reading aloud critical thinking questions

teaching Critical Thinking Through Read Alouds

Michael dunlea.

read alouds

For 18 years I have worked with some of the youngest learners — emerging readers. In just my second year as a teacher I was assigned the inclusion 2nd-grade classroom, working with children who are 7-years old and have learning differences. It pushed me to find new ways to help them embrace critical thinking.

Too often, we think that the only goal with students like these should be getting up to speed on basic skills. That’s important of course, but, it shouldn’t exclude teaching higher level thinking skills that can help reinforce basic skills. It’s not “either-or”; it’s “both-and.” Working with the Reboot Foundation , a non-profit organization dedicated to improving instruction for all students, I was recently asked to focus on how we specifically target these skills for younger learners. Teachers from all subjects and content areas collaborated on a Teachers’ Guide to Critical Thinking in order to find universal ways all educators could reach their students across the disciplines and grades. 

One advantage to the earlier grades is that we typically teach our students all, or almost all, subjects. So when I model skills or abilities in one area, I can refer to them across the curriculum. What is taught in reading , for example, can easily be applied to math . 

One of the best ways I’ve found to help my students develop the critical thinking skills they need to be successful may come as a surprise: reading chapter books aloud to my class. So much can be modeled and, if done correctly, leads to high student engagement. 

Why are read-alouds important? Reading aloud externalizes the activity so that both students and teachers can “see” it better. The words become more alive for students, and they get the satisfaction of actualizing and hearing their progress in realtime. Teachers, meanwhile, get a clear sample of where their students are at in their comprehension, who needs extra help, and what class-wide instruction may be needed. Finally, read-alouds are important because they provide ample opportunity for teachers to stop the class and probe them to think more deeply about a given passage. Here are a few examples of this strategy at work. Here are a few examples of this strategy. 

Each year I read “The Cricket in Times Square” to my students. This story centers around a cricket who is accidentally transported from the Connecticut countryside into the subway station at Times Square, New York City. One of the main characters is a young boy named Mario. One day he travels to Chinatown to purchase a cage for his new pet cricket. When I read this passage:

“Because this cricket so remarkable.” said Sai Fong, “I sell cage for fifteen cents.” Mario sighed with relief. 

I stop and wonder out loud, “Why did Mario sigh with relief? Why is he happy hearing this news?” Then I turn to my students to do the thinking. Mario has been concerned he would not be able to afford a cage. By prompting the students and identifying the literary clues previously provided by the author I lead them to realize his sigh means he has enough money in his pocket. 

In this way, we can take what can be a passive activity, being read to, and turn it into a deeper critical thinking activity. At young ages, the decoding of the words on the page can require a lot of mental energy, this can make it hard to analyze texts at the same time. By removing reading to them, we allow them to focus entirely on the thinking and comprehension side of things. Over time, this becomes transferable into their independent reading and other subject areas. 

When I finish this book we launch into a 5-book series called The Borrowers. This series tells the story of 3 little miniature people called Borrowers who live under the floor of a kitchen in a big estate in England a hundred years ago. Throughout the story they encounter one challenge after another, many times looking directly in the face of death or destruction. They live precarious lives and just at a major event in the story I will stop and ask, “Do you think this is it? Is this the end of the Borrowers? Will the ferret eat them?” 

Then, I will turn to the students and poll them. This time I let the students teach each other. When one finally responds with an emphatic “NO” I ask why did they say that, what led them to that answer? They will often respond, “With 4 more books left after this one, how could they die now?”  

The skill of making strong predictions is an area where I often model and teach critical thinking.  Taking what they already know and what the author has purposely provided them as clues helps them to see themselves as reading detectives. There is an essence of fun-and-game in the process of becoming a critical thinker. This isn’t limited to reading. Math is a perfect fit for critical thinking as well. 

One of my favorite things to do with my students is to be critical of the math problems we are provided in our math program. The other day I was teaching my 3rd graders multiplication and its relation to division. The math problem provided was:

“Six friends picked 48 grapefruits. They want to share them equally. How many grapefruits should each friend get?”

After reading it aloud I turned to my students who were all on a Zoom as we are full remote right now and I asked, “Does anyone have a problem with this?” Finally, I got from one student, “this is dumb, kids hate grapefruit and 48 seems like a ridiculous number of them in the first place.” 

Forget the math, let’s take a step back and think about this for a second. What groups of kids are really going out to pick 48 grapefruits? Where would they even go? It is an absurd situation, but identifying it as such actually gets the kids minds working. After we have a laugh about it, the kids can extract the math in it that does make sense. Kids laugh at the absurdity and then more easily focus on the numbers embedded in the words. 

In the course of having fun, they learn how to separate and sort out the information so that it becomes clearer to them. The evidence for this is amazing. They begin to engage more deeply, analyze information, and identify problems.

For example, when we got to our 4th unit in math and I handed out the paper and pencil assessment that accompanied the unit I had two female students approach me with a concern. 

Earlier, we’d spent time learning about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and focused in particular on Goal 5, Gender Equality. My students were offended by word problems on the test that had the girls buying multiple bottles of nail polish and lip gloss while the boys were collecting baseball cards or sporting equipment. They felt that the questions were based on gender stereotypes! They are 3rd graders! But, already, they were no longer blindly reading along and just doing the math. As they worked through problems, they saw the gender bias in the test.

Critical thinking in the younger grades is a valuable experience that brings with it an electrically charged feeling. It felt like a jolt to my system when the two girls brought that to my attention. This just doesn’t happen naturally. It requires modeling and revisiting this kind of thinking throughout the day and in all subjects.

During the earliest years we are learning a lot of “how to”: how to read, how to add, how to write. But it is so important that we help our students transition at the same time to thinking while reading, while doing math or writing. The old saying “K-3 is learning to read, but 4-6 is reading to learn” identifies that critical moment when the critical thinking has been activated. This saying should only serve as a general guide and not be interpreted as etched in stone rule as every child develops at their own pace. 

Michael Dunlea teaches third grade in Tabernacle, New Jersey. In 2012 he was a finalist for the NJ State Teacher of the Year and in 2018 received the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics & Science Teaching. He also helped develop Reboot’s Teachers’ Guide to Critical Thinking .  

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Building Better Readers With Scaffolded Read Alouds

By reading books out loud every day, teachers introduce students to higher-level texts and new vocabulary, while modeling deeper thinking and strong discussion skills.

