Think-alouds – verbalising one’s thoughts when completing an activity (such as when a teacher demonstrates a task).
The mother of all teacher-centred instruction: a core strategy for practical high-quality teaching.
Experienced teachers used think-alouds frequently – in fact, rarely a lesson goes by without several think-alouds. Think-alouds show students the cognitive processes that a knowledgeable and skilful person uses to complete an activity. They are invaluable to the teaching and learning process. When teachers model or demonstrate something, it is often either too fast or too complex for students to know exactly what happened. They often have no idea what the teacher was thinking or why they did a certain thing the way they did. Imagine watching a doctor in surgery – you wouldn’t learn much just by watching alone. However, if the doctor explained each step, thought, idea, choice, tool, process, potential issue, common mistake and any other hint that popped into his or her head, you would have a much better understanding of what was happening.
The think-aloud strategy not only shows what teachers or experts do and how they think, it provides a model for students to copy – a procedure or strategy that steps through each part methodically.
The think-aloud strategy not only shows what teachers or experts do and how they think, it provides a model for students to copy – a procedure or strategy that steps through each part methodically. Think-alouds also show students that experts don’t just jump in and tackle a task without a plan. Instead, a careful, diligent, planned, systematic approach is always taken that includes all of the following:
Contrast that meticulous approach to how a novice goes about completing a task: there is little planning or forethought, no review to ensure each step is satisfactorily completed before moving to the next, and luck or chance can play a big role – there is plenty of guessing and finger crossing.
Think-alouds can be used for all teaching and learning activities including core skills such as reading and writing. For example, teachers can demonstrate how they approach a reading passage to maximise comprehension – they don’t jump straight to the first line; images, captions and other cues are used to predict what is going to happen beforehand. The teacher can demonstrate skills such as re-reading, predicting, asking for help, skimming, scanning and reading forward for confirmation – all of the skills necessary for students to become highly competent readers. Think-alouds are exceptionally effective in teaching these types of skills and are found extensively in core subjects as well as trade subjects such as woodwork, metalwork, art and craft, technical drawing, outdoor education and horticulture.
In addition, think-alouds help students to organise their thoughts, to notice patterns and processes, to develop procedures, and to identify more efficient ways of completing a task.
Students can be taught to use think-alouds quite easily. They are an effective and useful metacognitive skill that boosts learning and improves student confidence. The process of walking through a solution to a problem by ‘thinking it through’ ensures that the task is completed carefully, diligently and systematically. Decisions are not random or ad hoc. In addition, think-alouds help students to organise their thoughts, to notice patterns and processes, to develop procedures, and to identify more efficient ways of completing a task. They are also a useful first step in mastering a complex task: you can use a think-aloud approach to complete the task in a step-by-step fashion – then do it again slightly faster and then even faster after that. The think-aloud is a kind of mnemonic (a memory aid) when used in this fashion. Once committed to memory, it becomes a permanent support mechanism, almost like having an expert by your side.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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