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Question: How can I get students more engaged with their texts as they prepare to write?
The Read-Think-Talk-Write Cycle
The read-think-talk-write cycle gives students an opportunity to synthesize evidence, play with ideas, develop arguments, and “rehearse” various forms of communication during lessons (or sequences of lessons). Scaffolded opportunities to read compelling texts and then think about, write about, and talk about those texts reinforces the connection between reading for and writing with evidence. And, it is highly supportive of students learning English, who benefit from oral processing and the social construction of knowledge.
“Ultimately, our goal for students, as they learn about the world through the compelling topics in the curriculum, is first that they deeply understand and then that they effectively communicate what they know.”
Read about It: Let the Text Do the Teaching
Letting the text do the teaching may sound simple, but in reality it can be quite difficult. As teachers, we often have an instinct to preview for students what they are about to read, or to engage in a think-aloud with them to support them as they read (common in a traditional Readers’ Workshop). Sometimes, after students have read a text, we will lead a whole-class discussion about it, asking questions that fish for details about the information in the text, in effect summarizing its contents. In each of these cases, it’s not the text that’s doing the teaching; it’s primarily the teacher.
Our curriculum’s approach is different. It positions the text as the “expert” in the room. Our lessons are structured so that students are active readers, annotating as they go, using note-catchers to organize information and ideas, engaging in discussion protocols, and completing short writing tasks that bring them back into the text over and over.
This approach takes practice for teachers because, for many of us, it goes against our instincts to guide students toward the answers they are looking for or to help them when the going is tough. However, grappling and productive challenge has great benefit for students—it builds their literacy muscles when they are given opportunities to figure things out on their own. In the curriculum, lessons scaffold this process for students as they learn strategies to find answers and evidence directly from the text.
Think about It: Set a Purpose for Reading and Provide Time for Students to Think about the Text
Students need time and a focal point to comprehend what they read. Often what focuses students is a question, which is followed by a structure that gives them time to think about their response and ultimately to talk and write about it. These structures are often simple, like brief protocols or total participation techniques (e.g., Think-Pair-Share), and sometimes the structures are more complex (e.g., a Socratic Seminar). In either case, they are designed so that all students are thinking and talking, not just those who are already most inclined to do so.
During close reading/read-alouds, this focal point often takes the form of a focus question, which is introduced at the beginning of a close reading/read-aloud and sets the purpose for students as they read or listen. Text-dependent questions, which cannot be answered without reading and referencing a specific text, then direct students back to portions of the text for a particular purpose. Each time the teacher asks a question, students work together in pairs to grapple with the question and discuss their responses.
Questions that are prepared before the lesson will ensure that they point students back to the text in a way that builds their understanding of the text and their literacy skills, which is why you will find questions written right into the lessons in the curriculum. Asking deep questions—higher-order thinking questions on Bloom’s Taxonomy—that ask students to think about the text in ways that deepen their understanding is difficult to do on the fly. If you do find yourself needing to ask different questions than what you find in the lesson, it’s important to keep in mind the purpose of each question and plan in advance whenever possible. It’s also a good idea to plan follow-up questions in case students get stuck with a question or move in an unproductive direction.
One important feature of the questions in our curriculum is the way that they are asked. Rarely do we recommend that teachers ask a question and call on volunteers to answer it. Instead, we usually suggest a total participation technique or a brief protocol so that every student can think about his or her answer and then talk to a peer about it, which deepens and extends students’ thinking. Or we suggest a short writing task, such as a particular kind of annotation, a note-catcher, or an exit ticket, that gives students a chance to think and write independently. Brief writing like this may or may not be followed by a time for sharing with peers.
Talk about It: Help Students Deepen Their Understanding of Text through Discourse
We subscribe to the idea that “learning floats on a sea of talk” (Barnes, 1976). At every grade level, in every lesson, we have built in structures that promote productive and equitable conversation among students. For example:
- Conversation partners
- Triads Expert groups
- Writing buddies
- Total participation techniques
Talking to each other about what they are reading gives students a chance for “oral rehearsal” of their ideas. It also allows students to hear the ideas of their peers, build off of them, and clarify their own misconceptions. Opportunities for student discourse are especially important for English language learners (ELLs). They thrive on interaction with a wide range of peers. Before writing about text, students think about and talk to each other about such things as what the text is about, what evidence from the text supports their opinions and claims, the meaning and purpose of academic structures, writer’s craft, and the organization of ideas. This process gives ELLs a structure for simultaneously trying out their ideas and the language they need to express those ideas, learning about and clarifying the ideas of their peers, and deepening their understanding before writing. Furthermore, this oral rehearsal provides ELLs with the time they need to formulate what they want to say and communicate their thoughts, and then reformulate their speech if necessary, based on any confusion from their peers.
Many lessons and sequences of lessons in the curriculum are designed to bring students through the read-think-talk-write cycle. Often, students engage in conversations with each other using a specific protocol with predictable steps and rules. Protocols are a great way for all students to hear from others and add to or change their own developing ideas. Because students follow set “rules” for discussion during protocols, everyone has an equal opportunity to talk, listen, and respond. The process helps students develop their growth mindset, learning and contributing to the learning of others, and not getting “stuck” believing that their ideas or answers are the only correct ones. This social construction of knowledge helps students stay nimble and flexible with their thinking.
Write about It: Writing to Learn and Learning to Write
The final component of the read-think-talk-write cycle is writing; however, writing doesn’t happen only at the end of the learning process. Instead, writing is an integral part of the learning process. When we ask students to annotate text by writing the gist in the margin, to complete a graphic organizer as they are reading or discussing a text, or to write short paragraphs in response to a prompt, writing is a way for them to crystallize their thinking. They are “writing to learn.”
Writing is also a way for students to communicate their learning, and they must learn to do so effectively. In the curriculum, students read, think, and talk as a way to prepare themselves to write. And the writing itself serves to deepen their learning. Writing takes many forms in the curriculum, from letter formation and spelling, to note-taking, to collaborative, highly scaffolded writing and everything in between.
See the Read-Think-Talk-Write Cycle in Action
Depending on your grade level and interest, choose one of the two videos below to see the read-think-talk-write cycle in action. The first, Close Read-Aloud in the Primary Grades, Part 2: Deeper Analysis and Culminating Task, features kindergartners engaged in analysis of the text, Come On, Rain!, as part of a module on the topic of weather. See the read-think-talk-write framework in action as the teacher guides her students toward a culminating writing and drawing task.
In the second video, Engaging Students in Collaborative Academic Discussions, fifth-grade students at PS 36 in Bronx, New York engage in a jigsaw protocol to collaboratively deepen their understanding of and make connections between the novel Esperanza Rising and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Also, checkout the resource download attached to this webpage for an annotated third-grade lesson plan from the curriculum. We have highlighted places in the lesson for you to take note of the read-think-talk-write cycle in action.
For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.