In Brooklyn, an elementary school called P.S. 249, the Caton School, has a 15-to-20-minute block of daily read-aloud time in every classroom, kindergarten through fifth grade. Teachers select a book that’s just above their students’ reading level—and related to the current unit of study in social studies or English language arts—and read it to their class. But this is no typical read aloud. All along the way, the teachers model good reading skills, as well as how to think critically and analyze text.

Every three days, when a new book is introduced, the class reads the back cover, looks at the artwork, and makes predictions. Over the next few days, teachers read small sections of text to the group, stopping every few minutes to pose questions and encourage the students to consider the setting (or characters, or plot elements). Questions start out asking for basic information about what the students heard and build toward higher-level analytical questions about what might happen in the story or the characters’ motivations. During turn and talks, the students discuss particular passages in pairs while the teacher roams around observing, and each lesson ends with a stop and jot where students answer a prompt using printed copies of the text to find evidence.

As the days progress, teachers model less and have students do more of the thinking and analyzing themselves—which empowers students to become more critical and capable readers when they go to read on their own.

Schools That Work

P.s. 249 the caton school.

Think Aloud

  • Select a central text .
  • Project the text in a visible location.
  • Asking questions
  • Connecting to other texts
  • Making predictions
  • Narrating thoughts while reading
  • Reviewing for information
  • Summarizing
  • Surveying for text features
  • Using evidence from the text to respond
  • Visualizing
  • Highlight part of the text conducive to demonstrating the skills you selected for the mini-lessons. Model the skills aloud.
  • Have students record the skills you demonstrate on the Think Aloud checklist.
  • After modeling Think Aloud, have students practice with a partner or in a small group, using the Think Aloud checklist as a talking guide.
  • Observe and scaffold students during partner or small group Think Aloud. These observations can function as formative assessments.

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Paige Abramson Hirsch

reading aloud critical thinking questions

Increase critical thinking and curiosity when you read aloud. Take story time to a new level.

Seize it! Reading aloud with your child is filled with teachable moments to:

  • Be curious ( a marker of academic success ).
  • Learn how to ask questions ( a life skill ).
  • Develop critical thinking skills.

Basic Concepts

There is a hierarchy of thinking – “Bloom’s Taxonomy” in teacher-speak.

  • Six levels – C reate, e valuate, a nalyze, a pply, u nderstand, r emember.
  • With a base in ‘remembering’ and building up to ‘creating’, the levels are designed to move a child’s thinking from simple recall to more abstract and complex.
  • Try to use all six levels when reading aloud with your child to reframe how you ask questions.

Concept in Action

Let’s use the example of The Three Little Pigs:

  • Remember: Who built his house out of sticks?
  • Understand: What was the difference between the house of sticks and the house of bricks?
  • Apply: What would you have built your house from?
  • Analyze: If all of the pigs had built their houses out of brick, what might have happened?
  • Evaluate: What would you have recommended the three pigs do differently in the story?
  • Create: Can you write a new ending to the story? What would happen in your ending?

Just Remember

Try to use all six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy when reading aloud with your child to reframe how you ask questions ( c reate, evaluate, analyze, apply, understand, r emember ).

Helpful Tips

  • Asking questions that focus on the recall of facts or events is common. But experiment with higher order questions to deepen your child’s critical thinking.
  • Model your own answers. This could be in how you’d answer the question yourself, or apply it to your own day. For example, “I had a tricky meeting today and had to share some bad news. I wonder how I could’ve said things differently. I wonder how the meeting would’ve ended then. Can you help me think what else I could’ve said?”

Your Tip Sheet of Questions


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During Reading

After you’ve introduced your book and set a purpose for listening, you are ready to get to the good stuff – reading, sharing, and discussing the text with the children. This is the meaty part of your Intentional Read Aloud. It is your opportunity to model what good readers do and build children’s understanding.

As you read aloud, model fluent reading to support children’s comprehension. Stop during selected parts to think aloud, ask questions, and reinforce your primary literacy objective. Have children participate in the lesson by giving them opportunities to think about, respond to, and join in the reading.

Teaching Comprehension through an Intentional Read Aloud

We read with children for many different reasons. We read to learn something new, to build a sense of community, to connect our own experiences to others, to explore ideas different from our own, and to understand how other people live, feel, and think. The list could go on and on. But at the heart of all these things is understanding – making sense of what we read.

Comprehension is at the center of what we do as readers, listeners, and thinkers. In fact, it is the sole purpose for reading. Every reading skill, strategy, and behavior we teach children, from accuracy and fluency to building vocabulary and background knowledge, is in service of comprehension.

Teaching comprehension through an Intentional Read Aloud is a natural fit. Intentional Read Alouds provide you with the time, opportunity, and community to discuss how effective readers make meaning from books. Here are some ways to build children’s comprehension during Intentional Read Aloud:

Think Aloud - As the most proficient reader in the classroom, your description of how you make meaning from a text is important. When you think aloud for children, you give them a window into the thought processes behind making meaning. Plan for one to three demonstrations of how to comprehend a text or a portion of a text to provide children with the information they need to make meaning independently.

Conversations - Actively encourage children to think about, talk about, and make meaning of the text. You can have whole class discussions or have children share with a partner. The more children can actively engage with a text and its ideas, the more they will comprehend.

Text-Based Evidence - Ask questions that require a response that includes information from the text to ensure that children are keeping their thinking grounded in the text and are participating in close reading.

Open-Ended Questions - Pose questions that encourage conversation and do not demand a correct answer. This gives children an opportunity to work on their analytic skills, extending their comprehension of a text more globally.

Close Reading - Direct children to a portion of a text and ask them to think deeply about its structure, the vocabulary, or the author’s purpose. This exercise not only helps children comprehend that particular text (or portion of the text), but can be a model for how to approach independent reading as well.

Anchor Charts - Use anchor charts to capture children’s thinking about comprehension skills. They can be used to guide conversations before, during, and after the Intentional Read Aloud and can serve as a visual aid and reminder for the important ideas you are teaching.

Reread Books or Portions of Books - The value of rereading cannot be overstated. The more familiar children are with a text, the more their comprehension develops. Revisit favorite texts to construct meaning and highlight different skills and strategies. This will offer children the opportunity to concentrate on their metacognition and allow them to think more deeply about a text.

Solicit Questions from the Children - Ask children what questions they have about a book. This will give you insight into what they are thinking and give children a chance to think about and evaluate their own understanding.

How to Model Your Thinking

When you read, your brain is engaged in a complicated process of figuring out, interpreting, and making meaning of the author’s words. This process of comprehending a text happens inside your own head, invisible to everyone but yourself. When you think aloud, you are making this invisible process visible to children. You are showing them how experienced readers make meaning from a text, so that they can learn to do it on their own. Some children figure out these processes on their own, but many do not. Thinking aloud is an essential support for both language learners and struggling readers.

Here are some ways to make your “think alouds” clear and effective:

Listen in on yourself as you pre-read a book for your Intentional Read Aloud. Were there places you had questions? Or thought, “Aha. I think I know what’s going to happen next.” Did you make any connections to the story? Use your own thinking to guide your planning for your think alouds.

Choose one skill or strategy to focus on for your think aloud. Select one to three stopping places in the book where you can demonstrate how to use the skill or strategy to your children. For example, if you are teaching inferring, choose a few places in the book where you made an inference that helped you understand the book.

Rehearse what you will say during your think aloud. Jot down your thoughts on a sticky note and place the note in the book at the stopping point.

Let children know when you are thinking aloud. Put the book face down on your lap and point to your head. Use explicit words like, “So far, I’m thinking…” These visual and oral cues make it clear to the children that you are thinking, not reading from the book.

Use child-friendly language. This is the language that you want children to use when they are reading and thinking on their own. Share tips for what careful readers do. For example, “We just read four pages. This is a good spot for me to stop and check to see if I know what is happening in the story. Careful readers always check to make sure they know what is happening.”

Here are some helpful phrases to use in your think alouds:

  • Let me stop reading now and share my thoughts with you…
  • I wonder why…
  • So far, I’m thinking…
  • Hmm…I didn’t really understand why… I better re-read this part…
  • This is what I have noticed so far…
  • When I read this… I think…

Modeling Fluency

“There’s no exact right way of reading aloud, other than to try to be as expressive as possible. As we read a story, we need to be aware of our body posture, our eyes and their expression, our eye contact with the child or children, our vocal variety and our general facial animation. But each of us will have our own special way of doing it.” - Mem Fox

Read fluently and expressively to make the story come alive for your children. They will be more engaged, understand the text better, and have a model for what their own reading should sound like.

When you read fluently and expressively, you demonstrate your own interpretation of the character, information, and concepts in a book. Your tone, phrasing, pacing, and mood all help children make sense of the story. Your expressive reading is a scaffold for children’s comprehension. This is one reason pre-reading books is so important. You want to make sure you are interpreting the book in a way that makes sense and doesn’t get in the way of children’s comprehension.

Read smoothly and with expression to your children, so they know how fluent reading should sound. Children will transfer these behaviors to their independent work, making it more likely that they will comprehend what they read. Reading with fluency also increases child engagement and overall enjoyment during the lesson.

Guidelines for fluent reading

Change your voice to match the character’s personality and feelings. Your voice can sound happy, sad, excited, or frightened to match the events in the text.

Change your pacing to build anticipation and a sense of drama and to reflect the action of a piece of writing.

Use non-verbal cues to support children. Your facial expressions and hand gestures can help to tell the story or make the text come alive.

Pay attention to rhythm, pitch, stress, and pacing to get the author’s words and meaning across.

Choose some read alouds to explicitly teach fluency to children. Ask children to be “detectives” and notice what fluent reading sounds like. Discuss their ideas and add them to a chart that they can use to monitor their own fluency.

Strategies for Engaging Children

So many children’s books invite participation. Children love to move like the animals in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? , huff and puff along with the big bad wolf, sing with Skippy John Jones , or chime in on the rhymes during Bee-Bim Bop. Reading is not a passive activity, and we certainly don’t want children to be passive listeners as we read aloud to them.

There are so many ways to get children involved and connected to what we read. They can share their thoughts and feelings, discuss their ideas with friends, and react to the words and pictures in the book. Encourage children to participate in the read aloud to get them more excited about the book and more invested in the lesson.

Vary your engagement strategies so that ALL children can be actively involved in the read aloud. Keep in mind that English language learners may understand far more than they can produce. If a child does not speak out, it does not mean they don’t have something valuable to contribute. Be thoughtful about the types of interactions you are eliciting from children so that everyone can participate. Asking children to give a thumbs up or show a “me too” signal are some non-verbal ways to get everyone involved.

Here are some ways to encourage children to participate:

  • Echo or choral read words or parts of the book (like rhyming words or repetitive phrases).
  • Respond to questions and think alouds during the reading.
  • Think, turn, and talk to discuss ideas with partners.
  • Act out vocabulary words or the feelings of the characters.
  • Use props to act out characters’ roles in the story or to focus on features of the book such as dialogue or speech bubbles.
  • Lend their ideas to anchor charts during and after the story.
  • Stop and jot or draw a response to the story on a dry erase board or in a notebook.
  • Listen for something specific in the text and use a silent signal of recognition. Choose something for the children to listen for such as: figurative language, describing words, or rhyming words.
  • Teach silent signals for text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections.
  • Use silent signals for “me too” and “I agree” when participating in conversations.
  • Use oral cloze strategy to guess the word based on the rhyming sound, knowledge of the story, or other clues.

Asking Open-Ended Questions

Give children opportunities during the read aloud to respond to open-ended questions about the book. Children build their comprehension as they talk and think through ideas and listen to their peers. Open-ended questions don’t have right or wrong answers and can’t be answered with just a yes or no. These questions should encourage children to reflect, react, and connect to the story. Examples of open-ended questions include:

  • “What do you think the character might be thinking?”
  • “What do you wonder about after reading this section?”
  • “What do you think might happen next?”

Answering open-ended questions and having conversations about books improve children’s listening and speaking skills, deepen their comprehension, encourage higher-level thinking, and develop their vocabulary.

Children’s answers to questions offer an opportunity for you to check their understanding. Did they understand the problem in a story? Can they explain what happened? Do they remember important details? Can they make useful predictions and connections?

Listen closely to children’s answers. Encourage children to link their thinking to evidence in the book. Ask follow-up questions such as, “What in the story made you think that?” or simply, “How did you know that?”

When you ask children meaningful questions they see themselves as valuable contributors to a literate classroom community. They know that they are trusted and expected to have good ideas and think for themselves.

Guidelines for open-ended questions

Keep a list of helpful question stems for your own planning purposes and continue to add to it as you think of more.

Invite children to respond to open-ended questions in partnerships or small groups to increase individual talk time.

Ask children to support their responses to open-ended questions using their prior knowledge and evidence from the text.

Model your own responses to open-ended questions during a read aloud and ask children to react or respond.

If you are having a book discussion at the end of a read aloud, re-position the children so they are facing each other in a circle to encourage conversation.

