Expectations: Recognize how our Beliefs Shape our Behavior

Expectations is a belief that shape our behavior. Understanding is a goal will take students further and demand more of them. Only then is our teaching focused on deep rather than surface learning.

Ritchhart’s focus for expectation is school will be about learning, rather than the mere completion of work and merely accumulating enough points to score a top grade.

Ritchhart makes two distinctions between two types of expectations: directives and beliefs. Directives are a top-down hierarchy where the aim is to clearly define what the person in charge desires with respect to another’s performance.  Nothing wrong with communicating behavioral standards or criteria for assignments to students. Effective teachers and leaders do this all the time and with consistency.

Beliefs operates on a deeper, more systemic, and more powerful level. The expectations are rooted in our beliefs about the nature of teaching, learning, thinking, schools, or the organization itself.

Five Beliefs of Expectation

Ritchhart lays a foundation for our expectations in learning groups by exploring five belief sets that act as action theories. They are:

Five Beliefs of Expectations
Five Beliefs of Expectations

Ritchhart explores how these specific expectations for students (as opposed to of students) are important to establish a culture of thinking. 

Ritchhart emphasizes that having clear expectations – the kind of expectational beliefs that guide our own and students’ actions – requires a conviction on our part.

Learning Vs. Work

The first expectation is to focus on learning versus the work. The main point is when teachers and students focus their attention on learning as the priority. Letting the work exist in the context and serve the learning, then work becomes a means to an end, not an end to itself.

What does this look like in practice? Ritchhart states teachers normally introduce a task or assignment by highlighting the learning that can potentially arise from it. Next, teachers sustain and support the learning through their interactions with groups and individuals. When the purpose of the task is on learning, teachers are also more likely to provide choice and options in completion of assignments if it is being achieved.

When teachers are focused on learning, they spend their time with students “listening for the learning: ‘Tell me what you have done for far.’ ‘What questions are surfacing for you?’ ‘What does that tell you?’ We see learning oriented classrooms where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, grow, and rethink.

Learning Oriented classrooms, teachers often provide more descriptive feedback that informs learning.

Teaching for Understanding Vs. Knowledge

Teaching for understanding Versus Knowledge is the second expectation. It requires exploring a topic from many angles, building connections, challenging long-held assumptions, looking for applications, and producing what is for the learner a novel outcome.

Ritchhart uses metaphors for knowledge and understanding, and they are:

The metaphor for knowledge focuses on possession, storage, and retrieval. Knowledge is seen as something you have. This leads to a notion of knowledge as something one either has or doesn’t.

The metaphor for understanding focuses on action: applying, performing, adapting, and so on. Understanding is viewed as performance; it is something you do.

I thought Ritchhart metaphors sound profound. He emphasizes that knowledge, skills, and information play an important role in understanding, and are a necessary component of it.  Ritchhart explains further that knowledge is presented while teaching for understanding, with an expectation that the knowledge will be used, applied, discussed, analyzed, transformed, and so on. Ritchhart believes the pressure is applied when the teaching of knowledge becomes the primary goal, and it can impede students’ understanding.

There are four essential elements teachers need to attend to when teaching for understanding:

  1. Generative topics focusing on the curriculum around big ideas with understanding
  2. Understanding goals by identifying a small set of specific goals for understanding
  3. Performance of understanding by designing a sequence of ever more complex performance tasks that require students to use their skills and knowledge in novel contexts
  4. Ongoing feedback by providing a steady stream of ongoing feedback and assessment information that students can use to improve their performance.

Ritchhart suggests the key to developing understanding is through activities that allow for development and demonstration of understanding. To help you do it, you can ask yourself this question: What will I ask students to do with the skills and knowledge they are acquiring that will develop their understanding and push it forward?

Ritchhart explains understanding is built up of many small performances of ever-increasing complexity stitched together. By asking yourself, what will learners do with the information and knowledge? How will I ask them to process it – that is to interact, use, manipulate, or change it? You can design performance that builds understanding.

In working with teachers, Ritchhart has found the simple language of “surface” and “deep” thinking to be useful. He notes “Surface strategies focus on memory and knowledge gathering, whereas deep strategies are those that help students develop understanding.” (Ritchhart 2015 pg 52)

Encouraging Independence vs. Dependence

Encouraging Independence Versus Dependence is the third expectation that helps shape culture of thinking. Ritchhart points out some potential downsides to student dependence and they are: 

  • Deterioration of problem-solving strategies
  • A focus on extrinsic motivation
  • Diminished enjoyment of learning
  • Lack of resilience when faced with difficulties and challenges
  • Decreased creativity and motivation

Ritchhart cites Rose-Duckworth and Ramer (2008) definition of student-independence: “independent learners are internally motivated to be reflective, resourceful, and effective as they strive to accomplish worthwhile endeavors when working in isolation or with others-even when challenges arise, they persevere (pg. 2)” (Ritchhart 2015 pg. 55) Ritchhart points out additional benefits of independence as a goal and they are:

  • Resilience in the face of difficulty
  • Openness and willingness to accept challenges
  • Greater motivation, engagement, ownership, and “drive”
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Interdependence and independence
  • Development of a learning or mastery orientation in oneself
  • Enhanced self-esteem and sense of efficacy
  • Development of lifelong learners

Growth Mindset vs, Fixed Mindset

Developing a Growth VS. fixed mindset is the final belief set. This belief exerts a profound impact on the culture of a classroom, organization, or group. It concerns how individuals view intelligence, ability, and talent. Ritchhart points out Carol Dweck, a psychologist, refers to as one’s mindset and how that view shapes the way one approaches learning opportunities. Ritchhart points out Dweck’s focus is on ongoing growth and development through the situation, and a lack of feeling threatened, beaten down, or counted out by difficulties and challenges. This facilitative approach is different from people who are a fix mindset. People who are a fixed mindset gravitate toward situations that validate their perceptions of themselves and avoid those that will threaten it.

Ritchhart believes mindsets are powerful shapers of our experience, but people aren’t born with them. He notes people develop through one’s interactions with others, particularly in learning situations and in the feedback and input one receives in those situations. Ritchhart explains that our mindset develops through the subtle messages we encounter in the classrooms and from teachers, mentors, and parents.

Ritchhart gives examples of teachers and parents who deliver implicit messages to learners about the nature of abilities through praise and feedback. Comments like “You are so smart,” “You are a really good reader,” and “You are very talented,” define you and that these are inherent in who you are as a person. Comments that focus on a person’s efforts, something that is controllable, tend to aid in fostering a growth mindset: “You really worked hard at this, and it shows!” “That was really difficult, but you stuck to it and accomplished something.” “I am noticing that as you push yourself, your reading just keeps getting better and better.”

You Can Explore and Develop Expectations

Ritchhart emphasizes that taking the five beliefs together lays a foundation for teachers’ expectations in the classroom and forms the basis for action theories to guide instructions.

