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Let’s make our thinking visible!

A blog by authors Patrizia Caroti, Sarah Howell, and Lisa Kester Dodgson.

While much discourse relating to teaching in the 21st century revolves around content, programmes, methods and approaches etc. there appears to be a gap in how teachers can equip students with the skills they need to deepen their understanding of the world around them as lifelong learners.

Thinking dispositions

Learning is the outcome of thinking, and as such gaining insights into the ways students think is crucial for teachers, allowing them to alter students’ thinking dispositions. Thinking dispositions (Ritchart et al, 2011) are the habits of mind that develop:

  1. Observing closely and describing;
  2. Building explanations and interpretations;
  3. Reasoning with evidence;
  4. Making connections;
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives;
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions;
  7. Wondering and asking questions;
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things.

But how do we know what kind of thinking is taking place and how can we be sure that all our students are developing these thinking skills? What insights do we have into how our students are thinking and learning?

These questions stimulated our curiosity to experiment with Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs) in our EFL classrooms and take up the 21st century challenge: “Build a culture of thinking” in our learning community.

“Every committed educator wants better learning and more thoughtful students. Visible Thinking is a way of helping to achieve that without a separate ‘thinking skills’ course or fixed lessons.”

Visible Thinking <http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org>

But what are Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs)?

Visible Thinking Routines were developed by Project Zero, an educational research group at Harvard Graduate School of Education. The routines consist of a few short steps which scaffold and guide students’ thinking. They awaken curiosity and encourage students to dig deeper, taking their thinking to a more sophisticated level (Ritchhart et al, 2011).

We can demonstrate the potential of VTRs by illustrating our mini-research project carried out with two classes of 13-year-old students, in a state secondary school in Italy. The average English competency level of the students was A2 (CEFR) with 3 hours a week of EFL instruction using a mainstream textbook. The routines were chosen according to the thinking dispositions we were aiming to develop, the content being presented in the textbook, and how suitable we felt the routines would be in the given teaching context.

We focused on three different thinking dispositions linked to three VTRs.

Thinking Dispositions Visible Thinking Routines
Capturing the heart Headlines
Making connections Connect-Extend-Challenge
Wondering and asking questions See-Think-Wonder


A routine for capturing essence.Headlines routine


An article about fundraising and charity concerts.


  • Topic-specific vocabulary had been pre-taught. The students had been working on making deductions, expressing agreement/disagreement, and probability.
  • They worked individually on the texts, highlighting key phrases to help them create their headlines, and then shared their ideas on the poster.
  • They shared their thinking in small groups, read the other headlines, and made comparisons.


The Headlines routine encouraged students to think more deeply about the content and develop their ability to synthesise. Through sharing their thoughts they developed meaningful conversations around the content of the poster.

See-Think-WonderSee-Think-Wonder (STW)

A routine for exploring visuals and related texts.


A photograph of a polluted river.


  • Topic-specific vocabulary had been pre-taught. The See-Think-Wonder routine raises students’ curiosity about the topic with visual stimuli.
  • First (see) they described what they could see, then (think) they expressed their thoughts about the image, and finally (wonder) they were encouraged to express what else they would like to know about the topic.
  • The students were given question stems to help them articulate their thoughts. Although they spoke in a mix of L1 and English, they wrote their responses in English.


This routine helped the students analyse a visual, and use elements within it to generate their own ideas related to the topic. We found this routine particularly inclusive, as listening to each other’s ideas and opinions encouraged all group members to speak up and share.

Connect-Extend-ChallengeConnect-Extend-Challenge (CEC)

A routine for connecting new ideas to prior knowledge.


A photo, audio, and some text about the environment and recycling.


  • Topic specific vocabulary and expressions had been pre-taught.
  • The students made observations about the photograph and the dialogue by applying the (now familiar) STW routine before using the new CEC routine.
  • Using the reading text, first they made connections (connect) to what they already knew about recycling, then they discussed what new information they had gained and how this had extended their knowledge (extend), and finally (challenge) what still puzzled them. The students worked in groups and then a plenary session was held to present their thinking
    and their “challenges”.


The EFL classroom is often a difficult place for students to express their ideas and their knowledge about a given topic. The CEC routine helped the students tap into their prior knowledge and relate it to new content and encouraged them to go beyond the surface level of the topic.

Classroom activity 1


A significant consideration which arose while reflecting with students is the importance of feeling comfortable and confident without the threat of evaluation; their thinking is not assessed in this approach! This concept needs to be highlighted at the outset of any Visual Thinking Routine and made clear that it is not just another worksheet to fill in with the right answer, but rather that it’s their thinking process that matters.

Classroom activity 2

Visual Thinking Routines need to be used regularly and systematically across the board so that students develop good thinking dispositions and habits which in turn have a positive interdisciplinary impact over time.



How could VTRs make a difference to your teaching?



Patrizia Caroti is a teacher and ELT author with 30 years’ experience of teaching English in Italian Secondary Schools.
Sarah M Howell is an OUP author and teacher trainer. She has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels.
Lisa Kester Dodgson is an OUP author with a rich background in primary and secondary education.

References (recommended reading list!)

Majida “Mohammed Yousef” Dajani. (2016). Using Thinking Routines as a Pedagogy for Teaching English as a Second Language in Palestine. Journal of Educational Research and Practice , Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 1–18. Walden University, LLC, Minneapolis, MN.

