Using Think-Aloud Techniques in the Foreign Language Classroom

Sarah Barnhardt

A think-aloud is a technique in which a person verbalizes his or her thought processes while working on a task. Think-aloud interviews are frequently used in research in order to discover and understand the cognitive processes involved in the task completion. Think-alouds can reveal a person's learning strategies, motivations, affective state, level of self-efficacy, and level of success in task completion. The specific information elicited through a think-aloud depends on the purpose and goals of the interviewer. In other words, the interviewer asks questions and gives prompts which guide the interviewee in the right direction in terms of areas of data.

As an on-line measure, think alouds produce data with a high level of validity and reliability. Students are telling their thoughts as they are working on a specific task, so it can be assumed that the thought processes directly correspond to the task. The interviewer can also observe the student's behavior at the time of the task, which adds another source of data. Most students are pleased to have someone interested in their ideas and thoughts and therefore are open and honest in their reports.

The NCLRC has used think-aloud interviews extensively to conduct research on students' learning strategies use. Interviews have been transcribed and analyzed to reveal a wealth of information on students' thought processes. Through our work with teachers, sharing the results of think-alouds and providing professional support for implementing strategies instruction, we have discovered that think-alouds can serve as a valuable instructional technique for creating a classroom of active, independent learners. Classroom think-alouds can make students more aware of their thought processes and increase their control over their learning techniques and affective states.

Teachers can use think-aloud techniques in the classroom by focusing on how students get their answers. For instance, when a student answers a question, ask the student how he or she arrived at this answer (How do you know that? What makes you think so? What were you thinking as you did that? Why did you decide to say that?). This requires a shift from immediately evaluating a student's response as right or wrong to looking at the student's processing. Focusing on the thought process can provide valuable information about how students arrive at their answer. If the student's response is correct, then sharing his or her strategies may encourage other students to try new techniques. If a response is incorrect, focusing on how the student got the answer can help you and the student see where his or her thinking may have gone astray. Analyzing the process, as opposed to only evaluating the product (a right or wrong answer), can give students information on learning techniques that can be transferred to the next learning opportunity.

Although, conscious or unconscious, verbalized or internal thinking aloud is part of our everyday lives, students will need coaching in how to think aloud in foreign language situations. As the teacher, you can explain and model this process for students. You can say that thinking aloud is like when you talk out loud as you are looking for something you lost, such as your homework. You might say, "I know I did that homework, but where did I put it? I remember seeing it on the kitchen table. Maybe my mother put it away-I think I'll ask. Maybe I put it in another notebook-I'll look there. Oh, what am I going to tell my teacher tomorrow?..." Next, you can do a think- aloud yourself in front of the class working on a language task. You may decide to role play a student and work on a task at their level or you can work at a task that is realistically challenging for you (perhaps in another language). As you think aloud, students can take notes on the kinds of thought processes you use. Afterwards, you can have group discussion of what you did to work through the task.

Think-alouds can be used in pair activities with students. One student can work on a language task and think aloud. The other student can be the interviewer who writes down on a think-aloud record sheet the strategies or thought processes verbalized by the first student. When finished with the task, students are given another task and reverse roles. Pairs of students can work on similar types of task so they can compare and discuss strategies. You may wish to start students with a task for which it is easier to think aloud such as reading, vocabulary, or grammar, and then move students on to other modalities. Depending on students' language level, they can do this activity in the target language. You can teach students think-aloud questions in the target language (What are you thinking? If you don't know that word, what are you going to do?, etc.)

Think-aloud records can be part of students' learning logs or portfolio entries. They can be used to increase students' awareness of how they learn and encourage them to broaden their learning techniques. Think-alouds are useful in individualizing language instruction. By focusing on students' thought processes, teachers also become more aware of how their students are learning and are thus better able to identify problem areas and appropriate solutions.