Teach children to look at the person responding to a question during a read aloud to show respect.

Encourage conversation by teaching children sentence stems for sharing their ideas such as “I think…,” “I would like to add…,” and “I also noticed…” Create and post a chart with sentence stems for sharing ideas during a read aloud for children to reference.

Allow for “wait time” after asking an open-ended question during a read aloud so your children have time to think and respond.

Accept and even encourage divergent thinking, show openness to children’s ideas, and explore different perspectives. For example:

  • “You know, I hadn’t thought of it that way. Could you explain more about…”
  • “What are other possible reasons?”
  • “Is there another way to look at it?”
  • “Can you tell me more about…?”
  • “Can you elaborate on that idea?”
  • “I’m thinking about what you said, I wonder if you can say more about that.”
  • “Keep talking…”

Show genuine interest and curiosity. Ask questions such as, “I’m curious about…” “Who can tell us something about…”

Reflect on whether you are calling on children equally so that everyone has a chance to respond to open-ended questions with their thinking.

Text-Dependent Questions

Text-dependent questions help children comprehend and engage with complex texts. Text-dependent questions are questions that must be answered by going back to the text. They don’t rely on the reader’s background knowledge or experiences. These questions can be a simple recall of facts, but they can also allow you to go deeper. They can be open-ended and require critical thinking skills to answer. When you ask more text-dependent questions, children learn to look more closely at what they are reading.

Model and ask questions that specifically focus on the text during and after your read aloud. Model for children how to consider evidence from the text. You can use text-based questions to add depth to the discussion by asking children to support their thinking. Follow up on a child’s answer to an open-ended question by asking, “What in the story made you think that?” or “Tell me where in the book you saw that?”

Type of Questions

Here are examples of questions that lead children to use thoughtful examples from the text:

General Understanding

  • Can you retell the story using first, next, then, and finally?
  • What seems important in this book? What in the book makes you think that?
  • What is the main idea? What in the book tells you that?

Key Details

  • What did the characters do to try and solve the problem?
  • What does the author tell us that lets us know how _________ feels?

Vocabulary & Language

  • What does the word _________ mean in this sentence?
  • How does the author play with words to add meaning to this paragraph?
  • Why did the author choose the word _________ to describe _________?

Text Structure

  • How did the author organize the text? How did this help us understand this book?

Author’s Purpose

  • Why did the author write this? How do you know?
  • What does the author want us to know about _________?
  • Who would be interested in this? Why?
  • Is the author trying to convince me of something? What? How do I know?
  • Is there a message? What in the book makes you think that?
  • How do you think _________ feels? Show me what in the book made you think that.
  • Do you think _________’s actions caused _________? Why?
  • What do you think will happen next? What did you hear or see to make you think that?

Opinions & Arguments

  • Can you tell me what the author’s opinion of the _________ is? How do you know?
  • In your opinion is the character a good friend to _________?
  • Do you think this is a happy book or a sad book? What in the book made you say that?
  • Is there anything that could have been explained more in the book?

Problem & Solution

  • What is the big problem presented in this book?
  • How do you know this is a problem?
  • What happens in the story and how is the problem solved?

Boyles, N. (2013) Closing in on close reading. Educational Leadership. 70.4.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2012) Close reading in elementary schools. The Reading Teacher. 66.3., 179.188.

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reading aloud critical thinking questions

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September 16, 2014 CL Interactive Read Alouds , ELA Focus - Interactive Read Alouds , ELA K-5 , ELA Resources - Activities , Core Literacy

Interactive read aloud of stellaluna by janell cannon, by: erin lynch.

This Critical Thinking Interactive Read Aloud of Stellaluna by Janell Cannon provides the thought-provoking questions, essential to every interactive read aloud, and uses the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy Cognitive Dimensions . Your students will soon be in deep discussions, ranging from plot analysis to author’s message exploration. 

Download the Interactive Read Aloud of Stellaluna now!

Interactive read alouds are an important component of a balanced literacy classroom. Research proves the value of reading aloud to students of all ages, and that students benefit from being read aloud to several times throughout a week. Thoughtful planning of an interactive read aloud is critical for its success. Teachers need to select a text that is both meaningful and engaging, and it is important to consider how the text will support lessons, units or themes the class is working on. Thought-provoking questions are essential to every interactive read aloud. Using the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy Cognitive Dimensions is one way to ensure students will take part in a variety of discussions from understanding the plot of the story to analyzing the author's message.

This week’s spotlight Book of the Month and interactive read aloud I chose to feature is called Stellaluna by Janell Cannon . This book can be enjoyed in almost any elementary classroom (K-5). Janell Cannon has a wonderful way of teaching kids about animals without them even realizing they are leaning. One of my favorite things about her books is how she often provides factual information about the topic at the end of the book in the author's notes to increase the readers’ understanding of the text. 

This Critical Thinking Interactive Read Aloud of Stellaluna by Janell Cannon provides the thought-provoking questions, essential to every interactive read aloud, and uses the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy Cognitive Dimensions. Your students will soon be in deep discussions, ranging from plot analysis to author’s message exploration.

About Stellaluna

This is the heartwarming story of a fruit bat that makes a home with a family of birds after she is separated from her mother. Kids will learn about the different characteristics of birds and bats as they enjoy this story about friendship, compromise, and acceptance.

Download my Critical Thinking Read Aloud of Stellaluna lesson now!

reading aloud critical thinking questions

Warren Berger

A Crash Course in Critical Thinking

What you need to know—and read—about one of the essential skills needed today..

Posted April 8, 2024 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk

  • In research for "A More Beautiful Question," I did a deep dive into the current crisis in critical thinking.
  • Many people may think of themselves as critical thinkers, but they actually are not.
  • Here is a series of questions you can ask yourself to try to ensure that you are thinking critically.

Conspiracy theories. Inability to distinguish facts from falsehoods. Widespread confusion about who and what to believe.

These are some of the hallmarks of the current crisis in critical thinking—which just might be the issue of our times. Because if people aren’t willing or able to think critically as they choose potential leaders, they’re apt to choose bad ones. And if they can’t judge whether the information they’re receiving is sound, they may follow faulty advice while ignoring recommendations that are science-based and solid (and perhaps life-saving).

Moreover, as a society, if we can’t think critically about the many serious challenges we face, it becomes more difficult to agree on what those challenges are—much less solve them.

On a personal level, critical thinking can enable you to make better everyday decisions. It can help you make sense of an increasingly complex and confusing world.

In the new expanded edition of my book A More Beautiful Question ( AMBQ ), I took a deep dive into critical thinking. Here are a few key things I learned.

