The reading comprehension series continues, this time with the story of my experiment with “think-alouds.”

I’m working my way through the suggestions in Do I Really Have to Teach Reading. The next one says I should model my thinking by reading aloud through some technical text, and stopping to say out loud the ideas that help me come to terms with the meaning.

I wasn’t sure how this was going to help.  I worried that when I asked the students to write about the meaning they found, they would simply repeat what I had said.  I’m still figuring out when I need to model the skill and when it’s helpful to let students experiment and find their own way.  But I decided to try it anyway.

I also introduced the idea of “pre-reading”: skimming through a chapter looking for the pictures, bolded words, and the like, trying to find the main ideas and the theme that ties them together.  In order to make it truly “pre-reading”, not skimming something you already know, we started the chapter on surface-mount components.  Most students know a definition of “surface mount,” and that’s about it.  Their first task was to find all the surface mount components in their kit (process of elimination, since it’s the only category we haven’t covered yet), look at the chapter’s illustrations, and figure out the package type of each component.

I put a template on the board (a column each for reference designator, component markings, package type).  Students had a hard time getting started.  I’m still not completely sure why, but I got that confused lack of motion that means “I don’t get what you want me to do,” or possibly “I can think of several possibilities and I’m not willing to look silly by trying the wrong one.”  Should have modelled the first component at the board, I guess.  Walking around and asking questions was enough to get people started, though, and then I left them to it.

It took longer than I thought.  I expected them to flip through the illustrations until they found one that looked like the component in their hand, but it seems they were trying to read all the info on the illustrations, read the captions, etc.  Interesting: realized we needed to strategize about how to choose the level of depth of reading.

Finally, everyone had a list of components and package types.  I went around the room asking for one component from each student, asked for confirming evidence from others, wrote it all on the board.  There were a lot of questions about the first two illustrations, because one of them doesn’t fit in to the pattern of all the others.  Illustrations #2 isn’t about a package type: it’s about lead cross-sections, which could be on any package.  The students were asking great questions about whether “coined lead” and “flattened lead” are types of components, or whether “flattened lead” is a type of “coined lead,” and other similar questions in the form “Are all As also Bs, or are A and B mutually exclusive examples of C?”  This is not a trivial question, since some package types are named after their lead profiles and some are not.

There was a bit of discussion about how pre-reading made people feel “more confused.”  I interpret that to mean that they found some questions.  They were good questions, too.  Note to self: find some way to link the negative feeling of “confusion” with the positive outcome of having located the questions you need to ask.

When Tovani discusses reading techniques, she’s careful to point out that asking questions is not inherently useful; it must lead you closer to your goal.  Visualizing is just daydreaming unless it helps you accomplish your goal.  So I was glad that, in response to “gull-wing leads,” no one was asking “why do seagulls make that shape with their wings but other birds don’t?”  That would be an example of a question that really is related, but fails Tovani’s “So What?” test. The students were asking questions that were tightly focused on the goal of categorizing their components.  I pointed this out, and then decided to answer by practising the “think-aloud” method mentioned above.

I projected the offending illustration.  My spiel sounded something like this.

“Ok, I see the label ‘coined lead’ pointing to this shape and ‘flattened lead’ pointing to that shape.  The shapes look similar, and I can’t tell what feature exactly makes it ‘coined.’  I’m going to keep looking.  Let’s see if the caption can help.  (Read the caption aloud — it still contains no definitions of the confusing terms.)  Oh, that tells me that ‘flattened,’ ‘coined,’ and ’round’ are all examples of something — no one of those terms includes the others.”

Students: “What?  How did you know that?”

Me: “Right here in the caption, you can tell because of the. Uh.”

Students: “What?? I still don’t see it!”

Me: “I inferred it based on the placement of the commas.”

Students: (mouths open in silent disbelief)

Me: (blushing and feeling stupid for having doubted the power of the think-aloud)

The caption listed the types of leads separated by commas.  In a written-out list, this type of organization usually implies equivalence of some kind.  It would be normal to see “Ice cream: strawberry, chocolate, and pistachio.”  It would be abnormal to see “Pistachio: strawberry, chocolate, and ice cream.” In fact, I could probably have introduced this idea by showing some badly formed examples and asking the students what they noticed.

Within five minutes, we had two similar situations: one where I explained that I was basing my answer on the use of a forward-slash to mean “either one,” and one where a student pointed out the use of parentheses to mean “another name for it” (kudos to you, J, for taking the initiative to try this technique right away.  If I’d been quicker, I would have paused after the first one and asked the class to find more examples of where punctuation can help clarify meaning).

With a few exceptions, my students did not know these things.  Or maybe they thought it was “cheating” somehow.  Anyway, it would never have occurred to me to make this explicit if I hadn’t been reading aloud.  I might have come up with this in writing, but maybe not: while writing, I’m too busy using punctuation to notice that I need to explain punctuation.

Shouldn’t my students have inferred the meaning of commas by now, even if no one ever thought to tell them this information before?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Who cares?  They didn’t.  And now they know that it’s not only “allowed,” it’s necessary — even for experienced technical readers.

PS: if the possibilities for communicating with punctuation bring the same warm glow to your heart as they do to mine, you too might feel vindicated by this well-laid-out explanation of “logical punctuation” from Gas Station Without Pumps.