Show Me Your Ideas

Do too many of your students struggle with reading comprehension? Do your teachers frequently report,  “My kids can’t read their books!”? Are you in need of readily applicable strategies for all students to acquire thinking skills—across all content areas?

If these challenges sound familiar, teacher-generated “think alouds” are just the remedy. In a think aloud, a proficient reader briefly stops and orally reports what he or she is doing in order to help others better understand the text at hand. A think aloud makes the invisible process of comprehension visible to students, so that they are better prepared to apply comprehension strategies to their independent reading.

Let’s look inside a 10th-grade biology class, where a teacher reads this passage aloud from his textbook:

“Organisms use energy to grow, develop, respond to stimuli, and maintain homeostasis. Energy is the ability to cause change. Organisms get their energy from food. Any behavior, structure, or internal process that allows an organism to make changes in response to environmental factors and live long enough to reproduce is called an adaptation.”

Rather than plowing ahead in his reading, this teacher stops and thinks aloud to improve the likelihood that students will understand and retain this essential information. Using “I” language, he verbally reports his thinking so that students have an explicit model of how to build their comprehension. In conversational language, he outlines:

I really need to understand that energy is what keeps organisms alive, and that energy plays an important part in this process called adaptation. I must remember that adaptation is the process of how things change.

This teacher faces a challenge common to many secondary content-area teachers—his students struggle to comprehend their textbooks. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, approximately 8 million students in grades 4–12 read well below grade level. Of those struggling secondary readers, nearly 70 percent struggle with reading comprehension. The challenges are complicated by the lack of reading comprehension instruction in the vast majority of secondary content-area classrooms. One study based on my research showed that in 2,400 minutes, middle level and high school content-area teachers provided a total of 82 minutes (or 3 percent) of reading comprehension instruction.

Research shows that when teachers explain and model a single comprehension strategy or multiple strategies, the reading levels of middle level and high school students improve. In spite of this evidence, teachers are often reluctant to provide explicit reading comprehension instruction in their secondary classrooms. Teachers point to the lack of instructional time and the pressure to cover content as barriers to literacy instruction. Additionally, in seeing themselves as content specialists, secondary teachers may feel that it is not their job to teach reading.

What Principals Can Do

School leaders can help teachers embrace think alouds as a readily applicable, effective, easy-to-implement  strategy for improving students’ comprehension. Building upon the principles inherent in the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework, think alouds provide teacher modeling and clear, explicit explanations of comprehension strategies. Secondary school gurus Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp explain that when teachers think aloud “in a conversational manner of a text, in a way that illustrates and scaffolds for students how to build the new knowledge and language about a topic and about the features and the structure of the text,” students are one step closer to being proficient at independent comprehension.

Furthermore, school leaders can showcase the body of research proving the effectiveness of think alouds, particularly for secondary students. When given solid models of think alouds, students were more likely to verbalize their own reading strategies and scored higher on comprehension tests. Think aloud instruction benefits students in readers of all levels, across different forms of text (including online), and all text genres. Despite the instructional value of think alouds, they are not yet commonplace in today’s classrooms, particularly in secondary ones.

Providing Examples for Teachers

When school leaders provide multiple examples across content areas, teachers begin to see that think alouds are not solely a comprehension strategy, but rather a thinking strategy.

Let’s examine a think aloud from a sixth-grade mathematics text. In reading and thinking aloud from the following word problem, this teacher helped her students synthesize the information to better comprehend the math skills necessary to tackle the problem:

“Jazmin had 1,209 dolls, and Geraldine had 2,186 dolls. If they put their dolls together, how many would they have?” [The teacher points to her head to indicate a think aloud.] Hmm … let me scan for important words that will give me hints about solving this problem. I’m getting the sense that “if they put their dolls together” is essential. If I am trying to answer “how many would they have,” I’m thinking I need to add the dolls from both girls. So, in a nutshell, I need to add up these two numbers to find out how many dolls they had total.

Now, let’s examine a longer example of a think aloud from a seventh-grade social studies teacher reading from the popular Who Was series. As a part of a text set about World War II, the teacher reads from Who Was Anne Frank? and outlines the conversation as we see in Table 1 to help show exactly what we mean by teachers thinking aloud.

Providing Language Scaffolds for Teachers

Some teachers may initially be reluctant to model their thinking and may benefit from sentence starters to jump-start the process. Table 2 showcases a variety of simple sentence starters that principals can provide to increase the likelihood that teachers will use think alouds in their classrooms.

Comprehension Adds to All Subjects

Addressing the comprehension struggles of our secondary students may seem overwhelming, but think alouds are a concrete, research-based, practical tool for school leaders to adopt across secondary classrooms. They are applicable to any sort of text—a textbook sample, a newspaper article, a speech from a prominent historical figure, a Shakespearian sonnet. When school leaders serve as instructional leaders who encourage think alouds across content areas, they develop secondary students who are metacognitive, who embrace reading as thinking, and who can build their own understanding of diverse text.


Molly Ness, PhD, is associate professor in the Division of Curriculum and Teaching in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University in New York City. She is the author of Think Big With Think Alouds: A Three-Step Planning Process That Builds Strategic Readers.