Show Me the Thinking: Making Comprehension Instruction Visible
"Good readers listen to the voices in their heads. It helps them to know if
the reading is making sense," I note to my class. Several students glance up
from the newspaper article resting on their desks and give me a curious look.
"Seriously, I hear voices when I read," I tell the students. "I feel
them. It's my thinking. Sometimes I think about the ideas in the reading, and sometimes
I get bored and think about things that have nothing to do with the reading."
"What else do the voices say?" asks a blond girl in the back.
"Well, when I'm reading the words and thinking about the ideas, my voice asks
questions or makes connections. Sometimes I even argue with the reading. I guess
I am talking back to the text," I explain.
Trying to help the kids see that even good readers have times when their minds wander,
I ask, "How many of you can read the words but not remember what you've read?"
Almost all the students respond by either murmuring a comment to their neighbor
or raising their hands. "When that happens to you, it's a signal that you are
reading the words and thinking about something else. Everyone does it. I usually
do it when I have to read difficult or uninteresting text."
Marshall, a cute boy in the front who's got the skater look down, says, "That
happens to me when I read everything."
I smile, "I know what you mean. The same thing used to happen to me until I
started watching the way I read."
"Watching the way you read? How do you do that?"
"I'm going to show you how to do it, and then you are going to have a chance
to practice it," I say. "But first we have to recognize the different
voices in our heads. We are going to try to catch ourselves thinking."
I stop talking to the students and turn my attention to the 15 teachers who line
the back of the room. "It's tough to monitor your comprehension if you aren't
even aware that you are thinking. Today our goal is to notice the different ways
we can think when we read. We may find that we are having a conversation with the
text, or we might find ourselves thinking about what we are going to do after school.
For now, either way is fine."
I turn my attention back to the 25 eighth graders who have been eavesdropping on
my conversation with the teachers and say, "Let's try to catch ourselves thinking.
Once we are aware of how we think, we can begin to use it to help ourselves remember
and reuse what we have read."
For the past five years, I have had a unique job assignment. Half of every week
I teach kids how to be better readers. The other part of the week I do in-house
staff development. I am a high school teacher at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora,
Colorado. It is here that I teach three classes--two are reading workshops that
are filled with struggling readers; the other class is a semester-long senior English
course designed for university-bound students. My building is on a block schedule,
which allows me to alternate my teaching days. When I am not with students, I am
working with colleagues in other subject areas, showing them how comprehension instruction
can enhance the coverage of their content. I lead study groups, provide demonstration
lessons, and co-teach in classrooms. I also travel across the country to share the
lessons learned from my students and colleagues. The exchange above recently took
place in a middle school in Spokane, Washington. It's interesting that no matter
where I work, I still encounter many of the same questions about comprehension instruction.
Teachers and students want to know:
- What causes readers to lose track of their thinking while reading?
- How do readers get their thinking back on track?
- How can teachers help all the different levels of students in their
- How can those "voices in the head" be used to help students
do a better job of monitoring their own comprehension?
The tough part about comprehension instruction is that all the good stuff that is
taking place is invisible. In order to teach kids how to think about their reading,
we have to show them how we, the best readers in the class, think about text. We
have to make our thinking processes visible. I do this using a strategy called think-aloud (Davey, 1983). It is easy to do. The first
step is to select something to read. I find text that aligns with the required content.
Using short pieces or excerpts from textbooks, news articles, or novels allows me
to model a thinking strategy quickly. I can cover content and show students how
to access the material. I read aloud a small chunk of the text and then stop. I
then share aloud what I am thinking as I read. Sometimes I model how to negotiate
a difficult passage. Sometimes I show how I am connecting the information in the
textbook to the work we did in class. Other times I show students how the questions
I ask propel me to continue reading. I walk readers through this strategy in detail
in my first book, I Read It but Don't Get It (Tovani,
2000). Essentially, I am showing students how to be better readers while I cover
content. Doing a think-aloud using content-specific text allows even struggling
readers to participate in the learning.
