Teaching Reading Comprehension Using ‘Think Alouds’

This afternoon I downloaded (full of nerdy excitement) the winter ePub available to members of PETAA. The Winter release for 2015 is Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton’s Put It In Writing: Context, Text and Language, a book that explores how texts work and provides teaching and learning sequences and strategies for a range imaginative, informative and persuasive texts.

After reading through the introductory chapter, I cast my eye over the reference list, and one of the links caught my eye. Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s 2003 chapter “Navigating Meaning: Using Think Alouds to Help Readers Monitor Comprehension” focuses on supporting students to develop their inferential skills using explicit strategies and teacher modelling.

When students first arrive at secondary school, it is very easy for us to make the assumption that they must be, after seven prior years of schooling, fluent readers. For some students this assumption is true – they have strong skills in making multi-layered meaning from the words that they read on the page. This leads to a tradition of programming – especially in the secondary English curriculum – that tends to be based heavily on writing and doesn’t necessarily explicitly address reading skills. Weaker readers may be able to read the sounds of the words, but often struggle to read beyond the literal, to make connections between the text and what it is saying (or not saying) about the real world. Indeed, these inferential reading skills have appeared regularly in initial PAT-R data as an area in which my incoming students have needed support. As Wilhelm comments about a struggling student, “He could decode most words and thought that was reading!”

Wilhelm promotes “Think Alouds” as an effective strategy for accelerating the learning of these weaker readers. The teaching and learning cycle that we so often use to teach writing – build the field, deconstruction, joint construction, and independent construction – is quite applicable to teaching reading. Wilhelm suggests the following steps:

  1. Teacher does, students watch – teacher reads a text, verbally modelling a variety of strategies (think aloud) to self-check understanding when reading. Create flowcharts and lists and post in the classroom.
  2. Teacher does, students help – another text is read and students prompt teacher and explain the steps that should be taken to check understanding
  3. Students do, teacher helps – students read a text, taking over the comprehension monitoring process themselves. Teacher supports when necessary.
  4. Students do – support is withdrawn when students are able to use inferential reading strategies independently.

Wilhelm does not mention it – perhaps it is just assumed –  but I believe that just like the approach to writing, building the field would be a useful first step prior to teacher modelling. In his Reading to Learn pedagogy, David Rose argues that building the field prior to reading helps to reduce the cognitive load for learners when reading challenging texts, allowing them to focus on meaning-making because they already have a sense of what the text is about and understand the more difficult vocabulary identified by their teacher.

I am currently involved in an action research professional learning through Catholic Education Sydney that focuses on consistently embedding simple but effective activities for teaching reading within most lessons, rather than in isolated instances. Think Alouds are a strategy that has been modelled to us and that is applicable, not just in English, but across the curriculum. In fact, one of the most effective ways I’ve seen it used is in teaching students to interpret worded Maths problems! They can be adapted depending on the level of schooling, the subject area, and indeed the needs of individual students or groups within a class.

There is no absolute quick fix for struggling readers, but with a consistent and regular approach using simple and effective strategies such as Think Alouds, we can support these learners to successfully infer meaning from age-appropriate and challenging texts. This will in turn benefit their development in other areas of language and literacy.

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