Wednesday / May 29

Engaging Students Through Think Alouds

Like many teachers today, I sometimes struggle to engage the learners in my classrooms. My competition is fierce; I compete for their attention with technology, with the short attention spans, general distractability of young children, and with fads like Pokemon cards and fidget spinners. To engage all learners, I have to be on top of my game with the materials I select, the activities I include, and the instruction I provide.

One of the most effective ways I have found to engage all learners is the frequent inclusion of think alouds in my K-5 classroom instruction. In a think aloud – a tried-but-true instructional strategy – the teacher verbalizes the thinking s/he is doing in order to understand a text. Think alouds are transparent efforts to guide the sophisticated process of reading comprehension. They are meant to be quick explanations—not lengthy or convoluted extrapolations—of what is going through the mind of a proficient reader.       

Though read alouds are somewhat ubiquitous in elementary classrooms, think alouds are not yet commonplace. Too often, read alouds often become an activity that monitors comprehension rather than one that builds comprehension. We ask questions that gauge whether or not students understanding the text. We use turn-and-talks for students to make predictions. The benefits of periodic think alouds are plentiful; children who listen to proficient readers verbalizing their thinking outperform their peers on measures of reading comprehension. Furthermore, students enjoy think alouds and request more explicit instruction on what they can do to succeed in reading.

Why are think alouds so engaging? Because they provide students with a concrete model for success. In a think aloud, we take away the guesswork behind what skilled readers do to understand what they are reading. We show our students exactly what we are doing to comprehend, making it possible for them to do the same in their independent reading. Researcher Dr. John Guthrie has defined engagement as when motivation meets thoughtfulness. Think alouds motivate readers by showing them a recipe to successfully navigate a text in a thoughtful and purposeful manner.

I challenge us to do even better with our read alouds, by providing thoughtfully-crafted, purposeful think alouds while reading. The following tips will help teachers plan clear, focused think alouds, no matter what you are reading aloud.

  1. Plan in advance. Whether Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, every think aloud requires that you peruse the text and use sticky notes to mark “juicy stopping points.” These are the junctures that in one way or another invite you to do something as a reader. Infer, ask a question, lean in and take notice of figurative language, and so on. Next, examine each stopping point and reflect on the need for that particular point. Your aim is to write out a script (of exactly what you will say to students!) of a dozen or so spots in a approximately ten minutes of a read aloud.
  2. Focus on a few strategies. My favorite reading comprehension strategies to use during think alouds are making inferences, identifying the author’s purpose, generating questions, monitoring / clarifying, and synthesizing. Not only are these the strategies with which most students struggle, they provide the most instructional bang for your buck.
  3. Provide a visual cue to indicate when you are thinking aloud. As I think aloud, I provide an explicit gesture that helps students differentiate between when I am reading from the text and when I am thinking about the text. To signal for when I’m thinking aloud, I point my index finger to my temple or to tap on the side of my head. With this gesture, students readily get that the words I’m saying are not found in the book, but rather are in my head.
  4. Use I-language to jumpstart your think alouds. These “I “ statements – as in, “I wonder if the author means…” and “I’m going to reread…” are the clearest way for teachers to give a model of the reading comprehension strategies that we are proficient readers do. This “I” language is a powerful reminder that a think aloud is not meant to be a time to ask students for their thoughts on the text or to mistake the think aloud for a turn-and-talk. Through “I” language, students begin to see how to apply reading strategies to their independent reading.

As teachers provide meaningful, well-prepared think alouds, they engage students in the process of understanding text – a process which is too often full of secrecy and confusion for young readers. When we give students concrete steps for success, our readers are more purposeful and more engaged.

Written by

Molly Ness is an associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education and the author of Every Minute Matters and Thing Big With Think Alouds.  She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University, and earned her PhD in Reading Education from the University of Virginia.  Her research focuses on reading comprehension instruction, the instructional decisions and beliefs of preservice and inservice teachers, and the assessment and diagnosis of struggling readers.  A former Teach For America corps member, she is an experienced classroom teacher.  She is the author of Lessons to Learn: Voices from the Front Lines of Teach For America (Routledge Falmer, 2004).  Her research has been published in national and international peer-reviewed journals including The Reading Teacher, Educational Leadership, Reading Horizons, Journal of Reading Education, Reading Psychology, and Journal of Research in Childhood Education.  She is an active member of the following professional organizations: Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers (ALER), National Council of the Teachers of English (NCTE), Literacy Research Association (LRA), International Reading Association (IRA), Professors of Reading Teacher Educators, Organization of Teacher Educators in Reading, and Phi Delta Kappa.  Her book, The Question is the Answer, was published in 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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