How to Teach Thinking Skills

Diane's Quick-Start Guide

Learn the Essentials of Teaching Thinking Skills

If you want to sharpen your child’s intellect during the k-7/8 homeschool years, teach critical thinking skills.  In a Greco-Roman classical education, mastering the art of logic meant learning how to think with an emphasis on the operations necessary for clear, critical analysis.  Give him the critical thinking tools for performing a close reading of classic texts, experiments, foreign languages, and arguments so that he comes to a fuller understanding through directed self-discovery.


-- Teach Problem-Solving --

Problem-solving is one critical thinking skill that your homeschool child will use every single day.

What an opportunity for personal intellectual growth! Problems challenge your child to get creative and think outside the box. As you teach problem-solving skills, remember that some problems have an absolute right and wrong answer (math problems), and there are other problems with more than one possible solution (science experiments, historical analysis, and literary themes).

Organization is key to both easy and difficult problem solving. Before you get into the tougher problems, show your younger child how to categorize by color, shape, smell, or taste. Work on sequencing (putting things in order from first to last, smallest to largest, slowest to fastest) using toys, blocks, crayons, or even ideas in illustrated children’s books. Show your younger child how to solve simple problems, and increase complexity as he matures, and his critical thinking skills improve.

If you’re going to be faithful to the principles of a real classical education, you need to ask lots and lots of questions. Ask questions when you’re reading a book together. Ask questions when you’re at the store or playground. Ask questions when you’re doing a science experiment.

But not all questions are equal. The easiest way to tackle any problem is to start with the facts. Factual questions would be those four that start with “wh-”(who, what, when, & where).

The answers to factual questions are readily apparent in the text or parameters of the science experiment.

Next, you need to teach your child to ask two interpretive questions: Why? How?

Once he’s got some answers, it’s time to come up with possible solutions to the problem. Show him how to brainstorm with mind maps or a Roman numeral outline, and make sure he explains the exact steps to the solution. It helps to organize the steps in chronological order using the terms first, second, and third (or next and finally).

Although much of classical education for the k-7/8 years can be done creatively without a textbook, math is the exception to the rule. A quality, comprehensive math program is necessary for teaching your child the essential concepts of arithmetic (numbers and calculations) and mathematics (algebra, geometry, trig, calculus). Purchase a homeschool math curriculum like Saxon that will take you all the way through from kindergarten to high school calculus.

Daily drill with a math textbook isn’t the only way to teach problem-solving skills. Play math games to solve puzzles, riddles, and mysteries. Sing math songs to memorize arithmetic operations like the tables (up to numeral 12) for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Most kids really enjoy competitive play (even if they are racing against the clock), so use the kitchen timer when you’re testing his math tables, and make problem-solving fun!

Will you be intentional about finding real problems for your child to solve?

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-- Teach Argumentation --

Argumentation skills involve critical thinking and clear communication.

You might be reluctant to teach argumentation in your homeschool, especially if you don’t enjoy confrontation; however, argumentation doesn’t have to be combative. Reasonable arguments by reasonable people can be very powerful. Your child needs to learn how to look at both sides of an argument in order to understand all the potential problems, risks, and outcomes of concluding for (pro) or against (con) a certain position. Plus, learning the rules of argumentation will prepare your child to confidently defend his own ideas, humbly persuade others, and intelligently engage in persuasive civil discourse.

Argumentation is a system for reaching logical conclusions. A claim like “some pets are playful” is an assertion about something; claims can be fact (is it true), value (is it good), or policy (should we do it). A premise is also a claim, but it supports by reason or evidence, another claim. For example, the two claims “all kittens are playful” and “some pets are kittens,” support the final claim (or conclusion) that “some pets are playful.” Aristotle developed this type of three-claim argument, called the syllogism.

Premise 1: All dogs are canines.

Premise 2: Some pets are dogs.

Conclusion: Some pets are canines.

When you are teaching the syllogism, look for implied clue words. A premise could easily have the words “because, for, or since…” in front of it, while a conclusion could have “therefore” added on.

Evaluating whether an argument is valid is a matter of determining the truth of the premise. If the claims leading to the conclusion are factually sound, then the conclusion must also be true. Fallacies are errors in reasoning that make the argument invalid.

Learning how to evaluate evidence is another essential critical thinking skill. Teach your child how to tell the difference between fact and opinion, how to look at the quality of the supporting proof, and how to examine the credibility of experts or eyewitnesses.

Argumentation is not limited to the formal syllogism, though. Debate is another form of argumentation in which two parties take opposite positions on an issue. Unlike Aristotle’s syllogism, which is based on pure logic, debates often involve emotional appeals as well.

In competitive high school debate, two teams (parliamentary, policy, or Lincoln-Douglas style) argue an issue for the purpose of improving critical thinking, persuasion, and public speaking skills. The goal is a win. In civil debates, the two parties may never agree on the conclusion because of differing beliefs or even different interpretations of evidence.

