October 14, 2014

Teach by Thinking Out Loud! Simple but effective.

One of the best ways to learn from someone else is to get inside their head. One of my favorite blogs is www.younghouselove.com, a blog by a couple that does a lot of DIY with their house and shares about their lives while they’re at it.

There are many reasons I like the blog, but a big one is that I actually learn stuff and gain confidence from them. For example, there was this one post where they shared the new gallery wall above their master bed. First of all, I could never do that, because we live in the land of earthquakes and that’s just asking for trouble. But I read it anyway, because I wanted to learn something from them.

Now, home stuff and DIY and artsy craftsy is not my forte… but that’s why I like this blog. Since I don’t know much about it, and I don’t know what factors to consider when I’m looking at our house, I love getting in their head and seeing what they thought of when they worked on theirs. In the gallery wall post, they didn’t just show a dull before and gleaming after photo. They shared their thought process along the way, and I learned a lot from them:

In the end, it was pretty much “start with an idea, and then feel free to make adjustments to suit your liking!” As a matter of fact, I think people have shared similar sentiments with me before– “Just do what you like!” but that didn’t give me much confidence to move forward.

The bloggers at YoungHouseLove could have just said it in 100 words or less and showed me before and after– two simple steps. Instead, they showed me the thinking process each step of the way, the reasoning behind their adjustments, and what they liked about the final outcome. After reading about this and another gallery wall from their home, I followed their thinking process, and I went from having no confidence about hanging frames in the house to feeling like, Hey, I could do this!

And so I did!

gallery wallHere is my own gallery wall– a wall of pictures and letters and notes from students, parents, and co-workers that surrounds my office space and warms my heart. I’m not here to share about my gallery wall, but I did find this amusing:

Portraits of their teacher

Can you guess which one was drawn by a boy, and which one was drawn by a girl? Apparently they perceived me very differently… but both have some truth to them :). I like both portraits.  And apparently purple’s my color. Who knew.

Back to thinking out loud.

So you see, following someone else’s thought process is a very effective way to learn. It’s easy to say, but takes some metacognition and practice to do naturally.

Let’s use a reading lesson as an example. Have you ever read with a child, and saw that they could skip a whole line or page and not even pause or realize it? That should be a sign to you that they are not monitoring their comprehension. They don’t even seem to realize when something sounds off or doesn’t make sense. Maybe you look at the child, wondering how they could just keep going, and prompt them, “You skipped a page.” The child quickly turns back one page and continues reading.

Or maybe you do one better and say, “You skipped a page. Can you tell that didn’t make sense? So you need to go back and reread.” The child nods, because that’s obviously what they’re supposed to do, and then turns back to reread.

Sure, they reread it this time, but if the goal is for the child to catch these kinds of mistakes on their own, then pointing it out for them is not enough. You need to teach them to catch it and correct it for themselves. How can you do that? Here’s how: Model the process for them and think out loud.

Every year, I teach a lesson on this, and I let the students in on my own thinking process to help them learn better:

“Today, we’re going to talk about monitoring comprehension. Good readers can tell when they are reading and they don’t get it. Here is an example. Have you ever had the experience where you’re reading, and you turn the page, and suddenly it doesn’t really make sense? For example,” I take out a book we’ve been reading together and start reading at the end of a page.

Then, holding out her arm, she let one drop fall from it onto the snow beside the sledge. Edmund saw the drop for a second in…” I swiftly turn “the” page (secretly 2 pages) and continue, “…he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight…

I look up, and the students have their heads cocked sideways, looking at me quizzically.

Hmm…” I pause, tapping my chin, “Something doesn’t seem quite right here. Can you tell that it sounded a little off?”

“Yessss,” they say, with faces of exaggeratedly strong bewilderment.

Monitoring comprehensionThey are almost indignant at how much it doesn’t make sense.

“One moment, the Queen is dropping something, and the next moment, he would like some more…?! Yes, that sounded kind of off, and that doesn’t make sense to me. Hm. Well, I’m not going to just keep reading. I need to go back and see what went wrong,” I say, turning back one page. “So let’s see, I was at the bottom of the page… At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box… Wait, wait, this wasn’t what I read before. Hm. Maybe I need to look back even more– OH! Here we go– Then holding out her arm– that’s where I was! Oops, I had accidentally flipped two pages instead of one! I skipped both of these pages! That’s why it didn’t make sense. Have you ever done that?”


