Think-Aloud Strategy not as helpful for beginning and advanced ELLs, study says

iStock_000018020135XSmallOne approach for helping English language learners (ELLs) to improve their reading comprehension, the Think-Aloud Strategy, seems to be more useful for intermediate students than for beginning and advanced students, report two researchers in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

With federal and state accountability mandates for ELLs, educators are struggling to find effective, research-based strategies to help students improve their reading comprehension, they say. Because ELLs are unfamiliar with many of the idioms and cultural references in text, the Think-Aloud Strategy is seen as a tool to help students repair their gaps in comprehension.

“The purpose of think-aloud is to help second- language learners develop the ability to monitor their reading comprehension and employ strategies to facilitate understanding of text,” write Regina McKeown and James Gentilucci.

However, in a small study of 27 middle school ELLs at three different reading proficiency levels, early intermediate, intermediate and early advanced, the researchers found that the think-aloud strategy disrupted comprehension for more advanced students and held no benefit for the beginning ELL reader who was still using a bottom-up reading strategy focused on the word level.

The two researchers were surprised by the finding that think-aloud disrupted reading comprehension for more advanced students, but they add that existing research warns about this. In general, think-aloud strategies are disruptive to the reading task at hand, they say, and may force more advanced ELLs to regress to bottom-up reading strategies. It may be counterproductive for advanced ELLs to use this strategy because they may have already developed self-monitoring comprehension skills.

“The most important lesson drawn from Think-Aloud Strategy not as helpful for beginning and advanced ELLs, study says this study is that teachers should not make the mistake of considering all strategies as ‘good teaching’ and apply them equally to all levels of English learners,” the authors write.

“The very complex nature of second-language students requires teachers to consider the research carefully before selecting strategies that purport to be useful tools for improving all students’ reading development.”

Teacher modeled think aloud

For the study, students were tested with the High Point Comprehension Assessment before and after the intervention. The High Point Language, Literacy and Content series was the only curriculum adopted by the State of California as both an English-language development program and a reading intervention program. The authors say they did not use a control group because they did not want to deny any student the potential advantage of the think-aloud strategy.

During the pretest, students silently read a text and then completed the High Point Reading Comprehension Assessment. McKeown, the researcher and teacher, modeled the think-aloud strategy for students over a two-week period during the reading classes three days each week by reading social science texts as well as the novel, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. After every two or three lines of text, she stopped and restated what she thought was happening, asked questions and made predictions.

During the 3rd and 4th weeks of the study, students began applying the Think-Aloud Strategy to their daily reading assignments or to the Accelerated Reader novel. McKeown monitored students as they read aloud and encouraged them to think aloud in whatever language was more comfortable for them. Students were taught to use additional strategies such as substituting another word for an unknown word, using pictures and graphs to clarify meaning and ignoring confusing sections until they could be clarified later with the teacher and a peer.

Fix-up strategies posted in classroom

These “fix-up strategies” for comprehension were posted in the classroom and were reviewed before each reading session over a two-week period. After two weeks of independent practice and partner work, students took a post-test.

McKeown reports that advanced students complained about the think-aloud practice during the study, asking, “‘Why do I have to stop and say what’s going on if I already get it?'”

“Think-Aloud Strategy: Metacognitive development and monitoring comprehension in the middle school second-language classroom,” by Regina McKeown and James Gentilucci, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, October 2007, Volume 51, Number 2, pp.136-147.

Published by ERN November 2007 Volume 20, Number 8

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