TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion

Tip #21: How to Support Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities During Think-Alouds

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Reading is a complex process that requires students to not only read individual words, but also comprehend or determine meaning and understanding from what is being shared on the page. Teachers can support students’ development of comprehension through the use of think-alouds.   The think-aloud strategy prompts readers to verbally share their thoughts and reflect on their thinking as they read, solve math problems, or respond to content-based questions (Baumann et al., 1983; Davey, 1983). This process allows teachers and students to explain the strategies they are using to better understand the text. In this TIP, we discuss how to engage students with significant cognitive disabilities in think-alouds in the inclusive classroom.


Thinking aloud is an effective way to support students’ use of academic vocabulary and engage students in the learning process (Teacher Vision, 2014). The purpose of the think-aloud strategy is to provide students with a model for how skilled readers use different types of strategies to address challenges they may experience when reading (Reading Rockets, 2014). In the classroom, this strategy can be used across subject areas and in a variety of ways. For example, teachers may use the think-aloud strategy to teach students how to connect what they already know about a topic to a text before reading it. This strategy may also be used when students are solving multi-step math problems, evaluating the outcomes of a science experiment, considering the context of a historical event, or even self-monitoring their own understanding of a difficult text (Teacher Vision, 2014.).

When modeling a think-aloud, teachers are demonstrating comprehension strategies such as how to (a) access prior knowledge, (b) generate predictions, (c) create mental images, (d) develop inferences, (e) effectively problem solve, (f) overcome challenges associated with word recognition and comprehension, and (h) self-monitor comprehension (Teacher Vision, n.d.). Once students are familiar with the strategy, the teacher may then ask them to actively take part in the think-aloud process. 

Steps to conducting a think-aloud:

  1. Teacher begins by modeling the strategy and interacting with content (e.g., text, math problem, science experiment), specifically at points that may be difficult for students to understand.
  2. Demonstrate how to verbalize thoughts using sentence starters related to your own understanding of the content and/or experiences during the reading process.
  3. Provide students with structured opportunities to practice the strategy and provide specific feedback.
  4. Once students have demonstrated proficiency, allow students to participate in reciprocal think-alouds, where students are paired together and take turns thinking aloud as they read from a difficult text or interact with other content.


Figure 1 describes the process for a think-aloud. Think-alouds can happen at different points in the learning process. Sometimes teachers will plan a think-aloud to better understand what an individual student is thinking, while other times the activity may require students to work collaboratively with peers to help confirm and/or expand student understanding. Figure 2 provides examples of possible questions and sentence stems that may be asked or used during a think-aloud, whereas Figure 3 is an image of an anchor chart that includes think-aloud prompts for use within common reading strategies.

Figure 1. Think-aloud task analysis

Five linear steps that each include a specific action. Step 1- read or listen to assigned text or content. Step 2- identify the question(s) being asking. Step 3- think about answer(s) to the question(s). Step 4- share thoughts out load with others (e.g., teacher, peers). Step 5: if working with others, also listen to their answers.

Figure 2. Example think-aloud questions and sentence stems

A list of example think-aloud questions and sentence stems. Examples may include: What do I already know about the topic/content? What reaction did I have to the text/content? What questions do I have after reading the text or viewing the content? What did the reading or content make me think of? How can I use information from the text or content to support my answer? I know that... One thing I tried was... I know this can't be right because... I predict that...I was confused by...

Figure 3. Think-aloud reading anchor chart

Example of a think-aloud reading anchor chart that includes a picture of a cartoon person with five thought bubbles. Each of the five thought bubbles represents a specific reading strategy that students can used to share their thinking. First bubble on the bottom left says, "Connection" and includes the sentence stem, "This made me think of..." The second bubble on the left says, "Prediction" and includes the sentence stems, " I predict..." and "I think..." The next thought bubble says, "Summarize" and includes the sentence stem, "This most important idea is..." The fourth thought bubble says, "Clarify" and includes the sentence stem, "I got confused when..." The final thought bubble says, "Reflection" and includes the sentence stems, "I wonder if..." and "I realized that..."

Teachers can maximize their use of the think-aloud strategy by intentionally planning for these opportunities within their lesson plans. The think-aloud strategy can be most effective when teachers consider the following:

  • Have I communicated the purpose of the think-aloud strategy before asking students to verbalize their thinking? Have I communicated it in multiple ways so that my students understand?
  • Have I presented students with a set of questions or sentence starters that can be used to support students’ thinking?
  • Have I provided support for students to communicate during the think-aloud?
  • What information or keywords am I looking for to confirm students’ understanding? Have I provided scaffolds so that students are able to use the information or words?
  • What will my response be if students continue to experience difficulty or if their understanding is still unclear? How could I build scaffolds and supports into this activity for students to use to help them confirm their understanding? How can I build a consistent pathway using scaffolds and supports so that students can generalize this across different types of think-alouds?

By examining these questions prior to delivering the lesson, general and special education teachers can determine an efficient response based on student need and effectively determine how to make this strategy accessible to all students. To make sure all students are able to participate in the think-aloud strategy, general and special education teachers must determine individual student needs (i.e., expressive and receptive communication skills, background knowledge). For example, participation in think-alouds can be made more accessible for students who have varying language-related skills by making use of pictures and symbols students can point to and programming AAC devices to include content-related words and question stems students can use to help formulate part of their responses. 

