How a Simple THOUGHT BUBBLE Can Send Students Deep into Literature

When you read, do you ever think about what a character is thinking?

This is not a trick question.

You do, right? Of course you do. You may not even realize the extent to which you do it.

If we slow down the process (like, The Matrix slow-motion slow), an experienced, engaged reader gives a lot of consideration to a character's thoughts.

Let me give you an example.

Let's say I'm reading Harry Potter (the first one) and I'm in the part towards the beginning when Harry's Uncle Vernon refuses to allow Harry to open any of the letters from Hogwarts, and goes to great lengths to keep them from Harry, even moving the whole family to a dreary rock of an island in the middle of the sea.

So what do I think Harry is thinking?

I think Harry must be streaming several lines of thought. He detests living with his Aunt and Uncle and Dudley but has become rather hopeless that his situation will improve, and then along comes a letter addressed to him. He allows himself a glimmer of hope, but then his Uncle destroys the letter as well as the subsequent letters that follow. Harry is probably coming to terms with the idea that his Uncle will go to any length to keep him from opening the letter. Which is a bummer. 


But, he also has to be thinking about the logic that whatever is inside those letters must be pretty significant if his Uncle is willing to move the family to the middle of nowhere in the middle of a storm just to keep more letters from being delivered. Which is intriguing. 

And Harry also must have given some thought to the persistence of whomever is sending the letters. If they've continued to mail him dozens of letters, hundreds even, why wouldn't they continue until he has received one? Which is promising.

Find out how to use thought bubbles as a jumping off point for inferring a character's thinking and making sense of it.I want students to be able to do what I just did there.

I want them to be able to use a character's words and actions and the surrounding events given to them by the author and be able to infer a character's thinking.

But not only do I want students to be able to infer those thoughts, I want them to be able to make sense of them. To make decisions and draw conclusions based on them.

But not only do I want students to make sense of those thoughts, I want them to be able to then explain it all. To verbalize it. Even to write it.


That's a lot.

But by slowing down the process of inferring and making sense of a character's thoughts (you know, Matrix slow-mo)--breaking it down, talking it out, recording it on paper--students begin to do it more naturally when they read.

So what?

What's the big deal? Why do I want students to be able to do all of this? Three reasons: When we become adept at thinking about what a character is thinking,
  1. we understand the character better and more deeply. We understand the choices and actions he/she makes, and can even better predict future choices and actions from that character.
  2. we connect to the character. We get to know him/her and the similarities to our own life. We can identify with, relate to, even learn from that character.
  3. we really hit some Common Core standards full on in the face. (Check CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.3, and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2 and 5.3.)
So let's dig into how to get students going. Enter, the thought bubble.
I love using a thought bubble because it gives students a concrete starting point for something that's not very concrete. And it becomes an anchor symbol that helps trigger the thinking about a character's thinking.

Before we get too far into a character's thoughts, it's really important to first show students how to slow down and explain their own thoughts.


To practice recording students' own thinking, with lots of elaboration and details, try this preliminary activity:

Have students get out a notebook and pencil and prepare a large, empty thought bubble on their page. It should fill most of the page. Make sure you have one on the board, too.

Then go behind your desk and without students seeing, put something small, like a stapler or a glue bottle, in your hand and then hide it by draping a towel over it. Bring the covered item to the front of the room and dramatically explain to students that you have a surprise addition for the classroom. Jiggle the item slightly, as if it moved on its own, and then whisper-scold it to stay still.

Then, without revealing what the item is, say something like, "Let's pause right there for a moment, boys and girls. I want you to write down what you are thinking. What thoughts went through your mind when I brought this thing out? Write inside your thought bubble. Be honest, and be as detailed as you can."

After a few minutes, have a few students share their writing. (All the while, you are holding the covered item in your hand.) As each student shares, prod him/her and the class with questions to help them see opportunities for further elaboration.

Maybe a students writes, "I'm wondering what is under the towel," but after some prompting it could turn into, "My teacher just brought up something in her hand but it's covered with a towel. I'm wondering what is under the towel. Is this a joke? It looks like it just moved a little bit, so maybe it's alive. But Mrs. T. hates critters, so why in the world would she be holding something alive? I think she's just messing with us. But why is she messing with us? And even if it's not alive, I still would like to know what she is holding. Maybe it's a rock. Maybe we're going to do a unit on rocks."

Finally, reveal the item to students. "Don't you love it, boys and girls?" Egg them on a bit, and then stop them again. "Okay boys and girls, I want you to draw another thought bubble, and write down your thinking again. I want you to try to be even more detailed than before." 

