by Karen Tankersley
Chapter 5. Higher-Order Thinking
The ultimate goal of literacy instruction is for students to be able to process text at the level of evaluation, synthesis, analysis, and interpretation. This level is the final thread in the reading tapestry. Once students have learned to read, we spend most of our time from 3rd grade on trying to help them develop their thinking skills and use them as tools to process their thoughts. As Alvermann and Phelps (1998) tell us, “The curriculum must expand to include information and activities that explicitly support students in learning to think well. The emphasis is less on the mastery of information measured by a recall-based assessment and more on learning how to use one’s mind well, to synthesize and analyze skillfully” (p. 69). Put plainly, students will need these higher-order skills to succeed in their lives and careers.
Readers who engage in higher-order thinking go beyond the basic levels of comprehension outlined in Chapter 4. They can analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and interpret the text they are reading at complex levels. They can process text at deep levels, make judgments, and detect shades of meaning. They can make critical interpretations and demonstrate high levels of insight and sophistication in their thinking. They are able to make inferences, draw relevant and insightful conclusions, use their knowledge in new situations, and relate their thinking to other situations and to their own background knowledge. These students fare well on standardized tests and are considered to be advanced. They will indeed be prepared to function as outstanding workers and contributors in a fast-paced workplace where the emphasis is on using information rather than just knowing facts.
Bloom’s Taxonomy and Beyond
Although most teachers learned about Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) during their preparation courses, many seldom challenge students beyond the first two levels of cognition: knowledge and comprehension. Because most jobs in the 21st century will require employees to use the four highest levels of thinking—application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation—this is unacceptable in today’s instructional programs. We must expect students to operate routinely at the higher levels of thinking.
Bloom’s original taxonomy has certainly withstood the test of time, but a newer version has been introduced to reflect more contemporary thinking. Recently a former student of Bloom, Lorin Anderson, and a group of cognitive psychologists published a revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Bloom’s original six categories were nouns: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. In the new version, Anderson and colleagues changed the nouns to verbs to reflect thinking as an active process.
Revised Category #1: Knowledge → Remember
In the revised taxonomy, the original “Knowledge” category was changed to “Remember.” This category refers to shallow processing: the drawing out of factual answers, recall, and recognition. In reading, this is simply recalling the facts in a text or recalling the sequence of a story. At this level, questions that teachers ask center on the five Ws and seldom require students to advance beyond superficial thinking. We see this level of thinking often reflected in classrooms across the United States. Some verbs that teachers use to demonstrate student knowledge of material include the following: choose, describe, define, identify, label, list, locate, match, memorize, name, omit, recite, recognize, select, and state.
Revised Category #2: Comprehension → Understand
The second category of Bloom’s original taxonomy was “Comprehension.” In the revised model, it is renamed “Understand.” This category reflects the acts of translating, interpreting, and extrapolating. Examples in reading include summarizing text and identifying in-text relationships. Some verbs that teachers use to ask students to demonstrate understanding include the following: classify, defend, demonstrate, distinguish, explain, express, extend, give an example, illustrate, indicate, interrelate, infer, judge, match, paraphrase, represent, restate, rewrite, select, show, summarize, tell, and translate.
Revised Category #3: Application → Apply
The third category, “Application,” was changed to “Apply” in the revised taxonomy and is defined as knowing when or why to apply certain skills automatically, as well as having the ability to recognize patterns that can transfer to new or unfamiliar situations. Teachers prompt students to think at the “Apply” level by using the following constructions: “Predict what would happen if . . . ,” “Judge the effects of . . .,” and “What would happen if . . .?” Verbs that teachers might use to determine whether students are working at this level include the following: apply, choose, dramatize, explain, generalize, judge, organize, paint, prepare, produce, select, show, sketch, solve, and use. When students have not processed information at the application level, they cannot take information learned in one context and translate it to another.
Revised Category #4: Analysis → Analyzing
The “Analysis” category in Bloom’s taxonomy was renamed “Analyzing” in the revised version. This level involves breaking information down into parts and different forms, and drawing comparisons between a text and background knowledge data. Classroom questions that address this category include the following: “What is the function of . . .?” “What conclusions can we draw from . . .?” “What is the premise?” and “What inference can you make about . . .?” The following verbs apply to analyzing activities: analyze, categorize, classify, differentiate, distinguish, identify, infer, point out, select, subdivide, and survey. To use the thinking process of analyzing, students must be able to see connections and draw conclusions. We often see questions on state reading proficiency tests that expect students to display thinking at this level.
