Reading is a Problem–Solving Process. Why Not Try the Thumb Method?

Written By admin

On August 6, 2010

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As scientists any problem-solving process usually grabs our attention.

At the age of ten I became totally fascinated with reading mysteries.  The very best part of the process was solving the mystery before I reached the end of the book.  For two years I read every mystery novel I could locate.  I stopped being enamored with mysteries when I solved the mystery easily, I quickly moved to another genre – science fiction.  This was a logical step towards increasing my reading ability and my interest in becoming a science teacher.

I share this personal example to point out that children can recognize reading as a problem solving process both concretely and abstractly, but does this happen for everyone?  No, it doesn’t.  As science teachers we need to recognize the struggle that students of all abilities can have with reading science text. Having a plan to meet student needs is an important step in solving the lack of science understanding in our classrooms.

Science Text

As science teachers we quickly use necessary reading strategies in our classrooms because without them our students aren’t able to understand our content.  Do we always realize we are using reading strategies?  I know I didn’t.  I taught my students something I called the ‘Thumb Method’ because they weren’t attempting responses to questions they should have found easy.  They were leaving blanks.   When asked “Why?” they shared that they didn’t know what some of the words meant.  With further questioning I discovered that most students have some idea what the words mean if they relax and think about it but because it is a science word they think they should know the definition off the top of their head and are afraid when their brain registers a blank. I had them cover the confusing word with their ‘thumb’ and reread the question without the word or replace the word with another that had the same meaning.  I was using a reading strategy called synonym substitution and I didn’t discover the name of the strategy until years after I used it.

Sharing with my teacher colleagues that I was using the ‘Thumb Method’ with my students would have probably resulted in some questions, odd looks or both.  If I had used the term synonym substitution a few teachers probably would have recognized what I was talking about and a conversation about reading strategies might have resulted.   Now I share the thumb method with everyone and anyone who will listen.  I’m older and less worried about what people think about me.  Please share the Thumb Method with your colleagues.

When all of us use the same strategies across our discipline and school wide, some of the guess work or hit and miss possibilities are eliminated.

I am interested in any and all strategies that work for you.  Please share.  I am sure others are interested as well.

Photo Credits:

Dr. Gayden’s Science Class Blog (

The Dunn School (