Header image

Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 45

  • Date

  • Author

    Sarah Norris

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back the first Tuesday of each month for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: What Has the Read-Think-Talk-Write Cycle Done for Us Lately?

The Secret Superpowers of the Read-Think-Talk-Write Cycle

Whether you are embarking on your first year with this curriculum or have been at it for a minute, you have likely seen this image:

It sums up a key design element of the curriculum, the “Read-Think-Talk-Write” cycle, which operates at the micro level within a lesson or series of lessons, and at the macro level across the units of a module. For details  on what happens during each part of the cycle, see our Question 34 post orYour Curriculum Companionpages 325-357, and be sure to check out our new Read-Think-Talk-Write: Integrating Literacy with Worthy Texts video. It’s nice to have a simple way to describe what students do with text, and we hope it’s starting to feel familiar. 

This cycle, though, is more than nice, simple, and familiar; it is more the sum of its parts. The cycle has some subtle superpowers that are likely impacting student learning already, and those powers can get even more impactful when you bring attention and intention to them. 

You already know that the cycle gives students an opportunity to synthesize evidence, play with ideas, and develop arguments. This brings us to its first subtle superpower: each part of the cycle is more powerful because it’s part of the cycle.  

More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Scaffolded opportunities to read compelling texts and then think about, write about, and talk about those texts reinforce the connection between reading for and writing with evidence. That reinforcement ends up bolstering actual reading and writing skills, but the other parts of the cycle increase each others’ power as well. Having the opportunity to think before talking often makes talking better, but it’s also true that talking can end up making thinking clearer; the mild social pressure that comes from knowing you’ll share thoughts can prompt more careful thinking, and as we hear ourselves aloud, we can more easily detect areas we need to go back and think a bit more about. The opportunity to “rehearse” through talking before writing is supportive to all students, and especially to students learning English, who benefit from oral processing and the social construction of knowledge. 

Through discussion, they typically are much better writers...and their writing samples really, really, REALLY reflect that. Kaitlyn Billops Fourth Grade Teacher

“Talk,” then, can be thought of as the real lynchpin in the cycle—the part that does the most work to make the other parts meaningful, reaching back into “think” to bring more care and precision, and ahead into “write” to get students ready with the language, ideas, and peer support to do their best work.  

“Talking with our expert groups, or with our peers, it’s helping us and guiding us. It can actually give us more information about what we’re writing about, what we’re thinking about.

Fostering Individual Independence AND Mutual Support

Students in Tawana Jordan’s first grade class read and talk about an informational text as they prepare to write about how birds’ bodies help them survive

We like to say that the Read-Think-Talk-Write cycle “lets the text do the teaching.” This 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. After students have read a text, we might ask the whole class questions that fish for details about the information in the text, in effect summarizing its contents. Our curriculum’s approach is different, because 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 is powerful for building literacy skills, but it is also powerful for building students’ character as effective learners who can both focus independently and collaborate productively. When the text is doing the teaching, the teacher isn’t necessarily standing right there; in the very moment of reading or discussion, the students are accountable only to themselves and each other. 

After I transferred the control to my students, they were able to surprise me as to what they could do. Kaitlyn Billops Fourth Grade Teacher

Time to Differentiate

You’ll notice that the description of what happens during each part of the cycle is focused on what the students are doing with text. Of course—because they are the ones learning with and from it. So when students are busy reading, thinking, talking or writing, what are YOU doing? Well, when you and your students are first getting started, the reality is that you are probably offering lots of support for their independent work. You are doing more toggling quickly back and forth between independent work and whole-class clarification of ideas or directions. But soon enough, their ability to work independently and offer each other sufficient support will mean that you have something every teacher wishes for: more time. 

The students support each other...so I almost can facilitate, instead of hover and teach them. Kaitlyn Billops Fourth Grade Teacher

While they support each other, you can observe not just to monitor behavior, but to check for the understanding revealed through their conversation. You can convene a small group, either one you have planned for or one that your observations or students’ self-assessments indicated would be high-leverage for the lesson. And you can spend time with individual students—again, possibly ones you have already planned for, and/or ones you identify based on in the moment observations. In short, you can do the differentiation all teachers know their students need.

The Read-Think-Talk-Write cycle will support student literacy learning whether or not you pay attention to its subtle superpowers. But, when you know all these ancillary benefits are not only possible but designed for, you can be that much more intentional. You can use “Talk” time  to intentionally build students’ independence and abilities to support one other. When that frees up time, you can be intentional in planning for the highest-leverage ways to spend it. And when you can best attend to the students who need extra support or challenge, in addition to moving the class as a whole forward, you can lay claim to some superpowers of your own.