurring with dyslexia, aimed at parents as well as schools, and the resources are free to use. The list was published in March 2020 and the information was updated in April 2020.

— Read on

Home Learning | Monster Phonics

Home Learning | Monster Phonics

These are phonics resources and activities in line with the UK curriculum. They can help parents when home schooling and are dyslexia friendly. There are opportunities to learn in a multi-sensory way and to use repetition to embed learning. And they are fund: the best way to make learning secure.

— Read on

Phonics and Pre-Literacy Skills

What is Phonics?

Phonics is the system of mapping letters onto sounds to read and vice versa to spell. Children learn “Letter-Sound Links” in early education – the relationships between letters and sounds, in order to be able to read and spell. Phonics shows learners what sounds individual letters make in different circumstances, when combined with other letters, for example.

Dyslexic children can find it difficult to identify and differentiate between sounds. They can confuse some of the sounds they hear. Mispronounce them. Jumble sounds in some words. This is clearly going to make it harder to acquire phonics.

Children can learn to read words by sight, recalling what each word looks like, in order to identify it. They can learn to remember the visual shape of words and to visually recognise patterns of letters when spelling. But it would be impossible to know all of the individual words you would need when you are reading and spelling at an advanced level. That would be too many words. That is where phonics comes in. Understanding the rules for how letters and combinations of letters translate into sounds, is what enables good readers to read fluently and to read words they have never seen before. Children with secure phonic skills can recognise patterns quickly and can automatically move from what they hear to what they see or write.

Why can dyslexic children struggle with phonics?

Dyslexia usually involves weaknesses in the type of processing required to manipulate sounds in words. That is an underlying weakness in exactly the skills being learned.

But dyslexia can also involve slow processing of sound information, which means that if teachers cover new concepts very quickly, they may miss bits. And when there are gaps in knowledge, that will clearly cause problems. And dyslexia can also involve difficulty remembering sound information, so if teachers move swiftly on from teaching one letter-sound link to another, a dyslexic student may not have practised it enough, to have secured that knowledge in their long term memory.

Can dyslexic children learn phonic skills?

Just because dyslexic children may find it more difficult than others to learn phonics, does not mean they cannot do it. They may need longer to learn. They may need to learn in a different way.

Multi-sensory teaching and learning, often offered by specialist dyslexia teachers, can include seeing, doing or touching at the same time as saying or hearing. Learning something in more than one way at the same time is the same as multiple repetitions. It is like doing it more than once. It can even be better than that, as using visual ways to learn, or incorporating touch or music even, is more interesting or fun, which makes information memorable and likely to stick (see page on Memory Strategies)

There are also several simple activities you can do at home to make it easier for young dyslexic children to be responsive to phonic learning at school, despite any underlying processing weaknesses which could otherwise mean that they could struggle more. These can be described as Pre-Literacy Skills.

Pre-Literacy Skills

1) RHYME Rhyme is one of the most basic pre-literacy skills. Recognising rhyming words makes reading much more efficient. So re-learning nursery rhymes and teaching them to your child will help them when they start to read. If they want to make up their own, however silly, and even with pretend words, that is also useful.

2) LETTER SOUND LINKS Another basic phonic skill is knowing what sound each letter of the alphabet makes. Parents can help teach this with wooden or plastic letters set out in an arc in the alphabet sequence, and talking to their child about the “names” of the letters and the basic “sounds” they make.

Knowing what sounds words begin with is also an essential skill. Therefore word games at home which focus on initial letters, such as “I Spy” set your child up better for learning literacy skills.

3) ALPHABET SONG Reciting the alphabet in order, as the well known “song” will also help your child. Sequencing can be difficult for those with dyslexia and knowing where letters come in the alphabet, will play a part in making literacy skills easier for them. So playing an alphabet game can be very useful at the same time as enjoyable: trying to think of animals or foods with each letter of the alphabet in turn for example.

4) MEMORY STRATEGIES Learning memory strategies, even when very young, will help your child retain phonics input they are taught at school. There are lots of memory games for small children, and they encourage children to work out their own ways to remember things. Kims game is always fun (putting six to a dozen different items on a tray, giving the children a minute to look at them and try it remember them, then putting a tea towel over the tray and seeing how many items there can recite. You can repeat to see how many more they remember the second time. They will eventually learn strategies, such as saying to themselves “You use this in the bathroom” or “small and blue” or “begins with “k”. “. Another game is: I went to the market and I bought …..”: children remember the list of items already bought by the players before them and add an item each time.

5) FAMILIARITY WITH BOOKS Reading time with parents, to allow children to develop favourite picture books, is an opportunity for children to deliver other pre-reading skills: Which way up do books go? Which direction do you read in? What is a title? They don’t have to be able to read any words to learn reading skills this way.

And when your child does start to read…….

When your child is ready to start learning to read, and is on a reading scheme at school, but you would like to help them at home, there are phonics based reading books designed for dyslexic children that you may find useful and fun to share with your child. This is one example of a website offering such books:

This is a website offering free phonics resources to print out for parents who would like to help their dyslexic children make progress with reading.