To HOTs or Not? Higher Order Thinking for ELLs

In 1949, Benjamin Bloom posed a taxonomy for demands on cognition—a hierarchy for looking at thinking in terms of the various cognitive processes that people employ for different types of tasks. More than 65 years later, that original taxonomy is still used widely among teachers who strive to create lessons and activities that help their students develop higher order thinking skills, or HOTS.

Sometimes teachers struggle to implement HOTS for ELLs because they have the misconception that ELLs can’t perform at those higher levels of cognition until their English proficiency is more advanced. However, accessing HOTS has more to do with the type of activity presented and how effectively it is scaffolded, and much less to do with how much language proficiency a student has. With the help of visuals, realia, peer interaction, and larger tasks broken down into concrete steps, ELLs can and will perform at all levels of cognition.

Three ways to incorporate HOTS into your lesson plans and activities follow below.

1. Start at the beginning. When you write your lesson objectives, be sure to incorporate a Bloom’s taxonomy action verb. Using verbs such as list, recall, use, create, interpret, apply, and rank will focus both teacher and student attention on the cognitive task at hand, rather than a laundry list of activities to check off as completed. Charts of Bloom’s verbs in English and Spanish are great for classroom posting or to put by your desk as you plan lessons. For use with digital and technology tasks, check out Global Citizen’s digital taxonomy verbs infographic.

2. Design activities to challenge students at the full range of cognitive demands. Using the same verbs in your objectives, be sure students are engaging in activities at multiple levels throughout a lesson. Students can sort pictures to classify items (analysis), evaluate each other’s work using a rubric or checklist (evaluation), or write about concepts in their own words (comprehension). A useful taxonomy wheel from Independent Educational Consultancy in the United Kingdom has the levels, the action verbs, and suggested activities to address each demand on cognition. It also has corresponding personal learning/thinking skills for each demand, as well.

3. Ask questions about a concept at varying demands on cognition. Instead of “yes/no” questions, or “What did you put for exercise #3?”, ask questions that require students to think in various ways. Inquiring about which invention might be the most important to a group of people, or which character a student would like to meet from a story challenges students to evaluate or synthesize key information, rather than simply repeating it. Adding question stems to your repertoire of verbs and activities will also engage students in higher order discussions that are critical for language use.

For a recently updated, truly exhaustive list of Bloom’s taxonomy resources for teachers, check out The Best Resources for Helping Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom. Incorporating HOTS into your ESL/EFL lessons can provide healthy and engaging challenges for ELLs and keep classroom practices more interesting for their teachers, too.  Let us know how you incorporate HOTS for learners in different contexts!

About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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4 Responses to To HOTs or Not? Higher Order Thinking for ELLs

  1. Hooria says:

    I want to create an activity regarding this, Like create an activity on lower order thinking, & also on higher order thinking.. So i don’t know how to make.. I need help plzz!!

  2. Hinda says:

    Thank you for this article. I have been conducting a weekly book club for EFL college students and using discussions to develop their higher order thinking skills. Much of what you wrote about is what I have been seeing and doing with my students. Thanks for the reassurance. Great job.

  3. Maria says:

    I think a well scaffolded class/activity could definetly guide students to reach and eventually master their HOTS. Thank you very much for this article,greetings from chile! 🙂

  4. Julia Atcheson says:

    Thank you for your post! It is most informative and interesting! I was just recently at a conference and participated in a related discussion about the challenges of incorporating higher order thinking skills into lower level classrooms. I think that referring to Bloom’s Taxonomy and remembering to build in all different types of questions is definitely a good way of going about this issue. Thanks for sharing the online resources!
    Kind Regards,

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