Revised Category #5: Evaluation → Design
Though Bloom placed “Evaluation” at the highest level of his taxonomy, Anderson and colleagues rank it fifth to reflect their idea that creative thinking (design) is more complex than critical thinking (evaluation). For the Anderson theorists, critical thinking is necessary for the creative process to occur, because it involves accepting or rejecting ideas—a precursor to creating a new design (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). For this reason, evaluation precedes creation in the revised model.
To evaluate information, students need to be able to distinguish essential data from information that is simply interesting. They must be able to identify core themes, form and support opinions, and identify inconsistencies, bias, or lack of coherence or accuracy in a text. They must also be able to use background information, prior knowledge, and other textual sources to assess the validity of the text. For example, when reading a novel, students with strong evaluation skills might compare the works of two authors and offer evidence to support opinions on the author’s writing style. Constructions that address the evaluation level include the following: “Do you agree with . . .?” “What is your opinion of . . .?” “How would you prove. . . ?” “How would you rate . . .?” and “How would you prioritize . . .?” The following verbs apply to evaluation activities: appraise, assess, check, compare, conclude, criticize, critique, defend, justify, and support.
Revised Category #6: Synthesis → Create
The fifth level of the original Bloom’s Taxonomy was called “Synthesis.” In Anderson’s revised version, this level is renamed “Create” and is upgraded to level six. Synthesizing text involves linking new information with prior knowledge or with multiple texts to develop a new idea, establish a new way of thinking, or create a new product of some type. An example of synthesis would be rewriting “Little Red Riding Hood” from the perspective of the wolf. Anderson sees the act of “creating” as combining elements into a pattern that had not existed before. Some constructions that assess the process of analysis or creating include the following: “Develop a new way to . . .,” “Suggest another way to . . .,” “How might you adapt . . .?” and “Can you predict the outcome if . . .?” The following verbs signal the “Create” level of thinking: choose, combine, compose, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, hypothesize, invent, make, make up, originate, organize, plan, produce, and role play. To succeed at this level, students must be able to synthesize their thinking and make predictions based on knowledge.
Focusing Attention on the Higher Levels of Reading
When readers interpret text, they are providing their own ideas about what the content means by applying background knowledge to analyze and synthesize the information. Good readers must interpret both the literal and the implied meaning behind an author’s words. The less background knowledge they have on a topic, the more they need to infer meaning by “reading between the lines.” Keene and Zimmermann (1997) identified the following seven essential comprehension strategies that skilled readers need to know:
- Determining importance
- Relating the new to the known
- Asking questions
- Creating sensory images
- Monitoring for meaning
Each of these topics must be taught to students in a deliberate and direct fashion. When students have mastered all seven strategies, they are processing text at the highest levels of literacy. For their part, Moore and colleagues (2003) point to the following reading skills as particularly important:
- Connecting knowledge to prior experiences
- Previewing and predicting to improve comprehension
- Organizing information and applying meaningful frameworks and categories
- Being able to see, hear, feel, smell, or taste what is described in print
- Self-monitoring of understanding
- Critically evaluating text
- Forming judgments
- Applying the knowledge gained from the text to new situations
Content instruction should strive for depth rather than breadth. To process what they read with insight and a critical eye, students must be able to consider the text as a whole and understand what the author is trying to communicate. Students may demonstrate understanding by explaining the purpose or viewpoint of a text, identifying the theme and critical elements, sharing their opinions on some aspect of the story, or analyzing the personal attributes of a character and interpreting his actions. Students must also be able to create and understand analogies, write about their thoughts and opinions, compare and contrast similar or dissimilar events, and use their creativity to extend and develop concepts. Higher-order thinking skills will allow them to analyze pros and cons and form well-reasoned opinions as adults.
In addition to good technical reading skills, students must have a good grasp of the nuances of language and how words are used. Figurative language can be particularly difficult for students. Petrosky (1980) observes that adults on average use figurative expressions over 500,000 times during a year; they permeate our texts as well as our speech patterns, helping to clarify meaning. Figurative language requires readers to access background knowledge and relate concepts to one another. According to Readence, Baldwin, and Head (1986), there are three reasons that readers may have difficulty interpreting figurative language: they may not recognize that the language is not meant literally, or they may not have enough background knowledge to understand the link between the two compared items. English-language learners are particularly stymied by figurative language, and by idioms in particular. Acting out idioms or illustrating them literally are fun ways to help the class interpret them. Have students construct their own picture books of favorite figurative phrases. Poems are great sources of rich figurative language, as are newspapers and magazines—especially the ads. Ask students to bring some examples to class. Some fun books for learning about figurative language are In a Pickle and Other Funny Idioms (1983) by Marvin Terban and Chocolate Moose for Dinner (1976) and The King Who Rained (1970), both by Fred Gwynne.
