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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