Sunday / May 19

Thinking Aloud

Just take off the top of your head! Share your reading (and writing) expertise with think alouds.

In our last post, “Developing Student Expertise Through Deliberate Practice,” Michael Smith discussed Anders Ericsson’s (Ericsson & Pool, 2016) findings about deliberate practice. For practice to develop expertise, it has to meet certain conditions:

  • Reflect the correspondence concept (i.e. the practice must mirror what real experts do)
  • Involve mindful consciousness of practicing and monitoring targeted moves of the expert
  • Constantly push oneself beyond one’s comfort zone,
  • Incorporate “procedural feedback” to identify strengths, weaknesses and ways forward for working to address these weaknesses.

In other words, you could practice 10,000 hours and still stink. You have to practice in particular ways to become merely competent with complex repertoires. You have to practice deliberately.

In one of renowned cognitive scientist Angela Duckworth’s many fascinating TED talks, she describes Anders Ericsson’s explanation of why she was not improving as a runner. It was because she was not deliberately and consciously practicing the strategies of experts (intervals, uphill and downhill running, striding) for focus areas of improvement (heart rate, endurance, cadence, speed)! Using “thinking aloud” to model deliberate practice with a focus strategy means that we will not make Angela’s mistake, and the practice we provide to students will have the desired pay-offs.

Research on instructional activity demonstrates that this kind of deliberate practice is rarely provided or promoted in school. That’s why Michael champions the idea of “practice in miniature” – a strategy we use in every instructional sequence in our book because it gives students repeated forms of deliberate practice in short iterations. This provides students not only with an introduction to expertise with particular reading moves, but with a visible and immediate sense of accomplishment and possibility as they move forward with improving their strategic reading and then applying it in ever more complex situations, tasks, and texts.

In our book, we promote four aspects of text that expert readers always attend to: topics, key details, genre (macro-structures), and text structures (micro embedded structures) in order to deeply understand how content and textual structuring work together to express meaning and effect. There are four rules of notice that help students to notice and interpret each of these textual aspects: direct statements/generalizations, calls to attention, rules of rupture (surprises and shifts), and rules of readers’ response.

“Thinking aloud” is a way to deliberately model, then mentor and monitor students in deliberate practice using the rules of notice to attend to the four essential aspects of text. As they do so, students are developing and consolidating many reading strategies that are also powerful cognitive and problem-solving strategies. (We’ve been using think aloud protocols for years! See Wilhelm (2013) for a full treatment.)

The power of instructing with think alouds is in the deliberate and concrete modeling: demonstrating how to notice that a strategy is called for, enacting the strategy in a context of real use (not a worksheet), and in monitoring lapses and navigating the inevitable fits and starts involved in expert reading. Teachers extend learning by mentoring and monitoring students’ deliberate practice with the same focus strategy.

In our instructional sequences we  first “think aloud” to model how to attend to how the conversational topic of a text is a presented to tip off the reader to what the text is about and what is at stake. Then we think aloud to model the interplay of topic and key details. Finally, we think aloud to model how we recognize that these key details are structured in  genres and texts structures like comparison/contrast.

Another huge advantage of our approach is that think alouds use real texts that are rich and challenging to provide the modeling, and the practice needed to mentor and monitor students’ developing expertise. Since such texts will come from units of instruction, the teacher and students get a “two-fer”, “three-fer” or even “four-fer” as students are taught and practice focused reading strategies of experts, and simultaneously learn content, monitor comprehension, discuss the text to deepen understanding, and much more.

Here’s one short example of how a teacher models expert strategies when beginning to read a new text, and in doing so gets her students into the game of reading:

The Great Fire 

By Jim Murphy

[Teacher thinking aloud] Titles are a call to attention. So I always pay attention to titles. I’m guessing this will be about a fire and a great one, the great one. I like the idea of learning more about disasters. It’s an important topic and we are studying about how to prepare for disasters. “The Great” is an intensifier, and I should notice it because intensifiers are another call to attention

The title is also a direct statement because we have a definite article and a judgment. If something is called “The Great” something, then it’s being named, and I want to notice names 

OK, I want to go slow now. We know that beginnings are always important and have a privileged position and give privileged information. This is a call to attention

[Reading] It was Sunday and an unusually warm ending for October eighth, so Daniel “Peg Leg…”

[Thinking aloud] I know names are important, especially nicknames. Why this nickname? One leg? That is another call to attention: Having one leg is a rupture from the norm. 

[Reading] Sullivan left his stifling

[Thinking aloud] Connects to title, heat. So this is a call to attention using repetition or connection providing a kind of through-line—that is, an idea that runs through the text, is repeated, and connects and develops other ideas. 

[Reading] little house

[Thinking aloud] So he’s poor? The author must want me to notice that or he wouldn’t mention that it was little.

[Reading] on the West Side of Chicago

[Thinking aloud] Confirms this book is about the Great Chicago Fire and where it started. 

[Reading] and went to visit neighbors. One of his stops was at the shingled cottage

[Thinking aloud] Shingles are wood, and we know wood burns. This is another call to attention using repetition and connection. 

[Reading] of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary.

[Thinking aloud] Sullivan and O’Leary—both Irish. This call to attention names as well as connects. I bet they are in the Irish part of town. I know that the Irish came to this country after the potato famine, and often lived together in the same parts of cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. The way the author is repeating details that connect to the fire give me a sense that the fire is going to start where the houses are all wood and close together. I can feel myself getting nervous already!

Notice how this short think aloud excerpt highlights for students’ transferable strategies like always noticing titles and going slow in introductions. It models activating background and setting purposes. It highlights three different kinds of rules of notice and consciously repeats particular ones like looking for repetitions and throughlines that connect details.

We’ve found that teaching the rules of notice for reading has helped our students generate and shape their own writing, to articulate and apply critical standards to the writing they read, to become much more effective peer responders and editors, and to become much more willing, independent and effective with their own revision processes.

The proof positive of learning is when kids give procedural feedback to authors and peer authors and to themselves – as this constitutes the move to independence. If students can describe what an author has done and its meaning and effect, then they understand how texts are mindfully constructed for these ends. And when they can do it for their own writing, they can mindfully navigate the challenges of composing. These are worthy goals indeed and thinking aloud helps to achieve them.


Wilhelm, J. & Smith, M.W. (2016). Diving deep into nonfiction: Transferable tools for reading ANY nonfiction text. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Wilhelm, J. (2013). Improving Comprehension with Think Alouds.  2nd edition, including DVD.  New York: Scholastic.

Written by

Jeffrey Wilhelm is an internationally respected teacher, author, and presenter who has authored or co-authored more than a dozen professional texts and programs that have redefined secondary school literacy instruction. He is the author of Uncommon Core and the upcoming title, Diving Deep into Nonfiction.

No comments

leave a comment