If you were to look inside the brain of an expert reader, you’d see all kinds of things happening: the reader is asking questions, making connections, monitoring his or her comprehension, and comparing new information to what he or she already knows. The reader is employing strategies to decide whether to re-read, clarify an idea, or skip ahead.
It's hard for students to know what the brain of an expert reader is doing. But the strategies that are so obvious to expert readers are anything but obvious to students who have never been exposed to that sort of thinking. It’s not as though students can watch someone reading silently and understand what is happening inside his or her head.
One effective way of revealing the thought process of expert readers is by modeling it via shared annotations or think-aloud. By walking students through the teacher's sense-making process, students gain an understanding of what they should be thinking as they read. Literacy specialists tout modeling expert reading as an effective instructional strategy for students of all ages.
“Virtually all Reading Apprenticeship teachers use Think Aloud to model the ways in which reading requires thinking of readers (including experienced readers like themselves), what it looks like to be mentally active when reading, and specific ways of thinking that students need to develop to be successful readers of their course texts.”
— Ruth Schoenbach, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy, Reading for Understanding
As with all instructional practices, however, the theory is often easier to grasp than the application in a real classroom. Here are a few guidelines to make modeling meaningful:
1. Be focused
Rather than trying to impress students with your mental juggling, focus on one strategy at a time. A think-aloud is not the same as a stream of consciousness. If you were to make students privy to every thought that crosses your mind as you navigate a text, the result would be an overwhelming amount of information. "I'm asking myself what this word means... Now I'm evaluating this idea relative to my previous understanding... At this point, I'm deciding how this example relates to the thesis." When students are bombarded with this much complexity, the result is that little of what you've introduced manages to stick. The only lasting impression you will make is that expert reading is extremely difficult, and that it's out of their reach.
The idea is not to intimidate students—it's to help them see how strategies are applied to real reading scenarios. Rather than taking students through each and every thought inspired by the text, the teacher should focus on a particular learning objective. Is the think-aloud a means of helping students navigate the structure of a scientific study? Or is it a way to demonstrate how to keep track of the chronology of a complex story? Limit your modeling to a particular objective to help make the demonstration digestible and memorable.
Takeaway for teachers:
Use your teaching objective to guide your think-aloud. If you are focusing on evaluating an argument, make sure that your think-aloud or annotating supports that one mission. This is not an x-ray into all of your thoughts, but rather a way of demonstrating how to think through a specific problem in the text.
“The act of teacher modeling and thinking aloud allows students to see inside the mind of the teacher to discover how decisions are made.”
— Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, John Hattie, Visible Learning for Literacy
2. Minimize personal reflection
Students do not need to see the teacher's personal reflections on what is interesting; in fact, students are often adept at doing this on their own. Sharing “that's funny!” or “I like this idea” only distracts students from what they need to be focusing on: creating meaning from the text.
A classic literacy study (Winograd 1983) that assessed the reading strategies of eighty eighth-graders found that poor comprehenders often used personal interest to determine what was important in the text. They retained what they found to be interesting or relevant. Good comprehenders, on the other hand, were much more adept at factoring textual relevance into their understanding of the text. In other words, good comprehenders pay attention to what the author is telling them is important, whereas poor comprehenders are often led primarily by their personal reaction to the text.
Teachers who emphasize their personal reflection in their think-aloud or shared annotations reinforce the idea that what matters in the text is what they find personally appealing. While this may be true for personal or independent reading, it is not the case for academic reading.
Takeaway for teachers:
Focus your think-aloud or annotations on the sense-making process, which is what students ultimately need the most help with.
3. Ask students to reciprocate
Teachers are not the only ones who should be revealing how they construct knowledge from a text. Whether the teacher used think-aloud or shared annotations to model his or her thought process, the next step is asking students to do the same. For example, if the teacher modeled a particular reading strategy using think-aloud for the first two paragraphs of a text, he should ask students to think-aloud through the same strategy for the next paragraph. Students should ideally do this in partners or small groups while the teacher circulates around the room to listen in on the conversations. Another way of ensuring that students use the reading strategy on their own is to ask them to record their thinking in their annotations. These notes can then be reviewed by the teacher and used to generate feedback on students' thinking.
Getting students to reveal their thinking enables the teacher to verify whether students are using the strategies that have just been modeled. It's not enough to assume that just because a strategy has been modeled, students are going to understand it and adopt it in their own practice.
Feel free to create scaffolds for students (such as sentence starters, a flow chart, or an outline) to help get them started.
Takeaway for teachers:
Once you have modeled a particular strategy, ask students to share their thought process and offer feedback to get them on the right track. This conveys that modeling is not just a “show and tell” but rather a way of showing students what they need to do themselves.
“Intellectual autonomy—the ability to make meaning without teacher guidance—rarely comes about without good teaching. Rather, it grows from habits taught and instilled by a teacher.”
— Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, Erica Woolway, Reading Reconsidered
Knowing how to think while reading is one of the most important things we can teach students, and that process is anything but evident. Students will rarely figure out on their own the strategies needed to parse complex text.
Giving students the opportunity to see expert reading in action can be transformative for students’ motivation as well. It’s one thing to see the spectacle of an intelligent person expounding his or her thoughts on a topic, and quite another to go behind the scenes and see where those thoughts came from. Seeing the construction of knowledge as it happens dispels the notion that some people “get it” and others don’t. Going from a growing reader to an expert becomes more attainable once it becomes clear that it’s more about strategic thinking and less about some inherent, exclusive, and hidden talent that only some of us have.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy, grades K-12: implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin/A SAGE Company.
Lemov, D., Driggs, C., & Woolway, E. (2016). Reading reconsidered: a practical guide to rigorous literacy instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.
Schoenbach, R., Greenleaf, C., & Murphy, L. (2012). Reading for Understanding. John Wiley & Sons.
Winograd, P. N. (1983). Strategic Difficulties in Summarizing Texts (pp. 1-51, Rep. No. 274). Champaign, IL: University of Illinois.