Think-aloud techniques – How to understand MFL learners’ thinking processes

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A fair amount of MFL teachers’ daily frustration relates to their students’ underachievement or apparent lack of progress. On a daily basis you hear your colleagues or yourself complain about student X or Y ‘not getting it’, making the same mistakes over and over again, writing unintelligible essays or speaking with shockingly bad pronunciation. The most undertaking and caring teachers often act on these issues by encouraging the students to revise and work harder; providing them with extra practice and scaffolding it; devising some remedial learning program involving some degree of learner training, and engaging their entourage to get some support. However, something crucial goes often amiss: how does one know what the problem REALLY is?

Yes, observing the students’ behaviour and analyzing their output more frequently and closely than usual does help, but it is not enough to get the full picture, and the teacher usually ends up focusing on the usual culprits, i.e. ‘laziness’, indolence, lack of motivation, low aptitude for language learning, etc. But could something else, something less visible that occurs deep inside their brains which we fail to notice and understand be the root cause(s) of the observed problem? Could those factors actually determine the alleged ‘laziness’ or ‘lack of motivation’? Difficult to say by simply asking students questions in a survey or interview or by observing their behaviour in lessons. Hence the importance to ‘get into our students’ heads’ to probe their mind in search of clues as to what it is that is hindering their performance and progress. But how do we do that?

There are indeed techniques that were developed by social scientists in order to tackle the limitations of traditional enquiry tools such as observations, questionnaires and interviews. They include a set of research techniques referred to in the literature as concurrent and retrospective think-aloud protocols. These techniques truly allow us to get into our students’ thinking processes and reconstruct the way their brains go about executing the tasks we engage them in in lessons.

Every time I have used these techniques, whether in the context of ‘proper’ research studies (e.g. one funded by OUDES – Oxford University Department of Education, in Macaro, 2001) or in my role as a classroom teacher, I was amazed at how many presumptions I had made about my students’ ways of processing the language were wrong and how right my mentor in the field of Learner Strategy Research (OUDES’ Professor Macaro) is when he states that most of our students’ issues do not stem from low IQ or language aptitude but from poor learning strategy use.

What are think-aloud techniques?

Think-aloud techniques require informants (your students if you are a teacher) to verbalize what is happening in their brain (working memory) as they execute a task. In this case we call them concurrent think alouds. If we ask them to reflect on their thought processes retrospectively – after the task has been executed – we refer to them as retrospective think alouds. Obviously, since when dealing with speaking tasks, concurrent think alouds cannot be used, retrospective think-alouds can be very helpful in investigating our students’ issues in oral language production.

The objectivity and validity of these tools for formal ‘scientific’ research have been questioned by me in previous blogs; but the use I am advocating here is not aimed at data one would want to analyze so as to extract from them universal truths to inform educational policies or changes in pedagogy. Rather, I recommend them as useful enquiry tools to obtain useful qualitative data to understand our students’ learning problems. As such, these techniques can be very useful indeed.

Most useful models of language processing were obtained thanks to think-aloud techniques. The most famous of them is surely the Hayes and Flower model of writing that I discussed in a previous blog, which has been since the 80’s the most widely used framework for mapping L2-student writers’ cognitive processes (see my previous blog on writing processes). On this model much current writing pedagogy and research has been based. This is a great example of how think-aloud protocols have affected the way we teach.

Pure and hybrid models of application

‘Pure’ concurrent and retrospective think-alouds are carried out with very little intervention on the part of the teacher/researcher. The students are asked to execute a task and whilst s/he verbalizes his/her thoughts (in a stream-of-consciousness fashion), the teacher sits somewhere behind him/her in order not to be seen (so as to minimize any possible researcher-effect). I used this technique mostly for writing in an attempt to understand what caused my students’ errors and compensation strategies (avoidance, coinage, etc.), to gain an insight in their use of resources (e.g. dictionaries) and find out how I could improve that. The reader should note that the presence of the teacher/researcher is important for the reason that he/she may want to note down key moments in the think-aloud where he/she may want to know more about what was going on in the informant’s head and may need to ask more questions retrospectively. For this purpose it may be useful to film the student and ‘show’ him/her – on video – the point(s) in the think-aloud you want to ask about, as a memory retrieval cue.

In the ‘Hybrid’ think-aloud model, the teacher steps in asking, probing using questions such as ‘why are you doing this?’ , ‘Can you tell me more about this?, ‘Why are you making this assumption?’. I find this very useful in order to tap into not just the current processes being verbalized but any other process happening concurrently which is not being verbalized. Obviously, one cannot guarantee that the information the student will provide about cognitive processes that are not in his/her focal awareness will be necessarily objective and reliable, but the process will yield a lot of useful data. In one of my studies, for instance, which focused on writing skills and error-making, had I not interrupted the students think-aloud/ ‘stream of consciousness’ I would have not found out why they did not notice the mistakes they were making, even though they had the declarative knowledge necessary to correct them.

Two or more of the above techniques can be used synergistically to support each other, the second set (the ‘hybrid’ model) usually following the first. This synergy usually yields richer and more reliable data.

Of all of the above think-aloud techniques, retrospective think-aloud  are the least reliable, as the students are likely to have ‘lost’ (forgotten) most of the information in their subsidiary awareness as well as part of the information in their focal awareness. However, as mentioned above, they are the only way to explore our students’ thinking processes when investigating learner speaking. To maximize their power, one should implement the tactic quickly touched upon earlier: using a video or recording of the speaking session as a retrieval cue for the student’s recall of his own processes.

A very useful tip: before implementing any of the above techniques, one should model the to-be-used think-aloud technique to the students and give a chance to practise it using a warm-up tasks similar to the one they are going to be engaged in soon.

Other benefits of think-aloud techniques

I have touched upon the benefits of using think-alouds in terms of enhancing our understanding of our learners – which will inform our teaching of the target student or group of students. However, there are other benefits which have the potential to more directly impact our students’ learning: the metacognition-enhancing effect of involving them in reflecting on their own learning. Through think-aloud it is not just us who ‘get into’ their heads; it is also and above all them exploring their own cognition. In this respect, think-aloud techniques involving introspection can be very valuable indeed, especially when the questions asked by the teacher/researcher drive them as deep down as possible into their own cognitive processing.

In conclusion, think-alouds can be very powerful tools to understand how students’ minds process language tasks and learn. A good teacher is ultimately also a researcher, and the formative data he/she can get from think-alouds can support him/her very effectively in his/her effort to obtain as much formative data as possible. Think-aloud techniques do not require a lot of training, are not too time-consuming and can be applied to every single aspect of teaching and learning. More importantly, in my experience, they yield data which one cannot obtain by any other means of enquiry. In this lies their value to any self-reflective teacher. Their use in my own practice has definitely made me a better teacher and, more importantly, has made every single one of the students whom I have involved in think-alouds, a more self-reflective and generally metacognizant learner.

4 thoughts on “Think-aloud techniques – How to understand MFL learners’ thinking processes

  1. Good Article,

    I think that was important here is to work with a backward design way of learning in which you need to to a KWHL Chart prior to instruction. Engaging your student is the pinnacle of learning languages.

  2. I’ve just finished reading ‘making thinking visible’ and was interested to read your article. My worry is about target language- to what extent do you attempt to use meta cognitive techniques in L2? Or would you recommend talking through thought processes in L1?

    Thanks🙂

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