Ritchhart suggests possible actions teachers can take to better leverage and understand that particular cultural force:

  • Evaluate the five belief sets. Each belief set exists as a natural tension for educators, meaning that although we might intellectually embrace the more facilitative end of each continuum, we might sometimes find an individual expectation hard to implement. Where are the tensions in each belief set for you? What conditions give rise to that tension? How do you resolve or lessen those tensions?
  • Focus on the learning. Talk with your students about the distinction between work and learning. Tell them that because your goal is always to focus on the learning, they should let you know if they are not clear where the learning is in a given assignment. Make sure you introduce new assignments and tasks by highlighting their purpose and what you want students to learn. Pay attention to your own language and the use of the words “work” and “learning.”
  • Identify key understandings. Developing a true understanding of anything is a complex, ongoing endeavor. If you could pick only three things that you want your students to understand after their year with you, what would they be? Why are those three things worth understanding? What future learning does understanding these three things enable?
  • Analyzing understanding experiences. Identify one unit you teach that you feel does the best job of developing students’ understanding. Analyze that unit to pinpoint the elements that helped build students’ understanding. Look at that unit through the four elements of the Teaching and Understanding framework. Do those elements easily map onto your plans? How can you take “what works” from this unit and apply it to other units you teach?
  • Look for deep vs. surface learning in assignments. Working either on your own or with colleagues, collect all the assignments given to students over the course of a week. Look through the assignments to determine the level of processing each requires of students. It is likely that an assignment might require both surface and deep levels of processing, but try to determine where the greater emphasis is in the assignment.
  • Identify the most independent students in your class. What actions do they exhibit that made you identify them as independent? Divide a sheet of paper into three columns and make a list of these actions in the center column. In the left hand column, identify things that make it hard for other students to engage in these behaviors. What stands in the way? In the right hand column, identify things you do or could do that would provide opportunities for or facilitate the behaviors you identified in the center column.
  • Numerous resources exist for exposing students to the idea of a growth mindset. For example, see “Brain is like a Muscle” lesson plan (Ferlazzo, 2011). Typically such instruction focuses on how the brain literally grows as a result of learning. You might use a short article or video clip that describes this growth using Youtube. More elaborate teaching resources can be accessed at Carol Dweck’s own Brainology program https://www.mindsetworks.com

Language Moves: Appreciating its Subtle yet Profund Power

Language Moves

Richhart condenses several keys “language moves” that facilitate the creation of a culture of thinking in schools, classrooms, and organizations. They are:

  •  The Language of thinking

  •  The Language of community

  •  The language of identity

  •  The language of initiative

  •  The language of mindfulness

  •  The language of praise and feedback

  •  The language of listening

 Richhart helps us better understand how each operates in context, what it might look like and sound like, and how it can shape the learning of individuals and the group.

Ritchhart shares his understanding of the vocabulary of thinking with his colleagues Shari Tishman and David Perkins suggesting that the language of thinking is sorted by those words defining processes such as justifying, examining, reasoning, products such as hypothesis, a question, a judgment, and epistemic stances that reflect one’s attitude toward a bit of knowledge or an idea such as agreement, doubt, confirmation. Richhart adds states such as confusion, awe, wonderment that describes one’s mental status or state.

Language of Thinking

The language of thinking helps cue action and provides a means to regulate activity in the classroom. Richhart wants our students to consider alternative actions for the characters, not just thinking about the text they read, but to make predictions about what might happen next, raise questions about the characters’ motive, and so on. Ritchhart believes this is helpful to students who are struggling to engage mentally.

The language of thinking supports meta-cognition in both reflective components as well as planning aspects. It helps us examine the processes we used or did not use.

Meta-cognition involves ongoing monitoring and directing of one’s thinking. This is seen in the process of reading. As we read, we monitor our comprehension, and when we notice it flagging, we slow down and direct ourselves to do something about it.

Ritchhart emphasizes that having a language to identify thinking processes is a requirement for us to use and activate them effectively.

Ritchhart examines how do students develop a language of thinking. He notes the main way is by being in situations where others are using the language. Ritchhart believes a key move that teachers, parents, and mentors can use is noticing when and where students are thinking, and specifically naming the thinking being demonstrated.

Ritchhart often shares a practice called noticing and naming with parents as a keyway they can make their child’s thinking visible. When this practice is used in the classroom, it makes the thinking visible to both the child demonstrating the thinking as well as to others.

How does noticing and naming work? Ritchhart says “it starts with us as teachers or leaders of a group, being aware of what it is we want to highlight and reinforce.”(Ritchhart 2015 pg.70) He gives an example of the See-Think-Wonder routine where students are asked to look closely, notice details, observe carefully, make interpretations, build expectations, reason, generate alternatives, provide evidence, make connections, and raise questions. Getting students to do all of this is the key to making See-Think-Wonder a powerful learning opportunity. A teacher can use the language to notice and name something specific that students had done well: observing, rather than just telling the students they had done a good job.

Noticing and naming are likely to be more effective and productive in building a culture of thinking because we are looking for a particular lesson. What kinds of thinking are needed to be successful? What do I want to reinforce? What do I want to call students’ attention? Ritchhart notes “Becoming more aware of thinking ourselves and identifying what is needed to facilitate learning helps us be more responsive teachers.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.71)

See Think Wonder Example Imgage

The Lanugage of Community

Lisa Verkek, a fifth-grade teacher, uses See-Think-Wonder routine throughout the year as a part of a Visible Thinking pilot project. She had volunteered to demonstrate the routine in action so others could see how it worked. Ritchhart captures her teaching on video. His focus is on the activity itself and wants to capture the various aspects of the routine that would help other teachers learn how to use it.

Below is an excerpt of what Lisa’s lesson about:

“Using a photograph of children in a school hall taken at the end of the nineteenth century in America, Lisa modeled and set up the routine easily and effectively for her students. After her quick whole-group introduction, students began using the routine to structure their conversations in pairs as they examined different sets of photographs taken of children from around the world. Each set highlighted some type of hardship or inequity a child might experience, forming a connection to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. As I moved around the room with the cameraman, I was pleased that we were capturing good footage of students talking and sharing their thinking at each step of the routine. We also got ample footage of Lisa as she interacted with the student pairs and discussed their thinking with them. It was a very smooth and productive class. I knew we would be able to use her lesson to showcase the See-Think-Wonder routine effectively, and I left Lisa’s classroom pleased that we had captured on tape a well- executed lesson. It wasn’t until we began the process of turning the raw footage of that hourlong lesson into a six-minute video that the true power of Lisa’s teaching began to emerge, however.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 63)

Ritchhart examines how Lisa’s language served to effectively guide and direct the students’ learning and thinking. He carefully attends to Lisa’s language, so he can begin to understand how all these aspects of expert teaching took shape.

