Math Quizzes as “Think-Alouds”

In my former life as a reading teacher, I made sure to incorporate a read-aloud each day. I picked an interesting novel, and I sat on a stool and read aloud for 15-20 minutes. Some people may have viewed this as a way to kill time.  It looked way too easy for all the students who were supposed to be preparing for the rigors of standardized testing.  I read from a book that someone else wrote, and the students usually just sat there and listened, only chiming in when I asked them to do so.  To the casual observer, I’m sure it didn’t look like much learning was taking place.

But there was tons of teaching and learning happening!  The read-aloud was actually a read aloud.jpgthink-aloud.

Throughout the text, I would stop and literally think out loud about what I was reading.  I would make inferences based on the text.  I would use context clues to think through the meanings of unfamiliar words.  I would make make observations that led to predictions.  I would make connections to other texts and to my own experiences.  I would accomplish many of the thinking tasks that I wanted my students to be doing in their independent reading time, or during our Guided Reading sessions.

And by listening to my out-loud thinking, my students couldn’t help but also think.

Sure, it looked different than a traditional reading worksheet, and I didn’t have written documentation to measure every student’s growth. But it just made sense to pause and take time out of our day to read aloud.  It gave students a break from the norm, and it showed them that their teacher was actually practicing the same thinking strategies that I asked them to use.  As the reader and the out-loud thinker, I felt vulnerable, because of course I would mispronounce a word or stumble through a sentence here or there. But I always got the sense that my students could relate to me much better, as they watched and listened to me model the ways to navigate through a new text.

Those experiences as a reading teacher have a big impact on the way I teach Math, especially when it comes time for my Math quizzes (or formative assessments, in educational-lingo).

But first, let me emphasize a major difference between teaching Math and teaching Reading: Math moves at about 100 miles per hour.  We’re constantly adding new layers that students are expected to master in a very short amount of time.  Lesson 1 leads to Lesson 2, which leads to Lesson 3, and so on.  If you didn’t master Lesson 3, you’re going to struggle with Lesson 4. And if you struggle with both of those, then you’re pretty much out of luck for the rest of the chapter.  Plus, next chapter, your struggles are bound to continue, but it will be exponentially worse, since you lack the prerequisite skills from the previous chapter!

In Reading, you can move at a more leisurely pace, and students have multiple opportunities in different texts throughout the year to master each standard.  Sure, there are different genres, but as a former Reading teacher for 8 years,  I can tell you that in Reading, it’s much easier to spiral back around to previous standards several times throughout the year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do think Reading is the most important subject.  It opens the gates of learning for every student.  Every other subject relies heavily on a student’s ability to read. But, it’s simply a different beast.

Again, realistically, Math is different.  We move at a breakneck pace.  Hurry up!  Pay attention!  Move along!  It’s time to start the next lesson!

And because of this fast pace, as we try to cram in the seemingly infinite number of standards in our very finite amount of time, we have to give many quizzes or “formative assessments” along the way to be sure that we haven’t lost anyone.  We have to constantly assess our students, to make sure no one falls through the cracks.

In fact, many of my colleagues understandably complain about the lack of instructional time in Math class, because we spend a great deal of our time quizzing our students to be sure that they have mastered a topic, that they have gained a solid foundation, so we can move on to the next topic.  But at the same time, we want them to hurry up, because we’re already falling behind!

How can we include a Warm Up for review or front-loading, plus check homework, and give a quiz, then teach a lesson, and manage to possibly throw in a …(wait for it)….fun activity on top it all?

My answer is simple: Use what we know about good reading instruction in Math class.  Use each quiz as an additional “think-aloud” learning opportunity.  Start them down the right track on each question by reading each question aloud, and use think-aloud techniques to support your students.

Because this isn’t just good reading instruction.  It’s good instruction. Period.

Our common 6th grade quizzes are all 5 questions long.  But when we give our students time to work independently, these 5 questions take a long time.  Sometimes it’s because students have trouble reading the text.  Sometimes it’s because a few perfectionists take a really long time.  Other times it’s because struggling students seize up and freeze when they don’t know what to do.  But no matter the reason, reading each quiz aloud and thinking through the problems together helps everyone.

It gives the perfectionist confidence that they have sufficiently responded.  It gives the struggling student a kick start (or a kick in the pants!) in the right direction.  It gives the 504 student the required read-aloud that’s dictated in their 504 plan. And, it gives me, the teacher, the peace of mind that I am helping my students, not just constantly testing them!

Think about this: How much true instructional time do you really have?  When you subtract the time it takes your students to get settled, the time for announcements,the time for interruptions, homework check, and quizzes, you lose at least half of your class time.  I usually wind up with only 20-25 of actual instruction time for introducing new topics each period.  That’s it!

Quizzes as think-alouds add to my instructional time, because I’m instructing during the quiz. Plus, the time that this saves allows me to have more instructional time after the quiz, too.  It’s a win-win!

Here is a screen capture of one ofquiz with notations.png my recent quizzes.  As I read through each question, I not only think out loud, but I also make notations of what I’m thinking.  You can see that it’s not pretty, but it’s a realistic look at how I want my students to think and work through each problem.

When I explain my strategy to my colleagues, and I show them examples of how much writing and talking I do during a quiz, I can tell that some of them question the validity of my students’ great results.  But, wouldn’t you rather give your students too much help, than not enough?

The students who would do fine without my help wind up working ahead anyway.  But the students who do need my help are receiving my assistance in real time, not later on when we’re trying to correct misunderstandings through remediation, after the damage is done and we’ve moved on to a new topic.

By thinking aloud and guiding students through their quizzes, I never arrive at the answer for them.  But I do read it aloud, think through the initial steps aloud, and even make notations on the displayed version of the quiz on my Promethean Board.

I do this because it’s just not realistic to expect a 12-year old to master a concept and be able to demonstrate that mastery independently after only 20 minutes of instruction and a quick homework check.  I do this because I want to help my students.  I do this because it’s my classroom, and I know that I want to set my students up for success, not failure.

And I do this because it’s not just good Reading instruction.  It’s good instruction.  Period.



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