by: Candice Yamnitz
HOT stem posters, language objectives with higher DOK questions and lessons plans designed with student thinking in mind, OH MY! In my dual-language 4th grade classroom, we were set! The students were going to be critical thinkers. This eventually did happen with 100% of my students, but it wasn’t the whole group lessons that reached each student. It was through guided reading. In fact, my class nearly converted into an exceeding group as a whole by the end of the school year. There were many little everyday steps that we all take as teachers that caused this shift, but the lead contributor was guided reading groups with lively conversations.
Getting students to use higher order thinking in a classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to express themselves. In Content-Area Conversations, teaching experts state that ELLs acquire “academic language is certainly initiated through the modeling of teachers and reinforced and extended through classroom discourse.”  Many strategies listed in this book include students practicing using academic language with their peers in cooperative groups, pairs and during the whole group. This intentional use of language helps ELL students to expand their academic vocabulary and scaffold them to express their higher order thinking (HOT) ideas.
I would like to argue that while stems framing higher order discourse is good for all students, guided reading is the perfect opportunity for teachers to coach students as conversations are taking place. This goes beyond modeling because it is personal and helps students apply HOT sentence stems to a variety of scenarios. In every other scenario in the classroom, students are either in a large group where only one student can engage in practicing expressing their critical thinking ideas at a time or practicing with other students where the teacher can only participate with one group of students. This could have great critical discussions or they could not. Guided reading is a set scheduled small group where students expect to engage in a small group with us teachers who will make sure students are expressing critical thinking.
This worked in my classroom using Gail Boushey and Joan Moser’s The Café Menu strategies, which has reading strategies posted on the wall and a binder of the reading records with reading goals. Students set up our guided reading section by grabbing their group’s books. They lead the review of the guiding question we would focus on during our reading. I set the page number we would all stop and gave a short preview if needed. All the students would read along with the guided question in mind and answer the question with multiple text pieces of evidence on sticky notes. All while, I met with individual students hearing how they read and giving them feedback. This is the basis of what many of us teachers already do. Now the thing that changed this time was the rigor of the question and the discussion afterward with the students.
The discussion was student-led and included students bouncing ideas off each other. One student would facilitate the conversation by stating the question and asking their peers to further explain their ideas or to provide more text evidence. Eventually, students got to the point where they would ask their own questions to be answered by their peers. The other students would actively engage in conversation. My job during the conversation is to train them to get to this point and to coach them when needed.
This format proved to be an effective way to engage students in an appropriate activity with critical thinking on a daily basis which is recommended by Vera Schneider, author of Stepping Stones. I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I was thinking that I want my students to be independent thinkers about whatever content is in front of them. My goal was to eventually be able to walk away and find the students leading an academic conversation about the text. It happened.
The impact of this bleed through into every other subject. The students were academically speaking and analyzing in Science and Social Studies. The student who struggled most in class, would raise his hand to disagree with another student’s statement in whole group and provide his thought process backed up by text evidence. These higher order questions with discussion stems practiced on a daily basis with teacher coaching works!
I started by giving them a vision at the beginning of the year of my goal to have them be the leaders of whatever guided reading group they were in at the time. At the beginning of the year, I was the facilitator of the discussions and I would always refer to the HOT question posted on the wall and the stems. The conversations started robotic. As time went on and the students got better at answering the question, I added the portion where students would respond to their peer after they answered the question. The easiest stem to start off with is the “I agree or I disagree because.” Once they were good at this, I added the portion where the facilitator quickly reviewed the discussion before asking if there were any other questions they had while reading.
This set-up was consistent and may seem unvaried. It wasn’t. The text was constantly changing and the HOT questions sparked interest. I found that students love to debate and debate well. I wish I would have done this with each class I ever taught. It boosted students’ self-confidence academically and it was displayed in students’ MAP scores. Critical thinking can happen in every subject but guided reading is the place that boosted my students ability to think more critically.
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