Krechevsky, M., Mardell, B., Rivard, M., Wilson, D., (2013). Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in all Schools John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K., & Perkins, D. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. John Wiley and Sons, Inc, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

“Thinking Palette.” Artful Thinking. Project Zero. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Feb. 2017. <http://pzartfulthinking.org/?page_id=2>

Ritchhart, Ron., Perkins, David., & Tishman, Shari. “Visible Thinking.” Harvard Graduate School of Education. Feb, 2017.<http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/visible-thinking>

Salmon, K, Angela. “Making Thinking Visible Through Action Research.” Early Childhood Education. The official journal of the Early Childhood Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Volume 39, Number 1. 2010. <https://www.academia.edu/4841813/Making_Thinking_Visible_Through_Action_Research>

Arcenas, Claire. “Bridging our Thinking.” Visible thinking across subject matters. 13 Feb 2015. <https://clairearcenas.wordpress.com/>

Ritchhart, Ron. “Cultures of Thinking.” Think! From the Middle. Rochester Community Schools. March 2017. <http://www.rcsthinkfromthemiddle.com/cultures-of-thinking.html>

Jacobson, Gareth. “Team Teaching – an all or nothing phenomenon.” I think therefore… 16th Nov. 2016. <https://makingthinkingvisible.wordpress.com/>

“Research.” Visible Thinking for the child to be and the adult to see. <http://visiblethinking.ltd.uk/research/>



Do learning technologies actually help students learn?

shutterstock_198926996Do learning technologies actually help students learn? Nicky Hockly’s latest book,
Focus on Learning Technologies, takes a look at research that has been carried out with primary and secondary school learners using technology, and weighs up the evidence.

Although digital technologies in the field of EFL may feel like a recent thing, they have been around for a while. We have a rich research tradition in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) going back several decades, and teachers and researchers have been trying to find out whether technology actually supports learning for some time. However, although we are mostly in agreement upon the question – Do learning technologies actually help students learn? – the answer is less clear.

The short answer is ‘it depends’. It depends, because it is very difficult to make comparisons across studies, when research is carried out in different contexts with very different groups of students, with different teachers, using different technologies and tools, and with widely differing aims and task types.

For example, imagine a US study carried out with a group of primary students that examines whether using blogs improves their literacy and writing skills (1). Imagine a study in Iran that examines whether a group of university students learn academic vocabulary better through regular SMS texts rather than with dictionaries (2). And imagine a research project in China and Scotland based on a computer game that provides adolescent students with oral prompts in order to develop their speaking skills (3). These are all real research projects, and they have widely different aims, tools, and research methodologies. They take place in very different teaching and learning contexts with very different students and teachers. Some seem to show technology supporting learning but others don’t. At the same time, trying to generalise results from what can be very small-scale, one-off action research projects that may be underpinned by more or less robust research methods, is questionable.

Each of the three studies described above had very different objectives, followed different research procedures, and yielded different results. The blog project used a case study methodology to look at the writing skills development of one English language learner in a class of elementary students in the USA. The researchers found that the blogging curriculum developed her writing skills, increased her confidence as a writer, and improved her written language. So a positive result (for one student) overall.

In the Iranian SMS vocabulary study, a class of 28 EAP students received 10 words and example sentences twice a week via SMS, and were exposed to a total of 320 new words. A control group studied the same vocabulary using a dictionary. Post-test scores showed an improvement in vocabulary learning for all students, but there was no significant difference between the two groups. But a later test showed that the SMS group were able to recall more vocabulary than the dictionary group. So a partly positive result, although one wonders how much vocabulary the two groups would remember a couple of months later.

The study in China and Scotland compared the uptake and response of two separate groups of teenage students to specially-designed game software for speaking practice. The two groups showed different levels of motivation. The group of Chinese EFL students reported increased positive attitudes, whereas the Scottish students learning French reported increased anxiety levels and decreasing positive attitudes during the study. A follow-up study (4) highlighted important limitations in the software. So mixed results overall in this study.

Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as learning vocabulary via SMS) show differing results – in some cases it appears to be effective, while in others it doesn’t seem to make any difference. But it’s worth bearing in mind that research studies tend to be self-selective. Researchers will often only publish studies that show positive results – those that show negative or contradictory results may never make it to publication. And although researchers try to avoid it, they are inevitably biased towards positive outcomes in their own studies. All of this means that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalisations such as ‘technology helps students learn English better’ or even ‘regular SMS texts help university students learn academic vocabulary better’.

Where does this leave us? For me, the important point is that we need to be critical users of digital technologies, and critical readers of research in the field. We need to be particularly wary of techno-centric views of technology that claim that the latest hardware/software/game/app/program will somehow magically help our students learn English ‘better’. In short, we need to be critically aware consumers of new technologies – both as users ourselves, and as teachers interested in using digital technologies with our own learners.


(1) Gebhard, M., Shin, D. S., & Seger, W. (2011). Blogging and emergent L2 literacy development in urban elementary school: A functional perspective. CALICO Journal, 28, 2, 278-307.
(2) Alemi, M., Sarab, M., & Lari, Z. (2012). Successful learning of academic word list via MALL: Mobile assisted language learning. International Education Studies, 5, 6, 99–109.
(3) Morton, H., & Jack, M. (2010). Speech interactive computer-assisted language learning: A cross-cultural evaluation. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 23, 4, 295-319.
(4) Morton, H., Gunson, N., & Jack, M. (2012). Interactive language learning through speech-enabled virtual scenarios. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction. Available at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ahci/2012/389523/