At the time this book went to press, the following Web sites were available to help increase student vocabulary and comprehension:
- The Wacky World of Words Web site (http://www3.bc.sympatico.ca/teachwell/), where teachers can get games, puzzles, and other fun activities for all types of word and phrase learning.
- The RhymeZone (http://www.rhyme.lycos.com/), where students can find rhymes, synonyms, and antonyms for any word they type in, as well as resources on Shakespeare, Mother Goose, and famous quotes and documents.
- Word Play (http://www.wolinskyweb.net/word.htm), an exhaustive list of Web sites devoted to words of all kinds. I guarantee that your students will love exploring many of the sites listed; take time to explore them yourself and see how fascinating and helpful they can be.
Doing Well on High-Stakes Tests
As a result of state mandates and the No Child Left Behind act, teachers everywhere are concerned about helping their students do well on state and national assessments. If we want students to succeed, we must understand one important fact: Students can only do well on these tests when they are accustomed to providing on a regular basis the types of responses that the tests demand. Ask them to identify the most important ideas in a chapter, to prepare summaries, and to think deeply about how the information can be synthesized, analyzed, evaluated, and interpreted.
We cannot and should not try to “prep” students for specific tests. Instead, we must teach them how to think. One technique that all teachers can use is the “Talk Through” strategy developed by Simpson (1995), in which students are asked to individually share their thinking about a text. For example, you might say to students, “Talk through the key ideas of the passage” or “Talk through the passage’s examples and details to help us find the key ideas.” To take the discussion to higher levels, ask students to talk through their personal connections and experiences with the key ideas, or to talk through their reactions to the key ideas presented. Engaging students in this manner will force them to go beyond the simple-knowledge level of thinking.
Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, and Kucan (1997) suggest a strategy called “Questioning the Author.” In many high-stakes tests, understanding the writer’s craft is a requirement for students to do well. “Questioning the Author” involves asking students what they think the author is trying to say. Ask students questions such as “Did the author explain this clearly?” and “Does this make sense given what the author told us before?”
On state writing tests, students will often be expected to write an expository or persuasive passage, or to analyze a narrative passage. To help your students do well on these tests, demonstrate how to understand what the instructions require by thinking aloud. Consistently assist students in analyzing instructions thoroughly before they begin to write. Most states provide examples of the kinds of reading and writing tasks students will face. Be sure to get copies of these samples and study them carefully so you know what will be expected of the students.
On many standardized tests, students are expected to analyze a narrative text by examining the writer’s style and the way the story and the characters are developed, interpreting various aspects of the text, and identifying the story’s themes. Students will need to be able to see relationships and patterns and draw conclusions about the characters’ motives and behaviors. They must demonstrate that they have a thorough grasp of the meaning of the text. At the elementary level, students should be able to identify the theme of a story, any morals that might be suggested, and elements of character, setting, plot, problem, and resolution. Older students should be able to discuss the theme as well as any symbolism in the story, and to offer their analysis, evaluation, and opinions of the text. An excellent source for good writing-prompt ideas and examples of well-organized narrative, persuasive, and expository texts can be found at the Northwest Regional Lab’s Six Traits Web site (http://www.nwrel.org/assessment/department.asp?d=1).
To perform well on essay questions regarding expository text, students should use a consistent tone and focus their thoughts. Organization is assessed according to the strength of the introduction, the thesis and supporting details, and the conclusion. Show students good examples of texts that conform to these criteria. Students should also understand how to vary sentence types and patterns, use descriptive vocabulary to express their ideas, and have a clear sense of audience as they write. Content-area teachers can assist their language arts peers by frequently having students write and explore expository passages in their discipline.
Students may also be asked to write persuasive essays on state or national tests. To do well on these essays, students must understand how to support a position with evidence and factual details, anticipate alternative viewpoints, and provide thoughtful arguments to counter those viewpoints. Again, texts should include strong introductory and concluding statements.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress Standards
You have probably heard of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, but do you really know what it is and how it is used? The test is a national reading exam authorized by Congress and administered by the U.S. Department of Education to randomly selected segments of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students in the United States (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003). Its purpose is to provide a snapshot of educational progress levels across the nation in various subject areas. The test examines three contexts for reading: reading for literary purposes, information, and to perform a task. Because many state tests ask similar types of questions as those used in the NAEP, examining the test’s format is particularly helpful to teachers.
