Teach Critical Thinking Skills: Writing to Describe and Explain

Do your students know how to think critically? Are they able to transition from descriptive writing to explanations? Can they suggest plausible causes and effects for social change? This ESL lesson exposes students to this kind of critical thinking and writing with built around chart analysis. 

Describing and Explaining


This lesson helps ESL students learn English writing skills by teaching them how to describe and explain. Aimed at low intermediate to advanced level students, this lesson should take between 1 and 2 hours to complete.

The lesson involves several language and critical thinking skills:

  • understand the difference between describe and explain
  • learn to read a data chart and describe change patterns with core vocabulary
  • construct a descriptive sentence with 3 essential parts
  • use hedge terms to be more professional, accurate or polite

The lesson uses a mix of teaching techniques:

  • front of class teacher talk with slide presentations
  • whole class Q&A
  • short writing drill with suggested answers to assess student comprehension
  • student worksheet with sentence writing tasks (and answers) to practice and review hedge terms
  • long writing task that combines target vocabulary, data analysis language and critical thinking skills


Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  1. Look at two data charts and describe patterns of change with target vocabulary.
  2. Use hedge terms to describe projected change.
  3. Demonstrate an ability to think critically by suggesting one or two causes of social change.
  4. Demonstrate an ability to think critically by identifying the possible social and economic consequences of a significant population change.
  5. Write descriptions and explanations of cause and effect in a well-organized, coherent 1-3 page report.


Step 1 Explain Purpose of Lesson (5)

In this lesson, I want you to learn and practice a few important writing and thinking skills. By the end of this lesson, you be able to:

  • read chart data
  • describe data changes with careful language
  • imagine the causes of social change
  • imagine the consequences – or impacts – of these changes

Why are these important skills for you?

  • These are language and thinking skills for the modern economy.
  • These are the skills that successful leaders have.
  • These skills will help you think smarter and communicate more clearly.

Step 2 Define Key Terms (10)

KEY POINT: Students learn the meaning of describe and explain. They also learn to:

  • Understand that explanations are often imperfect because we don’t have enough information.
  • Differentiate between cause and effect.
  • See the need for hedge terms to express the tentative or uncertain nature of an explanation.


Step 3 Key Vocabulary to Describe Change (25)

KEY POINT: students learn how to describe data changes on a chart.

These descriptions can be completed with a few simple verbs: increase, go up, decrease, go down.

This slide presentation gives students some examples of these verbs in use.  It includes a short writing drill. Students write two sentences that describe the change in a slide. Each sentence uses a different verb.

Suggested Task Flow

  • Review key terms at beginning of slide show including a basic sentence pattern.
  • Ask students to write descriptive sentences for 4 charts in their notebooks.
  • Ask a couple of students to write sample sentences on board. Review, critique and praise.
  • Review model answers at the end of the slide show.


Step 4 Introduce Hedge Terms (25)

KEY POINT: This slide show teaches students the meaning and purpose of hedge terms. It also provides 4 examples of words and phrases that can be used to write sentences with a hedge.

Extra Work

Students to apply knowledge by completing worksheet questions to review hedging. Suggested answers are at the bottom of the worksheet. 


Step 5 Bring It All Together (20)

KEY POINT: Students apply their knowledge of description and explanation in a short writing report-style assignment.


Students choose 1 chart from the slide show in Step 3. Students write up the following in 3-4 paragraph report:

  1. describe the change
  2. offer 2 or 3 possible causes of that change
  3. suggest 1 or 2 possible effects (or consequences) of that change

Steps 2 and 3 require the use of hedge words and phrases because now students are writing about uncertainties.


Step 6 Apply Knowledge with Population Pyramid Charts (30-60)

KEY POINT: Students apply their new found knowledge and critical thinking skills in one writing task that looks at 2 population pyramids.  

Writing Task: write a 1-3 page report which analyses the changes in the population pyramid.

  1. Describe the projected change between 1990 and 2015.
  2. Explain some of the causes of this change.
  3. Explain some of the consequences of this change.
  • Use hedge words.

Task 1 is fairly simple. You simply describe what you see. 

Tasks 2 and 3 require some critical thinking, Use your imagination. Think creatively.

Task Notes

The population charts are based on actual data for South Korea. No special knowledge about this country is required because most of causes and consequences are fairly universal and easy to imagine.

Aging Society Causes

low birth rate

  • why low birth rate – typical of industrial societies, two family incomes, the cost of raining children increasing faster than incomes

low inbound migration

  • why low inbound migration – nationalism, racism, mono-culture, difficult visa process

Aging Society Consquences

  • fewer babies means fewer students, which has an impact on future employment as a teacher, need fewer schools, school closures
  • fewer young people means fewer people buying things (old people don’t buy unnecessary things), this will cause changes to the entire consumer society and economy
  • more older people means higher pension costs which means higher taxes on the people who do work
  • more older people means more people need doctors and hospitals, which means higher medical costs which means higher taxes on the people who do work


3 thoughts on “Teach Critical Thinking Skills: Writing to Describe and Explain”

  1. This material seems quite thorough and good, and I’m excited about trying it out with one of my ESL classes. Thank you.

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