“Thinking aloud” and teaching the writing process

This month’s #blogsync is all about classroom practice – “A Teaching and Learning strategy intended to elicit the highest levels of student motivation in my subject” – and I have revisited some work I did with Nottingham University on cognitive approaches to writing some years ago.

The Theory – intended impact and reflection on effect

The cognitive theories of writing – Flower and Hayes (1981, revised 1996) and Bereiter and Scardamalia – focus on the processes in the brain of the “expert” writer as opposed to the “novice” or student writer. Essentially, the theory goes, the writing process consists of two bodies of knowledge – content knowledge (knowledge of what you are writing about) and discourse knowledge (knowledge of how you construct a piece of writing). At its simplest, this process is rendered as “Knowledge Telling”:


Critical to the understanding of this process is that it is only when pupils have a confident grasp of one body of knowledge can they focus intently on improving the other. The “expert” writer has highly developed discourse knowledge and is able to use processes such as planning, organising, translating and reviewing to interact with the writing problem in front of them (e.g. essay title, #blogsync theme…) to move into a model which is closer to “knowledge transforming”:


In the latter model, the dual problems of what to write and how to write it are constantly redeveloped and reassessed in the light of one another. This is cognitively complex, but it is the model towards which we should  be moving students in the teaching of the writing process.

I am enacting the knowledge transforming process now in this blog post, constantly deleting and rewriting sentences, changing the order, cutting and pasting a section from here to there, but what you, the reader, will see is the finished product, not the process. And, in teaching, the process is the most important thing. Providing students with examples of the finished product (“an A-grade essay looks like this…”) is not futile, but far more important is to provide students with example of how to write an A-grade essay…

The expert writer – the teacher or a student – needs to model the thinking that is going on as the text is constructed by thinking aloud and explaining what choices are being made and why, both in terms of content and discourse. This is not easy and I have on more than one occasion had teachers wonder what’s going on in my classroom as I rehearse writing a poem, an argument or a description whilst narrating aloud what is going on in my head! But, without practice, this can be muddled in the classroom, so I continue…

The think-aloud process should be followed by co-constructing the text with the students as a shared writing approach. The aim in both these processes is to expose the cognitive processes to enable students to see what happens “behind the scenes”. The Martin/DSP wheel outlines many of the elements of this approach:


In my classroom – description of classroom action and evaluation of impact

To explore the application of “think-aloud” and shared writing, I used the approach with two separate Year 8 groups when teaching analytical writing to explore “The Highwayman”. I wrote a paragraph whilst articulating my thoughts, composed another paragraph together, and finally moved into independent writing. Following the lessons I gave them questionnaires to evaluate the impact. From the questionnaires, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • 80% found the demonstration of discursive writing helpful
  • 94% found the shared writing experience helpful
  • 70% found the teacher’s “think-aloud” talk helpful

In pupil interviews, this was refined by the explanations that a barrage of “think-aloud” talk was too much to take in. Pupils found it difficult to extract useful information from the “think-aloud” although they understood the process better. The sheer number of decisions made in constructing sentences and paragraphs of writing became obvious but no less challenging. This evidence makes the rehearsal of the think-aloud even more imperative to distil and structure of the thinking and avoid the barrage effect.

Engaging staff in the explicit teaching of writing

When working with staff on this approach I ask for a Diamond 9 ranking which I reproduce here (Thinking Aloud 9) in the hope that readers of this blog can take these ideas into their own classrooms. The idea of the exercise is for teachers to evaluate what they see as most important about teaching the writing process:


  • “Thinking Aloud” and being totally explicit about the process
  • Encouraging pupils to contribute
  • Showing precisely how writing is constructed
  • After modelling , scaffolding the learning through shared or guided activities
  • Making visible and explicit the “structure” of the process, concept or knowledge
  • Building in time for pupils to reflect on the process
  • Breaking down the process into a series of manageable steps
  • Enabling pupils to do it independently
  • Encouraging pupils to think for themselves or to ask their own questions

I’d be interested to know the thoughts of readers of this blog – please let me know in the comments!  And finally, with staff as for readers of this post, I would urge you to:

  • Choose a genre or type of writing used in your subject and try demonstrating it for your pupils
  • Consider how you might use pupils as experts to model as an alternative to the teacher
  • Plan a range of activities which will help pupils to make a bridge from modelling to being able to use the process independently

4 thoughts on ““Thinking aloud” and teaching the writing process

  1. Loved the blog. As an English teacher, I forget that I actually do the ‘thinking aloud’ often, but you have made it very explicit here. Great stuff. On my blog, I have been working on the ‘thinking aloud’ but in a different way – exploring the choices writers make. You have just taken it from a different angle. Blog provides lots of food for thought


    • Thanks for the comment – much appreciated. Found yours really interesting too, especially the idea of “handwriting gears” – I can see that having real application in the classroom. Great stuff!

  2. Pingback: February 2013 #blogsync: Classroom Action for Student Motivation EDUTRONIC | Share

  3. Pingback: 2. February 2013 #blogsync: Classroom Action for Student Motivation | EDUTRONIC | #blogsync

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