Step In, Step Out: A Strategy for Thinking Deeply About Text

You're sitting at your guided reading table, your little group gathered around you, wide-eyed.

Or are you the one who's wide-eyed? Sure, you know what you're doing, but maybe right now you're thinking your lesson plan doesn't fit the book like you thought it would. Or that maybe your lesson plan is just lame. Or maybe you don't have a lesson plan and are winging it (oh, come on, we've all been there).

"Boy, I could really use a mini-lesson right now," you think. "One that gets my students into the heart of this book. One that gets to the heart of the Common Core. Uh, maybe one that touches the heart of my administrator who just so happened to 'pop in' and get comfortable."

Here's something to try: I call it the "Step In - Step Out" strategy. It's one of my go-to ways to get kids deep into a text, analyzing it from different perspectives and discussing it with each other. It's my take on thinking within, beyond, and about the text.

Step In!

Asking students to "step in" to the story means that students enter the world of the story to analyze the choices the CHARACTERS make. Use some of the anchor questions below to get students stepping into the story.
  • Why did this character make this choice?
  • What do you think of the choice this character makes? Would you have done the same?
  • What might have been a different choice? Was there an alternative?
  • What happened because of this choice?
  • What advice would you give this character?

Step Out!

Asking students to "step out" of the story means that students look at the story as a piece of writing, and analyze the choices the AUTHOR makes. Use some of the anchor questions below to get students stepping out of the story.
  • Why did the author decide to write this part? Did it make the story better?
  • Why was this part of the story needed?
  • What do you like about how the author wrote this part? How would you have written it differently?
  • What do you think the author is trying to do here? Keep us interested? Mislead us? Feel sorry for the character?
  • Is the author trying to tell us something important here?

Let's get back to your lesson.

"Today, boys and girls, I want you to 'step in' to the story while you are reading. Get in there with the characters. Watch them closely. Listen to what they say to each other. Notice what they do and WHY they do it, especially that main character. Be thinking about the choices she makes. I'll check in with each of you while you are reading to help you out. Alright, get started."

As the students in your group are quietly reading the text, you check in with them one at a time, listening to them and coaching them, but also asking them a 'step-in' question to think about with you... 

"So you just read that Sue Ellen is going to meet her friend at the park to give her the message, even though her mother said to finish her chores first. Hmm, what do you think about that decision? Why would she do that?"

You keep your conversations brief, even leaving some thoughts "hang" as you move on to visit each member of your group. After students have read for a few minutes, you bring them back together. You pull out your "Step In" mini-anchor-chart (see picture) for you and students to reference during the discussion in which you are about to engage them. They've been primed during your one-to-one check-ins, so you start off with something like... 

"Let's go back to when Sue Ellen went to the park. Who thought that was a wise choice? You don't, Taylor? Why not? Let's go back to that part of the book and reread it out loud... So, did she think about the consequences? Have you ever been in a situation like that? Could she have done something else instead, and still get her message to her friend?"

Getting students to think about the choices characters make, the causes of those choices, as well as their implications, grounds students' comprehension. It helps to guide readers through a text and build their understanding.

Eventually, you pull out the "Step Out" mini-anchor-chart.

You tell students,

"So now I want you to step out of the story for a moment. Think about how the author wrote this part of the story. Why does it make sense to have Sue Ellen go to the park and defy her mother? Or would a different choice make more sense? Would the story be better if the author had Sue Ellen listen to her mom? What else in the story would have to have changed?"

Getting students thinking about what the author was thinking can have far-reaching effects. Not only do students get to engage in higher-level, text-based discussions, it can be empowering to have the freedom to critique an author's decisions, and often can translate into how students make their own writing decisions.

You might want to close by giving your students the chance to respond in writing. And as they go about transferring their thoughts to paper, you sit back, breathe out, and give your boss a little wink.

*     *     *'ve got all the materials for the lesson you just had, including the response sheets, for you to download for FREE from my TeachersPayTeachers store. Click the image to the right to take you to the free resource.

If you like the "reader's notebook style" response sheets included in the Step In - Step Out resource, check out my huge collection of response pages, to use with virtually any piece of literature. are 64 unique response pages for character analysis, setting, comprehension strategies, word study, author's purpose, extending meaning, note-taking, open responses, and more. Differentiated at three levels to meet all your readers' needs. Click the image to the right for more details.


  1. I really love this! I am always trying to find concrete ways to teach my students how to "think" while they read. This is going to be great for them! Thanks for sharing.

  2. You're welcome! Thanks so much for your feedback, Amy!

  3. Love this! I can't wait to try it with my students.

  4. What a great idea! I'm going to use it Monday with our read aloud and then challenge the kids to try it out with their independent reading books. This should trigger some great conversations and deep thinking! Thanks for sharing, so glad I found your blog!

  5. Michael,
    This is an absolutely brilliant idea. I came across it last weekend and tried it out on my kids this past week. It was amazing! I feel like I have been asking them to do this kind of thinking all year, but having such clear phrases, images, and questions has helped my students really clarify their thinking. We have had some amazing conversations this week- all thanks to you! I would love to write about this (and you) on my blog. Would that be ok? This is an idea worth spreading!

    Thanks so much for your creativity and your willingness to share!

    1. Hi Kelly!
      Thank you so much for sharing how it went with your kids! You can definitely write about this lesson on your blog--that's awesome!

    2. I finally got to sit down and write a post, but I know I just didn't do you justice. I'm just not as good with words as I want to be! Here's the link so you can read it if you'd like. I really cannot thank you enough. This little strategy has been working wonders in our classroom! My kiddos are really thinking and it's because of you!

      I'm not very blog savvy, so I forgot how to embed links in a comment. I apologize! Thanks again!

    3. Holy cow, Kelly! I'm so honored! That is so cool that your students have taken such a hold onto the idea--so glad I could play a small role.

  6. Found you through Koonce's Corner and am thrilled to try this! I especially love the "step out" part, plus the whole visual is perfect for kids! Thanks for sharing the materials, too! I'm going to start following your blog!

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  11. Great ideas for getting the students to be more involved in the text and thinking on a deeper level! Love it!


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