First off, before you can get better at critical thinking, you should understand what it is. It’s not just about being a skeptic. When thinking critically, we are thoughtfully reasoning, evaluating, and making decisions based on evidence and logic. And—perhaps most important—while doing this, a critical thinker always strives to be open-minded and fair-minded . That’s not easy: It demands that you constantly question your assumptions and biases and that you always remain open to considering opposing views.

In today’s polarized environment, many people think of themselves as critical thinkers simply because they ask skeptical questions—often directed at, say, certain government policies or ideas espoused by those on the “other side” of the political divide. The problem is, they may not be asking these questions with an open mind or a willingness to fairly consider opposing views.

When people do this, they’re engaging in “weak-sense critical thinking”—a term popularized by the late Richard Paul, a co-founder of The Foundation for Critical Thinking . “Weak-sense critical thinking” means applying the tools and practices of critical thinking—questioning, investigating, evaluating—but with the sole purpose of confirming one’s own bias or serving an agenda.

In AMBQ , I lay out a series of questions you can ask yourself to try to ensure that you’re thinking critically. Here are some of the questions to consider:

  • Why do I believe what I believe?
  • Are my views based on evidence?
  • Have I fairly and thoughtfully considered differing viewpoints?
  • Am I truly open to changing my mind?

Of course, becoming a better critical thinker is not as simple as just asking yourself a few questions. Critical thinking is a habit of mind that must be developed and strengthened over time. In effect, you must train yourself to think in a manner that is more effortful, aware, grounded, and balanced.

For those interested in giving themselves a crash course in critical thinking—something I did myself, as I was working on my book—I thought it might be helpful to share a list of some of the books that have shaped my own thinking on this subject. As a self-interested author, I naturally would suggest that you start with the new 10th-anniversary edition of A More Beautiful Question , but beyond that, here are the top eight critical-thinking books I’d recommend.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark , by Carl Sagan

This book simply must top the list, because the late scientist and author Carl Sagan continues to be such a bright shining light in the critical thinking universe. Chapter 12 includes the details on Sagan’s famous “baloney detection kit,” a collection of lessons and tips on how to deal with bogus arguments and logical fallacies.

reading aloud critical thinking questions

Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments Into Extraordinary Results , by Shane Parrish

The creator of the Farnham Street website and host of the “Knowledge Project” podcast explains how to contend with biases and unconscious reactions so you can make better everyday decisions. It contains insights from many of the brilliant thinkers Shane has studied.

Good Thinking: Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World , by David Robert Grimes

A brilliant, comprehensive 2021 book on critical thinking that, to my mind, hasn’t received nearly enough attention . The scientist Grimes dissects bad thinking, shows why it persists, and offers the tools to defeat it.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know , by Adam Grant

Intellectual humility—being willing to admit that you might be wrong—is what this book is primarily about. But Adam, the renowned Wharton psychology professor and bestselling author, takes the reader on a mind-opening journey with colorful stories and characters.

Think Like a Detective: A Kid's Guide to Critical Thinking , by David Pakman

The popular YouTuber and podcast host Pakman—normally known for talking politics —has written a terrific primer on critical thinking for children. The illustrated book presents critical thinking as a “superpower” that enables kids to unlock mysteries and dig for truth. (I also recommend Pakman’s second kids’ book called Think Like a Scientist .)

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters , by Steven Pinker

The Harvard psychology professor Pinker tackles conspiracy theories head-on but also explores concepts involving risk/reward, probability and randomness, and correlation/causation. And if that strikes you as daunting, be assured that Pinker makes it lively and accessible.

How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion , by David McRaney

David is a science writer who hosts the popular podcast “You Are Not So Smart” (and his ideas are featured in A More Beautiful Question ). His well-written book looks at ways you can actually get through to people who see the world very differently than you (hint: bludgeoning them with facts definitely won’t work).

A Healthy Democracy's Best Hope: Building the Critical Thinking Habit , by M Neil Browne and Chelsea Kulhanek

Neil Browne, author of the seminal Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, has been a pioneer in presenting critical thinking as a question-based approach to making sense of the world around us. His newest book, co-authored with Chelsea Kulhanek, breaks down critical thinking into “11 explosive questions”—including the “priors question” (which challenges us to question assumptions), the “evidence question” (focusing on how to evaluate and weigh evidence), and the “humility question” (which reminds us that a critical thinker must be humble enough to consider the possibility of being wrong).

Warren Berger

Warren Berger is a longtime journalist and author of A More Beautiful Question .

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Improving Reading Comprehension with Think-Alouds

Give your students a play-by-play of your thinking and watch reading skills soar.

Improve Reading Comprehension With Think-Alouds

“The author doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m getting the sense that the grandparents died,” Mrs. Sweeney tells her class of second graders while reading aloud from Thank You, Mr. Falker . Throughout her read-aloud, this teacher will stop to ask questions, make observations, and think deeply about the story. By allowing her class to eavesdrop on what she ,  a skilled reader, is thinking while reading, she is modeling the strategies used by proficient readers. She is building her students’ reading comprehension through the tried-but-true strategy of  think-alouds , a powerful way to engage readers and to impact their learning.

To update your think-alouds or to return to this often overlooked strategy, follow these tips.

Think aloud with your favorite text.

There is no “right” or “wrong” text for think-alouds. Just as reading aloud is fruitful for readers of all ages and levels , think-alouds work for any text, for students of any age, and across all content areas. We can think aloud with four-year-olds reading Knuffle Bunny just as easily as we can think aloud with eighth graders in their social studies textbooks.

Plan in advance.

Whether you are reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast , every think-aloud requires that you peruse the text and use sticky notes to mark “juicy stopping points.” These are the junctures that, in one way or another, invite you to do something as a reader. Infer, ask a question, lean in and take notice of figurative language, and so on. Well-executed think-alouds do not emerge extemporaneously. They require thoughtful preparation, knowledge of the chosen text, and a meaningful connection between the text and the appropriate comprehension strategies. I like to use sticky notes to mark these points as I preview the text.

Provide a visual cue to indicate when you are thinking aloud.

As I think aloud, I provide an obvious gesture that helps students differentiate between when I am reading from the text and when I am thinking about the text. To signal when I’m thinking aloud, I use my index finger and point to my temple or tap the side of my head. With this gesture, students readily understand that the words I’m saying are not found in the book but, rather, are in my head.

Use I-statements to jump-start your think-alouds.

