• by Juanita C. García, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsleter • January 2009

Juanita GarciaWhat are critical thinking skills and how can we cultivate them in children? According to typical dictionaries, one of the many definitions of thinking is: to reason about or reflect on situations and problems we encounter in our daily lives. It is a complex process and involves many skills that we use when confronted with new and challenging situations.

As adults, we must share the process of thinking with children in playful and meaningful ways that support their critical thought development and facilitate their making sense of the world around them. This article focuses on one memorable story. Its literary and artistic value captures children’s hearts and inspires critical thought.

Capturing Emotions and Stimulating Reasoning

Sharing memorable stories with children that are centered on the child as the protagonist, or the main character of a story, is an effective way to capture children’s emotions, take hold of their imaginations, guide them to make associations with their world and encourage them to reason and make that critical thought transfer of “I the reader” to “I the leading character.” This is a vital experience, and it is in this way that the book captures the child (Gómez del Manzano, 1987).

Stories that are linguistically appropriate and culturally relevant offer endless possibilities in the classroom, giving students and teachers alike an opportunity to think critically and creatively, to contemplate new ideas, and to delve into a world of fantasy, adventure, reality and mystery. A timeless story cleverly captures children’s emotions making children’s encounters with reading pleasant and opens opportunities to inspire and challenge children to learn to engage and interact with text.

Illustrations can influence certain attitudes and skills associated with the beginning reading process, such as vocabulary development, experiential background, comprehension and mental imagery (Cianciolo, 2000).

El Viejo Reloj

El Viejo Reloj is a classic children’s story by Fernando Alonzo, a prestigious Spanish playwright and author of children’s literature. This adventure story is about an amicable little boy named Ramón who sets out to find the missing numbers of his grandfather’s old clock. The story is designed around three main parts and an epilogue.

The first part of the story evokes a melancholic state because of the death of grandfather. The boy never knew his grandfather, but after his death, the house died too and the old family clock ended up in a dark corner of the attic.

Ramón, the stiffed-haired, adventurous grandson, is introduced in the second part. The naturally curious Ramón is in the attic looking for a pirate’s hat and finds the old clock. Being a jack of all trades, he decides to fix the clock and notices the numbers are missing. The old clock lost its numbers just like grandfather lost his teeth.

In the third part, with wooden sword in hand and a snack of cookies and chocolate, he sets off on his courageous journey of finding the numbers and bringing them back to the old clock. But he finds all of them happy and content with other occupations.

In the epilogue, Ramón returns home but is not concerned about his failure to bring back the numbers because he knows they have a new life and have become vital to others. He resolves to paint other numbers on the old clock. And gratefully the clock animates the house again with its tick, tock, tick, tock.

Surprisingly, children stop to reflect on segments of a story that go for the most part unnoticed by adults. The metaphors related with the action of the characters are wedged into realism and fantasy, usually converting themselves into the most intense “bits” of text (Gómez del Manzano, 1987).

In El Viejo Reloj, with the information the author supplies, we can imagine the character of Ramón: he likes to play; he has a sweet tooth because he elected to have some chocolate and cookies before his journey; his hands are skillful and capable of handling any skilled work; he carries a sword, the symbol for vitality and strength of legendary heroes; he is understanding and generous because he knew that he couldn’t recover the numbers because they had adapted themselves to a new life; and he is innovative because he solves the problem of returning numbers to the old clock by painting new ones. Ramón is a hero of strong character, and this is the story’s principal theme.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the story, apart from the boundless imagination the author demonstrates, is the collection of beautiful and original images that the author uses to assign each number an occupation, in accordance with its naturalness, and that demonstrate the poetic talent of the author. The number one now is a harpoon used by an old fisherman; the two is a duck in a festive carnival booth; the three is a seagull on a famous and valuable painting; the four makes up the legs of a stork who lost his in a bad landing; the five is a speed limit sign on a dangerous road; the six is the protective shell of a soft snail; the seven is on a clown’s torn and tattered suit; the eight is a dark cloud that gives rain to a drought-stricken village; the nine is a lasso for a mustached cowboy at a circus; the ten is a child’s hoop and only toy; the eleven holds the crossbar for an athletic high jump event; and the twelve is the flute and the snake of a poor snake charmer. Each number has transformed, developed and adapted itself to a new life that each has freely chosen.

Children perceive the information in the story from their own individualism and convert it as the basis for thought and for comprehension. These “bits” of text facilitate the encounter of child-story and give rise to the multiple interpretations a reader communicates about his or her reactions and own information about text (Gómez del Manzano, 1987).

Colorín, Colorado, El Cuento

So how does a child’s concept of story develop? According to studies of children’s responses to the stories they read and respond to, a child’s idea of a story parallels other cognitive abilities and is related to general growth in ability to take on others’ perspectives. In reacting to narratives, children grow in their ability to compare their constructs of the world with others, and they learn to question whether their system of expectations is adequate for the future. “Storying,” in other words, is central to personal and ethical development (Applebee, 2006).

Children are active learners drawing on direct and social experience, as well as culturally transmitted knowledge, to construct their own understanding of the world around them. Children project themselves onto the author’s expressions and interpret them according to degree of knowledge, the atmosphere in which it is developed, their own temperament and character, and their motivation to read (Gómez del Manzano, 1987).

In children’s literature reading workshops led by IDRA, the child is the center of instruction, and we value the heritage and capacities children bring with them. We recognize the tremendous capacities all teachers have acquired through their years of experience and build on their strengths. Participants experience creative research-based instructional strategies that provide students with multifaceted opportunities to read critically, evaluate, draw inferences and arrive at conclusions about a story. Ideas for creating an atmosphere where students are encouraged to read deeply, analyze, question and make associations with a story are modeled and shared.


Applebee, A.N. A Child’s Concept of Story (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Cianciolo, P.K. Informational Picture Books for Children (Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 2000).

Gómez del Manzano, Mercedes. Cómo Hacer a un Niño Lector (Narcea, Madrid, 1987).

Gómez del Manzano, Mercedes. El Protagonista-Niño en la Literatura Infantil del Siglo XX. Incidencias en el Desarrollo de la Personalidad del Niño Lector (Narcea, Madrid, 1985).

Leyendo a Fernando Alonso por Fernando Carratalá, Profesores de Lengua y Literature, web site (no date).

Pradl, G. “Narratology: The Study of Story Structure,” Eric Digest (Urbana, Ill.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, 1984).

Simmons, V., and A. Gebhardt. “Concept of Story,” web page (Summer 2008). http://red6747.pbwiki.com/Concept%20of%20Story

Torrjios, C.C. “Disabled Characters in Spanish Children’s Literature,” Disabilities Studies Quarterly (Winter 2004) Vol. 24, No. 1.

Juanita C. García, Ph.D., is an IDRA senior education associate in IDRA’s Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2009 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]