Give students a couple of minutes to write. As they work, turn to the board and write the words, "If I were you..." outside the thought bubble you drew and record a model example. Maybe something like, "When Mrs. T. took the towel off of the stapler, I was outraged! How could she think we'd enjoy this 'new addition' to our classroom? But then I calmed down a bit and realized she was probably doing all of this just to give us something to write our thinking about. But still, why couldn't she have done it with a gerbil or a frog or something? Like a new class pet. Would that have been so hard?! Oh dear, the outrage is returning!"

Before sharing with the class this time, have students pair up and read their thought bubbles to each other, comparing them and making suggestions on how to elaborate even more.

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In your next lesson, transition to the thoughts of a character in a story. Refer to the elaborate thinking students recorded of their own and how they'll now apply this technique to explain a character's thinking.

Prepare a large thought bubble to model with a picture book. You can download a copy of the thought bubble you see in the images below by clicking HERE

Some of my favorite books to use with this lesson are: The Old Woman Who Named Things, by Cynthia Rylant, The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart, any Henry and Mudge book (yes, even for upper elementary), Some Birthday! by Patricia Polacco, and Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen.

Gather students with their notebooks and pencils. Read aloud a portion of the story, and then pause at a certain point to record a character's thoughts in your thought bubble. As you write, point out evidence from the story, both from text and illustrations, that helped you infer the character's thoughts. (Which sort of means you're thinking about your thinking about the character's thinking. Whoa. Never mind, don't think about that.)

Continue reading. Then pause at another point and have students draw a thought bubble in their notebook and record what the character is thinking. As students write, erase your own thought bubble and fill it in with the character's new thinking. Then have a brief discussion with students about what they wrote and what you wrote.

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When students get used to thinking about and recording a character's thoughts in detail, it's a good time to begin transitioning into doing it more naturally. As a stepping stone, have students record "thought bubble thoughts" on sticky notes.

If you do a class novel read aloud, use it to model for students how to find an important moment to pause, and how to record notes about what the character is thinking. Show students that since the sticky note is small, we have to be more succinct in how we write, maybe in a "jot it down" notes-style rather than complete sentences, but be clear that the thinking stays just as intense.

After modeling a sticky-note-thought-bubble with your novel read aloud, give all students a sticky note. Continue reading and choose a new spot to pause for students to practice for themselves. Discuss the sticky notes or collect them for a quick formative assessment check.

Choosing a common spot in the book for all students will help you assess how each student is progressing. Don't forget that having students discuss their inferences about a character's thinking can be just as meaningful as making the inferences.

It's also really interesting to use the thought bubbles to infer the thinking of a supporting character, not just the main character. Particularly with a book written in first-person, where the main character gives much of his/her thinking just by narrating the story, try changing students' perspectives and digging into the thoughts of one of the other characters in a scene.

Eventually, have students practice recording sticky-note-thought-bubbles with self-selected books they are reading in class. Keep the large laminated thought bubble handy to use with future texts and to be a reminder to students as they read on their own.

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Ah, thought bubbles. They are such simple little things, but with the right guidance and modeling, they can be the jumping off point for some seriously deep and rewarding reading work.

Come read my post about the Thought Bubble's more outspoken cousin, the Speech Bubble, on the Upper Elementary Snapshots collaborative blog. You can read it here.

Credit: Thought Bubble clip art created by Sarah Pecorino Illustration.

9 Ways to Differentiate Your Whole Group Instruction

Differentiating your instruction can be overwhelming. I get it. 

When you hear the word "differentiation" do you automatically start breaking your class into small groups? Or maybe you start scouring Pinterest for ways to differentiate the task students will do after you teach a lesson.

What I want to share with you here are ways you can differentiate your whole group instruction... tailoring the teaching you do to your whole class so it better fits each of your student's needs.

Here are 9 ways you can differentiate your whole group instruction. These differentiation ideas will really help you meet each student's needs during the lessons you already teach.

Hang on now. Doesn't differentiation butt heads with a whole group setting? How can you differentiate a lesson being taught to the whole class?

Here are nine ways:

Let's say you are planning to introduce a new reading strategy tomorrow, "synthesizing" for instance. You know this first lesson will probably go right over the heads of your lower readers and you'll be playing catch-up during guided reading for the next two weeks.

Instead, today try pre-teaching the main focus of the lesson to that small group of students. Do it just like you plan to do it tomorrow to the whole group. It's like you are letting these students in on a little secret. They'll be one-up on their classmates heading into tomorrow, a feeling they rarely have when it comes to reading, and you'll have them primed for the content to really sink in. Plus, you'll get a feel for the flow and the wording, like a dry run.

You don't have to choose your lower level students either. Even pulling six random students for a pre-teaching group still gives you six students during tomorrow's whole group lesson who will have a basic understanding and will know what to expect, able to help those nearby whom you can't always reach right away.

Where students sit can be effective in helping you differentiate your lesson. I like bringing students to a gathering area on the floor, having them sit where they choose. Then I do a quick scan and make some changes: "Charlie, switch spots with Luke. Anna, switch with Tommy. And Ria, you switch with Harley." 

