Explicitly Teaching Literacy Cognitive Processes

AUTHOR: Janet Hester, Secondary ELAR Specialist

During a week in August, Laura Lee Stroud and I were tucked away in a conference room at the service center. Our mission: to analyze the 2015 STAAR released tests. Armed with multiple highlighters, TEA item analysis tables, copies of the TEKS vertical alignment, and a gallon of coffee, we read the passages quietly. We laughed aloud at times, frowned when Pearson-written passages bored us, and labored over the multiple choice questions. We found that some questions tripped us up. Only while answering questions together as a team did we make discoveries — we hadn’t correctly comprehended a section of text (the horror!) or we had missed a telling detail that slanted the theme of a passage in a surprising way. We discussed. We reread to one another. We talked out different theories of the text, of the answer choices. We discussed what all this meant for the students. Our conversation during these days of study illuminated what authentic literacy should look like for our students. Dialogic talk, conversations that “expect that speaker becomes listener and listener becomes speaker and that through give-and-take other ideas might emerge,” (Beers and Probst, 2012, p. 28) is a subject we have discussed in a previous Insight Article. Nachowitz and Brumer discuss “knowledge-building learning” and its “emphasis on progressive discourse, the kind commonly associated with scientific communities where knowledge is advanced as theories, facts are scrutinized and tested, and the body of knowledge is added to by a community of participants” (Teaching the Talk, Not the Text, 2014, p. 16).

How do we manage to get students to not only engage in dialogic talk, but also consciously move their understanding of text deeper and wider through progressive discourse?

Why We Need to Explicitly Teach Cognitive Processes

Ten years ago, Spencer Kagan argued that given the information explosion of online media, “memorizing one new fact is of little value compared to the ability to understand, analyze, organize, apply, evaluate, and create new information” (2005). Thinking passed STAAR and its all-importance in the here and now—students will need the skills to wade through a vast pool of information, to silence the noise around any given issue, to comprehend the big ideas, to determine other’s’ agendas, and to synthesize their own meaning.

For more teachers, the importance of teaching a specific list of novels and texts has become less important than teaching thinking skills. Indeed, with all that is expected of us to add value to students’ academic ability, how do we ensure that our instructional time is used to its utmost advantage? Teaching students to think about their reading is a sound investment in that time.

In fact, teaching the thinking and the talking will reach more students than assigning a list of classics will.  Students need to read all manner of texts, and they need explicit instruction in “how to talk about and think about ideas, how to develop and refine ideas, and how to extend and constructively critique the ideas of fellow students” because this “will lead to deeper understanding” (Nachowitz & Brumer, 2014).  Building classrooms that value thinking, community and talk “recognizes that the contexts within which literacy is used and learned lead to particular ways of thinking and doing—that culture (including the culture of the classroom), language, and cognition are inextricably intertwined.” (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003, p. 688). We cannot afford to assign reading without regarding talk and thinking as core values in our classroom. Thinking and talking will allow all students the opportunity to read text and understand deeply.

What Deep Understanding of Text Looks and Feels Like

Hierarchal levels of thinking found in Bloom’s Taxonomy and Costa’s levels of thinking do not correspond with truly understanding text—as in that they assume a one-way street from “lower-level” thinking skills in reading  to “higher-level” thinking skills in reading. In fact, to understand text, one is constantly upshifting but also downshifting, going from comprehension, to inference, to comprehension, to noticing a stylistic choice (analysis), back down to comprehension, to noticing that the earlier stylistic choice is recurring, and then inferring author’s purpose based on this noticing.

Strong readers expertly employ upshifting and downshifting in thinking without realizing it. Reading an article on my phone from the Huffington Post, rereading a novel, reading my kids’ picture books, I am constantly upshifting and downshifting. And this is precisely the type of activity we’ve noticed students need to perform well in STAAR, based on our analysis of 2015 released tests. We found not only that students always needed a comprehensive understanding of a section of text, but often needed a thematic understanding as well in order to select the correct answer choice. Students needed to employ many levels of thinking to correctly answer many of the questions, and when we took the test ourselves, we realized that in no way were the cognitive processes we employed a straight shot from lower-level thinking to higher-level thinking. We were constantly upshifting and downshifting.

Take this item from the 2015 STAAR English II Released test.


To answer this question correctly and eliminate other answer choices, students would have to:

  1. Comprehend that this poem is about the speaker’s reaction to a fox’s appearance
  2. Determine the connotation of the word “ordinary”
  3. Infer that the fox’s appearance was unexpected
  4. Determine a thematic meaning: unexpected events’ capacity for teaching individuals lessons

We probably missed a few. But one can see that this understanding might not progress in a linear fashion for a reader.

Here’s another example from the 2015 STAAR Grade 4 Released Reading test:


We noticed that students would need to:

  1. Infer a joking relationship between Jen and Joey
  2. Hold on to comprehension from the beginning of the story
  3. Comprehend that fear of showing her skin ultimately was not the motivation for her actions

Students must be skilled at maneuvering up and down a taxonomy of literacy thinking to correctly answer questions at every grade level. We found that student performance on these kinds of questions ranged from an extremely low 50 to 70 percent correct. Our region- and state-wide data, as well as our work in districts, lead us to believe that teaching of cognitive processes would benefit students.

