National Writing Project

Navigating Meaning: Using Think-Alouds to Help Readers Monitor Comprehension

By: Jeffrey D. Wilhelm
Publication: Authors and Issues Online Conference
Date: March 2003

Summary: In this selection from Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm provides clear suggestions for helping students monitor comprehension. His explicit ideas about how teachers can move from modeling think-alouds to students' independent use of them are clear and adaptable to most classrooms. Teachers who have not used think-alouds might find his suggestions worth trying. Inaugurating think-alouds as a strategy to increase comprehension could also be the basis of a teacher-inquiry project.


From Chapter 4 of Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Ph.D. Published by Scholastic Professional Books, a division of Scholastic Inc. Copyright 2001 by Jeffery D. Wilhem. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Facilitator Comments: In this selection from Chapter 4, "Navigating Meaning," Wilhelm provides clear suggestions for helping students monitor comprehension. His explicit ideas about how teachers can move from modeling think-alouds to students' independent use of them are clear and adaptable to most classrooms. If teachers have not used think-alouds before, they might find his suggestions worth trying. Inaugurating think-alouds as a strategy to increase comprehension might also be the basis of an interesting teacher inquiry project.

The hallmark of an expert reader is that she actively and continually makes meaning as she reads. Whether reading a thirty-two page picture book or a seven hundred page Russian novel, an expert reader brings meanings forward as she reads each page and uses these meanings to inform her understanding of the unfolding text. She is eminently aware when her meaning-making begins to break down and has strategies to repair faltering comprehension.

Many research studies show that facility in monitoring comprehension distinguishes good readers from poor ones. Expert readers read on a global level, using individual words and local-level phrase- and sentence-meaning to construct a coherent picture of what a text is trying to express. Proficient readers are able to self-correct and fix comprehension problems as they read and have a goal in mind: understanding the larger meaning of a text.

Poorer readers, on the other hand, are often mired at the local level of comprehension as they concentrate on decoding words and sentences. They don't see how various parts of a whole text relate to each other and work together to create a larger meaning. They often have difficulty bringing the meaning of a word or sentence forward to the next sentence. Sometimes such students don't even seem to understand that reading goes beyond decoding words to making meanings with those words. And they don't see texts as parts of larger conversations—called grand conversations by many literacy educators—that are about important debates, issues, and intensely important human choices. They don't understand that by reading and then accepting, adapting, or rejecting what they have learned, they have entered into the grand social conversation that is reading, not only the reading of texts, but of using texts to "read" the world.


One of my favorite stories about this impoverished view of reading involves my seventh-grade student Marvin, a poor reader who could decode words. He'd spent lots of years in pull-out situations involving phonics and word-identification programs like DISTAR and the Wilson Reading Program; and these had been largely helping him to decode words, but not in inspiring or helping him to become a motivated, proficient reader. I remember reading a baseball story with Marvin. I was asking him inference-level questions about things that were implied but not directly stated in the text. He became angry and said, "I am telling you what the story says. It's not fair of you to ask me what it doesn't say!" Marvin did not understand that he was supposed to bring his own knowledge of baseball to the reading act so he could create a story world and a visual image of the field, the ballplayers, and the action. When we finished the book, I asked him what the story meant to him personally, and what the author might have been communicating about the ballplayers' actions. He was totally stumped.

"What do you mean, what does it mean? It's a story. Some stuff happened." When I asked him what the most important events were, he told me that he couldn't remember. When I asked him what he had seen when he read the story, he muttered, "See? Words, man, I see nothing but words!"

I asked him to recall the point at which the story had stopped making sense. I'll never forget how sad he looked when he said, "Reading is supposed to make sense? Reading.'s never made any sense to me. No sense at all."

Marvin's critique of school and school reading could be interpreted on several levels, but it's clear that school had not helped him to think about reading as a meaning-making pursuit and had never helped him to view reading as a worthwhile activity. He was not aware of how to make meaning when meaning might be breaking down, or what to do about it when it did. He could decode most words and thought that was reading. No wonder he so often insisted that "Reading is stupid!"

Parents and schools often collude to promote misconception about reading. I've had parents insist that their child could read or was a good reader because he could decode and identify words. They didn't understand that reading is so much more than that. "I don't know what the trouble is," they'd insist. Schools collude because we often teach reading, particularly with older remedial students like Marvin, by concentrating solely on word-decoding skills. These skills are very important, to be sure, but reading is an integrated process of many word-, sentence-, and text-level strategies. These local-level decoding strategies must be contextualized as only apart and as a means to the end of pursuing larger meanings. This kind of meaning-construction involves a variety of cognitive, emotional, personal, and social processes. Think-alouds, as I hope has been obvious thus far in this book, can highlight the many integrated features of engaged reading.

