Effective teachers think out loud on a regular basis

The think-aloud strategy asks students to verbalize what they are thinking to help them externalize and process their thoughts. Find out more about the value of this strategy and effective ways to model it, including practical examples of what this looks like in the classroom.

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Teaching Strategies:

What Are Think-Alouds?

Think-alouds are a strategy in which students verbalize their thoughts while reading or answering questions. By saying what they're thinking, students can externalize and process their thoughts.

Effective teachers think out loud regularly to model this process for students. In this way, they demonstrate practical ways of approaching difficult problems while bringing to the surface the complex thinking processes that underlie reading comprehension, problem solving, and other cognitively demanding tasks.

Why Use Think-Alouds?

Key takeaways:

  • The think-aloud strategy is used to model comprehension processes such as making predictions, creating images, and linking information to prior knowledge.
  • Teachers model expert problem-solving by verbalizing their thought processes, aiding students in developing their own problem-solving skills, and fostering independent learning.
  • Teachers can assess students' strengths and weaknesses by listening to their verbalized thoughts.
  • Getting students into the habit of thinking out loud enriches classroom discourse and gives teachers an important assessment and diagnostic tool.
  • Research has demonstrated that the think-aloud strategy is effective for fostering comprehension skills from an early age.

Summary of the research

Think-alouds, where teachers vocalize their problem-solving process, serve as a model for students to develop their inner dialogue, a critical tool in problem-solving (Tinzmann et al. 1990). This interactive approach fosters reflective, metacognitive, independent learning. It helps students understand that learning requires effort and often involves difficulty, assuring them they are not alone in navigating problem-solving processes (Tinzmann et al. 1990).

Think-alouds are used to model comprehension processes such as making predictions, creating images, linking information in text with prior knowledge, monitoring comprehension, and overcoming problems with word recognition or comprehension (Gunning 1996).

By listening in as students think aloud, teachers can diagnose students' strengths and weaknesses. "When teachers use assessment techniques such as observations, conversations and interviews with students, or interactive journals, students are likely to learn through the process of articulating their ideas and answering the teacher's questions" (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 2000).

Research into the impact of using the think-aloud strategy to enhance reading comprehension of science concepts found that implementing think-alouds as a during-reading activity significantly improved the comprehension of science concepts in Kindergarten students (Ortleib & Norris, 2012). This finding underscores the effectiveness of the think-aloud strategy in fostering comprehension skills from an early age.

How To Use Think-Alouds

Think-alouds are versatile teaching tools that can be applied in various ways. For instance, in math, teachers can model the strategy by vocalizing their problem-solving process as they work through a problem. In reading, the think-aloud strategy enhances comprehension by allowing students to actively engage with the text, verbalizing their thought processes, questions, and connections.

Another approach is the use of reciprocal think-alouds, which fosters collaboration and helps students understand different ways of thinking. Think-alouds can also be used as an assessment tool to pinpoint individual student needs, shaping instruction to better suit each learner.

Think-alouds can be used in a number of ways across different subject areas, including:

  • Reading/English: The think-aloud process can be used during all stages of reading, from accessing prior knowledge and making predictions to understanding text structure and supporting opinions.
  • Writing: Think-alouds can be used to model the writing process, including pre-writing strategies, drafting, revision, and editing.
  • Math: Use think-alouds to model the use of new math processes or strategies, and assess student understanding.
  • Social Studies: During discussions on complex topics, have students use think-alouds to explain their reasoning and opinions.
  • Science: Think-alouds can be used to model the scientific inquiry process, and students can reflect on this process in their journals or learning logs.

Modeling Thinking-Alouds

Modeling think-alouds is a method where a teacher vocalizes their problem-solving process, serving as a guide for students. This strategy allows learners to see the internal mechanisms of problem-solving, demonstrating that learning is an active process. It helps students develop their metacognitive skills, promoting independent learning.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Before proceeding with the actual think-aloud, first, explain the concept and its significance. For instance, "Today, we're going to use the think-aloud strategy as we work through this problem. The think-aloud strategy helps us to vocalize our inner thoughts and reasoning as we solve a problem. It's a useful tool because it allows us to better understand our own thought processes and identify areas where we might be struggling."

Modeling the Think-Aloud Strategy for Math

The think-aloud strategy is instrumental in developing problem-solving skills as it promotes metacognition, enabling students to understand and evaluate their thought processes while tackling a problem.

What does this look like in the classroom?

For example, suppose during math class you'd like students to estimate the number of pencils in a school. Introduce the strategy by saying, "The strategy I am going to use today is estimation. We use it to . . . It is useful because . . . When we estimate, we . . ."

Next say, "I am going to think aloud as I estimate the number of pencils in our school. I want you to listen and jot down my ideas and actions." Then, think aloud as you perform the task.