How Do We Teach Students Cognitive Processes?

Explicit Instruction

Borrowing heavily from Archer and Hughes’ seminal work on explicit instruction, our manner for teaching cognitive processes should:

  • Name and sequence skills logically. Choose a methodology (several explained below) and decide which order would make most sense for your learners.
  • Break down skills one at a time. For example, analysis is a tough skill. First show students how to notice patterns in author’s craft. Then teach a process for interpreting meaning of those patterns.
  • Provide step-by-step demonstration. Or model, model, model. Re-read a text to demonstrate a new cognitive process. Use the beginning of the text your students’ will read in small groups later. Find some text, read it “cold” and conduct Think Alouds to make these processes visible for a student. Dr. Thea Woodruff, of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, asserted at this summer’s Write for Texas conference—if kids are not doing the work, it’s likely because we haven’t modeled it enough (2015). Show them!
  • Provide guidance and supported practice. Students should have the benefit of a teacher model, and then they should draw support from their peers in guided practice. We discuss dialogic talk and progressive discourse below. Students should also have opportunities for independent practice, within the same text, or a text of their own choosing. (Archer & Hughes, 2011)

Choose a Methodology for Naming Skills

Kagan espouses a practice of embedding thinking skills into any lesson by using instructional strategies that engage those skills. So as demonstrated in many of our workshops, students might read a text and then generate an analogy about the content, and therefore practice the skill of synthesizing new text information with their current schema. In his determination, the thinking skill becomes part of every lesson without special preparation or planning, especially when teachers conscientiously choose the same strategies over and over again (Kagan, 2005).

However, in our work, we have found that students do not always successfully and independently employ the thinking skill when academic work asks them to do so. Thinking skills are not learned by osmosis of practicing a strategy over and over again but through helpful scaffolds of the classroom and help of classmates. Without explicit instruction of naming the skill, modeling the skill, and debriefing about guided and independent practice, students were merely completing an activity. Perhaps the activity of creating an analogy involves high levels of cognition, but the student was merely jumping through hoops, as opposed to owning a cognitive process.

Kylene Beers and Bob Probst advocate providing specific signposts to read for and accompanying prompts that encourage thinking about the text and making inferences, prediction, analyzing theme. This approach goes beyond merely completing a strategy — it supports students in the metacognition of getting to deeper understanding of text independently and through dialogic talk. So as opposed to teaching the skill of “Prediction,” students are taught to be on the lookout for signposts in literature like “Contrasts and Contradictions,” which then provide a stimulus for making a prediction. They discuss how noticing signposts seems more natural than consciously making an effort to predict, infer, or make thematic meaning, classic cognitive processes of reading.

Beers and Probst’s process calls for the explicit instruction of thinking. Teachers have been inspired by how well signposts work for reading literature in the classroom and excitedly await the forthcoming book on reading nonfiction with new nonfiction signposts.

Levels of Meaning

We offer here another structure for teaching thinking, ‘Levels of Meaning,’ inspired by specific skills we found assessed on the STAAR test. We have added questions and examples from the popular movie Finding Nemo to improve accessibility as an anchor chart.

To teach the Levels of Meaning, we advocate the methods Nachowtiz and Brumer used in their study of progressive discourse: teachers should “model and scaffold students through guided collaborative and individual practice in how to initiate something they wanted to talk about, how to extend and develop an idea through talk, how to build on other students’ contributions, how to challenge other students through constructive talk, and how to put ideas together into a “big idea” understanding (2014, p. 16).

For example, we might first use a powerful photograph, such as those found in this blog post that chronicles photographs from May 1963, Birmingham, Alabama. We discuss the use of the photo captioned “Alabama Fire Department Aims High-Pressure Water Hoses at Civil Rights Demonstrators.”

A teacher might teach and model creating meaning on one level of meaning at a time to students.

  1. Model reading the title or caption of the photograph, and asking herself, what do I already know? This was during the Civil Rights Movements, when black citizens fought for their rights.
  2. Model “reading” or noticing people, items, and actions captured in the photograph. Model discerning meaning from what is “right there” in the photograph, by answering the question, what is happening? I see young people against a wall, being shot with water from what looks like a high-pressure hose. There are three people; they are all African American; their backs are turned toward the water that is hitting them)

Following Archer and Hughes’ suggestions of breaking down complex skills, a teacher might end this first mini-lesson and allow students to practice (review) the first two skills in small groups. Students would use different photographs to progress through the first level of meaning. Sentence stems used to begin and extend talk, such as “I noticed . . . ,” “I don’t understand . . .,” “I have a different idea . . .,” “I agree with you because  . . .” help students learn how to engage in progressive discourse (Nachowitz & Brumer, 2014, p. 21).

