Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Introduce Thinking Stems to Your Class

Last year Angie Rumsey introduced me to the concept of Thinking Stems. In a thinking stem, students write their thinking strategies about their reading. It turned out to be a fabulous tool to encourage students to dig deeper and really THINK about the books they read.  I noticed a marked improvement in reading, writing, written expression, punctuation, and grammar.  Several teachers have asked me about the process I used to introduce the thinking stems to my class. I’m sure there are several wonderful ways to introduce them, but I’m going to share my process here.

First Step – Setting the Stage

I tell my students that there is something called the “language of learning”. This language is for thinking and is used across all subjects and into our everyday lives. It includes things like: schema, inferring, visualizing, questioning, synthesizing, and predicting (among others). I share that many people eventually figure this language out themselves, but our class will have a jump on those other people because we are learning and practicing these critical thinking skills in 2nd grade!

Teaching the Concepts

The next step is to introduce each thinking skill. I introduce one a week using a guided reading format. This way they have an entire week to practice using each skill. Choose a good book to read to your class. I used Charlotte's Web by E.B. White.  The first skill I introduce is schema. It’s an easy skill for kids to use since they are connecting events in the book to things in their lives or to things they already know. Begin by modeling using your own schema as you read. Next, ask the students to contribute when they think of a connection. You may need to tell them to keep it short though! After reading, ask students to share with each other any other connections they made with their schema.

Writing the First Thinking Stem

After reading and introducing schema, tell students they will get regular practice with their thinking skills by writing something called a “thinking stem”.  I show students the format of a reading thinking stem on a poster I wrote. It reads:

I am reading (name of book) by (name of author). In the story (tell what is happening right now in the story). (Use two or more thinking skills.) (Write a closing sentence.)

I let students know that I will help them write the first few thinking stems before they write them on their own. 

To begin, I write on the board for them to copy: I am reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story…
Here we stop and discuss the difference between the “big idea” of the story, and what is happening “right now” in the story. I tell them to save the big idea for their summaries. We talk about what exactly is happening in the story. We work together to come up with a sentence or two which I then write on the board.
Now we have: I am reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story the kids are tired after a long day at the fair. Wilbur is upset because a pig named Uncle is bigger than him. It reminds me of…
Again we pause to offer ideas about what the story reminds us of (schema). After discussing several, we decide on …it reminds me of when I was tired after a long day at the fair. Now we discuss closing sentences and decide on: This is a great book.

Our final thinking stem looks like this:

I am reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. In the story the kids are tired after a long day at the fair. Wilbur is upset because a pig named Uncle is bigger than him. It reminds me it reminds me of when I was tired after a long day at the fair. This is a great book.

Here is a sample of what one student wrote:


Moving On

We continue to write the thinking stems together like this for the first three days using the schema we discuss during the daily story time. You’ll notice at this point, many students will break off to write their own schema and closing sentences. The final two days of the first week, I write the thinking stem framework on the board, but they fill in the blanks with their own wording.

Things to Watch For

Some students will want to write a retelling of the story rather than one or two sentences. A few others will write the words “In my story…” with nothing after it and then launch right into their schema. Many will leave off the closing sentence.
Some students will complain that they have to write so much. After a few weeks though, they will ASK to write thinking stems!

The Second Week

During the second week you will introduce another thinking skill. Again, you’ll introduce it during story time. I usually introduce predictions next. Model using it and then give the students a chance to try it as you read to them.  Now when students write their thinking stem, they will use two thinking skills. One for schema and one for predictions.

The Third Week

The third week things will change a bit again. Introduce your third skill during story time. I like to introduce visualize here. Do your modeling and gradual release. At this point in the process, I like to release students into reading groups. In their groups, they discuss their thinking skills as they read together. Now when students write their thinking stems, it has stepped up a notch. They will use visualize as their first thinking skill, and then choose between schema and prediction for their second skill. Now they are writing about the book from their reading groups…NOT the story time book. This requires more effort and you will see wonderful growth!

Be sure to circulate around the groups making sure they are actively using and discussing their thinking skills correctly as they read.

Fourth Week

From this point on, you will continue to introduce each skill during story time, model, and gradual release into reading groups. Students will use the new thinking skill and at least one other skill in each thinking stem. By now you should already be seeing some significant changes in their ability to use thinking skills, and in their writing.  By this time, we are no longer writing a thinking stem every day.

Here is another sample from same student after the fourth week:

Things to Watch For

Make sure students are applying the thinking skills correctly. Inferring can be a tough one.
I highly recommend letting students share their thinking stems as it gives them more motivation. I have my students blogging theirs here: (I grade and correct spelling before students post to the blog), however sharing them in front of the class would be motivating as well.


Obviously it's important for students to get regular feedback in order to see growth.


As you introduce the skills, be sure to model using them across all curriculum. Also let parents know what skills you are teaching and they should also model using the skills at home.

The order you introduce the skills is up to you. You know your students best and what they’re ready for. If you notice your kids are having difficulty with a particular skill, give it another week before introducing a new one.

Once students have a firm grasp on the skills, have them apply the skills in writing to other subjects such as math, science, and social studies, etc.

You will be thrilled to see their progress as their thinking stems evolve.

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  1. Hi Diane:

    Thanks for the thoughtful, informative post. I am looking forward to visiting again and learning more from you!

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

  2. I have also been using the thinking stems in my special ed classroom and have been surprised by how much the kids actually love doing them. I converted the stems into little booklets, with one stem on a page and then adapted it for older and younger kids. They are now able to complete an entire thinking stem independently as a response to reading...some of which we have even published in the school newspaper.

  3. Thank you for your comments Kim and Teachermum.
    I love your idea Teachermum. It always surprises me how much the kids love doing these. Keep up the good work!

  4. Hi Diane! I use thinking stems all the time but haven't even thought to do them continuously. I would imagine you can really see the development of their thinking. Adding that to my plans now. :)

  5. Hi Stacey,
    I didn't know you use these too! I love using them. Hopefully I'll see you around McKinney again. :)

  6. I love using the thinking stems, but I always introduce them with a wordless picture book!

  7. Wow...really great post. i like it. Thank you for sharing.