March 17, 2021

The Power of a Think Aloud

Thursday nights bring a common ritual at my house: the weekly spelling list practice session with my second grader, Evan. Usually this is a rather brief and pretty painless exercise. Instead, there was a lesson waiting for me in last Thursday’s sitting. Unlike most of our practices where Evan has been looking at the words all week and has generally committed them to memory, these new words were especially challenging with all kinds of vowels that couldn’t find the right places. We started.

Mom: “Balance.”

Evan: “blance.”

Mom:  “Not quite. It’s b-a…”

Evan adamantly interrupts, “No mom. Don’t tell me the right answer, I want to figure it out.”

At first, I thought, “great, he’s showing some tenacity.” But I soon realized that each time he misspelled the word, he was committing to memory the incorrect spelling instead of the correct one. The more I suggested that we look at the words in-between attempts or that I spell them correctly out loud, the more firm he became in his resistance to continue aiming at an invisible target; the frustration surely mounting.

Even though I was worried he had worked himself into some chaos of misspellings, I let go. Gave him some space. Put the list of words next to his pillow after our bedtime reading. The next morning he bounded down to breakfast with a big smile on his face, spewing out the vowels in precise harmony with the consonants. He soon pronounced that, “mom, it was actually helpful to look at the words before I tried to spell them!” I sighed with a soft smile of vindication that was quickly replaced with an eye of realization: this happened all the time for my own students.

Every day that I don’t make my thinking explicit, that I don’t “open my brain” for them to peer into my process, is like Evan who aimlessly worked towards an unknown target. And, frankly, this goes beyond giving students a rubric ahead of time or showing them strong examples of final products. While these effective practices help create vision for students, I know that I must unpack my thinking (with lots of first person pronouns, which is a little awkward at first) for them as often as possible. It’s about taking the invisible work that we do naturally, and making it explicit to our learners.

So, this is an invitation for everyone to try a think aloud; to unpack your cognitive work for just a couple of minutes; to make the implicit, explicit; to give your students not only a visible target, but a pathway to get there.

I’ve included a link to a  think aloud I did upon my own realization. As part of my own growth process this year, I’ve started to film all of my classes every day. Therefore, this footage is not professional; rather, it’s a small camera on a cute tripod in the back of the room. I wish you well as you start thinking aloud!


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