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To Improve Kids’ Reading, Harness Their Innate Inquisitiveness


As students return to school this fall, Molly Ness Ph.D., has some advice for parents concerned about what their children read when they’re at home: Don’t worry.

“It’s ok to say to our kids, you can read a book that’s a little harder than what you’re normally comfortable with,” she says. “They’re getting a lot of books at school that they’re supposed to read, and so having home be a place where they can read a graphic novel, or informational text, is fine.”

In the podcast below, the associate professor of curriculum and teaching at the Graduate School of Education, walks us through “Think Alouds,” the topic of her new book, Think Big With Think Alouds: Grades K-5 (Sage, 2017).

Full transcript below

Patrick Verel: This is Patrick Verel. And today I’m speaking with Molly Ness, an associate professor of childhood education in the graduate school of education at Fordham. Now your new book Think Big With Think Alouds came out this year. And as I understand it, the big take-away from research you conducted in New York City schools is that teachers and parents can really benefit from what’s called a “Think Aloud”. Can you tell me a little bit about what this is?

Molly Ness: So, a Think Aloud is when a proficient reader, a teacher or a parent gives a verbal dialogue of the thought process that they are using to counter a text. So they stop periodically and reflect on their understanding, they think through places that they may be struggling to understand and they use eye language so that they really show kids what the thought processes are that are going on in their head. So they might stop and say, “I’m really confused here. Let me re-read to see if I can find my answer.”

Typically what happens in Read Alouds book, at home and at school is, we ask kids literal comprehension questions that are things like, “Where does the story take place?” and “What do you think might happen next?”. And really what that is, is that is a check for comprehension. So it’s a way for us to gauge whether or not a kid is understanding the text. But children that way don’t get a reflection of what they should be doing to understand the text.

So when we as proficient readers take the responsibility for showing kids how we are thinking, they’re more likely to internalize those thought processes and apply them to their independent reading.

So there’s a fair amount of research that shows that Think Aloud’s are highly effective, but yet they’re not really commonplace in classrooms today. And the reason that teachers are not doing them as much as they can is, it’s often hard for us as proficient readers to look at a second grade book or a fourth grade book and pinpoint where a child might fail to understand. The purpose of my book is really to make the Think Aloud process visible, easy and enjoyable for teachers and children.

Patrick Verel: And you learned this by conducting the research in New York City schools?

Molly Ness: I worked with a group of pre-service and in-service teachers who were all Fordham graduate students, all in the school of education. And we, over a year long period, we did a whole lot of work around Think Alouds. And what we saw was that most of the participants were really able to say, “Wow. An effective Think Aloud doesn’t emerge off the cuff. It’s not an extemporaneous thing that I can just open up a book, sit in front of my class of kids and viola, here’s an efficient, effective Read Aloud. Really it takes advance preparation.”

Patrick Verel: Now when it comes to reading comprehension, you’re a big fan of encouraging children to ask questions and in using expository text to answer the questions. And how does this help exactly, when it comes to reading?

Molly Ness: Sure. My interest in asking questions as a comprehension skill really stem from my home life. I am the mother of a second grader. And when she was in pre-school at age three and four, I would wake up every morning and she would just pepper me with questions. And that’s pretty common, if you look at the research. Kids ages four to ten ask about 288 questions a day. And so, what that shows is that kids are naturally inquisitive. They’re naturally curious about the world around us. And what happens is, they get to school and the questions that they are asking are shut down. Instead teachers are the ones generating questions. We find that when kids are the ones who hold responsible for generating questions, they’re more motivated to answer their questions, to use learning as a tool to answer their questions, their reading is much more purposeful.

For example, when my daughter was in kindergarten, we had a slew of snow storms in the town where I live. And she was seeing all of these snow plows go by and wanted to understand how snow plows work. And I of course know nothing about this. So we used that natural stopping point where she was generating her own questions as a opportunity to go to the library and check out snow plow books and use informational text to answer the questions that she was naturally asking.

Patrick Verel: Now, for you, what is the most exciting development in education these days?

Molly Ness: So what I’m really excited about is a trend called visible learning. And it comes originally out of Australia. A professor and researcher in Australia named John Hattie. And he has written a series of books that looks at all the education strategies. Not just in literacy where I’m interested in, but classroom strategies across the age level and across content area. And what he’s done is he’s compiled effect sizes, which measure the effectiveness of a particular strategy. We’re always talking in education about using data to make decisions. And this was an instance where he really was able to say, “A strategy like cooperative learning or having kids work in groups, here’s the effect size for that strategy”, so that we really have some hard data that can actually really say, “These are the strategies that are worth our instructional time.”

I’m working on a book now where we’re taking that approach of visible learning and translating it into literacy education for kids K through 5.

Patrick Verel: What advice would you give to parents who want to start the new year off right with their children?

Molly Ness: So the number one thing I think parents can be doing is encouraging reading at home. I think during the summer, we are much more on top of our kids reading at home, because we know there’s a summer slide for kids who are not reading at home and we tend to think that really young kids are the ones who should be read to. Well, there are benefits to reading to kids in seventh grade and eleventh grade.

The other thing that I would encourage is to allow kids some choice of what they read at home. Typically what will happen is a kid will come home with a book that their teacher has assigned, it’s a guided reading level C book. And really what I think should happen at home is that kids should be able to choose the books that they read. It’s okay for kids to read a book at home that is a bit above their instructional level. If they’re motivated to read it, their motivation to read that for whatever reason will close the gap of what they might not understand.

Patrick Verel: So if I were to ask you, what should they read? The answer is?

Molly Ness: Anything. It’s hard for us as parents to look at books that we think as sort of low quality books. This past summer, a movie came out out of the Captain Underpants books. And if you look at the Captain Underpants books, they’re not high quality books. They’re not necessarily rich with story and character and vocabulary. But kids are absolutely drawn to them. And so there was a pretty big conversation in the field of education about whether kids should be reading these kind of books. And my answer is always, “If kids want to read them, let them read them.”

The other advice I would give to parents is, have kids see you reading an actual book. So putting away the Kindle. Putting away the iPad. Because kids don’t necessarily know … my husband for example, he is always reading on his phone. So he’s reading, but he reads through a Kindle app on his phone. If my daughter looks at him and says, “Why are you on your phone so much, that’s device time.” And she doesn’t necessarily equate that he’s reading text. So having kids see you reading, whatever you’re reading. A magazine, it can be the New York Times, it can be whatever beach read, but really having them see you read an authentic book that isn’t a digital text, is valuable and priceless.


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