Below is an example demonstrating how general education and special education can work collaboratively to provide think-aloud opportunities for all students, including those with a significant cognitive disability. Together, these teachers used the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework (Meyer et al., 2014) to consider potential barriers and identify possible solutions to create access points in this activity for all students.

Abigail is a fourth grade student with multiple disabilities who spends a majority of her instructional day in an inclusive classroom with intermittent support from special education personnel (special education teacher, paraprofessional, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist). Special education personnel co-plan regularly with Mr. Carter, Abigail’s teacher, and actively models effective strategies for Mr. Carter and Abigail’s peers to use to support her in fully participating in classroom instruction and routines. Abigail enjoys listening to music and playing with her friends. Abigail is able to type her name, verbally communicate using one or two word utterances, and benefits most from receiving some level of instructional support (e.g., picture supported text with fringe vocabulary) when actively participating in classroom activities. 

Mr. Carter has been exploring ways to promote more active student engagement during his content lessons. He would really like to facilitate more opportunities for students to make their thinking visible. One way he has found to do this is by embedding think-alouds throughout his lessons. Prior to using this strategy, Mr. Carter set up a meeting with Ms. Saldido, the school’s special education teacher, to discuss ways they can ensure this activity is accessible for all students, including Abigail. (See the 5-15-45 discussion tool for questions to guide collaborative conversations for how to identify and remove barriers.) Together, Mr. Carter and Ms. Saldido identified that the think-aloud strategy requires extensive expressive communication skills which presents a barrier for Abigail. To find a solution, the teachers identify key vocabulary words related to upcoming lessons in each content area and discussed ways in which Mr. Carter could use principles of UDL to meaningfully structure and support think-aloud opportunities that were inclusive of all students, including Abigail. See Table 1 for ideas for supporting think-alouds across the curriculum.

Table 1: Example of supporting think-alouds across the curriculum

Content Area

Type of Think-Aloud

Student Think-Aloud

Reading/ English


After reading Because of Winn Dixie, students were asked to participate in a reciprocal think-aloud to help them clarify their understanding of the text. Students were asked to begin their think-aloud using the following sentence stem: “So far, I’ve learned…”


After her peer shares, Abigail points to the sentence stem and her peer reads aloud, “So far, I’ve learned…”. Then, Abigail points to her circle web graphic organizer and says “dog!”. The peer follows up by asking, “So, what have you learned about the dog?” Abigail responds by saying, “dirty.”



During a math assignment, students were asked to work in pairs to determine why the answer to a given problem was incorrect. Students began their think-aloud using the following sentence stem: “That answer doesn’t make sense because…”


Abigail pulls up the virtual manipulatives on her computer. She uses her fraction tiles to set up the equation. She picks up the sentence stem that says “That answer doesn’t make sense because…” and points to the tiles that aren’t overlapping and says “too big!”.

Social Studies


Prior to writing about their field trip, students were asked to participate in a small group think-aloud to assist in narrowing down the information about each place they visited. Students were prompted to begin their think-aloud using the following sentence stem: “The most important information  about _____ is…”


Abigail took lots of pictures on her field trip to the state capital. She pulled out a picture of the Governor’s Mansion, the Capitol Building, and the State Supreme Court Building. Her peer reads the sentence stem, “The most important information about _____ is…” as Abigail selects the picture to place in the blank. The peer asks Abigail, “Do you think the Capital Building is important because 1: the State House of Representatives and Senate work there or 2: Laws and policies are created and passed there? ?” “Two!” says Abigail!



After being given a set of magnets, students were asked to work in pairs to explore objects in the room to see what items were attracted to the magnets. Following their inquiry, students participated in a think-aloud using the following sentence stem: “I wonder why….”


After the experiment, Abigail used her sentence stem to think-aloud, “I wonder why…” Then she pointed to the response board Ms. Cardoso, the speech language pathologist, helped make. Abigail pointed to the images magnet and can and said, “yes” and then pointed to the images magnet and plastic cup and said,“no” to ask why the magnet sticks to the can but not to the cup.


Engaging students in the learning process by using strategies such as thinking aloud is an effective way to enhance students’ use of content-based vocabulary and to formatively identify strengths and weaknesses in students’ understanding. Participation in strategies such as think-alouds should not be based on the development of a students’ use of oral language. Rather, by purposefully planning to include the think-aloud strategy within content-based lessons, general education and special education teachers and staff can work collaboratively to create authentic participation opportunities for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities.


  • Baumann, J. F., Jones, L. A., & Seifert-Kessell, N. (1993). Using thinking alouds to enhance children’s comprehension monitoring abilities. The Reading Teacher, 47(3), 184–193. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20201231

  • Davey, B. (1983). Think aloud: Modeling the cognitive processes of reading comprehension. Journal of Reading, 27(1), 44–47. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/40029295

  • Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.

  • Reading Rockets. (2014). Think-alouds. Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/think_alouds

  • Teacher Vision. (2014). Think Aloud Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.teachervision.com/skill-builder/problem-solving/48546.html?page=1

TIPS Series: Tip #21, March 2021

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  • Johnson, H. N., Wakeman, S. Y., & Clausen, A. (2021). How to Support Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities During Think-Alouds (TIPS Series: Tip #21). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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