14:Think Alouds and Models

Thinking, and by extension, comprehension is an invisible process.  Because we can’t see or hear actual thinking, it is a kind of mystery to students how to perform certain cognitive processes.  We can observe the products of thinking—an essay, a speech, a response to a question, and so forth—but the processes themselves are locked in the brain and unobservable. Students who struggle with reading tasks may not realize that there is something they can do to grasp what they read with more certainty simply because they have no experience doing so and have never seen, or heard, the processes.  Telling students to predict is not enough; teachers must show them how that is done.  The think aloud protocol, often shortened to think aloud, is one way to make the hidden processes of the brain visible to observers.

In the think aloud, the reader must be aware of the cognitive processes, like those described in other sections of this book, involved in reading, pause now and then to think about those processes, and be able to discuss the processes (Baumann, Jones, & Seifert-Kessell, 1993).  In addition to voicing their thinking, some teachers ask students to write their thoughts in a process similar to the think-aloud (Wilhelm, 2001). When teachers think aloud, they model the thinking processes of competent readers.  When teachers model their thinking, students are able to “borrow” the thinking strategies they hear (Cazden, 2001; Wilhelm, 1999).  When students think aloud, teachers learn what students are thinking and where their strengths lie.  Students may also think aloud in small groups and partner pairs as a means to enhance discussion and model successive approximations of successful cognitive strategies for each other.

Step by Step

  1. Teachers can model their own thinking processes as they read by explaining what they notice and wonder about as they read. Read-aloud and shared reading are optimum times for students to model for students what good readers are thinking as they read.
  2. Students should be encouraged to model their thinking as they read to each other and the teacher. As they do so, they reinforce the cognitive and metacognitive thinking that is required when reading challenging materials. Teachers can learn how to support students who need additional cognitive challenges or who struggle with reading tasks when listening to students thinking aloud.
  3. Self-questions coupled with thinking aloud can help student internalize the thinking processes of competent readers. In self-questions, the teacher models thinking about reading by asking questions. Examples are: Does that make sense?  Oops, it doesn’t.  Did it fit? Yes, I’m on the right track (Walker, 2005, p. 689).

Applications and Examples

Social studies teacher Toni Kinsey wants her students to actively make predictions as they read their textbooks.  She uses the think-aloud technique to make her thinking about the reading visible.  During a shared reading, her students hear how she makes predictions and asks questions in the context of reading in progress

Figure 14.1: In her own words

This reading section explores the historical and human elements that have shaped present-day Canada. Knowing the origins or the cultural groups and the history of immigration will help prepare students for later debate and persuasive writing topics. I will explain that the strategies we will be using all year when we read. This review and modeling will include the goal of reading to construct meaning. Further, after hearing me model the cognitive strategies and practicing them, students will be better equipped to use them on their own and later will become confident in using them each time they read.

While reading the assignment I anticipate that students will have questions. I will model metacognitive processes by reading the first section aloud to the students. I will ask questions, make predictions, and clarify areas that I do not understand. Next, students will begin the reading assignment on their own after I remind them to use the four strategies in order to facilitate their understanding of the reading and to avoid passive reading.

Two questions that I will model in asking about the text include:

“Why are there so many European immigrants in Canada while only five percent of all Canadians are people of the First Nations?

How does Canada support the native culture and the different citizen groups?”

Both of these topics are addressed in the reading however the answer is spread throughout various sections. It will take some thought and time connecting the portions of the reading selection that contain the information. I will show students how to answer the questions by looking at the sections as a whole instead of separate pieces.

In the section of the textbook about European immigrants it is handy to look at the picture of the French and Indian war and see the suffering of the British. Without reading the selection students may predict that the French and people of the First Nations won the battle. Another prediction I will model is that the areas where most Canadians live are in the Southern regions. By looking at the map of geographic features my students and I will be able to predict the settlement areas prior to reading the section entitled, “Where do most Canadians live?”  I will predict aloud that the rugged terrain and cold climate in the North makes the newest territory, gained in 1999 by the Inuit, Nunavut, less habitable. Each of these predictions will become important to discussions later in the unit.

Toni Kinsey, South Meadows School, Chelsea, Michigan.

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