Critical Thinking Skills as Easy as 1-2-3

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The numbers 1-2-3 stand for the formula I devised to teach students to develop and demonstrate Critical Thinking Skills. By following the 1-2-3 formula, I teach students to think about their choice of answers.  I came up with this strategy as part of my efforts to teach first year college students to answer reading comprehension questions. Historically, I have found that short-answer questions tend to ask students to answer in one or two sentences, which, I think, limit students’ ability to demonstrate critical thinking skills. One or two sentence responses do not really encourage students to explain how they arrive at the answer. The result is usually an answer that can either be easily found in the text or must mirror what the instructor expects the answer to be. 

Teaching the 1-2-3 Formula  

When I teach this formula, I first model how it works and then allow my students to try the steps on their own and in groups. The formula needs to start with a question which must be answered in 1-2-3 steps. This helps students to critically think of a reason for their response. Each step has a purpose: 

  1. The first sentence must directly address the question; 
  2. The second sentence must explain the reason for the response and include relevant, credible evidence (such as citing a source or referring to a meaningful example); 
  3. The third and fourth sentence (depending on the writer) must connect back to the first part to fully demonstrate critical thinking. 

Embedded in the formula, the answer must include logical connectors or signal words, which naturally lead to analysis (e.g., “This is expressedin paragraph . . .”, “For example, . . .”, “. . . which is why . . .”, “Therefore, . . .”, “As a result. . .”). 

Applying the 1-2-3 Formula 

The formula can be used at different levels of language proficiency, from beginners to advanced. It is extremely useful for second language learners but not limited to this group. Below are some examples; the number enclosed in parentheses refers to the numbers in the formula: 

Example 1: “What is your favourite colour?” 

Possible answer: My favourite colour is blue. (1) This is because this colour reminds me of my childhood when my parents used to take me and my sisters to the beach. (2) That is why blue is my favourite colour; it means happiness. (3) 

Example 2: “What is the main idea of the reading? 

Possible answer: The main idea is that women in their twenties can truly have a happy marriage if they follow a set of steps that can help them to become independent and confident. (1) To support this idea, the author lists 9 steps that stress the importance of self-efficacy as the key to a woman’s happy marriage. (2) This focus on a woman’s independence along with the repeated use of the words happiness and marriage help the reader to arrive at the main idea. (3) 

Skill Transfer

The formula 1-2-3 can be used for any situation that requires a solid response. Think of a situation when you are asked, “Why are you the best person for the job?” 

Possible answer: My TESL Ontario certification along with my three years of experience teaching adult ESL learners and commitment to professional development are qualities that align to your institution’s organizational goals.(1) For example, the last TESL Ontario webinar I attended about technology in the classroom equipped me with the tools and knowledge to design a student driven podcast project which gave students the opportunity to improve their speaking skills and then to add this as part of their PBLA portfolio.(2) These types of teaching and learning opportunities are examples of my commitment to continuous growth and student success, which you will find match the vision of your organization. (3) 

Research on Critical Thinking 

To avoid reinventing the wheel, I have researched this topic extensively. One article that I found extremely useful came from the higher education publication THE Campus. In the article, Professor Sarah Ivory, lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, explains that critical thinking requires that students consider the “quality of argument, strength of evidence, and clarity of communication” (Ivory, 2022). I agree! My 1-2-3 formula is one way to teach this skill. 

What is your experience teaching critical thinking? 


Ivory, S. (2022, February 19). How to teach critical thinking to beginners. THE Campus. 

Note: The source for “Example 2” came from McKinnell, J. (2010, June 7). How to get happily married. MacLean’s. 


Hi, my name is Cecilia. I love taking part in good brain awakening discussions. Blogging, I find, lends itself for that. I also believe in sharing my skills through scholarly practice, which is why I write regularly and have presented at several conferences, including TESL Ontario, TESL Toronto, CALL, and at Seneca College. My M.A. in applied linguistics along with my skills and experience have led me to my current position at Centennial College, where I teach English and ESL in the School of Advancement. I'm truly passionate about what I do: teaching, writing, creative expression, and helping my students (both L1 and L2) gain agency and take control of their own learning. Thank you for your readership and I look forward to reading and answering your comments. You can find me on Twitter @capontedehanna


2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking Skills as Easy as 1-2-3”

  1. I love your formula to ensure critical thinking. Clever and concise. Thank you.

    Jennifer Hutchison

  2. Glad you found it useful, Jennifer. Yes! The trick to critical thinking is in the simplicity.


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