Ritchhart shows the subtleties and power about language that shapes our behavior, interaction, thinking, attention, and feelings by analyzing how Lisa introduced the lesson:

“To model for her students, she holds up the photograph of schoolchildren from the late 1800s and asks, “What do we see?” Students identify several concrete things they notice in the picture, such as children, flags, desks, people standing, chalkboards, and so on. Lisa then asks the class, “What do you think might be going on with those children?” Students immediately begin to offer possibilities and alternatives: “They’re singing,” “Maybe they are in an assembly,” “Maybe they are singing the national anthem because of the flag.” Students put forth possibilities, add on to one another’s ideas, and connect to things that had been seen. Good responses. Good engagement. Good collective sense making. But what did language have to do with this?” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.64)


Ritchhart analyzes Lisa’s choice of pronoun when she asks, “What do we see?”. Ritchhart notes the pronoun “we” sends a subtle signal to students that the group is working on this together and that the activity is a cooperative endeavor rather than a competitive one. He states “Students respond accordingly and find it easy to build on others’ ideas. When Lisa asks, “What do you think might be going on with those children?” her choice to use the words “might be” rather than “is” cues students that they are seeking alternatives, possibilities, and options rather than trying to definitely name the activity of the picture. Consequently, we notice students responding in this open manner. Furthermore, students build on one another’s ideas without anyone complaining, “That was my idea!” Thus, the spirit of cooperation and collective sense making continues.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.64)


Ritchhart has a clear sense of Lisa’s classroom being a learning community. He listens closely to the talk of both students and the teacher and finds it is peppered with the use of words like “we,” “our,” and “us.” Look at the example below:

“LISA: Folks, thank you very much for sitting so quietly. What we’re going to do is: you’re going to come with your table and your photograph, your recording sheet,

and the “Rights of the Child” [handout]. Come with all three pieces of paper. Come and sit up at the board. And we’re going to see what conclusions we can draw about the pictures, and you’ll get a chance to look at each other’s pictures as well.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pgs. 71-72)


Ritchhart examines Lisa’s use of the pronoun “you” to praise students and then to indicate exactly what they are going to do. He believes this allows students to recognize that there are directions for them to attend to individually. Next, Ritchhart states in his examination of Lisa switches to the pronoun “we”:

“This shift places the next endeavor as a collaborative one and signals to the students that Lisa is now a part of the new endeavor as well. Notice that she also makes explicit the thinking that students will be doing: “we’re going to see what conclusions we can draw about the pictures.”” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.72)

Language of Identity

Ritchhart believes that there are expert teachers who help their students come to see themselves not as an outsider looking in on a subject but as members of it. He states “

 They help their students not only to see the whole game, as Perkins describes it, but also to play the game.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 74) Ritchhart emphasizes that rather than learning history, students become historians; rather than learning about science, students become scientists; etc.

The language of identity is one tool to help students come to see themselves as members of a field. It goes beyond merely having a certain knowledge base but to help students engage in thinking and the key processes that are important in literature, science, social studies etc. When using the language of identity in the classroom, it signals to students that they need to activate certain applicable ways of thinking.

For example, Ritchhart provides two alternative ways of learning an identical hands-on lesson in science: (1) “Today we are going to learn about chemical reactions.” And (2) “Today as scientists, we are going to be investigating how chemical react under various circumstances.” Ritchhart asks Does one of the framings prompt a more active response and engage a different set of mental processes? Does one framing feel more exciting than the others to you? What roles do you imagine for both the teacher and students under each framing? I think you know the answers to these questions.

Ritchhart believes to reject the role of teacher as deliverer of information and student as passive receivers, we need to help students envision and take on a new role: Process-based roles such as thinkers, researchers, data collectors, analysts, commentators, advocates, inventors, and the like.

Language of Initiative

A key aspect of initiative, or what researchers in sociology and psychology refer to as “agency” is the ability to make choices and direct activity based on one’s own resourcefulness and enterprise according to Ritchhart. He says “This entails thinking about the world not as something that unfolds separate and apart from us but as a field of action that we can potentially direct and influence. As a person develops initiative, she comes to see the world as responsive to her actions. This direction and influence involve identifying possible actions, weighing their potential, directing attention, understanding causal relationships, and setting goals, among other things.” Ritchhart believes it demands learning to be strategic and planful. He cites Peter Johnson (2004) “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals” (p. 29).” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 76)

Ritchhart answers the question of how language relates to the development of initiative. He believes in our interactions and questioning of learners, teachers, leaders, or mentors can use language to direct a learner’s attention. Teachers help students identify, weigh, and plan potential courses of action. Ritchhart notes that our language can draw students’ attention to the strategies being deployed and their consequences, whether students are aware of them or not.

Ritchhart gives examples from Lisa’s questions:

“What do you think you were basing that idea on?” or the frequently used “What makes you say that?” asks students to identify their reasoning and make their thinking visible. In doing so, students come to see that ideas don’t merely pop into one’s head but are under one’s control and influence and act to shape one’s reasoning.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 76)

Ritchhart (2015) suggests the following:

“One way to know that we are using the language of initiative and independence, rather than rescuing students and furthering their dependence on us, is to ask ourselves, “Who is doing the thinking?” Reviewing the snippets of language from Lisa’s class, we see that in each instance, Lisa frames her contributions to ensure that students are doing the thinking. Our goal as educators, parents, and mentors is to encourage those whom we are trying to nurture to be the thinkers and to see themselves as thinkers, planners, and doers.” (pg. 78)

Language of Mindfulness

Ritchhart uses experiments to prove that conditional words help keep the mind open and flexible. 

He cites Ellen Langer’s ground breaking research (1989) on mindfulness. Langer’s definition of mindfulness is an open, flexible state in which new categories and possibilities can be created.

Here is how Langer sets up her experiment and the results:

 “Langer sought to identify what types of environmental cues might cause someone to remain more open and mindful versus those that might produce more rote, fixed, and mindless kinds of behavior. In an early study (Langer & Piper, 1987), she set up an experiment in which subjects casually encounter a rubber object in a room where they are working with an experimenter. The experimenter comments to some subjects that the object before them could be a dog’s chew toy (conditional language) and to others that this is a dog’s chew toy (absolute language). The experimenter then sets the object aside and begins to interview the subjects, writing down their responses with a pencil. At some point, the experimenter claims that she has made a mistake and needs to erase what she has written. When this happened, subjects who heard the conditional language (this might be a dog’s chew toy) were much more likely than their counterparts to consider using the rubber object as an eraser. By hearing that the object could be a dog’s chew toy, the participants were able to remain mentally open and consider using the object in a new way once the conditions changed. In contrast, labeling the object definitively tended to produce cognitive closure.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 78-79)

Ritchhart conducted another experiment, where he and his teams designed an experiment to teach university students an invented mathematical concept and procedure called “pairwise”. Here is the procedure and results for “pairwise”:

“The procedure didn’t involve more than the use of basic operations with integers. Some of the students were introduced to the new procedure by hearing the statement, “One way to solve a pairwise equation is… (conditional language) and then shown the designed method. Another group was told, “This is how you solve a pairwise equation” (absolute language), and the same method was shown. In a posttest, students who received the conditional instruction were more accurate in solving pairwise problems, used more workable methods likely to yield accurate results, were more able to produce accurate workable alternative methods for solving the problems, and were less likely to misapply the pairwise procedure in circumstances where it didn’t apply. In this scenario of learning a new bit of mathematics, we theorized that participants receiving instruction using absolute language were more likely to turn off their prior knowledge and frame their task as trying to memorize a procedure that might not have made sense. They became passive recipients of information. In contrast, the conditional language allowed students to integrate their prior knowledge and seek to understand the mathematics, rather than simply try to learn a procedure.” Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 78)

Ritchhart concludes that conditional language almost invites others into the conversation to offer their opinion, and the group begins to pool information and make sense of the situation. Conditional language is not about forgoing answers: it is about forgoing early closure to the process of finding answers.