Negotiation is another form of argumentation that will serve your homeschool child well in real-life. Learning the critical thinking skills of argumentation and the persuasion skills of classical rhetoric allow your young adult to discuss an issue, reach a common understanding, resolve differences, and craft an outcome that is mutually agreeable to both parties of the debate.

Interpretation, that is determining the meaning of something, is a form of argumentation that can be done alone (either internally in the mind or externally in word or writing) or in community. Solo interpretation happens when a child reads a novel, and she thinks about the themes; when she studies historical facts and draws meaning from them; or when she outlines a Biblical passage and reflects on a moral lesson.

Group interpretation happens when more than one person has a discussion about the meaning of an idea for the purpose of reaching conclusions or making decisions. Dialectical discussions (like Socrates had with his students) are simply ways of investigating the truth of claims in order to reveal contradictions in reasoning.

You don’t have to wait until the high school years to teach argumentation in your homeschool. Every time you read a classic children’s book aloud, you have a golden opportunity to start building critical thinking skills by asking questions about the facts and requiring textual evidence for his answers.

Will you teach your child to deliver argumentation in a polite, but persuasive manner?


-- Teach Scientific Method --

The scientific method teaches both inductive and deductive reasoning skills.

If you went to public school, you may not have learned the steps of the scientific method until high school chemistry or biology, but there’s no reason why you can’t start early with your own homeschool kids. Teach the scientific method in grades k-7/8, and reap the benefits of improved critical thinking skills from prediction to observation to description to interpretation to conclusion.

In order to be considered “scientific,” your method of inquiry must be logical, empirical, and measurable. Here are 7 quick steps to follow every time you perform an experiment:

Ask a question
Observe (gather info)
Form your hypothesis (predict)
Test the hypothesis
Analyze the results
Interpret (draw conclusions about the hypothesis)


Prediction is the process of thinking about what might happen, and observation is paying attention to what actually happens. Interpretation is reaching a conclusion about your original hypothesis. Performing and documenting experiments using the steps of the scientific method will hone your child’s descriptive abilities, especially if you show him how to break the entire process into small bits of info. Have him narrate the entire process using transition terms like first, second, third, and finally.

Make sure your child understands basic scientific terms like hypothesis, theory, and fact. In a hypothesis, we use preliminary evidence to propose an explanation of why something happens, and then we perform a scientific experiment to prove or disprove it with more investigation. In other words, a hypothesis is a specific, testable prediction. A theory is a general scientific principle that also explains why something happens in the natural world, but it is broader than a hypothesis in that it is based on facts, laws, and well-tested hypotheses.

In addition to teaching your child how to perform and document scientific experiments, familiarize him with the simpler laws of science through hands-on activities. Scientific laws are generally accepted reasons for why natural phenomena act like they do; for example, teach how gravity works by dropping objects of differing weights and sizes off the backyard deck, or bring a pot of water to a boil and talk about how the law of thermodynamics works. Laws are not the same as hypotheses because they can usually be explained mathematically and empirically.

As you are teaching the scientific method throughout the k-7/8 school years, keep an illustrated scientific vocabulary list or glossary. Get a blank sketchpad, and add terms like reactants, momentum, and measurement along with illustrations to explain their meaning, or a cross-reference to when and where you learned what the term meant. Add to it every year, and by the time your homeschool teen takes his first high school science class, he’ll already be familiar with scientific terminology.

Could your kid list the steps of the scientific method from memory?


-- Teach Literary Analysis --

Literary analysis simply means a careful examination and evaluation of a piece of literature.

When you first start homeschooling, you’ll read illustrated classic children’s books every single day. You’ll talk about the story and ask a few questions, but you can actually teach the beginnings of literary analysis from the earliest ages. Literature includes a broad category of written fiction and nonfiction works, usually having an enduring quality because of the timeless values and ideas broached within the text.

Narrative prose like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn tells a story using common literary elements like character, dialogue, setting, and theme. Teach your child that every good story follows a formula with a beginning (before the adventure), middle (during the crisis), and an end (after the transformation).

Typically, there is a hero with a problem…that is, something haunts, drives, or motivates him. In literary analysis, this problem would be called constriction. The hero is constrained by something, and the story is all about his desire to break free.

Opposing the hero is a villain who pushes back and wants to keep the hero from achieving his goal. The literary analysis term for this element of narrative prose is restriction. The story is all about the friction that arises between the hero and the villain as the adventure plays out.

With the younger child, all you have to do is ask factual questions when you’re reading a storybook about the hero, the villain, and the problem. When your child gets older, incorporate interpretive questions (why) about what motivates the characters and the meaning of themes.

You should also teach literary analysis on nonfiction works. Discursive prose is a logical discourse on a certain topic. Consider the personal reflections and convictions found in the famous 18th Century sermon of George Whitefield, The Potter and the Clay. Most sermons are expository (they expose the facts or opinions), and usually follow a 1-2-3-step organization or that of the argument with premises and conclusions. You can ask your elementary age child to outline the sermons on Sundays for literary analysis on Mondays.

