Category Archives: Thinking Routines explained

Making meaning: collective concept mapping

It was our first day at school after Christmas break and we all looked a bit numb. There was a mixture of sadness that holidays had ended and happiness to see familiar faces again. We were also a bit tired and sleepy after a two-week period of waking up late. I felt it was important not to overwhelm students right from the get-go at 8:00 am on a Monday morning, but opt for a more open-ended, student-led activity.

Photo credit: Annabel Lee

This post reflects on how we worked with two groups of sixth graders, mixed-ability A2- English learners, on the concept of “change” by using the thinking routine Making Meaning.  The aim of the routine is to build collective meaning of words, ideas, concepts or events; a collective concept mapping. It is a new routine I had come across some time ago, but had not given it a try so far. I was a bit cautious not knowing how it was going to work with students. Yet, after having tried routines in my classes for a long time, I trusted in the results they can yield with students and the richness and originality of ideas they can trigger. In any case one can never find out until one tries and cautiousness was outweighed by curiosity and anticipation.

In our case the concept was “change” and it emerged after looking at a visual stimulus. It was a street art piece which read: Happy New Year. The change starts here.

We first discussed a bit what it showed and where it could be found. We identified that it was a street art piece, probably on a wall, and that the focus was the concept of change. Change was written in the centre of the board. The first step then was to ask students

1.Think of one word that you associate/connect with change. Which word is this?

This was done as a whole class brainstorming activity and yielded some first tentative responses. Students came up with the words: New Year, school, safety, technology, economy.

As a second step I asked:

2. Now, can you think and add one more word or phrase under any of these four so as to tell me something more about it?

Students began to warm up and were able to contribute more ideas, there was greater participation and more words and phrases were added under the initial ones.

In the third step I asked them to:

3. Look at all the words and phrases we shared on the board. Can you see any connections? Think and tell me about them.

The third step found me coping with the practical issue of how to draw joining lines between the connections the children found and talked about, and how to write on those lines. It was quite an enjoyable stage as we were all taking notes, trying to accommodate on our concept maps the new information that came up from sharing ideas. It was also a moment that reveals so eloquently that thinking expands in multiple directions, it “does not happen in a linear manner” (Ritchhart et al., 2011).

In the fourth step I asked students to look at the collective concept mapping our board was displaying and think and ask any questions about the topics that had emerged:

4. Look at all our ideas shared on the board. Do you have any questions to ask about what we discussed?

We ended by adding some interesting questions:

I tried the routine with another class on that same first day at school after Christmas. I did not have the time though to take proper snapshots of our board so here are the few hasty ones I captured:

What kind of map is this?

It was funny how on finishing with the four steps, students in both groups began making jokes about this kind of map they had in their notebooks, different for each one since their notes were personalized. Some of them had opted for a full diagram while a few others had opted for a mixture of diagram and listing ideas and questions as I noticed by a quick look at their notebooks. One student said that it was “a map not to find your way, but to get lost”, another added “yes, to get lost in ideas and thoughts”, a third remarked that “it’s a map of all the different, nice ideas we had in our minds” while some others were explaining to their classmates how they were able to navigate themselves in their maps through lines, arrows, colours, boxes and clouds. I told them this was a concept map and the term seemed to stick in their minds.

The new language that emerged out of the students’ need to express their ideas while working on this routine was: connect with, associate with, concept map, economy, sustainable, equipment, space, hybrid, citizens, develop, thefts, special needs (first group) and connect with, associate with, concept map, radical, gap, reduce, increase, tax, racism, origin, argument (for the second group).

The proper wrapping up of the Making Meaning routine is that students come up with their own definition of the word, concept, topic being explored. We did not have much time to do this individually as the session was coming to an end so I asked children to hierarchize the most important elements for them and came up with a joint very short piece of writing.

I found it interesting how in both groups the routine facilitated the expression of a diversity of ideas that captured aspects of the issue ranging from the personal/school/local one to the wider “big global picture”. They associated the concept of change not only with themselves, their school, their relationships with classmates, but also with the current state of unemployment in the country, feeling of insecurity, loss of homes and the more global issues related to sustainable environment, gap between rich and poor, racism, injustice, war/peace. Each one of the questions the students asked at the final step lends itself to a new circle of inquiry.

The Making Meaning routine helped smooth our way back into “school mode” and gain some energy after the Christmas-hynernation phase. It reminded me a lot of Chalk Talk, another routine that helps students build understanding collectively. For some pictures of classroom practice with the Chalk Talk routine you can have a look here and here.

Hope you have a Happy New Year.


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

Looking 10×2: Pushing beyond the obvious

In this post I will describe the Looking 10×2 thinking routine. It is a routine that helps learners slow down, concentrate, observe carefully and describe. The routine stems from the Artful Thinking programme, one of the programmes at Project Zero. It is linked by the theme Visible Thinking which aims at helping students develop thinking dispositions that foster thoughtful learning.

Step 1

Introduce the source material. This may be any kind of image, painting or artwork, especially visual art.

Step 2

Ask students to concentrate and look quietly at the source material for thirty seconds. If the source material is rich in details, you can extend the time to one minute.

Step 3

Ask them to take notes and make a list of up to ten words or phrases about any aspect of what they have just seen. In this stage students can work individually, in pairs or in small groups.

Step 4

Work as a whole class and share ideas. As students come up with their words and phrases keep a visible record on the board by using a brainstorming diagram or a concept map. A circle map works well with this routine. Ask students to take notes of the ideas shared in class.

Step 5

Repeat steps 1-4. That is, ask students to look again, add more words and phrases to their list, and share them.