I-statements, as in, “I wonder if the author means …” or “I’m going to reread … ,” are the clearest ways for teachers to model the reading comprehension strategies that proficient readers use. Through “I” language, students begin to learn how to apply reading strategies to their independent reading.

The secret to success lies in planning think-alouds well. They may sound spontaneous, but they are expertly choreographed. So grab your favorite text, choose your marking spots where you will stop and think, and bring your readers of all ages one step closer to independent use of comprehension strategies.

For even more direction on how to use think-alouds, use this resource from the National Council of Teachers of English.

reading aloud critical thinking questions

You Might Also Like

Examples of ways to scaffold learning, including giving talk time and using think-alouds to model.

18 Effective Ways To Scaffold Learning in the Classroom

Tips and ideas for teachers and school leaders. Continue Reading

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Supplement to Critical Thinking

How can one assess, for purposes of instruction or research, the degree to which a person possesses the dispositions, skills and knowledge of a critical thinker?

In psychometrics, assessment instruments are judged according to their validity and reliability.

Roughly speaking, an instrument is valid if it measures accurately what it purports to measure, given standard conditions. More precisely, the degree of validity is “the degree to which evidence and theory support the interpretations of test scores for proposed uses of tests” (American Educational Research Association 2014: 11). In other words, a test is not valid or invalid in itself. Rather, validity is a property of an interpretation of a given score on a given test for a specified use. Determining the degree of validity of such an interpretation requires collection and integration of the relevant evidence, which may be based on test content, test takers’ response processes, a test’s internal structure, relationship of test scores to other variables, and consequences of the interpretation (American Educational Research Association 2014: 13–21). Criterion-related evidence consists of correlations between scores on the test and performance on another test of the same construct; its weight depends on how well supported is the assumption that the other test can be used as a criterion. Content-related evidence is evidence that the test covers the full range of abilities that it claims to test. Construct-related evidence is evidence that a correct answer reflects good performance of the kind being measured and an incorrect answer reflects poor performance.

An instrument is reliable if it consistently produces the same result, whether across different forms of the same test (parallel-forms reliability), across different items (internal consistency), across different administrations to the same person (test-retest reliability), or across ratings of the same answer by different people (inter-rater reliability). Internal consistency should be expected only if the instrument purports to measure a single undifferentiated construct, and thus should not be expected of a test that measures a suite of critical thinking dispositions or critical thinking abilities, assuming that some people are better in some of the respects measured than in others (for example, very willing to inquire but rather closed-minded). Otherwise, reliability is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of validity; a standard example of a reliable instrument that is not valid is a bathroom scale that consistently under-reports a person’s weight.

Assessing dispositions is difficult if one uses a multiple-choice format with known adverse consequences of a low score. It is pretty easy to tell what answer to the question “How open-minded are you?” will get the highest score and to give that answer, even if one knows that the answer is incorrect. If an item probes less directly for a critical thinking disposition, for example by asking how often the test taker pays close attention to views with which the test taker disagrees, the answer may differ from reality because of self-deception or simple lack of awareness of one’s personal thinking style, and its interpretation is problematic, even if factor analysis enables one to identify a distinct factor measured by a group of questions that includes this one (Ennis 1996). Nevertheless, Facione, Sánchez, and Facione (1994) used this approach to develop the California Critical Thinking Dispositions Inventory (CCTDI). They began with 225 statements expressive of a disposition towards or away from critical thinking (using the long list of dispositions in Facione 1990a), validated the statements with talk-aloud and conversational strategies in focus groups to determine whether people in the target population understood the items in the way intended, administered a pilot version of the test with 150 items, and eliminated items that failed to discriminate among test takers or were inversely correlated with overall results or added little refinement to overall scores (Facione 2000). They used item analysis and factor analysis to group the measured dispositions into seven broad constructs: open-mindedness, analyticity, cognitive maturity, truth-seeking, systematicity, inquisitiveness, and self-confidence (Facione, Sánchez, and Facione 1994). The resulting test consists of 75 agree-disagree statements and takes 20 minutes to administer. A repeated disturbing finding is that North American students taking the test tend to score low on the truth-seeking sub-scale (on which a low score results from agreeing to such statements as the following: “To get people to agree with me I would give any reason that worked”. “Everyone always argues from their own self-interest, including me”. “If there are four reasons in favor and one against, I’ll go with the four”.) Development of the CCTDI made it possible to test whether good critical thinking abilities and good critical thinking dispositions go together, in which case it might be enough to teach one without the other. Facione (2000) reports that administration of the CCTDI and the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST) to almost 8,000 post-secondary students in the United States revealed a statistically significant but weak correlation between total scores on the two tests, and also between paired sub-scores from the two tests. The implication is that both abilities and dispositions need to be taught, that one cannot expect improvement in one to bring with it improvement in the other.

A more direct way of assessing critical thinking dispositions would be to see what people do when put in a situation where the dispositions would reveal themselves. Ennis (1996) reports promising initial work with guided open-ended opportunities to give evidence of dispositions, but no standardized test seems to have emerged from this work. There are however standardized aspect-specific tests of critical thinking dispositions. The Critical Problem Solving Scale (Berman et al. 2001: 518) takes as a measure of the disposition to suspend judgment the number of distinct good aspects attributed to an option judged to be the worst among those generated by the test taker. Stanovich, West and Toplak (2011: 800–810) list tests developed by cognitive psychologists of the following dispositions: resistance to miserly information processing, resistance to myside thinking, absence of irrelevant context effects in decision-making, actively open-minded thinking, valuing reason and truth, tendency to seek information, objective reasoning style, tendency to seek consistency, sense of self-efficacy, prudent discounting of the future, self-control skills, and emotional regulation.

