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How to help your students navigate a complex world

Posted by admin on Jul 23, 2020 8:06:54 AM

How to help your students navigate a complex world (1)A generalist is a curious, open-minded, and skeptical person who is persistent in their quest for information that will help answer their burning questions—whatever they may be. In their new book Thinking Like a Generalist, Angela Kohnen and Wendy Saul show you how to help students build those long-lasting generalist skills so that they can become more thoughtful and articulate in their responses to real-world information, and be able to navigate this complex, information-filled world!

The following is a strategy from Thinking Like a Generalist that will show you how to use read-alouds to help students connect to ideas and take an active role in how they receive information, leading them to be more engaged and excited about learning a wide range of topics.

The Read-Aloud-Think-Aloud (RATA)

Students often experience information they encounter in the classroom as incidental or semi-incidental—it is selected by the teacher, grade-level team, district, or state—not by the student. Students may be more or less willing and prepared to engage with this information encountered in school, depending on their out-of-school lives (i.e., their community, dinner conversations, the television or other media they’ve been exposed to, and their previous academic experiences).

All of these sources of incidental information may be consistent with what they study in school or completely at odds with it. Through the read-aloud-think-aloud (RATA), teachers demonstrate how active reading enables thinkers to connect with ideas. Teachers can also help students to move from passively receiving information to actively, intentionally reacting to it.

The RATA includes the following steps:

  1. Select an informational text to read aloud to students.
  2. Ideally, put the text where students can see it (either project the text for students to read, hold it up, or give them copies to mark up).
  3. Read the text, stopping to voice your thinking about the content.

Sounds simple, right? But, in fact, this strategy is more complex than it might first appear. And, when done well, it is one of the most powerful ways we’ve seen to create an environment in which students are excited to learn more about a wide range of topics.

Finding Time

The beauty of a RATA is that it can take very little class time and therefore can be used in those odd, leftover moments available in a school day. RATAs also can be done in nearly any content area. Teachers who examine their schedule often find a bit of time at the beginning or end of the day or right before lunch, recess, specials, or other transitions. RATAs tend to engage the entire class very quickly—a perfect activity for times that can get hectic. If you teach in an environment where students switch classes, RATAs can be a good way to start or end a class period. Teachers often make informational RATAs a regular part of the classroom routine, engaging in them daily or several times a week.

The RATA text is, of course, incidental to the students, but as you model your thinking you are also modeling your life as an intentional information seeker and consumer. Because the text is authentic—the kind of text one who is curious about the world encounters—you are showing students what it is like to be intentional about texts, or at least what it is like to be thoughtful about the texts you incidentally encounter. And, over time, students will begin suggesting or bringing in their own texts. Sometimes they may ask you to do the RATA because they’re curious to hear how you think about something they found interesting. Other times, though, with your encouragement, students can lead the RATA themselves.

If you engage in regular RATAs, you will also find yourself wanting to dedicate a little more time to some readings than others. Often the RATA is short and serves as a model for students. You may conclude by brainstorming additional questions you have based on the text, but not go any further. And on the occasions you decide not to complete the entire article, tell students why you stopped: maybe it had to do with time or because you were bored, or perhaps you already learned the information you needed or found the research on which the article was based to be insufficient. Again, this is an opportunity to think aloud.

Selecting a Text

What you choose to read to your students will, of course, depend on a lot of factors. Luckily, we live in an age of abundance of high-quality informational texts so the chances are good that you can find an interesting, appropriate, well-written text, no matter your context. What you consider appropriate will depend on your goals as a teacher. We argue that the content of the reading itself matters much less than what you do with the reading. If the RATA is an opportunity to help students move from passive to active (and critical) consumers of information, then the trick is to select texts that encourage that movement. Sometimes you will choose texts that you love (or that you think students will love), and at other times you will focus on texts that are problematic.

And here’s another tip. We don’t suggest that teachers only choose texts that are obviously relevant to students (although sometimes these texts make great RATAs). RATAs can also be used to expand students’ understanding of what is exciting, relevant, important, or interesting. A highly engaged teacher reading aloud a text that she finds interesting can encourage students to become interested, too, and make connections that are less than obvious to school-focused readers.

An effective RATA puts the teacher’s curiosity on display and creates a culture of question asking in the classroom. For that reason, perhaps, journalistic articles are especially good for RATAs. News stories are about events in progress, the endings as yet unwritten. Teachers don’t have to pretend to ask questions or construct meaning on the spot; a good news article forces the reader to ask questions and construct meaning.

You can find lots of news stories online that are written for upper elementary and middle school students, and the available content is constantly changing. At the time of publication, here is a short list of sources of online news stories for children:

As students get into middle and high school, you may also choose articles written for adults. Newspapers are generally accessible to students reading at a sixth-grade level; students not able to read them independently can still follow along if the teacher is doing the reading and thinking aloud. RATAs are a way to not only provide examples of skeptical thinking and open-mindedness but also support any content teaching you want to get in along the way. There are so many options and decisions to make: sometimes you may wish to follow your students’ lead and explore the topic of a RATA in more depth because they are engaged. Other times, you may purposefully use a RATA to begin a curricular unit. And RATAs can also be useful for students looking for research topics to pursue independently. Whichever texts you choose, we’ve found that the RATA is the easiest way to introduce and model generalist identity throughout the school year.

To learn more about how to teach your students the skills to navigate a complex, information-filled world through a generalist literacy approach, get Thinking Like a Generalist by Angela Kohnen and Wendy Saul. 




Preview the book


About the authors

Kohnen headshotAngela M. Kohnen is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Florida. Prior to earning her doctorate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, she taught English Language Arts in the St. Louis area. She loves working with students at all levels to explore questions of genuine curiosity.


saul_wendy_20150417_F3787CWendy Saul, formerly the Allen B. and Helen S. Shopmaker Chair of Education and International Studies at the University of Missouri-St Louis – is now retired but still spends countless hours thinking with her former students and colleagues about generalist literacy; connections between science, reading and writing; and active learning and critical thinking in under-resourced countries, both here and abroad.


Teachers Corner Social Kohnen and Saul

Banner image photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash