Blog Series

Talk the Walk

by Michael Milone on Oct 5, 2016

  • General Education
  • Struggling Students

Self-Talk Helps Kids Succeed

People who have read any of my work know I’m an expert at misappropriating titles, expressions, and other text. The title of this piece is a perfect example of a poorly executed mash up of talk the talk, walk the walk.

In this case, the point I’m making is that talking yourself through complex tasks (the walk) really works. We should be using this process when we teach and also encourage students to do it themselves when they are facing academic and other challenges.

Self-talk can take many forms. One is the confidence builder, and we all have employed this strategy. It is the “you can do this” conversation we have with ourselves before a job interview, a big test, or the start of an IRONMAN® race. The goal of this kind of self-talk is to optimize performance through emotional support.

Procedural Self-Talk

Another kind of self-talk is procedural, and that’s the focus of this blog. We have all done this, too. It is a common practice in sports, particularly when finesse is involved, like a putt in golf or free-throws in basketball with a game on the line. There’s even research on that. The critical take away is that “It appears that self-talk can positively affect performance if its content is appropriate for the task performed.”

Procedural self-talk also has as its goal the optimization of performance. It is a skill that develops early in humans, more or less as soon as we learn to talk. Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky describes it as audible language that serves an intellectual function and eventually is internalized.

The same process has been perfectly described by Pamela Weintraub as “... the means by which the child navigates what Vygotsky famously called ‘the zone of proximal development,’ the realm of challenges just beyond reach, too complex for a child to master alone.”.

Almost all young children go through a stage in which they talk themselves through physical tasks, like assembling a toy. As they master everyday tasks, this behavior decreases in frequency, but never disappears. Virtually every adult will periodically revert to this practice, particularly when there are consequences and precision is important. Changing a flat tire is a task that often requires procedural self-talk because it is infrequent and challenging. A more pleasant example is following a recipe for the first time. You don’t want to screw up in front of a wine-influenced crowd at Thanksgiving, do you?

The Think-Aloud Strategy

But let’s get back to the classroom. One of the most valuable strategies a teacher can employ in any subject at any grade is the think-aloud, a form of self-talk meant to be shared with others. Working your way through content or a process by thinking out loud does several really important things: it helps students understand the construct, it exposes them to oral academic language, and it models an essential cognitive skill.

A think-aloud makes unfamiliar content more accessible for students. They can see and hear how another person is addressing a complex challenge, whether it is understanding the emotions of a character in a play or figuring out the surface area of a cone with a height of zero. Elena Aguilar described the process as “the old apprentice model,” and it really is. We are doing it, and our students are learning from us.

You are probably aware of research on the vocabulary deficits many students have when they enter school. A great way to overcome these deficits is through think-alouds. By speaking clearly, slowly, and at an appropriately academic level, you give students an opportunity to hear a broad range of words in context. This is not just for young learners. Older students also benefit from oral exposure to academic and content-area vocabulary.

In addition to using audible self-talk to explain content and processes, it is critical to help students learn how to do it themselves. This can be a bit tricky because of the individual differences among students. Self-talk involves a complex network of skills, among which are cognition, linguistic efficiency, content knowledge, confidence, and such. Students are going to think differently, verbalize differently, and feel differently about talking out loud. These and other differences should not discourage you from helping students learn to use self-talk. It just means there is no single right way to do it, and we should encourage students to express themselves individually.

Using self-talk, like other skills, requires practice. Students should have lots of opportunities to practice and get appropriate feedback about the content and processes they are working through. Oh, it also means that students have to learn to use their inside voices in a classroom. And be prepared for this response when you discuss the use of the inside voice: “But you don't use your inside voice when you talk to us.”

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