It is easier to measure critical thinking skills or abilities than to measure dispositions. The following eight currently available standardized tests purport to measure them: the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests Level X and Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), the Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test (Ennis & Weir 1985), the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment (Halpern 2016), the Critical Thinking Assessment Test (Center for Assessment & Improvement of Learning 2017), the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017), the HEIghten Critical Thinking Assessment (, and a suite of critical thinking assessments for different groups and purposes offered by Insight Assessment ( The Critical Thinking Assessment Test (CAT) is unique among them in being designed for use by college faculty to help them improve their development of students’ critical thinking skills (Haynes et al. 2015; Haynes & Stein 2021). Also, for some years the United Kingdom body OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations) awarded AS and A Level certificates in critical thinking on the basis of an examination (OCR 2011). Many of these standardized tests have received scholarly evaluations at the hands of, among others, Ennis (1958), McPeck (1981), Norris and Ennis (1989), Fisher and Scriven (1997), Possin (2008, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c, 2014, 2020) and Hatcher and Possin (2021). Their evaluations provide a useful set of criteria that such tests ideally should meet, as does the description by Ennis (1984) of problems in testing for competence in critical thinking: the soundness of multiple-choice items, the clarity and soundness of instructions to test takers, the information and mental processing used in selecting an answer to a multiple-choice item, the role of background beliefs and ideological commitments in selecting an answer to a multiple-choice item, the tenability of a test’s underlying conception of critical thinking and its component abilities, the set of abilities that the test manual claims are covered by the test, the extent to which the test actually covers these abilities, the appropriateness of the weighting given to various abilities in the scoring system, the accuracy and intellectual honesty of the test manual, the interest of the test to the target population of test takers, the scope for guessing, the scope for choosing a keyed answer by being test-wise, precautions against cheating in the administration of the test, clarity and soundness of materials for training essay graders, inter-rater reliability in grading essays, and clarity and soundness of advance guidance to test takers on what is required in an essay. Rear (2019) has challenged the use of standardized tests of critical thinking as a way to measure educational outcomes, on the grounds that  they (1) fail to take into account disputes about conceptions of critical thinking, (2) are not completely valid or reliable, and (3) fail to evaluate skills used in real academic tasks. He proposes instead assessments based on discipline-specific content.

There are also aspect-specific standardized tests of critical thinking abilities. Stanovich, West and Toplak (2011: 800–810) list tests of probabilistic reasoning, insights into qualitative decision theory, knowledge of scientific reasoning, knowledge of rules of logical consistency and validity, and economic thinking. They also list instruments that probe for irrational thinking, such as superstitious thinking, belief in the superiority of intuition, over-reliance on folk wisdom and folk psychology, belief in “special” expertise, financial misconceptions, overestimation of one’s introspective powers, dysfunctional beliefs, and a notion of self that encourages egocentric processing. They regard these tests along with the previously mentioned tests of critical thinking dispositions as the building blocks for a comprehensive test of rationality, whose development (they write) may be logistically difficult and would require millions of dollars.

A superb example of assessment of an aspect of critical thinking ability is the Test on Appraising Observations (Norris & King 1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b), which was designed for classroom administration to senior high school students. The test focuses entirely on the ability to appraise observation statements and in particular on the ability to determine in a specified context which of two statements there is more reason to believe. According to the test manual (Norris & King 1985, 1990b), a person’s score on the multiple-choice version of the test, which is the number of items that are answered correctly, can justifiably be given either a criterion-referenced or a norm-referenced interpretation.

On a criterion-referenced interpretation, those who do well on the test have a firm grasp of the principles for appraising observation statements, and those who do poorly have a weak grasp of them. This interpretation can be justified by the content of the test and the way it was developed, which incorporated a method of controlling for background beliefs articulated and defended by Norris (1985). Norris and King synthesized from judicial practice, psychological research and common-sense psychology 31 principles for appraising observation statements, in the form of empirical generalizations about tendencies, such as the principle that observation statements tend to be more believable than inferences based on them (Norris & King 1984). They constructed items in which exactly one of the 31 principles determined which of two statements was more believable. Using a carefully constructed protocol, they interviewed about 100 students who responded to these items in order to determine the thinking that led them to choose the answers they did (Norris & King 1984). In several iterations of the test, they adjusted items so that selection of the correct answer generally reflected good thinking and selection of an incorrect answer reflected poor thinking. Thus they have good evidence that good performance on the test is due to good thinking about observation statements and that poor performance is due to poor thinking about observation statements. Collectively, the 50 items on the final version of the test require application of 29 of the 31 principles for appraising observation statements, with 13 principles tested by one item, 12 by two items, three by three items, and one by four items. Thus there is comprehensive coverage of the principles for appraising observation statements. Fisher and Scriven (1997: 135–136) judge the items to be well worked and sound, with one exception. The test is clearly written at a grade 6 reading level, meaning that poor performance cannot be attributed to difficulties in reading comprehension by the intended adolescent test takers. The stories that frame the items are realistic, and are engaging enough to stimulate test takers’ interest. Thus the most plausible explanation of a given score on the test is that it reflects roughly the degree to which the test taker can apply principles for appraising observations in real situations. In other words, there is good justification of the proposed interpretation that those who do well on the test have a firm grasp of the principles for appraising observation statements and those who do poorly have a weak grasp of them.

To get norms for performance on the test, Norris and King arranged for seven groups of high school students in different types of communities and with different levels of academic ability to take the test. The test manual includes percentiles, means, and standard deviations for each of these seven groups. These norms allow teachers to compare the performance of their class on the test to that of a similar group of students.

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Questioning: A Comprehension Strategy for Small-Group Guided Reading

Questioning: A Comprehension Strategy for Small-Group Guided Reading

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In this lesson, the teacher explains the difference between thin (factual) and thick (inferential) questions and then models how to compose question webs by thinking aloud while reading. Students observe how to gather information about the topic and add it to question webs in the form of answers or additional questions. Students practice composing thin and thick questions and monitor their comprehension by using question webs in small-group reading. This practice extends knowledge of the topic and engages readers in active comprehension.

From Theory to Practice

NCREL: Reciprocal Teaching

  • Students who answer their own questions show improvement in reading comprehension.
  • When students know prior to reading that they each need to think of a question about the text, they read with an awareness of the text's important ideas.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Chart paper and markers
  • Highlighters
  • Sticky notes
  • Text selections


Student objectives.

Students will

  • Monitor comprehension by composing thin and thick questions as they read
  • Determine the difference between thin (factual) and thick (inferential) questions
  • Use graphic organizers effectively to collect information that answers questions
  • Participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of whole- and small-group activities

Session 1: Introducing Thin and Thick Questions

Note: If small-group guided reading is a regular routine for your students, the introduction to thin and thick questions could be done in that setting. However, carrying out the following steps is also viable in a whole-group setting.

Session 2: Thin Questions in Small-Group Reading

It is recommended that you do the following activities with one group at a time. Once students are familiar with the routine of investigating what they read with questions, you might try having the entire class work in small groups simultaneously. Varying degrees of scaffolding may be necessary in order to ensure that all learners interact with text actively with questioning. If your schedule dictates that you must move to Session 2 activities with small groups working simultaneously, then a cooperative-grouping situation is recommended where students can take a shared role in interacting with the text. For example, in groups of four, students could all work from the same selection of text. Four roles to facilitate the group could be: one student chooses the chunk of text to read (the longer the text, the bigger the chunk), another reads the chunk aloud, a third records questions and answers, a fourth is responsible for sharing questions and answers with the rest of the class. Before working in small groups

Working in small groups

Session 3: Thick Questions in Small-Group Reading

Before working in small groups

Working in small groups Once again, the routines you established in the thin question activity apply to this thick question activity. Operate in the same way, either in small groups that you manage, or as multiple cooperative small groups.