When I do classroom demonstration lessons, I sometimes use examples of overheads
from my own students who have read and marked their thinking. I am always trying
to find ways to make thinking visible. Student examples from previous classes work
extremely well. The article the kids are reading in the Spokane classroom is one
my students read the previous week. It is a story about a 16-year-old who steals
a car and gets arrested. The following day, the teen is transported in a police
van. She somehow manages to steal the vehicle and escape. The next morning the police
track down the van and a chase ensues. Being an inexperienced driver, the teen loses
control and crashes into a condominium, killing a woman who is getting ready for
The examples from my students are marked with their thinking and show how sometimes
we read and "talk" back to the text. Sometimes we read and "talk"
about things that are unrelated to the text. I show them how Shaquille writes in
the margins next to the words about the 16-year-old who steals a car. In the margins
of the text, he writes, "I wonder what Kianna is doing this weekend."
He is obviously reading the words but thinking about the cute girl next to him.
I point out to the students in the classroom that I can see his thinking because
in the margins he has written what his inner voice is saying. Next, I put up Kianna's
sample. She writes in the margins, "This girl is an idiot. Why would she tell
the judge that she would rather go to an adult prison instead of a juvenile detention
center?" It's obvious that she is thinking more about the article than Shaquille
After a few more examples, I challenge the kids to do the same thing. I emphasize
that all thinking counts and that the only way they can fail is if they don't write
anything down at all. At this point, I accept all thoughts because I want the kids
to see the difference between their reciting voice, the one that reads the words
but thinks about other things, and their conversation voice, the one that talks
back to the text.
I scan the room to see if anyone needs help. All 25 students seem to be on task.
I begin to quickly confer with individual students. I use this technique to check
in with students and support their learning (Tovani, 2004). I read that Allison
can't believe that a teenager would steal a police van. Daniel writes a question.
He wants to know how the teen was able to steal the police van in the first place.
Sarah isn't surprised by the girl's actions and infers that she is probably "so
bad because she's had a tough home life."
As I walk around the room, I can see kids writing questions, making connections,
and forming opinions. They show me their thinking by writing in the margins. After
about 10 minutes, it is time to let students share what they have written. Initially,
I have no volunteers, but because I have traveled around the room, I know who gets
it and who doesn't. I also know whom to call on to get us going. The writing in
the margins allows me to see how students are thinking much more than if I would
have given kids comprehension questions to answer after reading the article. I pick
up from my short conversation that Marshall isn't intimidated by the visitors and
actually seems to be thriving on their presence. I say, "Marshall, get us going.
Read one of the pieces of thinking that you've written."
"Okeydokey." He gazes at his paper trying to decide which comment will
give him the most bang for his buck. Before he reads, he says, "This girl did
lots of bad things, but she doesn't seem very sorry for them. She steals a car.
Gets arrested and hauled away in a police van. She steals the van and then crashes
it into some lady's condo. She's nuts." Marshall has done a good job paraphrasing
the article, but I want to see what else he thinks. The writing of his thinking
in the margins allows him to go back and remember what else he was thinking as he
"I agree, she's definitely out of control," I say. "Tell us what
you wrote in the margins."
"I wrote," he reads, "that if this girl was an adult, she wouldn't
have a choice of getting an easier sentence. She's lucky that the judge said she
could do community service." Marshall looks up and says, "I want to know
why she is telling the judge she wants to go to an adult prison. Maybe she is trying
to act tough."
I turn to the class and say, "Marshall just did something a good reader does.
He's asked a question that he doesn't know the answer to. That question allowed
Marshall to delve deeper into the text by supplying a possible answer. Good job,
Thanks to Marshall, the ball is rolling. David raises his hand and says, "The
girl in the article reminds me of my brother. He did something bad, and now he is
in jail. He was real tough at first too and acted like he didn't care that he was
going to prison. Now, he wishes he had done some things different. I bet this girl
is going to change her attitude after she gets to prison."