Examining the NAEP specifications helps us understand what our students are expected to know and be able to do. You can find a summary of these expectations in Appendix C. As you read through them, consider how you can address these performance indicators daily in your classroom.
Teaching Higher-Order Thinking Skills
Teachers are good at writing and asking literal questions (e.g., “Name the parts of a flower”), but we tend to do this far too often. Students must be taught to find the information they need, judge its worth, and think at higher levels. There is simply too much information in the world for us to waste students’ time with regurgitations of basic facts. As Bellanca (1997) states:
Educators need to realize that there are many more ways to teach than by rote alone. There is teaching for understanding, decision making, problem solving, and connecting a part to a whole, detail to concept, and concept to concept. There also is inference, prediction, analysis for bias, and learning for transfer. Each of these processes requires some form of critical thinking. All are processes that students can develop and refine. Opportunities for students to develop critical thinking processes are not found in classrooms dominated by the regurgitation of short answers. They are found in classrooms where active learning is an essential component. (pp. xxi–xxii).
The old instructional paradigm asked students to read from the textbook and discuss the information to see if they learned the content. We then would test them on the material, lament over how many did poorly, move on to the next topic, and repeat the cycle. When we begin applying what we know about reading and learning, the effective content classroom will look quite different from this model. In the new paradigm, we will
- Design prereading activities to activate background knowledge, establish purpose, and formulate questions that can drive inquiry.
- Allow students to use active reading methods that include peer discussion, as well as to try out their thoughts and seek clarifications from one another as they are reading.
- Model our own thought processes for students and ask that they make their own thinking visible as well.
- Design activities that require students to process information at the highest levels of thought.
- Examine our state curriculum standards to cull out the essential topics so that we can extend learning with greater depth, rather than try to teach curriculum that is a mile wide.
Strategies for Extending Thinking
Below are strategies for content teaching that extend learning to the higher levels of thinking. You can find additional strategies about this in my previous book, The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development (Tankersley 2003).
Directed Reading and Thinking Activity
The directed reading and thinking activity (DR-TA) developed by Stauffer (1969) is still very helpful for processing text of all types at high levels. In the DR-TA, teachers walk students through setting purpose, making predictions, asking questions, and clarifying points in the text. The approach can be used in all content areas, from science to language arts to math.
The DR-TA begins with the students examining the title of the story or section to be read. From this information, they make predictions and set expectations regarding what the text is about. Next, either the teacher reads the material out loud or students read sections, stopping at designated points. Logical stopping points include subheadings, ends of chapters, or high points of a story. At each stopping point, teachers ask openended questions designed to elicit predictions or opinions about the text. The more they read, the more focused the students’ predictions and opinions should become. Your role is to help maintain this focus by asking students to describe how elements in the text are connected and to provide evidence for any assertions, acting all the while as a nonjudgmental facilitator rather than a participant. The DR-TA structure forces students to justify their thoughts and link their opinions back to the text. As teachers, we can learn a lot about our students by listening to their ideas, values, background knowledge, and reasoning.
Letters from the Heart
Ask students to write a letter about some facet of a book. The letter can be addressed to the author, a historical figure, or a character in the book, and can be written either from the student’s perspective or from that of another character. One of the four higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy—application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation—should be evident in the letter.
Provide students with several articles on a specific topic that present two sides of an issue. Students should read the articles and take notes on points made by both sides. With a partner, they should then pick a side and write a position paper defending their position with factual evidence. Students can also participate in trials or debates on controversial issues. For a more advanced version of this activity, have students pretend they are senators and cast ballots either for or against a particular position. Tallying the votes also helps students practice math skills during the lesson.
Bring in comic strips or political cartoons that require students to infer what the cartoonist meant. Ask students to work with a partner or small group to identify what inferences they need to make to interpret the point of the cartoon, and what connections they need to draw to do so.
“Dear Author” Letters
Ask students to write “Dear Author” letters based on their thoughts about a particular book or piece of writing. Many Web sites offer valuable information and research on a variety of authors.
“Wish You Were Here” Postcards
After reading, ask students to pretend that they are characters in the book and write “Wish You Were Here” postcards to their friends. This strategy is particularly useful during lessons on historical events.