In this chapter, we'll look at ways to use think-alouds to give students strategies for monitoring comprehension and for "fixing up" their comprehension when it derails. It is absolutely essential to good reading that the reader knows when meaning breaks down and what to do about it. To do this, readers must learn to identify when problems occur, isolate the problem, name the source of confusion, and know how to use strategies to attack and overcome the confusion. This is far from a simple process, and think-alouds can be a powerful way to help.

Think-Alouds Can Target Common Troubles of Struggling Readers

Consider this

As is true for any techniques for assisting kids' performance, the think-aloud is a means to an end and not the end itself. Once students have mastered the strategies of monitoring their reading to improve comprehension, you will not need to do think-alouds to assist them with this. Or, if students use some strategies but not others, think-alouds should be designed and cued to focus what students do not yet know

  • Poor readers often plow right through a reading, decoding words but not comprehending the text. Think-alouds can help because they require the reader to slow down and to reflect on how they are understanding and interpreting text.
  • Poor readers don't bring meaning forward with them, building it as they work through a text. Think-alouds can help students to identify, consolidate, and summarize the growing meanings they make while reading so that the meaning can be used.
  • Poor readers just give up. Think-alouds can help by giving students strategies to try in lieu of giving up.
    I'm indebted to the work of James Baumann and his colleagues in using think-alouds for monitoring comprehension. Their studies, among others, have shown that think-alouds are a highly effective way to help students deal with the monitoring and repair of comprehension difficulties. (See especially Baumann, 1986, 1992, 1993.)

From Modeling to Students' Independent Use: Basic Steps

To introduce my students to the notion of checking understanding while reading, I model a wide variety of fix-up strategies, help students identify them, and then post a list or flow chart of them in the classroom (see the following example). I tell the students that the strategies outlined here will help them monitor their comprehension and read better, no matter what they are reading.

Then I read another text and ask students to help me go through the process we have outlined by prompting me and explaining the steps I should try.

When the process of comprehension monitoring becomes relatively clear to them, students then take over the process themselves in small groups, and when ready, of course, begin to use the process on their own.
Tips for Guiding Students

  • I start off telling students to continually pause and ask themselves the question: Does this make sense?
  • I tell kids who answer "no, this isn't making sense" to use the most basic fix-up strategies of I) rereading, 2) reading ahead, 3) skipping or filling in a word. I later introduce other strategies, some of which need to be modeled and taught more explicitly.

Remember that any time you introduce a strategy and kids don't or can't use it, you must go back and do more modeling and provide more assistance. On the other hand, if kids quickly take to the strategy, let them take more responsibility for it, and move on to teach something else with which they are having more difficulty.

Click on the individual components to read the text.


When students are ready to take over the process of self-monitoring in small groups or individually, I might give them a Stop, Fix, and Ask Checklist (see next page). This checklist is an expansion and adaptation of the Stop- Think Strategy of Sue Mowery which I discovered on the Internet.

Stop, Ask, Fix: Student Checklist

Give yourself a short self-assessment. Read through the following list and put a check mark next to the strategies you regularly use to read a difficult book or piece of writing. Which ones don't you use? These should be strategies to keep in mind the next time you read something challenging. Keep this checklist at your side as you read a text. Use it to help prompt you to use the appropriate strategies available for watching and fixing your comprehension.

ASK, When reading a difficult text...

  • I periodically stop and ask, "Does this make sense?"
  • I express the difference between my own knowledge and beliefs and ideas expressed in text.
  • I express awareness or lack of awareness of what the content means.
  • I express doubt about understanding when I am unsure or when meaning is unclear.
  • I ask "Where did I lose track?"
  • I identify the place where I began to lose comprehension.
  • I use fix-up strategies when I experience problems.
  • I reread.
  • I read on and try to clear up the confusion.
  • I substitute words I know (and that fit the context) to replace words I don't understand to see if that works.
  • I make mind pictures to "see" in my head what the text means.
  • I connect what I am reading to what I have read previously in this text, and what I have read and knew before I read this text. I may ask an author-and-me question because my personal knowledge may help me figure out the meaning.
  • I ask myself questions (Why did the character do this? Why did the author put this in? How is this important? Am I supposed to "think and search" or infer?).
  • I use these other strategies: [WOL]
  • I ask for help if I have made attempts to understand but can't get it. I ask a peer and then I ask my teacher or another adult.

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