The next day, the teacher might:

  1. Model interpreting meaning by using text and schema to infer more meaning. She would ask, given what I know about the Civil Rights movements, what does the author want me to understand about the people, the actions in this photograph? The fact that the people have their backs turned away from the water tells me they are trying to protect themselves. That water must hurt and be very powerful. The photographer wants me to know that this must have been a scary experience.
  2. Model interpreting analytical meaning by looking at the parts of the photograph and asking, how does the author use the craft of photography to add meaning? The young people are smack in the middle of the photograph. The author wants us to focus on their experience. Also, you can see their left arms in the photo are almost aligned in a defensive block to the water. I wonder if the photographer chose this particular shot because of that symmetry, to show how the people were suffering together. For a purpose.

More time for modeling and practice would certainly be warranted for the analytical skills.

  1. Model finding thematic meaning by connecting the photograph to the world and asking, what are the big ideas the author wants all of us to understand? Two things come to mind. The photographer is documenting inhumane treatment of humans. He wanted to show the world how African Americans were treated. Another thing, the people in the photograph experienced something horrible. Perhaps the theme is: We are obligated to bear witness when injustice is inflicted on others. And of course, I think he would have wanted his audience to act and help African Americans.

Teachers might then move onto modeling using short mentor texts. Students could continue to practice the skills in small groups and independently using other photographs, short videos, and eventually longer and more complex texts.

Regardless of whether teachers choose to use Beers and Probst’s signposts, Levels of Meaning, or other methodologies, naming and explicitly teaching cognitive processes will promote deeper understanding of text.

Providing Opportunities for Guided Practice: Dialogic Talk and Progressive Discourse

Nachowitz and Bumer describe another method for encouraging progressive discourse, “chalk talk”—silent written conversations, set within a specific time frame, that require all students to go the board and write what want to say about the text. Thereafter, students may then extend, comment on, question, or build upon other students’ comments (2014, p. 16). Students draw arrows, plus signs, and other symbols to show their convergent, divergent, and progressive thinking.

A model of reading instruction called Collaborative Strategic Reading is a strategy developed by the Meadow’s Center that restructures the learning environment so that all students, no matter what their ability-level, contribute unique ideas to the literacy conversation. (Boardman, Moore, & Scornavacco, 2015). We have taken this model’s plan for strategic reading and reformulated it, using the Levels of Meaning from above.

Collaborative Strategic Reading

A plan like Collaborative Strategic Reading assumes that multiple reads of a text build layers of understanding. As Judith Langer found, “rather than say simply that students ‘comprehended’ or ‘did not comprehend’ what they were reading or writing about . . . students’ envisionment of a text at any time was a mixture of understandings, questions, hypotheses, and connections to previous knowledge and experiences. She found that the envisionment changed and evolved with further reading, writing, discussion, or reflection” (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003, pp. 690-691).

If we teach cognitive skills explicitly by providing names for them, modeling the use of them, and providing guided and independent practice, we teach students to honor their changing “envisionment.” We also provide tools for understanding on students’ own terms.  Instruction becomes less about a handful of classroom-specific strategies (hashtag summaries; before/after characterization; plotting beginning, middle, and end of a story). It’s the thinking behind those strategies that is the most important content for students to instill. Let’s teach the thinking and the talking.


Applebee, A., Langer, J., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-Based Approaches to Developing Understanding: Classroom Instruction and Student Performance in Middle and High School English. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 685-730.

Archer, A., & Hughes, C. (2011). Explicit instruction; Effective and efficient teaching. New York: Guilford Press.

Beers, K., & Probst, B. (2012). Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Boardman, A. G., Moore, B. A., & Scornavacco, K. R. (2015). Disrupting the “Norm” with Collaborative Strategic Reading. English Journal, 105(1), 48-54.

Hester, J. (2014).  Dialogic Talk and Enriching Our Students’ Reading Metacognition and Close Reading: The Need to Teach Metacognition. Insight: A newsletter for curriculum, instruction and assessment. Retrieved from http://www5.esc13.net/thescoop/insight/2014/11/dialogic-talk-enriching-our-students-reading-metacognition-and-close-reading-the-need-to-teach-metacognition/

Kagan, S. (2005, Fall). Rethinking Thinking: Does Bloom’s Taxonomy Align with Brain Science? Retrieved from Kagan Online Magazine: http://www.kaganonline.com/free_articles/dr_spencer_kagan/289/Rethinking-Thinking-Does-Bloom-s-Taxonomy-Align-with-Brain-Science?

Nachowitz, M., & Brumer, N. (2014, September). Teaching the Talk, Not the Text. Voices from the Middle, 22(1).

Laura, P. (2012, February 23). Some kind of sign: Charles Moore: Civil Rights Photographer. Retrieved September 17, 2015, from http://somekindofsign.blogspot.com/2012/02/charles-moore-civil-rights-photographer.html

Woodruff, T. (2015).Using Effective Writing Instruction to Support Response to Intervention. Write for Texas Summer Conference. Austin: Texas Education Agency.

the attachments to this post:

Collaborative Strategic Reading

Levels of Meaning



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