Keene and Zimmermann call thinking aloud “the bread and butter of metacognitive instruction” in their updated book, Mosaic of Thought. Using the various forms of think aloud helps students slow down, recognize and articulate their thinking over time. Yet many of us have just begun to scratch the surface when using teacher think-alouds and student/teacher combinations to help students improve their understanding of metacognition.
To help me, I took a Heinemann U class with Keene who recommended reading 10 books to practice thinking aloud in front of students. I couldn’t imagine why it would take so many books. I realized quickly that thinking aloud – our foremost metacognitive strategy - isn’t as easy as it sounds. I appreciated the practice. I wrote what I thought on sticky notes and kept them in place. I still go back to those old favorites to see what I thought the first time through the book.
Thinking aloud in front of your students with text in hand helps students see that all readers have to think while reading in order to comprehend. Using this strategy to model what you expect your students to say aloud or write on paper at first but think in their heads eventually is a critical step toward helping students internalize interactive thinking about texts.
Select a book carefully so that you can model one comprehension strategy at a time. Connect the text to the content you are studying or the metacognitive strategy you’re teaching. Pick a challenging text that’s just a little bit of a stretch for your readers, so they need one another to understand it.
Read aloud with the book in your hands. Think aloud with the text in your lap.
Throughout the reading, think aloud about one strategy you observed that your students need to have modeled. For example:
- Students need that extra visual so they separate “reading words” from “thinking about words.” Share how you think and gain meaning from what you’re reading:
- Share connections you make with the text: what confuses you and what you know about life that helps you become un-confused.
- Explain your questions and how you find the answers.
- Demonstrate how you infer or predict based on evidence.
- Model what you do when you come across a word you don’t know.
- Share how you gather evidence as you read to build an impression of each character.
- Explain how you use literary elements to help you understand the meaning the author intended (foreshadowing, metaphors, setting).
Also, be sure to laugh where there’s humor, explain your sadness where there’s sadness, and show excitement when the book gets exciting. You get the idea. We don’t want to let go of our love of reading while we’re demonstrating strategies.
Students stop and think
Eventually, include your students in stopping and thinking along with you. I call this activity a Think Along. You read and share. Then ask students to read silently. Call on several people to share what they’re thinking. Prompt your students so that they articulate their thoughts plainly. Plan on plenty of wait time and be ready to probe with questions.
Then ask your students to think aloud with a partner. If students have trouble getting started, then prepare their books ahead of time. Mark a light dot at the places you would like your students to stop and “think aloud”. At first, they practice the strategy you are highlighting. As they add strategies, they use the ones they know. As your students get comfortable with think aloud, they become more comfortable knowing where to stop and think. They can stop at any point – wherever they find themselves thinking.
Share the Think Aloud strategy with parents. Model it for them on Open House night. Make a video of you thinking aloud with your students so that parents can use them as well with just a brief description.
Other types of think alouds
Jeffrey Wilhelm suggests other Think Alouds that allow teachers to gradually release responsibility for thinking about texts to readers. In his book, Improving Comprehension With Think Aloud Strategies, Wilhelm describes the steps for many scaffolds. I have listed a sampling of his suggestions:
A. Read aloud / pause / write – Teacher reads/Student writes
The teacher reads aloud but pauses frequently. The students write down that they are thinking and what strategy they are using. They share their responses with one another and with the teacher. In this way, they see that each reader is different when it comes to identifying which strategies to use! Some strategies don’t work as well as others. Sometimes, students are in complete agreement.
B. Response form – Students Do/ Teacher Helps
The teacher begins the think aloud and then hands off the responsibility to another student. The class observes their peer explain his use of strategies and his thinking. The teacher can then take back the think aloud or ask the student to hand off the thinking aloud to another student. When finished the classmates (1) praise (2) ask questions and (3) make personal suggestions about the think aloud and how to make the reading more effective.
C. Open mind – Teacher Reads/ Partners Do
The teacher begins the think aloud as a whole class. Partners finish the task. One student does the reading and the other does the think aloud. Then they switch roles. The students try to “open their minds” and explain what they’re thinking.
D. Flag the text – Students Read/ Students Write to Prepare for Discussion and Assessment
Students can’t always write on their text. Teach them to use sticky notes to write their responses instead. They “flag the text” by placing the sticky note anywhere in the book they realize they're thinking about it. Then, they record what they're thinking on sticky notes. Students can color code their sticky notes: use pink stickies for prediction, yellow for asking questions, blue for visualization and so forth. By looking at the color-coded sticky notes, the students can analyze their reading and thinking: Are they stopping and thinking enough to understand the levels of text (overview, details and true comprehension)? What strategies are they using? Which strategies might they be relying on? What are they excluding? How deeply are they thinking about the main ideas in the text?
Another way to reflect is for students to put the stickies so they can see their timeline of thinking. Students can glue the stickies on construction paper in a way that shows their discoveries about their thinking (metacognition). Hang the visuals in the hall with the students' explanations, which makes for interesting reading as you make your way down the hall.