Language of Praise and Feedback

Ritchhart (2015) writes “Praise is not feedback, as Harris and Rosenthal note. This is in part due to the lack of information praise typically conveys. “Good job” hardly gives one much to go on. To truly be considered feedback, our words have to take on an instructional role, providing the learner with information related directly to the learning task at hand (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Furthermore, this information has to be received and actionable, guiding future learning. This suggests that our comments should identify what has been done well as much as what still needs improvement and then give guidance in helping the student achieve that improvement. If our words don’t achieve this, then our comments are probably best understood as evaluation rather than feedback.” (Pg. 81)

Ritchhart believes it is important for the language to be specific, descriptive, and informative so that it tells learners about what they did correctly and should continue to do so in the future. He (2015) cites examples from Lisa, a fifth-grade teacher:

“Lisa’s words to students Andrea and Miran after they had conducted their See-Think-Wonder routine convey these qualities as she comments, “You’ve done a really good job of looking at those pictures. I can see you’ve really tried to find an explanation for what’s going on. And I really like the way that you used what you already know, things that you’ve already seen, maybe on television or news reports.”

(pg. 82)

”Lisa then directs their attention to the next task, again highlighting the thinking to be done: “So, now you can turn over to the other side, and you can find out what’s going on with these pictures. And then, when you know that, you can carry on down here [points to the lower half of the recording sheet] and look at the rights, yes? And see what rights might be being respected and which ones might be being neglected. And what makes you say that?”

(pg. 82)

“Notice that Lisa begins with global praise to assure the students, “You’ve done a really good job,” but then quickly moves to specifics. She notices and names the thinking they did (“tried to find an explanation”) and then goes on to name several other specific actions they undertook (“[using] what you already know”). Lisa then connects what the students have done already to the next learning task: “So, now you can turn over to the other side . . .” All of this is offered in a sincere tone and demonstrates that Lisa has really attended to what the students have been doing and where they need to go next in their learning.” (pg. 82)

Language of Listening

Ritchhart (2015) states “listening is one of the powerful ways we show respect for and interest in our people’s thinking.” (pg. 82)

He believes listening starts with genuine interest in others. It means we must pause our own talk and give students time and space to air their thoughts. Ritchhart notes there are specific skills and actions we can learn and a language of listening we can use to demonstrate out interest.

Ritchhart captures the sentiment of Stephen Covey’s expression “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” which is a common linguistic move made by the listeners: clarification. Ritchhart (2015) gives example of this from Lisa’s class:

“We witnessed this when Lisa probed Alex and Hung-Joon about their statement, “I wonder if the kids are working for their families.” Good listeners ask authentic questions to clarify points, unearth any assumptions they may be bringing to the situation, and be sure of the speaker’s intent. To verify their understanding, good listeners may paraphrase what speakers have said and ask speakers to verify that they have correctly represented their ideas” (pg. 83)

Ritchhart says once the clarification is achieved, a teacher or leader may want to connect what was said to other points people have made or to other ideas being discussed. He believes these connections help to thread various ideas together and to facilitate a conversation. Ritchhart believes threading is important for anyone in the role of facilitating learning in groups because it builds coherence and move the agenda of learning forward. He notes threading requires us to listen for the expression of key ideas, questions, or issues that might not yet be well formed in the speaker’s mind. By highlighting these ideas for the group and by noticing and naming them, we bring them forward for further discussion.

Ritchhart (2015) highlights a couple more language moves such as the following:

“Challenge ideas being presented, not in terms of correctness or accuracy, but in the exploratory sense, as in a Socratic dialogue: “How do you think that idea would play out in another context?” “Let’s follow that line of thinking; what’s the action that might follow from it?” In addition, we can advance the discussion further by inviting others in: “Joaquin, what do you think about what Marcy just said?” “Kate, how does Clinton’s idea connect with yours?” Questions such as these don’t come from some preplanned lesson; they emerge from our careful listening to students.”

(pg. 83)


6 Ways to Make Thinking Visible A Powerful Practice

6 Ways of Making Thinking Visible Title Image
6 Ways of Making Thinking Visible

The 6 Ways to Make Thinking Visible A Powerful Practice are, according to Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church authors of the The Power of Making Thinking Visible:

  • Foster deep learning
  • Cultivate engaged students
  • Change the role of students and teachers
  • Enhance our formative assessment practice
  • Improve learning
  • Developing thinking dispositions

Ritchhart and Church examine what is it about making Thinking Visible practices that helps establish this power? and how can teachers realize that power in their own classrooms?

Foster Deep Learning

According to Ritchhart and Church the two ideas-understanding and thinking- are core to conceptions of deep learning which is The Visible Thinking project, began in 2000, built on the preceding Teaching for Understanding project from the 1990s.

The authors define the meaning of deeper learning according to “The Hewlett-Packard Foundation defines deeper learning as the significant understanding of core academic content, coupled with the ability to think critically and solve problems with that content.” (Ritchhart and Church 2020 pg 6)

There are core elements of what it means to learn deeply. Authors states “Based on extensive research in schools and classrooms where deeper learning was occurring assert that deeper learning emerges at the intersection of:

  • Mastery: the opportunity to develop understanding
  • Identity: the opportunity to connect to the domain and develop as a learner with a place in the world
  • Creativity: the opportunity to produce something personally meaningful

These opportunities are infused with critical thinking, grappling with complexity, challenging assumptions, questioning authority, and embracing curiosity-all core elements of what it means to learn deeply.” (pg 6, Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Erik Lindemann, 3rd grade classroom teacher, from Osborne Elementary school in Quaker Valley, Pennsylvania, observed “The story of our classroom learning is dramatically different when we use visible thinking routines. The routines build learners’ capacity to engage with complexity while inspiring exploration, As my students begin internalizing and applying these thinking tools, I become a consultant in their ongoing investigations. Curiosity and excitement fuel deeper learning as my students take the lead.” (pg 6, Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Example of Thinking Routine
Thinking Routine Essentials

When using a thinking routine, teachers need to situate its use within the larger context of building understanding according to Ritchhart and Church. How does this particular lesson fit within the larger enterprise of understanding I am striving for? When teachers begin to focus on the goals of a particular lesson: With which ideas do I want students to begin to grapple? How can I push students’ understanding and move it forward? With these questions answered, the authors note, teachers are ready to identify the source materials and the kinds of thinking that might best serve the exploration of that material. Only then are teachers in a good position to select a thinking routine as a tool or structure for the exploration.

Cultivating Engaged Students

There are three types of specific engagement when it comes to cultivating engaged students:

  1. Engagement with others
  2. Engagement with ideas
  3. Engagement in action

We recognize that learning unfolds in the company of others and is a social endeavor. We learn in, from, and with groups. The group supports our learning as well as challenges that allow us to reach a higher level of performance. At the same time learning demands a personal engagement with ideas. Building understanding is an active process that involves digging in and making sense instead of receiving information passively. The authors note that sometimes this is identified as cognitive engagement, to distinguished from just mere engagement in activity. Authors emphasize that it is cognitive engagement with ideas that leads to learning.

When students explore meaningful and important concepts that are connected to the real world often means students want to take action. This will provide opportunities and structures for them to do so and encourages studentship and power while making the learning relevant.

Katrin Robertson, a lecturer at the University of Michigan, says she experienced it in her arts education class “For many years I used question prompts to engage my university students in discussing texts and it usually end up being asked-and answer sessions where students simply responded to me but did not speak to each other.” She made a shift when she was not content to blame her students for this pattern of behavior. “When I began using routines everything changed. Students were given space to make their thinking visible—. The room became energized with conversation. Students’ ideas blossomed, new perspectives were revealed, wrestled with, and shared in a multitude of forms —” she said. (Ritchhart and Church 2020 pg 7)

Changing the Role of the Student and Teacher

Teachers begin to see shifts in their role-play by teachers and students when they embrace the goal of making their students thinking visible and begin to make associate practices. Authors note that these shifts might be small at first but overtime has the potential to become seismic. When many teachers start using thinking routines they may be merely tacked on to the traditional transmission model of teaching, however, teachers must embrace this potential and cultivate it through regular, thoughtful application of making thinking visible process.

