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July 22, 2014

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Mind Readers: Thinking Out Loud Can Raise Children’s Comprehension Skills | First Steps

It’s toddler storytime: let the rumpus begin! Toddlers bound quickly into the room. One hurdles mom’s legs while waiting for the opening song. Some hop, others roam, and a few practically climb our unflappable colleague Janie. Even after getting most of their wiggles out, many toddlers continue to float around the room—until Janie begins to read one of her favorite books, Owl Babies (Candlewick, 1996) by Martin Waddell.

When she reads on the second page, “Owl Mother was GONE,” all eyes turn toward the book. The owls’ faces may not show much in the way of feelings, but a baby bird’s plea of “I want my mommy!” conveys an emotion that toddlers can easily relate to. “Oh, my. I wonder where Owl Mother went,” says Janie. “Why did she fly away? Do you think she’ll come back?”

Like you, we use many techniques to help children understand a story. One of the most powerful methods is thinking out loud while reading. Thinking out loud—in this case, talking about the owls’ emotions, actions, and motives—encourages children to think about the story.

“Reading is thinking” is a central principle for Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, the authors of Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement (Stenhouse, 2007), who work mainly with primary and middle school readers and teachers. They’ve created a toolkit to help educators construct active learning environments that are aimed at boosting children’s reading comprehension.

To learn how libraries can help children think about a story, interact with its text, and, thus, build comprehension skills during storytime, we talked to Barbara Steinberg, a reading specialist here in Oregon. Steinberg believes that when we think out loud in storytime, we are encouraging children to model the same strategies that good readers use, such as predicting events and summarizing. She explained that good readers connect what they know from their own life experiences with what they’re reading. Good readers also constantly ask themselves questions while they read, such as “Why did he say that?” or “Is this important to the story?”

In storytime we ask children the same types of questions that efficient readers might ask themselves. Most of us use these strategies without even being aware of it, but when we think out loud, we are teaching children how to do it, too.

While thinking out loud is a technique frequently used to help students in the elementary grades, reading researchers Lea McGee and Judith Schickendanz have adapted this method for much younger children. Their approach is called repeated interactive read-alouds. How does it work? A storybook is read three times in slightly different ways in order to increase children’s engagement with the text. In the first reading, children are introduced to the story. In the second, they’re encouraged to get to know the characters and their challenges more deeply. And in the final reading, young listeners are invited to pinpoint the characters’ problems and to respond to analytical questions such as, “Who remembers what will happen next?” (To learn more, see “Repeated Interactive Read-Alouds in Preschool and Kindergarten” in the May 2007 issue of The Reading Teacher.) The main idea is to create an active learning environment that promotes interaction with the text and thinking for children of all ages.

When Janie finishes the story, she asks, “When their mother came back, why did the owls bounce on the branch?” One thoughtful toddler says, “I would jump on the branch, too.” Janie gently probes, “Why would you jump up and down?” and the toddler replies, “Because I would be happy, too!”

Successful readers need to do two things well. They need to learn the code and, most importantly, they need to understand its meaning. Librarians like Janie help children clear those hurdles with room to spare.


Author Information
Renea Arnold is coordinator of early childhood resources for the Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR. Nell Colburn is one of MCL’s early childhood librarians.
About Renea Arnold and Nell Colburn

Renea Arnold is coordinator of early childhood resources for the Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR. Nell Colburn is one of MCL’s early childhood librarians.

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