Thinking Tools for Young Readers and Writers: Strategies to Promote Higher Literacy in Grades 28

reviewed by Vicki S. Collet - July 17, 2018

coverTitle: Thinking Tools for Young Readers and Writers: Strategies to Promote Higher Literacy in Grades 28
Author(s): Carol Booth Olson, Angie Balius, Emily McCourtney, Mary Widtmann, & Judith A. Langer
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758949, Pages: 208, Year: 2018
Search for book at

In my work with young readers and writers and their teachers, longstanding research on cognitive strategies has been invaluable in supporting effective literacy instruction. When students and teachers are taught to name and describe thinking tools used to comprehend and communicate, they are able to be strategic when facing challenges with reading comprehension or writing composition. Rather than saying, “Read it again, and more carefully this time,” or “Say more about that,” clear descriptions of the kind of thinking that is needed move the reader and writer along. According to Olson, Balius, McCourtney, and Widtmann, these cognitive strategies are a tool kit readers and writers can access “unconstrained by any fixed order” to solve a problem (p. 5). In their book, Thinking Tools for Young Readers and Writers, the authors persuasively argue that taking a cognitive strategies approach can promote higher literacy in students in grades two through eight, and they offer practical ideas for designing and implementing strategy instruction. Suggestions provided are well-grounded in research and offer an extended and updated approach to strategies instruction by demonstrating strategy use in both reading and writing as well as in digital environments.

The book offers overarching instructional principles that get at the heart of what readers and writers do to construct and compose meaning from and with texts. Olson and colleagues demonstrate how cognitive strategies such as planning, making connections, monitoring, inferring, interpreting, summarizing, reflecting, revising meaning, and evaluating are “acts of the mind” (p. 7) that support higher literacy with narrative, informational, and argumentative texts, mirroring genres outlined in the Common Core State Standards. The authors cite recent, relevant research that extends strategies instruction to young learners, asserting that strategies instruction should not be delayed until children have mastered the code. Instead, the book argues that strategies instruction for young children is “not only possible but wise and beneficial” (Duke & Pearson, 2002). The book bridges research on strategies instruction in reading and strategies instruction in writing, treating these as reciprocal practices that should be taught side by side from kindergarten on. Using classroom examples and student artifacts, the book illustrates how to do just that.

The first chapter describes constraints that can inhibit success among young readers and writers; these include cognitive, linguistic, communicative, contextual, textual, and affective issues. The authors argue that explicitly teaching, modeling, and offering opportunities to use cognitive strategies can reduce these constraints. They give clear descriptions of cognitive strategies and specific examples for following the gradual release of responsibility model (Pearson & Gallager, 1983) during strategies instruction. Descriptions and examples demonstrate how “giving students a language and experience with which to talk about their process of meaning construction” makes thinking visible (p. 24). The book illustrates instruction that focuses on individual strategies as well as teaching that incorporates multiple strategies. Combining multiple cognitive strategies, readers and writers create, think critically, and communicate; these skills are hallmarks of higher literacy and important new literacies and 21st Century Skills (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Castek, & Henry, 2013).

Whereas the first chapter zooms in to give thick description of specific cognitive strategies, Chapter Two zooms out to consider other best practices for literacy instruction. Strategy instruction is situated within these practices, which include creating a community of learners, implementing strategy instruction, connecting reading and writing, modeling with mentor texts, scaffolding instruction, offering opportunities for practice, providing explicit vocabulary instruction, and using formative assessments. Especially helpful are the recommendations provided for creating a community of learners, a frequently touted but infrequently delineated practice. Olsen and colleagues recommend collaboration, shared inquiry, and celebration of student work. Specific lesson ideas that highlight individuals are described, including digital activities. Detailed lessons incorporating the designated best practices are provided as examples rather than scripts. For instance, blogging about books is suggested as a way to connect reading and writing. A graphic organizer is included that can be used by both students and teachers to analyze formative assessments, considering what was done well, what wasn’t done well, and what might need additional teaching/learning or revision. These examples support a deep understanding of best practices that can be applied to varying contexts.

In Chapters Three, Four, and Five, the authors give recommendations for the reading and writing of narrative, expository, and argumentative texts, respectively. Arguing for the eminence of narrative texts in children’s literacy experience, Olson and colleagues describe the genre as “central to the development of reading and writing ability” (p. 81). Narrative texts, they claim, help students develop voice, audience awareness, organizational skills, and use of concrete details. In addition to academic attributes, narrative texts are intellectually provocative and humanizing; they build students’ capacity for empathy, develop social skills, enhance ability to take varied perspectives, and provide opportunities to explore personal identities. In the discussion of narrative texts, Chapter Three provides suggestions for helping students look closely at the moves authors make, then apply those moves in their own writing. Lessons such as the “I Remember Poem” and “Memory Snapshot Paper” provide suggestions for helping students “see their experiences as stories worth telling” (p. 100).

Chapter Four similarly provides teaching recommendations for expository reading and writing, noting “success in schooling, the workplace, and society depends on their ability to read informational text and write about it” (Duke, 2004, p. 1). Lesson ideas focus mostly on using reading in the service of writing to support students’ understanding of organizational features of non-fiction texts. Chapter Five describes activities that mix reading and writing to support students’ ability to decipher or create argumentative texts. For example, the “Silent Exchange,” a written conversation between a persuader and an audience, creates a series of requests and objections to help students overcome difficulties in recognizing and addressing counterclaims. Teachers concerned about prompt-based writing will appreciate the DO/WHAT chart that teaches students to analyze a prompt and develop “a roadmap for composing” (p. 155) by circling verbs and underlining tasks presented in the prompt. While highlighting aspects of narrative, expository, and argumentative texts, chapters three through five also provide appealing ideas for blending genres; for example, by converting expository text into poetry.

In my view, Thinking Tools for Young Readers and Writers is an excellent resource for educators interested in enhancing students’ literacy skills. Throughout the book, Olson and colleagues provide high-interest, real-world applications with purposeful integration of technology. The book provides a range of digital resources including instructional videos, apps, links to educational technology sites, classroom photos, and student samples through their companion website. Cognitive strategies are a thread woven throughout the text. On the closing page, the authors amplify their main points by inviting teachers to use the cognitive tools (asking questions about teaching and learning, adopting an alignment with students, making predictions about effective practices, etc.) as they consider how to implement strategy instruction in their own classrooms.


Duke, N.K. (2004). The case for informational text. Educational Leadership, 61(6), 40–45.

Duke, N. K. & Pearson, P. D. (2002). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension.

In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed., pp. 205–242). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Henry, L. A. (2013). New literacies: A dual level

theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction, and assessment. In D. E. Alvermann, M. J. Unrau, & R. B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th ed., pp. 1150–1181). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension.

Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3), 317–344.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 17, 2018 ID Number: 22436, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:38:00 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review