Editorial prose follows a literary formula called the inverted “lead.” This type of structure leads off or starts with the most important facts of the news story. The 1925 newspaper article, “Scopes Monkey Trial Ends in Guilty Verdict” demonstrates this type of literature. To teach literary analysis on editorial prose, choose regular articles from the newspaper or Internet news feed, and see if all the 5 W + 1 H questions are answered at the beginning of the story. If not, have your child rewrite the article making sure the lead is covered up top.

Poetic verse like Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is considered classic drama literature, as are the epic verses of Homer in The Iliad. You can also teach literary analysis with poetry by studying structure (stanza, form), sounds (rhyme, rhythm), and meaning.

Literary analysis is an important component of an authentic classical education as it not only builds critical thinking skills, but also prepares your young adult for the challenging literary classic works of the Western Canon when he gets to the high school years.

Why not practice simple literary analysis with today's read-aloud book?


-- Teach Research Skills --

Research involves systematic investigation in order to establish facts or reach new conclusions.

Start teaching basic research skills during the k-7/8 school years, and that high school research paper or team policy debate case will be a piece of cake! Here are three questions to get every research project off the ground: (1) what are you looking for?, (2) where might you look for it?, and (3) how much info do you need?

First, decide on the topic you want your homeschool child to research. Integrated learning across knowledge makes for better experiences, so try to incorporate a topic that you are already learning about in your classic literature reading selections, historical contexts, science experiments, or even English grammar conventions. For younger kids, start with a simple factual question like “how do butterflies eat?” Teach your older ‘tween how to select a debatable idea, without clear right or wrong answers, requiring interpretation.

Next, brainstorm about what resources might give you the answer to your question. Do you need to go to the library for scientific journals? Should you research Internet databases? Are their professional experts in your community who could teach you what they know? Can you find what you are looking for in the dictionary, the encyclopedia, or the newspaper? Are there government records that might give you insights into your question?

Finally, establish criteria for how much reporting you’ll require. Will your child give an oral report about his topic? Will you ask him to write a short descriptive essay, a book report, or a longer research paper? Depending on the length of the speech or written composition, you’ll need more or less information to support your solutions.

Teach research skills by consulting a variety of sources including interviews, textual evidence, observations, documentaries, surveys, and analysis. Interviews acquire first-hand expert knowledge, and can be conducted face-to-face, by telephone, or via email. Have your child write out a preliminary list of questions before the actual conversation, but let her follow bunny trails if they are interesting and relevant. Do a mock interview so she can practice taking notes before the meeting.

Textual and documentary evidence both need to be evaluated carefully for facts, opinions, propaganda, and bias. Teach research skills for determining the reputation, credibility, and logical arguments of the information.

Observation, surveys, and analysis are three more critical research skills to teach your homeschool child. Observation is all about paying attention to the detailed world around you from insights about people, the natural world, and local events.

Surveys involve specific open or closed-ended questions given to a large group of people to reach a consensus. After the survey, show your child how to enter the data collected into an excel spreadsheet. Like surveys, analysis is a research skill for collecting data to look for trends, patterns, and relationships.

Once your homeschool child has collected all the info for his research topic, it’s time to organize it, cite his sources, and deliver his conclusion.

Teach research skills in the k-7/8 school years for better critical thinking skills.


-- Teach Listening --

Is your child a good listener?

Listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is about sounds, but listening is about making sense of verbal and nonverbal meaning so that you can accurately respond to the person talking. Unlike hearing, listening requires concentration, interpretation, and response.

You can actually teach your young homeschool child how to give his full attention to your words, meaning, and body language. With regular practice, he’ll become a better listener whether the speaker is there in the room or on a recorded lecture.

Concentration is a matter of gathering your mental effort to focus on the person speaking. Here are a few quick tips for training your child’s concentration skills:

Stop talking
Get plenty of rest
Eliminate distractions
Take notes or repeat what the speaker says
Never interrupt


Set the timer and start with 5 minutes of quiet conversation to focus listening skills. You might even have him narrate what he heard or write it down.

Interpretation is a matter of making sense of the conversation, instructions, or teaching lesson. Encourage your child to narrate his understanding back to you by asking you questions as the dialogue continues. Pay attention to nonverbal clues for meaning like body language, eye contact, fidgeting, and tone.

No one talks just for the sake of talking; a response is necessary. Teach your child to be alert for terms asking for agreement like “…right?” or “you know what I mean?” These verbal clues are opportunities for your child to ask precise questions if he doesn’t understand, disagrees, or is totally on board with the speaker’s wish or intention.

Focused listening is a critical thinking skill that will reward even the youngest homeschool child. Teach it early, and you’ll find your child becoming a better thinker and communicator.

Are you listening to me?  Good! 🙂