“Ah. Yes. That happens sometimes. The important thing is that I noticed that it just didn’t sound right and it didn’t make sense, so I went back to check and see where things started to not make sense anymore. Now I can try again.” I proceed to reread the passage, turning just one page this time, and carry on. The kids relax and are satisfied.

I do this a couple more times, using common mistakes like skipping a line, skipping a paragraph, missing a word, misreading a word, etc. to show 1) how I make the mistake, 2) what I think about when I notice that it sounds a little weird or doesn’t make sense, and 3) then I show my thoughts as I try to go back and fix it.

There is a subtle but powerful difference between simply telling kids to do something, and showing them what you're thinking as you do the same thing.I could have just said, “If it doesn’t make sense, go back and fix it.” But using examples and showing them what “it doesn’t make sense” sounds and looks like in my head makes the process accessible for students who have weaker metacognition. It helps them identify thoughts that they just let slip past before; now that they know what they’re looking for, they can catch these thoughts and use them to improve.

Thinking out loud is a basic tool, but one of the most powerful ones when it comes to effective teaching. There is a subtle but powerful difference between simply telling kids to do something, and showing them what you’re thinking as you do the same thing. There is also a subtle but powerful difference between showing kids an example, and showing them what you are thinking in your head as you create the example. A load of learning can happen when you reveal what may be a few simple thoughts to you. It’s not hard, but takes some metacognition on your part to identify the thoughts you usually take for granted, and to verbalize them for your child to hear and learn from.

This doesn’t even have to be just for school. It can be for anything you want your kids to learn well, whether it’s cooking, safe driving, or making wise choices:

Kids love to get in on your thinking process and will soak up a surprising amount through it! Take advantage of the many opportunities you have to shape their thinking and help them grow by sharing yours with them!

6 responses to “Think Out Loud!”

  1. Dakota says:

    Ooooh, this is such a good read for me. See, here’s my problem, I get upset with other people when they don’t do things a particular way because it’s just so obvious how it should be done… right? Only it’s not. (Apparently. Sheesh. 😉 )

    So I’ve learned to use the “what were they/I thinking” as a way to figure out what happened, explain why I want it done a particular way – and sometimes it can solve or circumvent a disagreement. 😛 That’s off topic, but it hadn’t occurred to me to make absolutely sure to incorporate that when teaching my kids to do something… I do try to explain some things but it hadn’t clicked that the process explanation may be the most important part!

    • joellen says:

      Haha it’s possssible I have a similar problemmm… 😛 And it’s possible I was just reflecting on that with Ben the other night haha… hey, always learning and growing, right?

      Ooh I hope you find this tip helpful! I don’t use it for absolutely everything, but if it requires any higher order thinking, I usually do.

  2. Lorna says:

    Sad news – Young House Love just ended. I’ve followed them for years, since Clara was a newborn. Now, with two children and on their third house (fourth if you count the show house) they’re moving on to other things. The blog archives will remain as a resource, but I don’t think they plan to post new material any more. I used their methods and recommendations to paint our kitchen cabinets, and most people think they’re new! I would never have had the guts to attempt such a project without their encouragement. I’m ridiculously sad that they’re “gone”.

    The rest of the post is really cool. When he was teaching me to drive, my dad would sometimes ask me to voice my thoughts so that he could tell what I was really up to as I drove. I sometimes tell my older kids what I’m thinking as I drive, just so they know. I like the idea of using the same technique in other places too. Thank you!

    • joellen says:

      So I HEARD!! :((( Thanks for the updates. Good job with your kitchen cabinets! So you totally know what I’m talking about :).

      That’s so neat that your dad knew how to get in your head so he could teach you better. That’s a really great point– it’s really helpful to try to get into your students’ heads, too, to better understand where they are coming from. But since it’s hard for a lot of kids to pinpoint and verbalize their thoughts (shoot, it’s hard even for lots of adults…), I guess that’s just another skill that a teacher needs to try to improve on!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Great post! I already do this in some situations – I use it for teaching emotional self control by modeling how I go about controlling my impulses when I am upset. (A child psychologist taught me this.) But it never occurred to me to use it as a teaching tool in a wider context. Great idea!

    • joellen says:

      Yes, I can definitely see how this would be useful for teaching emotional control! I’m hope you do find it effective for teacher in other contexts! 🙂

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