Mary has shifted her role from that of deliverer to orchestrator who works hard to establish a supportive culture and to create conditions for inquiry and opportunities for meaningful exploration. The dominant voice of the classroom has shifted from teachers to students. Her students are no longer passive receivers of knowledge but active creators, directors, and community members. Mary now celebrates this new level of engagement and seeks to promote it, empowering her students and creating a sense of agency.

Another way Making Thinking Visible change the role of the teacher, is that teachers become students of their students. They become curious about their students’ learning, how they are making sense of ideas, what they are thinking, and what ideas engage them. Making Thinking visible both allows and asks teachers to know their students in a different way. When focusing on students’ thinking, we become interested in how they come to know what they know, what questions they have, and what challenges they face. No longer, we see these challenges as deficits but as interesting opportunities for exploration.

Enhancing Formative Assessment Practice

Authors point out that formative assessment is not a task. It is a practice. “If you rely on and design formal tasks for the purpose of providing yourself and your students with “a formative assessment, chances are you have a weak formative assessment practice from which your students benefit little.” (pg 11 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

True formative assessment is the ongoing and embedded effort to understand our students’ learning according to the book Making Visible Learning Powerful. Authors note that it is a two-way street actively involving students and teachers in dialog about learning. Authors states “Formative assessment lives in our listening, observing, examining, analyzing, and reflecting on the process of learning. —It is driving by our curiosity about our students’ learning and the desire to make sure our teaching is responsive to their needs as learners.” (pg 11 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

If we want to know not just what students know, but how they know it we must make their thinking visible. Therefore, making students’ thinking visible is a formative assessment practice, according to the authors. Shehla Ghouse, principal at Stevens Cooperative School, explains, “Insights into student thinking provide teachers with invaluable information that can be used to plan next steps for individual students. It also helps us better understand the individual learner and ways in which to reach them more effectively to further their learning.” (pg 11 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Improving Learning (Even when Measured by Standardized Tests)

Way Elementary in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, saw students’ performance on the new state writing assessment far outpace district peers who were using the same writing program with 82% of their students scoring proficient or above versus 66% in the district as a whole. Authors noted. Richhart and Church believe that the only difference was that Way was dedicated to being a “Visible Thinking” school starting in 2008. Both authors do not have new assessment data, but they have the comparative data between Way Elementary and schools having a similar student population in the district and using the same writing program. Authors said “What we think the data do tell us is the efforts to make thinking visible can, in the right hands and pursued over time, greatly enhance students’ performance – even on standardized tests” If we want to know not just what students know, but how they know it we must make their thinking visible. Therefore, making students’ thinking visible is a formative assessment practice, according to the authors. Shehla Ghouse, principal at Stevens Cooperative School, explains, “Insights into student thinking provide teachers with invaluable information that can be used to plan next steps for individual students. It also helps us better understand the individual learner and ways in which to reach them more effectively to further their learning.” (pg 17 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Authors found that regular use of making thinking visible practices had a dramatic effect on the development of students’ meta-strategic knowledge, that is students’ awareness of the strategies they had at their disposal. Authors believe making thinking visible practices facilitate students’ development as thinkers and learners.

Developing Thinking Dispositions

The Visible Thinking Project’s main goal was to develop students as thinkers and learners by cultivating their dispositions toward thinking. Authors describe a disposition that captures one’s personal pattern of interaction with the world. The thinking disposition reflect who we are as thinkers and learners and it goes beyond merely having the skill or ability. It implies that an individual is also inclined to use those abilities, is aware of and sensitive to occasions for the use of those abilities, and is motivated in the moment to deploy the skills.

Students develop their ability to think and building up a repertoire of thinking moves when teachers use thinking routines. Authors recommend that by having the Understand Map posted in the classroom or in student notebooks for easy reference, students have a repertoire of thinking moves at their disposal. Sandra Hahn, a fifth grade teacher at the International School of Bangkok, remarked “My fifth graders became quite the expert in identifying the thinking moves they used and describing how it was used to help them find a solution to our weekly math problem. Some went even further to create a personal question prompt they could use in another situation to access that thinking move.” (pg 17 Ritchhart and Church 2020)

Example of Understanding map

Authors states that when we make thinking visible as a regular part of the classroom through our use of thinking routines, documentation, questioning, and listening, we send a message to students that thinking is valued. It is infused in everything we do and becomes part of the fabric of the classroom. When students come to see the value in their thinking and become more inclined toward thinking as an important part of their learning this will change who they are as learners.


We as teachers will become better listeners, learn to encourage student initiative, and gain new insights into our students’ learning that help us plan responsive instruction. If we use make thinking visible practices actively and engage students with each other, with ideas, and in action than student will experience deep learning.

How to Align Standards and Instruction

Standards and Instruction Alignment

Align standards and instruction, explain by authors Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal, “is the process of analyzing and unpacking standards to create meaningful learning progressions that allow students to move from the simplest to the most sophisticated demonstrations of learning,” according to their book Standards-Based Learning in Action. I broke down the process into three focuses: aligning standards and instruction, analyzing and unpacking standards, and creating purposeful learning progressions to better understand the process.

Align Standards and Instruction

Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal believe strong alignments make the instructional sequence and progression transparent. This way, students understand how individual skill development contributes to higher-level thinking. The alignment between instruction and standards is necessary to maximize outcomes for learners. Therefore, educators’ goal is for students to meet the proficiency of standards. To do that, you need to analyze and unpack standards.

Analyzing and Unpacking Standards

What analyzes standards mean? When teachers identify the level of cognitive complexity of the standard and do it again for each learning target, they are analyzing the thinking-level that derives from Bloom’s Taxonomy. It will allow teachers to match assessment method to specific learning target. This is important for engagement in students’ learning. Authors Eric Jensen and Leann Nickelsen say this is critical because “The Common Core State Standards are asking us to take students past Engage to Build Basics and on to the Engage to Explore and Engage to Own Zones.” Jensen and Nickelsen name this as The Three Engagement Zones. I share the link for the Engagement Zones below:


According to their book Bringing the Common Core to Life in K-8 Classrooms, authors use table 3.1 (attached in the above PDF) to explain of how students can move from Engage to Build Basics (Zone 1) to Engage to Explore (Zone 2) and Engage to Own (Zone 3).

Zone 1 allows students to explain in simple terms what they know or are learning at the time to build basic background knowledge for future learning. The skills students exhibit are to define, explain partially, draw, and start wonder about their learning. It is a great introductory lesson for a standard.

Zone 2 creates students who want to learn and explore more in the classroom. They generate questions, compare the learning to other concepts they know, sort content, research, and make personal connections with the content.

Zone 3 cognitively engages students at the ownership level, where they apply the content to benefit others, transfer knowledge to other discipline, scrutinize texts to challenge authors’ and students’ own beliefs, and even want to create something new after learning about it. When students enter this zone, they think outside of the box and like to share what they come up with.

Each zone explains descriptors of how students can think, how to know when to use certain zones in a lesson, and which strategies support which zone. Once you have decided which engagement zone is best for each of your students, you will need to turn your chosen standards into a target.