Excitedly, I said, "Do you know what you just did? You also did something a
good reader does." David hesitates. I can tell I surprise him.
Good ole Marshall jumps in and says, "Well, I don't know what you call it in
Denver, but here in Spokane, we call it a text-to-self connection". I look
at Marshall and smile, and so do the visitors sitting in the back.
"You're right, Marshall. That is a text-to-self connection." Naming the
connection isn't nearly as important as Marshall being able to identify another
way to think about his reading. I want to see if he is mimicking his teacher or
if he really knows what David just did. "Can you explain to someone who might
not know as much about reading as you do what this kind of connection is?"
"Well," says Marshall, "David was thinking about his own life as
he read the article. He used what he knew about his brother to help him understand
stuff about the girl in the story. Most people would be afraid to disobey a judge.
They don't get why the girl is acting so tough. David gets it because he thought
about his own life and how his brother acted. Connections do that sometimes. They
help you understand why someone in a story acts the way they do."
Marshall gets it. He not only knows terminology but also knows how the thinking
works. It's my guess that Marshall doesn't need a teacher to tell him what he's
read. He knows how to use connections to enhance his comprehension. Marshall has
demonstrated that the only reason we teach kids comprehension strategies is so they
can better understand what they read. The purpose of comprehension instruction is
not to make superficial connections or ask questions just for the sake of asking
a question. Marshall helps us see that not only do teachers need to make their thinking
visible but so do students. When teachers can see how their students are thinking
about text, they can be more efficient in their instruction.
Marshall is able to talk about his thinking because he had been shown how. His teacher,
Miss Harris, has metaphorically unzipped her head to model for her students options
on how to think about text. Comprehension instruction is only effective if we show
kids how to think when reading words alone doesn't produce meaning. Lots of students
nowadays are coming to middle and high school able to pronounce and decode words.
Elementary schools nationwide have systematic phonics instruction in place. Children
are being taught how to sound out words. The problem is that many of those same
children aren't being taught what to do when reading words alone doesn't produce
meaning. Kids read the words, and when meaning doesn't arrive, they assume that
they aren't good readers. They think, "I did my part. I read it. Now, teacher,
you do your part and make me get it." No matter how proficient a teacher is,
the ultimate responsibility of gaining meaning from text lies with the reader.
Phonics instruction is very important, but so is teaching readers how to think.
But how do we do it? We model. We work very hard to make the thinking that is taking
place in our head visible. We show kids what to do when we read the words and think
about something totally unrelated. We show them how we ask questions in order to
build background knowledge when we read something that we don't know much about.
Essentially we show readers young and old how we, the expert readers in the class,
make sense of text.
After the bell rings and the students are dismissed, it's time to debrief with the
teachers. It's important as a literacy coach that I help the teachers "see"
my thinking and how I decided to do what I did. I want teachers to notice how students
were given models as another way to know what I wanted. I not only modeled my thinking
but also showed other examples. I gave the kids time to read, write, and think.
While they did this, I quickly swept through the room, giving feedback and providing
more modeling. Tomorrow, Marshall's teacher will give the students another piece
of text. She will model how she pulls herself back to the reading when she catches
her mind wandering. Students will use a short story from their literature anthology
to practice the way they listen to their inner voices. Together they will discuss
the story because students will have recorded their thinking on sticky notes that
they have attached to the text. Not only will Miss Harris make thinking visible,
but so will her students.
If we want to have more readers in our class like Marshall, we will have to show
them how to construct meaning. We can model how we negotiate difficulty and what
we do when our minds wander. If we can slow our thinking down and show kids how
we do it, our students' thinking when they read will most certainly speed up.
Return to top
Davey, Beth. (1983). Thinking aloud: Modeling the cognitive processes of reading
comprehension. Journal of Reading, 27, 44-47.
Tovani, Cris. (2000). I read it but don't get it: Comprehension
strategies for adolescent readers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Tovani, Cris. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading?
Content comprehension, grades 6-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.