Your think-aloud might go something like this:

"Hmmmmmm. So, let me start by estimating the number of students in the building. Let's see. There are 5 grades; first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, plus kindergarten. So, that makes 6 grades because 5 plus 1 equals 6. And there are 2 classes at each grade level, right? So, that makes 12 classes in all because 6 times 2 is 12. Okay, now I have to figure out how many students in all. Well, how many in this class? [Counts.] Fifteen, right? Okay, I'm going to assume that 15 is average. So, if there are 12 classes with 15 students in each class, that makes, let's see, if it were 10 classes it would be 150 because 10 times 15 is 150. Then 2 more classes would be 2 times 15, and 2 times 15 is 30, so I add 30 to 150 and get 180. So, there are about 180 students in the school. I also have to add 12 to 180 because the school has 12 teachers, and teachers use pencils, too. So that is 192 people with pencils."

Continue in this way.

Modeling the Think-Aloud Strategy for Reading

The think-aloud strategy enhances reading comprehension by promoting metacognitive understanding of the reading process. It allows students to actively engage with the text, verbalizing their thought processes, questions, and connections, which leads to deeper understanding and retention of material.

What does this look like in the classroom?

When reading aloud, you can stop from time to time and orally complete sentences like these:

  • So far, I've learned...
  • This made me think of...
  • That didn't make sense.
  • I think ___ will happen next.
  • I reread that part because...
  • I was confused by...
  • I think the most important part was...
  • That is interesting because...
  • I wonder why...
  • I just thought of...

More Ways to Model Think-Alouds

Another option is to video the part of a lesson that models thinking aloud. Students can watch the video and figure out what the teacher did and why. Stop the video periodically to discuss what they notice, what strategies were tried, and why, and whether they worked. As students discuss the process, jot down any important observations.

Once students are familiar with the strategy, include them in a think-aloud process. For example:

Teacher: "For science class, we need to figure out how much snow is going to fall this year. How can we do that?"

Student: "We could estimate."

Teacher: "That sounds like it might work. How do we start? What do we do next? How do we know if our estimate is close? How do we check it?"

In schools where teachers work collaboratively in grade-level teams or learning communities, teachers can plan and rehearse using the think-aloud strategy with a partner before introducing it to students. It is often more effective when the whole school focuses on the same strategy and approaches to integrate it into learning.

Reciprocal Think-Alouds

In reciprocal think-alouds, students are paired with a partner. Students take turns thinking aloud as they read a difficult text, form a hypothesis in science, or compare opposing points of view in social studies. While the first student thinks aloud, the second student listens and records what the first student says. Then students change roles so each partner can think aloud and observe the process. Next, students reflect on the process together, sharing what they tried and discussing what worked well for them and what didn't. As they write about their findings, they can start a mutual learning log that they refer back to.

Think-Alouds as an Assessment Tool

After students are comfortable with the think-aloud process you can use it as an assessment tool. As students think out loud through a problem-solving process, such as reflecting on the steps used to solve a problem in math, write what they say. This allows you to observe the strategies students use. Analyzing the results will allow to pinpoint the individual student's needs and provide appropriate instruction.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Assign a task, such as solving a specific problem or reading a passage of text. Introduce the task to students by saying, "I want you to think aloud as you complete the task: say everything that is going on in your mind." As students complete the task, listen carefully and write down what students say. It may be helpful to use a tape recorder. If students forget to think aloud, ask open-ended questions: "What are you thinking now?" and "Why do you think that?"

After the think-alouds, informally interview students to clarify any confusion that might have arisen during the think-aloud. For example, "When you were thinking aloud, you said . . . Can you explain what you meant?"

Lastly, use a rubric as an aid to analyze each student's think-aloud, and use the results to shape instruction.

For state-mandated tests, determine if students need to think aloud during the actual testing situation. When people are asked to solve difficult problems or to perform difficult tasks, inner speech goes external (Tinzmann et al. 1990). When faced with a problem-solving situation, some students need to think aloud. For these students, if the state testing protocol permits it, arrange for testing situations that allow students to use think-alouds. This will give a more complete picture of what these students can do as independent learners.

See the research that supports this strategy

Tinzmann, M B. et. al. (1996) What Is the Collaborative Classroom? Journal: NCREL. Oak Brook.

Gunning, Thomas G. (1996). Creating Reading Instruction for All Children. Chapter 6, 192-236.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.

Wilhelm, J. D. (2001). Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Ortlieb, E., & Norris, M. (2012). Using the Think-Aloud Strategy to Bolster Reading Comprehension of Science Concepts. Current Issues in Education, 15 (1)

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TeacherVision Staff

TeacherVision Editorial Staff

The TeacherVision editorial team is comprised of teachers, experts, and content professionals dedicated to bringing you the most accurate and relevant information in the teaching space.

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