You should already unpack the standard and identified nouns (content) and verbs (skills) at this point.

Jensen and Nickelsen Design a Three-Step Target:

Every lesson needs a specific target formed from the broad standard and from the broad standard you create the specific, daily targets that are measured within the one to the three days spent teaching the lesson. Jensen and Nickelsen note targets have three requirements:

  1. Do-The Thinking Verb. What will students do within this lesson? The verb choice will determine the rigor and length of the strategy; thus, defining which engagement zone the target will fall into. Every target needs a powerful verb to show how the students will be thinking. If your verbs are consistently in the lowest cognitive engagement zone (Zone 1), then you will need to revise some of your targets, because the CCSS asks students to think at a higher level. Most of our lessons should focus on depths.
  2. Know-Specific content they should know for this lesson. What do your standards tell you they should master? This is very specific and measured in one to three days.
  3. Show-The Result. How will the students prove they DO and Know? We give the students the specific criteria for success for this assessment product. The criteria clearly define what we expect in the DO and Know so students know exactly what they needed to show they mastered this target.

I have attached a pdf template that teachers can use to identify the DOK level.


Standard-to-Target Example:

First Grade Language Arts

Standard: Ask and answer questions about key details in a text

DO: Ask and answer questions (ask is a Zone 2 verb, since it involves generating questions based on details gathered)

Know: Understand key details in the informational text Garden Helpers

Show: Create a T-chart with questions and detailed answers

Target: Student will ask and answer questions by writing key details from the text Garden Helpers as a T-chart

  • In student friendly language: I can ask and answer questions by writing key details in a T-Chart
  • Model for students what key details look like, then ask students to do it with a partner
  • Ask students to self-assess their level of understanding by using thumbs up and thumbs down
  • When students are ready, they can complete one question-and-answer pair on the T-chart on their own and check for understanding

Criteria for Success: There are a variety of questions written on the left-hand side of the “T”; answers are text-based and writer across from the question on the right side of the “T”; answers show understanding of the article; students used the question stems to help create the questions

Once teachers have analyzed a standard, the next step is to unpack the standard. According to their book Standards-Based Learning in Action, authors shown four possible methods for unpacking standards. I will briefly mention them below:

  1. I Can statements–communicate powerfully to students that these are attainable goals that will lead them to proficiency with the standards
  2. Know, understand, and do (KUD) statements-can break down broad standards into categories of knowledge, overarching understandings, and skills that, when blended, create an environment where student can showcase mastery
  3. Benchmarks from the academic state or provincial or national standards-These benchmarks can be learning targets, but it is important that teachers review them to ensure understanding of the language, purpose, and focus before using them with students
  4. Learning Goals ladders-can organize I can statement into learning goals ladders to show learning progression, from the emerging stages to standard fulfillment

Educators often use I can statement and KUD statement. You can choose any method of unpacking you feel comfortable with. I have attached a standard with learning target pdf template and an example of Unpacking Standard pdf template:



Aligning Units to Standards

One tip I found to be useful is authors of the book Standards-Based Learning in Action suggest a process that teachers can use when either auditing a previously constructed unit or creating a new one. While planning, teachers can ask themselves these questions:

Step 1: What are your standards for assessment in this unit?

Step 2: How did you unpack them and make them meaningful for students?

Step 3: What is your summative assessment? Does it address all the standards? Can a student show a 4 (mastery)?

Step 4: What are your formative assessments or checks? Do they address the standards?

Step 5: Does daily instruction align with the standards? Is there ample daily opportunity to practice with the standards?

Creating Purposeful Learning Progressions

Learning progressions provide teachers with a blueprint for instruction and assessment, i.e., identify both what to assess and when to assess it. Essentially, learning progressions have 2 functions:

  1. Layout in successive steps, more sophisticated understandings
  2. Describe the typical development of a student’s understanding over an extended period

The intention of developing learning progression is sequencing instruction from the simplest (targets) to the most sophisticated (standards) demonstrations of learning. Remember what Jensen and Nickelsen said, this was crucial because “The Common Core State Standards are asking us to take students past Engage to Build Basics and on to the Engage to Explore and Engage to Own Zones.”

After developing learning progressions, teachers can use effective assessment strategies to identify where instruction should begin, so teachers can gain instructional efficiency. Effective pre-assessment can determine their individual and collective levels of readiness for new learning. Teachers need not always begin from the beginning because standards often overlap and spiral through and between grade levels according to Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal.


I understand aligning standards and instruction process feels new for many teachers. So, here are some suggestions from authors Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal to make it more palatable:

  • Discuss the academic standards in learning teams. Focus on the verb and the applicable DOK level to deepen understanding as a group.
  • Deconstruct the academic standards into student-friendly learning targets.
  • Organize the learning targets meaningfully for students and parents.
  • Plan the assessment process (both summative and formative) based on the standards, the targets, and what they demand.
  • Align units of study to the learning targets, building up to the standards in sum.
  • Communicate the standards and learning targets to all stakeholders.

You can learn more about how to design learning targets in my blog post Raise Trajectory of Learning.

2 Excellent Thinking Tools that Promote Higher Literacy

Thinking Tools title image
Thinking Tool Kit

Thinking tools are cognitive strategies, including planning and goal-setting, tapping prior knowledge, making connections, forming interpretations, reflecting, and evaluating that experienced readers and writers used to construct meaning from and with texts according to Carol Booth Olson, author of Thinking Tools for Young Readers and Writers.

Based on research, Olson states “there is widespread agreement among literacy scholars that, along with decoding skills, students should be taught cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies in the early grades in order to become effective comprehenders and communicators.”

Olson presents 2 thinking tools and they are The Mystery Trash Challenge and The Cognitive Strategies Tool Kit. The two tool kits will help promote literacy among the young readers and writers.

The Mystery Trash Challenge

The Mystery Trash Challenge caught my eye to Olson’s book. This activity is a wonderful way to introduce the cognitive strategies to your students. Students examine several pieces of “trash” (evidence) to make inferences about the owners. It encourages students to use evidence to make inferences and support their thinking. Olson presents two different approaches to the Mystery Trash Challenge from two different classroom teachers.

Emily McCourtney’s classroom has 10 2nd- and 3rd-graders in a blended learning technology school. She puts a trash bag in the center of a large table, along with 10 magnifying glasses, one at each of the students’ seats. Emily told her students, “I have some new neighbors who moved in last week. I’m really curious about them, but they’re never home when I am so we haven’t met yet. But I guess they had so much trash that they put some in my can. So, guess what you get to do?” she asked. “You get to be detectives and help me figure out what my new neighbors are like. We need to make a plan before we start. What questions do we need answers to?”

Students asked questions including

“Do they have any kids?”

Emily: “Good question. How would their trash tell us if they had any kids?”

Student: “Diapers, or maybe some broken toys,”

Another student: “or maybe baby food jars, the food wrappers could also tell us if they like stuff like McDonald or if they’re healthier eaters.”

Jonathan: “What is this?”

River: “Metrolink card. So maybe they don’t have a car.” After students list their questions, they got to work examining the evidence. Using their iPads, they took pictures to document each item and began piecing the clues together.

