Guest post: Developing a critical thinking process model for literacy (by Brett Healey)

BrettBrett Healey is an experienced primary school teacher who previously taught in Australia and the UK before moving to Hong Kong. He is passionate about literacy and thinking skills and is undertaking a research masters degree in children’s writing experiences. Follow Brett on Twitter @MrBWHealey.

The problem:

Children struggle to make abstract worldly connections to events in literature independently.

The solution:

Provide a ladder for them to climb out from the book and into the world.

Background stuff:

I love sharing a quality piece of literature with children and my students love reading it. When children read enchanting picture books like The Watertower (Gary Crew & Steven Woolman) or The Lost Thing (Shaun Tan), they get excited about the depth of ideas and philosophies emerging from the pages.  However, they often get to these imaginings by a certain degree of teacher support.  It’s often the case that we provide students with leading questions to direct children towards the moral of the story.

Problem questions:

This is fine of course, but is it possible for children to do such thinking moves independently?  Is it possible for them to identify nuanced details in texts and elaborate on the meaning of life in the way an essayist might do?

The answer:


Here’s how:

First, I defined the term critical reading as the ability to examine the author’s use of textual features to convey meaning, and critical literacy, meaning the ability to identify the author’s ideologies and their purposes for writing the story.

In short: critical reading happens inside the book, critical literacy, outside.

I knew that older children could do both with prompts; after all, they have opinions and love to share them.  But I wanted to get them to make the leap from inside to outside the book as a skill for going about in the world, for questioning and examining the onslaught of texts imbued with motive and agenda.

Next, I developed a critical thinking process model (based on reading research) that provides children with the rungs of the thinking ladder to allow them to climb from the words to the world (with a tricky little jump in the middle), applying critical reading and literacy sequentially.  These thinking moves are used independently by the child.

The model:

Real examples are included from a student’s work on the Shaun Tan picture book Eric.

Thinking about picture books begins with observing closely all the little bits of a page in the way Sherlock Holmes might do: “You have not observed. And yet you have seen,” said Holmes to Watson when asking him how many steps led to a room that Watson had frequented many times, yet never counted.  I tend to ask students to observe three things in a picture book: the words, the illustrations, and the page layout.  

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 8.10.23 AMThey begin statements with “I notice…” and I encourage them not to offer explanations at this point. Naturally, they start noticing phrases that sound interesting, creative uses of grammar and punctuation, and repeated words.  They start noticing minor yet significant illustrative details present in postmodern picture books which contribute to a Holmesian style of deduction.  They start noticing the peculiar positioning of the page layout and where words meet pictures.

Eg: “I notice Eric is really small.”

Emerging from gathered observational data comes the next thinking move: wondering. This is the initial stage of book-level inquiry.  Children ask genuine questions about the book (I call these “small questions”) that interest them: “I wonder why this word is repeated.”  “I wonder why the character’s eyes are looking that way.”  “I wonder why the page is laid out on an angle.”  Children should write as many down as possible, separated into the three categories of words, illustrations, and page layout.

Eg: “I wonder why Eric is drawn like a small little person.”

To facilitate a dialogic inquiry method, children discuss answers using evidence to their most interesting questions with peers.  This thinking move requires students to analyse the parts of the book they noticed to offer answers.  At this point, they may begin to make connections between the three picture book elements.

Eg: “I think it’s because he is a different species – he doesn’t look human.”

However, the book level work is not yet done.  The next thinking move is to consider alternatives to answers generated.  Doing so gives children the chance to understand that the best ideas are often hidden beneath a layer of intuition.  I like to ask students to write down both their first answer and their alternative, and then compare using another thinking routine.  A key part of this move is to justify the final response because this helps them to understand possible author intent and motive before they make the giant leap to the outside (critical literacy).

Eg: “Or maybe he’s just from a different place – the mum says “it’s a cultural thing” a few times.”

Then, children form new questions about the wider world (I call these “big questions”) that is linked in some way to their book question.  

Eg: “Why do we often view people from other places as smaller than us?”

The final stage is arriving at a philosophy about the world.  Getting there can be a complex process of research and debate.  Often the jump to the wider world can be challenging as children are not exposed to it, so I get them to make a connection between the book and their own lives.  Children, especially the older ones, enjoy the final stage and often come out with a new appreciation of the world and the power of literature.

Eg: “I think we should be considerate of people who come from different places like refugees and show interest in the different way they do things.”

Try this:

I’m always interested in how to modify this model and I would love to hear how teachers apply it differently for their own contexts.  These are some considerations for usage:

  • How can the model diverge to focus on creative thinking?
  • How can the leap from book to world be made smaller?
  • Which stages of the model have the potential to lead children astray?
  • Would encouraging a non-linear process of thinking moves increase thinking engagement or add scaffolded complexity?
  • What activities can be used for each thinking move to make these lessons engaging?

Going further:

I developed this idea, and other critical and creative thinking activities, designed to explore picture books as part of my teachers resource Lifting the Lid on Words and Pictures available here (Australia only).  It walks through Gary Crew and Steven Woolman’s The Watertower for those interested in teaching it.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 8.11.26 AM


  1. Hi Brett,

    Thank you for this post. I have learnt a lot from it and look forward to implementing the model. This post and your book have given me a new appreciation of picture books (books that I only used to associate with younger years). I now see the tremendous value and potential of using them higher up in school. I particularly like the idea of considering alternative answers and generating bigger questions. Very powerful! I’ll let you know how I get on.

    Thanks again for your time and effort!


    1. Thanks for giving me the chance to share my enthusiasm for the power of picture books on your site, Adam. Indeed, post modern picture books are excellent resources for the upper primary years and beyond. I look forward to seeing what creative uses you invent with my model!

Share your thoughts