Ask students to develop comparison-contrast questions and write them in their graphic organizers. Examples: “How is a glove like your hand?” “How is a dog like a cat, and how are they different?” and “What would happen if circles were squares?”
Select a scene from a story and ask students to develop a script from it for Reader’s Theater. Have students rehearse the script and present the performance for an audience.
This strategy, developed by Santa (1988), helps students write with a focused purpose. Students can use any format they want—diary, letter, editorial, and so on—to answer the following questions from the perspective of a character they’ve read about:
- R is for writer. Who are you?
- A is for audience. Who will read your work?
- F is for format. What type of writing will you do?
- T is for topic. What will you be writing about?
A student could write as Cinderella, for example, thanking her fairy godmother for allowing her to go to the ball, or as George Washington, writing to his wife about the Revolutionary War.
This is a good strategy for assessing student knowledge and comprehension on a topic. Ask students to take out a sheet of paper and write for 5–10 minutes, describing what they know about the topic and what they are still confused about or hoping to learn.
Seen the Movie?
Find a novel or historical text that has been made into a movie. Have students watch the movie and read the text, then compare and contrast the two versions. If you are using a historical text, see if the students can find inaccuracies or anachronisms in the film version.
Key Question Charts
Provide students with a controversial question, such as “Should companies be allowed to drill for oil in Alaska Artic National Wildlife Refuge?” Give students “pro” and “con” articles to read about the topic, and have them create a chart that lists the pro argument on one side and the con argument on the other. Ask the students to form an opinion of their own after carefully evaluating the data, and to provide a thorough analysis of their reasoning.
Ask students to create a diary of a prominent or historical character related to the event or topic being studied—Thomas Jefferson, say, or a soldier in Vietnam. If more contemporary subjects are used, ask students to interview original sources with firsthand knowledge about the topic, and to compile their memories into a single diary that reflects how people thought and felt at the time of the event. Another form of this activity is to ask students to describe “a day in the life” of someone during the time period being studied, or to write a letter from that same perspective.
Ask students to think of a story that they all know, such as “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Goldilocks,” and to list the places, characters, and events that the story features. After rereading the tale, have the students update the list and see what elements they forgot. For a more advanced version of this activity, ask students to read three or four different versions of the same fairy tale and list the ways in which they differ.
Having students rewrite in their own words what they’ve read helps them develop deeper levels of comprehension. Ask students to stop reading at regular intervals to do this. Begin by modeling what you want them to do, and then allow them to paraphrase text with partners or in small groups of three or four. Give students no more than three sections to read in a textbook, and ask them to write a summary of the key ideas in 20 words or fewer. As students become comfortable with the process, ask them to make observations or ask questions about the material. Have each group share its summaries as a lead-in to more in-depth study of the topic.
Provide students with a controversial statement or question. Have them work in small groups to make a chart containing three columns labeled “Pro,” “Con,” and “Interesting Facts.” Ask students to research the topic and categorize the information they find under the three categories, form an opinion about the question, and then discuss their findings with the class.
Help students remember what they have learned by creating a wall graphic to represent their knowledge. On wall-sized mural paper, draw a circle in the center and write the name of the topic being studied. You might also write a question in the circle (e.g., “What do you think about the environment?” or “What is communism?”). Place chalk or markers in a basket in front of the mural. Tell students to approach the writing area in an orderly fashion and silently add to the mural by connecting a bubble with their own comments in it to the main bubble. Students may add as many links as they want, and may link to other people’s comments as well as to the main bubble. You may participate as well, adding your own thoughts or ideas to the unfolding web. Allow plenty of wait time before deciding that the web is complete; students need time to read the comments and think about what has been added.
In another version of this strategy, pass a piece of paper around the room and have each student write something meaningful about the topic being studied. Have students sign their entries to ensure “seriousness” on their part.
Have students collect oxymorons—terms that contain inherent contradictions, such as “true lies”—and add them to a classroom mural.
Ask students to bring in five items that represent the book they have read and present them to the class, describing what they represent and why.
Modeling Children’s Books
Many wonderful children’s books can be used for patterning a new book. For example, you might ask students to read a book and create their own versions, employing the same patterns as the original. The books can then be presented to younger schoolmates as a holiday gift. This is a great activity for students serving as classroom reading buddies.
Learning to synthesize, evaluate, and process information in new ways is the key to preparing students for the world outside of school. We can no longer leave literacy development to language arts teachers. All teachers must learn to model their thinking processes and “make the invisible visible” to students. With the tightening of the higher-order thinking thread, the literacy weave will be complete.