Here are the items students documented:

  • Metro link card
  • Pink bracelet
  • Target gift cards
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • Pamper boxes
  • Magazines
  • Receipts from Old Navy

Each student wrote up his or her conclusion via Google Slides in a digital notebook. Here is what Aimee wrote:

Your neighbors’ trash makes me think they went on expensive vacations because I found Hawaii Tickets. They have kids because they bought kid food. They went to an Angels game because they have Angels ticket. I think they’re healthy because they have organic food. I think they have a baby because I saw a box of diapers. I think they are 39, 40. I think they like tea because they had a box of tea.

At the end of the activity, Emily congratulated the class and said, “Hey, guys. You really did a great job looking at the evidence, piecing the clues together, and predicting what my new neighbors are like. I can’t wait to meet them and let you know if you were right. Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about all the thinking tools you used to create a picture of my new neighbors and how we can use those same tools to act like detectives to figure things out when we read and then to write up what we discovered.”

Figure 1.1

Mystery Trash Pic
Emily M Mystery Trash Evidence

Another approach to Mystery Trash Challenge by Mary Widtmann, a 5th grade classroom teacher, has 27 students. Mary’s school is in a beach community with summer rentals. She needed a plausible excuse for collecting six boxes of trash.

Widtmann presents 6 mystery boxes, each containing between 15 and 20 items of trash. She told the students “she was helping a friend who managed a vacation rental apartment building clean out 6 different apartments whose families had moved out just before Labor Day”. Widmann customized the items in each box to depict different families and they are:

  • A retired couple who likes art, museums, and traveling.
  • A family that likes to go camping and eats junk food.
  • A young family with kids who like amusement parks, etc.

The box for a healthy, sporty young family, for example, contained items like:

  • A Nespresso package
  • Dental floss
  • A Quaker oats box
  • A Planet Beauty receipt
  • Mizuno
  • Brooks running shoe boxes
  • A Perrier water bottle
  • One-Aday men’s vitamins

Widtmann model the process of analysis by demonstrating with trash collected from another teacher. She pulls each item out one by one and think aloud in front of the class. Widtmann reinforced the idea that you have to examine several pieces of evidence before making a prediction or drawing a conclusion. She also told students, “You might visualize one type of family and then some additional evidence might cause you to change your mind and form a new interpretation”.

Widtmann’s students working in groups to solve the Mystery Trash Challenge by creating a portrait of the family based on eight pieces of evidence from the box. These 5th grade students eagerly launched into the task. As they pursued the items, they created evidence tags just like a CSI investigation team.

Figure 1.2

Mary Mystery Trash Image
Widtmann Mystery Trash Evidence

Emily and Mary engage their students in solving the “problem” of the Mystery Trash Challenge. Both were teaching the readers and writers of elementary students in their classroom to be strategic-asking students to deliberately and consciously employ thinking tools to get a goal.

Olson states what Paris, Wasik, and Turner (1991) point out, “Students who perceive themselves as academically successful ‘know how to learn effectively rather than just try harder’ because they have multiple tactics available to monitor and improve learning.” (pg. 625). Hence, experienced readers and writers are strategic.

Mystery Trash Evidence Tags

Introduction to Cognitive Strategies Tool Kit

Tool Kit Pic
Tool Kit

Olson emphasizes that it is crucial to introduce young readers and writers to thinking tools or cognitive strategies in their mental reader’s and writer’s tool kits. Cognitive strategies, including model strategy use, enable students to practice in collaboration with one another, and provide opportunities to select and implement strategies independently with various texts in a variety of contexts.

She provides a graphic representation of the reader’s and writer’s toolkit (Figure 1.6). We want to look at how we use these thinking tools to construct meaning both from and with texts. Olson outlines how we use it.

Planning and Goal Setting

Readers set goals and make plans for achieving those goals even before they start

Reading a text. For example, they might decide to read for pleasure, to learn how to do something, to develop better vocabulary, to prepare for a test, or to write an essay.

Readers formulate their plans regarding how to approach the text depending on their goals.

  • What was your purpose or goal as you read this text?
  • What plans did you make to achieve your goal or goals?
  • How did planning and goal setting impact your reading of the text?
  • Did planning and goal setting help you stay more focused as you read?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • My purpose is…
  • My top priority is…
  • I will accomplish my goal by…

Tapping Prior Knowledge

What kind of prior knowledge (i.e., background information), if any, did you bring to the reading of this text?

For example:

  • Was there anything about the title that tapped information you already had?
  • Did you have prior knowledge of the topic that helped you understand what you were reading?
  • Did you know about the author or genre (i.e., poetry, short story, drama, essay, etc?) that influenced our reading?
  • As you were reading, did you come across information that reminded you of something you already knew?
  • Did having (or not having) prior information make this text easier (or harder) to understand and relate to?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • I already know that…
  • This reminds me of…
  • This relates to…

Asking Questions

What questions did you ask yourself as you read this text?

For example:

  • Did you ask questions about what was happening in the text?
  • Did you ask why (about events, characters, language the author used, etc.)?
  • Did you find yourself wonder what would happen if…?
  • Did asking questions motivate you to keep reading to find the answers or was it frustrating?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • I wonder why…
  • What if…
  • How come…

Making Predictions

What predictions did you make as you were reading?

For example:

  • Did anything about the title of the text (or pictures, if there were any) cause you to make a prediction even before you started reading?
  • As you were reading, did you find yourself predicting what was going to happen next?
  • Did you think in terms of If…then (i.e., If x happens then I’ll bet that y will result.)

Did your predictions come true or did the text surprise you and turn a different direction?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • I’ll bet that…
  • I think…
  • If , then…


What pictures did you see in your head as you read this text?

For example:

• What specific pictures stand out in your mind?

• Did it feel like you were seeing photographs or watching a movie?

• What was it about the author’s writing that helped you make mental pictures?

What affect did being able to make pictures in your head (or not being able to make pictures) have on you as a reader?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • I can picture…
  • ? In my mind I see…
  • ? If this were a movie …

Making Connections

As you read, what personal connections were you able to make between your experience and the text?

For example:

  • Did the text call up personal memories for you (of experiences, events, people)?
  • Did the text remind you of other books, stories, poems, movies, etc, you have read

or seen?

  • Did the text make you think of actual events in the news or in history books that have occurred in the present or past?

To what extent did your ability to connect (or your inability to connect) with this text influence you as a reader? Were you more or less involved in it because of the connections you did or didn’t make?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • This reminds me of…
  • I experienced this once when…
  • I can relate to this because…


A summary is a brief statement of the main ideas, key points, or basic gist of a text. It

involves what is literally happening or being said, determining what details are

important, organizing information, and stating it coherently and concisely in one’s own


  • In your own words, what is literally happening in this text? What is the basic gist?
  • In a nutshell, what does the text say?
  • What essential information does the reader need to know about the characters, plot and setting in order to understand what is taking place?
  • Was it easy or difficult for you to summarize this text? Why?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • The basic gist is…
  • ? The key information is…
  • In a nutshell, this says that…

Adopting an Alignment

To what extent were you able to get “into” this text?

For example:

  • Did you feel you could get inside the setting of this text and be there? If so, what helped you to enter the text-world? If not, what made getting into the text difficult?
  • Did you identify or feel a kinship with a particular character?
  • Did something happen in the text in terms of events that really gripped you and drew you in?
  • Did you feel you could relate to the author? If so, why? If not, why not?

How did being able to get into the text (or not being able to get into it) make you feel about what you were reading?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • The character I most identify with is…
  • I really got into the story when…
  • I can relate to this author because…


Did you ever think about yourself as a reader while you were reading and talk to yourself inside your head? If so, you were using a cognitive strategy called monitoring?