Have students write in their notebooks reflecting on how question webs can help them understand what they are reading.

After students have investigated their reading material and have asked questions as they progressed, some lingering curiosities may still exist. Direct students to online texts and activities where they might answer any remaining (or new) questions. Possible websites to explore, should they align with your content area topic, include:

  • America's Story from America's Library At this Library of Congress website, students can learn about famous Americans, explore American history, find out facts about the 50 states, and more.
  • Animal Planet The Main Index Page under "Animals A to Zoo" leads to a categorical listing of many of the world's animals. For each animal, students can read about its geographic range, physical characteristics, food habits, reproduction, behavior, habitat, economic importance for humans, and conservation.
  • HowStuffWorks: Science Stuff The Science Stuff page is home to numerous articles dealing with the earth, life, and physical sciences, as well as information on engineering, space, and more.
  • Social Studies for Kids Students can find information on a wide variety of social studies topics at this site, including current or historic events, cultures, languages, geography, and archaeology.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Are the questions appropriate to the content area? Do Session 2 question webs reflect an understanding of what thin questions are? Do Session 3 question webs reflect an understanding of what thick questions are? Did the student use the webs successfully in determining or demonstrating answers? (Note, though, that finding answers at this point is secondary to asking questions.) Does the writing exercise from the conclusion of Session 3 show critical thinking about the use of questioning as a comprehension strategy?
  • As for students' participation in group activities, your assessment may vary depending on whether you managed the groups individually or if students worked cooperatively in simultaneous groupings. For either scenario, consider what each student's responsibilities were and the significance of his or her contribution to the group.
Read aloud a new text selection. Have 10 questions prepared on a sheet of paper. After students listen to the read-aloud, have them answer and label the questions as either 'thin' or 'thick' and explain why. Make the test worth 30 points (one point for the correct answer, one for the label, and one for answering why it is thin or thick). Include four bonus points for those who write two thin and thick questions on their own about the read-aloud.
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Toward Higher Engagement and Critical Thinking Through Collaborative Reading

  • Brett Clay , he/him, Lecturer Part-Time, Business School , University of Washington, Bothell campus

Project Description

As higher education moves further away from information dissemination and memorization and further toward developing students’ learning and problem-solving capacities, instructors are challenged to find effective ways of fostering deeper engagement and thinking. In this study, I compared two approaches of learning through reading assignments. The first approach is asking students to write short essays about the textbook reading assignment and to discuss their essays in groups of four in Canvas discussion groups. The second approach is to use an online learning environment where students read the textbook online and have discussions directly in the textbook and other learning materials, including articles and videos.

I had been using the first approach, but found that reading and commenting on students’ essays and Canvas discussions did not scale to larger class sizes. Communicating and guiding students toward deeper critical thinking in their essays required constant, exhausting effort—even with class sizes under 40 students. I was challenged to find a more scalable approach that would still foster engagement and higher-order thinking.

Project Question

In what ways does a new online technology that enables students to share highlights and comments in learning materials, such as a textbook, impact students’ engagement with learning materials and foster deeper critical thinking and learning? Does it scale better to larger class sizes than short-essay discussion groups in Canvas?

I teach an elective MBA course in business negotiations. My course meets once per week for 3.5 hours. During the week, students read a custom textbook I created, along with various articles, videos, and an online simulation. In-person class time is dedicated to experiential learning through negotiation exercises and instructor-led discussion. My overall learning objective is to help students develop critical thinking and discover new ways of thinking and viewing others and themselves.

Three years ago, I taught two sections of the same class and I decided to try an online learning environment called Perusall, which is similar to So I created an A-B experiment in which I used my existing Canvas discussion group method for Section A and the Perusall method for Section B. To compare the learning outcomes of Canvas discussion groups to Perusall social reading, I obtained an IRB waiver to collect feedback surveys and to administer a knowledge test to both class sections at the beginning and end of the quarter. Students only experienced one approach or the other. Therefore, only I was in a position to make comparisons based on my subjective observations of the two sections, the survey results, and the test results.


Students’ retention of course concepts as indicated by the end-of-quarter test were similar in both class sections. Students in the Canvas section seemed to feel that approach required less effort, as it imposed little structure and students could read as little or as much as they wanted. However, the burden of reading and grading the essays was exhausting for me. In contrast, the social reading approach imposed more structure, as I broke the weekly reading and discussion into one half due mid-week and the second half due on day 7. An important feature of the software is that it uses algorithms to grade each reading assignment. The automated grading is intended only to verify students made appropriate effort to engage in the reading and discussion. In the social reading software, students send me questions while reading, I sprinkle my own comments throughout the reading, and I add clarifications in student discussions. From my perspective, the software provided the right amount of structure and instructor engagement to maximize student learning. As a result, I subsequently fully adopted it as the learning management system for my course.


The social reading method implemented in tools such as Perusall and can be used in many disciplines. I learned of them from a Calculus instructor and later from a biologist who were both using it to move students beyond historical conceptions of teaching, e.g. rote learning. Social reading can be used to engage students at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, while still meeting students where they are in their learning. This approach employs Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which holds that students learn from each other. If a student is at the comprehension stage of Bloom’s taxonomy, they will still learn from the comments of students who are at later stages, such as analysis. It also enables instructors to employ various modalities to engage different learning preferences and accommodations. While videos, handouts, articles and other learning materials can be provided in Canvas, the software adds a layer of social psychology in which students engage the materials in a social forum, rather than in isolation. In addition, the online texts are searchable, the fonts can be increased, and the software can speak the text to the student. The added component that the software “knows” if a student has engaged the material, or not, also encourages engagement. In summary, these tools provide a learning space for students to collaboratively tackle difficult content, making it more accessible and interesting, and fostering attainment of later stages of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Additional Insights

Deeper learning is harder work than superficial tasks such as quizzes. Similar to how students reportedly complain a flipped classroom approach is more work and accountability than sitting passively in lectures, some students complained that the software doesn’t allow effort to slack off. I found experimenting with new teaching tools and techniques requires some amount of bravery and a willingness to weather inevitable criticisms. But the result was top 10 percentile on the class evaluations.

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