My goal is to move some students, who I expect to struggle, forward so I can interact with them more easily. To avoid any stigma getting attached to which students I move, I don't always move the same students, and I always make an "unexpected move." Maybe I move Super-Smart-Samantha to the front, just so the class doesn't start thinking the movers always need help.

If I did any pre-teaching, I'm also looking to spread out those students so they can help coach others. But in general, I'm trying to set a tone that says the spots students pick for themselves are not permanent. I want to be able to move Tanya up close to me halfway through the lesson, after I notice a totally confused look on her face, and it won't be a big deal at all to the rest of the class.

No matter how eloquent you are with your words, your visual learners are going to benefit greatly from seeing the lesson, rather than just hearing it. So as you teach, keep a visible record of what you are saying, whether it's with an anchor chart or simply using the board.

A huge benefit that comes along with making your teaching visible is the natural tendency to simplify and organize information when recording it. I encourage you to play up this tendency: use lists, charts, graphic organizers, and symbols. What you are really doing is conveying your message a second time, just in a different form. And by doing so, you are connecting to more students.

Changing how we ask questions to the class during a lesson can help with differentiation. Specifically, try using these two types:

Split Question
With a split question, you actually ask two related questions, one more sophisticated than the other, and have students answer the one that better fits their current understanding. It might sound like, "Boys and girls, I'm going to write two questions on the board, and I want you to jot down your thinking to the one question that challenges you just right. Either, 'which detail tells us the most about Roy?' or, 'why do you think the author told us so much about Roy's shoes?'"

Build-On Question
With a build-on question, you ask the class a question and give an additional step for those who finish the first part. "Boys and girls, try highlighting the words in this paragraph that personify the wind. If you finish that, write down another way the author could have used personification for the wind."

When you have students turn and talk to a neighbor about something related to the lesson you are teaching, you are adding student engagement and an easy way to formatively assess students' progress. But if you get in there and get involved in these turn and talks, you add a way to differentiate your instruction, too. 

Pose a question to the class or statement to think about and have them turn and talk about it with a neighbor. Then try popping into one or two of the conversations that ensue. As you listen, be aware of opportunities to differentiate: to push some partners further and to help some get back on track.

An easy way to add a bit of differentiation to your lesson is to simply give more wait-time. When you ask the class to share their thinking, don't immediately call on the first student who raises her hand. If you wait before allowing a response (even if you end up calling on that same student), you are giving your lower students more time to process and think things through.

Bring up a student or two during your instruction to use as an assistant, even for the simplest of things: holding up a poster, pointing to items on the chart, scribing what you say, modeling an action (e.g. "Every time we use the word 'synthesize' Henry is going to do his special move.") Your assistant's tasks may not even be truly necessary, but it's an easy way to pluck a struggling student from the crowd and engage him before he tunes out, OR to give a thriving student some extra responsibility.

My favorite, and simplest, way to involve a student assistant is during a lesson in which I would model my own thinking. Instead of explaining my thinking out loud to the class, I attribute that same thinking to the student who I pulled up with me. "Now, boys and girls, let's say Henry is a synthesizing master. So right at this moment, I know he's thinking about how this new text detail is going to fit into what he already understands from the story. Isn't that right, Henry?"

Think about differentiating one element of the lesson. For a lesson on a reading strategy, you might provide two or three different texts to use, each at a different level. Or if you're confident the skill you are teaching could apply to any text, have students choose their own book to bring with them to practice the new strategy that you'll teach them.

In a writing lesson, try varying the topic in order to interest more students, since the skill probably isn't based on the topic with which you'll use to practice it. Maybe you are teaching paragraph structure with an anchor chart. Instead of modeling with a topic you had prepared, try splitting the chart in half, asking volunteers to suggest two topics, and model the paragraph structure techniques with both topics, one on each half of the chart. Or dip into #7 above, and use a student assistant to model with one topic while you model with the other.

After introducing a new strategy or skill within your lesson, you often want to give students a chance to respond, reflect, or try it for themselves before you move on to the next stage. Especially with something brand new, try allowing a head start, and then following up with some help. "Boys and girls, I want you to try writing in your notebook what the author is really trying to tell you in the section we just read. Give it a go. Now, if you need a little jump start, I'll be giving some guidance in just a moment."

Differentiation need not always require drastic changes to your lesson. Utilizing a few of the ideas I've shared will help your whole group instruction better sink in to each student.

As you transition from the teaching to the task with which students will use to practice, be sure to read about the 8 Practical Ways to Differentiate a Student Task I wrote for Upper Elementary Snapshots.

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If you're looking for differentiated resources to help your students respond to their reading, be sure to check out my Reader's Notebook Response Pages for Literature or for Informational Text.

The pages are differentiated at three levels to meet each student right where they need to be.

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