When I was a child, not unlike other children, I had an imaginary friend and I often carried on long complex conversations with my friend. As I grew, my friend visited less and less frequently, but my conversations did not stop; they became self-talk instead of conversations. For a child, this is not an abnormal experience. It is often deemed imagination. As an adult, it is not viewed in quite the same manner. I suppose that is why many of us abandon the skill, at least publically, but I would like to ponder the idea that there are benefits to self-talk. So, I would like to pose the following questions: Are there benefits for those doing the talking? Are there benefits for those that are listening?
1. Thinking aloud can improve oral language development
In a recent publication, Feuerstein and Boahcs, (2013), discuss the age-old idea of soliloquy as a means to build language skills and to overcome disabilities, delays, and deficiencies. These authors demonstrate the art and techniques that are necessary components of self-talk for the purpose of teaching children the process of thinking about the world they are encountering. While much of the focus of the text is to stimulate oral language development in those that are lacking in those skills, I would argue that this technique is not only teaching oral language development, it is also teaching the cognitive process of how to think. This technique is developing concept schemas that children can rely upon for problem solving real-world tasks and to comprehend text they encounter in the classroom.
2. Thinking aloud can change students’ perspective
By listening to their teacher, and eventually their classmates, think aloud about problems, concepts, and situations, children gain Theory of Mind, which helps them to understand the perspective of others. Eventually, they begin to incorporate the various perspectives that they are exposed to into their own thought process. Theory of Mind is a concept that I often teach in my college language development course. It is always a difficult concept for my students to understand, so I often use a think-aloud to present the concept to them. I am always amazed at the positive responses that I get when I demonstrate this technique to them.
3. Thinking aloud works for both the old and the young
Recently, I used the story Bubba the Cowboy Prince (Ketteman, 1997) to demonstrate the think-aloud technique and the power behind Theory of Mind. This is the traditional Cinderella story with a western backdrop. As I read through the story, I stop and reflect on the story scenes describing my childhood experience of summers on my grandparents’ farm. The story of my sister attempting to ride a bull was a real attention getter, but I suppose that is a story for another time. While my personal experience is a bit different from the story setting, I supplement the descriptions with my background of watching old western shows and movies on TV. What is really surprising to me is that about half of my college class did not recognize the story line as being parallel to Cinderella until I explicitly talked-aloud about how the two stories were parallel in my mind. I suppose that this is because many of them have never personally experienced farm life, so they were unable to see similarities.
4. Thinking aloud can help the teacher understand what students know and how they perceive information
This experience has shown me the value of think-alouds and the powerful impact that background knowledge has on how we perceive and interpret text and others’ thought processes. As the teacher and the think-alouder (if you will allow me to be creative with words), I gained a tremendous amount of information about my students during this process. It allowed me to understand their true background knowledge about the content we were discussing and provided me with insight about how they could effectively (or not) incorporate these concepts into their working knowledge for teaching students. For my students, the think-aloud listeners, this strategy effectively demonstrated the concepts that I wanted them to understand at a deeper level. Thinking aloud also provided them with background knowledge about western life and it did it in a way that they could relate to and remember, thus giving them enough information and recall so that they could incorporate this into their own schematic representation of the Cinderella story.
So, for me, using think-alouds definitely have benefit for both speaker and listener. As the days of April quickly tick by, and we celebrate Tell a Story Day on April 27th, I would like to challenge each of you to not only tell a story to your students, but to also Think-Aloud when doing so.