In the second article of her series on language for CLIL, Kay Bentley explains what 'Lower Order' and 'Higher Order' thinking skills' are and how they should be taught.

Photo of a child or children in a classroom who look like they're thinking about  something or look very concentrated.

Source: JGI/Tom Grill, Getty Images/Blend Images


Lower order thinking skills (LOTS) and higher order thinking skills (HOTS) are not skills which are exclusive to CLIL. In most ELT teaching as well as in course books, teachers and learners move from concrete thinking: the here and now; the real and specific, towards abstract thinking: the complex and analytical; the creative and evaluative. Teachers need to help learners develop both LOTS and HOTS. Questions which encourage LOTS are those with interrogatives such as when, where, which, how many and who, while interrogatives which develop HOTS include why, how and more probing questions such as, what evidence is there? In CLIL, however, learners are often challenged with analytical, creative and evaluative concepts as soon as they start learning subjects across the curriculum. Many traditional ELT materials don’t encourage learners to develop higher order thinking for two or sometimes three years. 

Examples of LOTS and HOTS in primary and secondary CLIL contexts

Let’s investigate some examples of LOTS and HOTS in primary and then in secondary CLIL contexts.
In the first year of primary science, learners can be asked a series of lower order questions to check comprehension: Where do plants grow? Which parts grow above the ground? Where are the roots? In addition to these questions, learners are encouraged to answer, ‘What will happen if they don’t have any light?’ (prediction before an experiment) ‘Why was this test fair?’ (reasoning after an experiment) These demand answers which show a deeper understanding of the characteristics of living things, an important scientific concept.

In secondary CLIL, learners are asked questions which, like those in primary contexts, tend to start with LOTS and then rapidly progress to those demanding HOTS. Examples from history include: What do these Egyptian hieroglyphs mean? Which symbol is used for a scribe? (LOTS) Does source ‘A’ tell us about the clothes scribes wore? Give a reason for your answer (LOTS and HOTS) Why was writing important to the development of Egypt? Give as many reasons as you can. (HOTS) 

Clearly in order to develop learners’ thinking skills, CLIL teachers need to be confident in their use of questioning, while learners need the language to be able to respond to higher order questions. This is a challenge for everyone.


Questions about LOTS and HOTS can be found in both parts of the TKT: CLIL module. For example, there are tasks in part 1, ‘Cognitive Skills across the Curriculum’, as well as in part 2, ‘Classroom Language’. Knowledge of LOTS and HOTS is important for those teaching CLIL in order that they can help learners develop cognitive academic language proficiency.

For more information about the TKT: CLIL visit the Cambridge ESOL TKT: CLIL website.

For further reading on Thinking Skills see Jean Brewster's free article on thinking skills in CLIL.