For example:

  • Did you ever get confused and tell yourself you were not getting it and needed to go back and reread?
  • Did you ever tell yourself you were on the right track and to keep reading?
  • Did you come across any words you didn’t know and think about how to figure out the meaning or decide to keep reading and worry about it later?

Did thinking about your responses while you are reading and sending yourself messages to stop and backtrack or to full steam ahead help you to understand the text better?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • I got lost here because…
  • I need to reread the part where…
  • I know I’m on the right track…

Clarifying Understanding

As you were reading, you may have come across passages where your monitor told you are confused and you said to yourself “I don’t get this” or “I need to understand this better.”

  • At what points in the text, did your monitor tell you needed to clarify your understanding?
  • What did you do to make your understanding of the parts of the text that were confusing to you clearer?
  • How did clarifying your understanding help you to engage in some of the other cognitive strategies like making predictions, visualizing, or forming interpretations?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters

  • To understand better, I need to know more about…
  • Something that’s still not clear is…
  • I’m guessing this means _______, but I need to…

Forming Interpretations

When we focus on what the text says, on what is literally happening or being said, we are reading. When we focus on what the text means, what its message is, we are interpreting. Interpretations are created by the reader in response to the writing of the writer. What is your interpretation of the meaning text you have just read?

For example:

  • What is the message or BIG IDEA of all or part of this text, in your opinion?
  • What in the text made you come up with the message or BIG IDEA that you did?
  • Did your interpretation of the text stay the same as you read or did it change or grow as you continued to read? If it changed or grew, what happened that influenced your interpretation?

When you read something that has a deeper meaning and you figure out what it means to you and how does that make you feel as a reader?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • What this means to me is…
  • I think this represents…
  • The idea I’m getting is…

Revising Meaning

When we are reading a text, we often make predictions about what will happen next or we formulate interpretations about the message the text is conveying only to find our expectations thwarted when the text takes a surprising turn. This causes us to revise meaning and, just like a writer who creates a second draft of a text on the page, to create a new draft of the text that is unfolding in our imagination.

  • Did your sense of the text stay the same as you read or did your interpretation change?
  • What happened in the text that caused you to revise meaning?
  • What new ideas did you get about what you were reading after you had to stop and revise meaning?

What impact did the act of revising meaning have on your enjoyment of the text? Did the challenge of revising your understanding make reading more or less enjoyable for you?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • At first thought ________, but now I…
  • My latest thought about this is…
  • I’m getting a different picture here because…

Analyzing Author’s Craft

What do you notice about the way the author uses language to get his or her ideas across?

For example:

  • Is there anything about the author’s style or craft (i.e., the use of descriptive language, figures of speech like similes or metaphors, action words, dialogue, or particular types of sentences) that you found particularly effective?
  • ? What golden words, lines and phrases stand out that made the writing vivid for you?
  • How did the author’s style help you (or hinder you) as you made meaning from this text?

Is there anything the author of this text did that you would like to try in your own writing?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • A golden line for me is…
  • This word/phrase stands out for me because…
  • I like how the author uses to show…

Reflecting and Relating

What does this text mean to you personally? As you step back and reflect, what lessons, if any, can you take away from this text for your own life?

For example:

  • Is there anything about the impact of this text upon you as a reader that has caused you to rethink what you already know about this author, genre, topic or arrive at any insights about your own life that you will take away with you? If so what new perspectives do you have?
  • Is there anything you think differently about as a result of reading this text?
  • Is there anything you will do differently as a result of reading this text?

What was it about this text that enabled you to relate it to your own life, if you were able to?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • So, the big idea is…
  • A conclusion I’m drawing is…
  • This applies to my life because…


Reflect upon the process of your meaning making as a reader and evaluate the quality of your experience. To what degree was the experience rewarding (or unrewarding) for you? Why?

For example:

  • On a scale of 5 (It was great!) to 1 (It was awful!), how would you rate this text?
  • What did you like best or least about this text?
  • What did the author do (or not do) that caused you to respond to the text as you did?
  • Will you read another text by this author or on this topic? If so, why? If not, why not?

Now, talk about the quality of your discussion as you went through this booklet with a partner or in your small group. What went well? What might you do differently to improve your discussion next time?

Cognitive Strategies Sentence Starters:

  • I like/don’t like because…
  • My opinion is because…
  • The most important message is because…

Cognitive Strategies Reading Responses


Big Al Student Packet


Using the Tool Kit in the Classroom

Angie Balius, a second-grade teacher, opened the Sears and Roebuck toolbox and began taking out the tools in her 2nd grade classroom. She asked students “Suppose you guys wanted to build a skateboard ramp, which of these tools would you need to use?”

“A hammer and nails,” said Michaela

“And a saw if the boards too long.” Blake added

Angie asked, “What about this?” holding up a wrench.

Jackson remarked confidently, “Now, you don’t really need a wrench because there’s nothing to tighten.”

Angie: “ok, I love that. Thank you for sharing.”

She explained to students “I want you guys to think about the tools we use to read and write today because in the same way that we use real tools to construct things like skateboard ramps, we also use the thinking tools in our minds to construct something when we read and write. What we’re constructing is meaning from words. Does that make sense?” 24 students nodded their heads.

Angie reminded students of a book they read “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.” She asked students “Did it go like we expected?” Students nodded their heads from side to side. “So, what did we have to do?” Angie asked. “We had to think about the Three Little Pigs and how the story was kind of like it but a bunch o things happened that we didn’t expect.”

“So, we built our understanding based on tapping our prior knowledge, but then when the story went a different direction, we had to revise our meaning. What other tools did we use?” Angie asked students.

Haley: “We made predictions, like when I predicted that the big piggy would use a jackhammer to knock the wolves’ house down, because concrete is hard to knock down.”

Angie: “And what made you think of a jackhammer?”

Haley: “My dad used one to remodel our house.”

Angie: “Oh great, so you made a connection.”

Angie wrote on the board each cognitive strategy with a black marker into a tool kit shaped poster on display, “Look! Our tool kit is filling up.” She exclaimed. “Let’s keep going.”

In Emily’s 2nd – and 3rd-grade classroom, she created her own readers’ and writers’ toolkit filled with objects to symbolize the cognitive strategies: puzzle pieces for making connections, a slinky for summarizing, a crystal ball for making predictions, so on and so forth. I am sure you are familiar with using objects to symbolize the cognitive strategies in your teaching.

Emily flipped her lesson by creating videos for her students to watch at home to introduce each of the cognitive strategies. When students returned to her classroom, she gave them a quiz on the learning-game platform Kahoot! to review and assess their understanding of the cognitive strategies.

Emily also developed icons that resemble apps and also use abbreviations to enable their cognitive strategies. To do this, she recorded her students’ conversations as they examined the evidence. Later she asked them to go back and label their cognitive strategy use.

I thought I highlight some interesting ways teachers can apply cognitive strategies toolkit in their classrooms.

Finally, I hope you find thinking tools to be useful in your teaching.

Here is an article on Metacognitive Strategies or Thinking about My Thinking for your reference.

Metacognitive Strategies

You might want to check out 6 ways of making Thinking Visible https://educationblogdesk.com/6-ways-to-make-thinking-visible-a-powerful-practice/powerful-learning/how-meas-scs/

if you like thinking about thinking.