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Talking About Thinking

My students’ attention to their reading is getting a little more fine-tuned, and I believe that’s because of the talking I’ve done about metacognition. I’ve focused heavily on metacognition lately. My approach is blunt. For the last couple of years, ever since I read Mosaic of Thought, I’ve taught my classes about schema theory. Instead of the usual question – response kind of background building that I did in the past to introduce a reading selection, my approach these days is to spend a few short class periods teaching about schema theory in terms the kids can understand. I also read aloud from novels – ‘chapter books’ they call them – and model my own thinking process for them by thinking aloud. I stop and tell them about a question that occurs to me as I’m reading. Or I remark about a word, or a phrase I find interesting. If I stumble on a passage because I miss a comma or don’t correctly anticipate an inflectional change, I’ll say, “Oops! That was a miscue.” Sometimes we don’t get very far in the book if I get way off into a connection about something, and then they run with it. A lot of people might say that we’re just wasting time, and I suppose we would be if I didn’t understand what the exercise was good for. I’d answer anyone who challenged my teaching this way by saying, “We’re building schema!” From Mosaic of Thought I learned to pay attention to the little side trips my imagination makes when I read. I learned to talk back to the book. I learned to activate my background knowledge. I learned to monitor my thinking. In some ways, reading is a meditation. I read the words. I also read my response to the words. I savor the response. The best part of the meaning comes from somewhere way down there.

This might sound corny. It’s weird to talk about with the kids because I wonder what they must think about this grownup talking to them about imaginary stuff as if it’s real. And it is real. Nobody has ever said these things to them. Yesterday I told the kids that they (fourth graders) had filled in enough blanks for a while. I asked them if they’d ever seen a paper with a sentence on it that had a word missing, and they were supposed to write just the missing word. Heads nodded. Hands raised. One kid said, “Lots!” I told them that the reason teachers gave them those papers was that they are easy to do and easy to grade. Right or wrong, mark it and move on. One of the kids said, “Sometimes the answers are already on the page.” I’d forgotten about those things. Some worksheets have a “word bank” so that all you have to do is look at the choices and pick one that seems to fit the space. I told them that they were going to be filling in blanks for me, too; blank pieces of paper. Some of them smiled. They know their teacher is a bit crazy, and he’s having fun messing with his students’ minds.

I did a Google search for “think alouds” before I started writing this. Thinking aloud as a teaching strategy is not a new idea. There were dozens of links to sites with information about think alouds. But I didn’t care for most of them. Too many of the examples looked like skills exercises. I don’t view thinking aloud as teaching a skill. I see it as modeling a practice. There is a difference. When I demonstrate a strategy, I’m relying on a socio-cultural model of reading in which the students participate as apprentices, and the teacher plays a mentoring role. When thinking is approached as a skill, it’s done as an artificial exercise. I doubt there is much chance that students will do it on their own in that case, since it will probably feel like just another exercise. A scary thought. Truly, we can easily school kids to ‘not think.’ The best think alouds are spontaneous, and they invite the students to participate. This National Writing Project article on think alouds is an excellent introduction to what they are about and how to use them.

After a lot of talking and modeling, I passed out a set of books from The Boxcar Children series. I have about 20 titles on the shelf in the room. They’re pretty easy, and they’re mysteries. What a great genre for asking questions and making predictions. I passed out sheets of paper and told the kids to write their thinking while read. In the beginning, many wrote overly long summaries and never got to a single original thought. I went around and had students quietly read to me. I asked questions, and visited with them about their work. For the kids who wrote long summaries, I asked, “and what do you think?

Now, several days later, I’m hearing, “I made a connection!”

“I like these books!”

“Look at the word I found.”

“Mysteries are fun!”


  1. botts wrote:

    hi doug

    a great read (again). isn’t it strange how often we take things that we do naturally for granted. i have always responded to what i read. i predict, i ask questions, i dogear books, i write in the margins, i tell my friends what i’m reading and what i think of what i’m reading, sometimes i blog about what i’ve read too..actions and reactions. not once (until today) have i questioned the idea that other people may not interact with their reading materials in the same way.

    my 8 year old does some of these things too as he reads, i guess because he sees and hears me doing the same thing, i don’t think i’ve ever consciously shown him how or why to respond in the way he does.

    anyways thanx for a great read


    Saturday, December 17, 2005 at 7:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Parents model for their children. And teachers model for their students. It seems to be a natural way to learn and, yet, an un-natural (or at least uncommon) way to teach.

    I have found a very cool site that is basically a “modelling” of how people use their computer (just as you model reading). It’s a Flickr group of pictures of peoples’ desktop. Our personal computers are very new (20 years old) and there are no hard, fast rules on how to use them. I’ve picked up quite a few tips (download folder shortcut on the desktop, putting the menu bar on the left side and auto-hide’ed). check out the group at

    … anyway, just thinking outloud … thanks for the great posts of late!

    Saturday, December 17, 2005 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  3. I wanted to write and say thank you for the great posts. Your Metacognition is pretty cool.

    Can I ask a favor? I’m trying to help establish the blogger community in Alaska – I lived there in the 90s and sort of ‘care take’ an old web site – .

    If you would, please link your location and Blog address at . It’s a map of Alaska and I hope to collect the locations of a bunch of Alaskan Bloggers. You might find others who are blogging, and others might find you.


    Sunday, December 18, 2005 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  4. Doug wrote:

    Newman, I like your Frappr idea. I’ll get to it in the next few days. I hadn’t seen the site before, and I want to look around at it a little bit and get a sense of what other people are doing with it. As for the flickr desktop-show-and-tell group, I thought that was pretty slick, too. I put my own desktop on there, and it’s gotten hundreds of views! More than anything else I’ve ever put on the web. It’s a NASA image, so I can’t really take credit for it. But still it is kind of fun to see the counter change by the minute.

    Monday, December 19, 2005 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  5. Thanks for checking it out. The new map sites are terrific. Be sure to look at and .

    Too Funny! That’s your screen shot. I remember it from looking through before. Mine isn’t anything special.

    Take it easy!

    Thursday, December 22, 2005 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

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