Step 6

As this is a routine that helps students generate descriptive language, it is a useful springboard into a writing activity. After completing the routine ask them as a writing assignment to produce a short text reflecting on the activity, the classroom discussion or elaborating further on the thoughts and ideas the routine triggered.

Classroom experience

Ida5f1-circlemap have tried this routine on quite a few occasions so far with my mixed ability A2+ groups of 6th graders (twelve years old).  The first one was with the topic of war/peace where we used Picasso’s Guernica as the source material. I did not tell them anything about the artwork apart from the title and the name of the painter. Students were highly engaged and motivated and came up with some interesting responses. Their responses involved references both to what was obvious (horse, bull, lamp, door, faces, feet) as well as attempts beyond it (lost lives, lost dreams, black world, death, fear). We used a circle concept map to document our words and phrases. Red marker was used for the words and phrases they came up with when we repeated the routine.

Another occasion was with the topic of refugees. Here the source material was an illustration for World Refugee Day by Hanane Kai, a graphic designer. Again, students’ responses were recorded through the use of a circle concept map.

A third occasion was with the topic of mobility disability. In this case the source material was an image by Ian James for ELTpics. This time we used a brainstorming diagram.

Things to consider

The idea in this routine is to have students slow down their usual busy mode of work and spend some time to look carefully and think.  Careful looking means taking time to notice more than what meets the eye at first glanceIt is the observing and describing disposition that is at work here, a component of creative thinking, which is about noticing, thinking and communicating impressions.

What I find interesting about the Looking 10×2 routine, and the same goes with all the routines I have tried in class, is that it serves what David Perkins calls “the optimal ambiguity” in an assignment. It is flexible for the teacher, structured enough to guide students, and open enough to let them discover their unique paths. This openness results in a nice flow of ideas expressed in the English classroom.

Using artwork as source material is enriching as it provides a nonjudgmental territory for students. Art is open to multiple interpretations, pushing students at the edge of what is and what isn’t; it is exploring, there are no incorrect answers and this is particularly important for students with low confidence.

The routine is most effective when attached to a topic or content which gives students something worth thinking about. It can also be nicely combined with the See-think-wonder routine to push their thinking further.

The routine may also be used with a piece of music as Listening 10×2. 


Art in the English Class, Guernica: Looking 10×2

Artful Thinking, Looking 10×2

Papalazarou, C (2015) ‘Making thinking visible in the English classroom: nurturing a creative mind-set’ in Maley, A and Peachey, N (eds) Creativity in the English language classroom. British Council: 37-43.

What makes you say that? Reasoning with evidence

We worked on the topic of urbanization with my 6th grade students (12 years old). The idea was to discuss the evolution of cities from antiquity to present time, urban growth around the world and relevant issues, and to deal with aspects of modern city life as they and their families experienced them. On starting the topic I presented them with two paintings by Cyril E. Power and LS Lowry, 20th century English artists of the emerging modern city.

First, I showed them Power’s painting, The Tube Train. I did not give any background information about the painting just encouraged students to observe it quietly for a couple of minutes. Then I asked them:

Cyril E. Power, The Tube Train
Cyril E. Power, The Tube Train


What’s going on in this painting?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can you find or think about when looking at this painting?


We used sticky notes to document the ideas that we shared during classroom discussion.


Their answers to the What’s going on? prompt fell in two groups: some obvious remarks about the scene depicted in the painting suggesting that these were people sitting on a train or on the metro and their thoughts about the people in the painting. They noticed that the people looked angry and sad. By asking What do you see that makes you say that? they began to observe more carefully searching for details that would justify their responses such as: “I can see handles at the ceiling, I see the place has a circular shape, I see they are holding and reading newspapers and people often read newspaper at the metro”, but also “I see that they aren’t smiling, they don’t care about what’s going on around them”. Some more final thoughts were added like “they are tired because they live a routine life or they are only interested in themselves”.

The activity we first worked on was the What makes you say that? routine. It taps into students’ background knowledge and asks them to:

  • look carefully at works of art
  • talk about what they observe
  • support their ideas with evidence through the emphasis on details to enhance understanding
  • listen and consider the views of others
  • discuss many possible interpretations

 We worked on the same routine with Lowry’s painting Returning from work.

LS Lowry, Returning from work
LS Lowry, Returning from work

What’s going on?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can you find or think about when looking at this painting?

Documentation of classroom discussion:


Apart from using sticky notes to document our ideas, students also kept notes during the discussion:

We needed two forty-minute teaching sessions to complete the What makes you say that? activity. In the end, we discussed how the people in the paintings might feel, how we felt by looking at them and what the common elements in the two paintings were. By the end students had identified that we would be dealing with aspects of modern urban life.

The activities were also an effective springboard into writing yielding results like:

When we finished the topic of urbanization we worked on a short improvisation. First, we brainstormed around city life and reflected on the questions: “What do you think someone living in a big city may be thinking? How do you think he/she may be feeling?” Think of your personal experience, your family’s and friends’. Students’ ideas were diverse and after sharing them we shot a short video where their body language was highly influenced by the details we had discussed in Power’s and Lowry’s painting. You can watch the video City Life here. The full lesson proposal on urbanization is here.

The What makes you say that? routine draws on the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS, Housen, Yenawine & Arenas, 1991). You can read more about the VTS method here and the VT routine here.

Colour-Symbol-Image: Focusing on visual connections

The Colour-Symbol-Image routine helps students to express their thinking non-verbally. Especially in the case of younger learners, this taps right into their natural creativity and desire for expression. It is a routine that encourages them to identify and capture the heart of ideas they have explored through reading, watching or listening to the selected source material. As they make their selections of colours, symbols, images, students are pushed to make connections and think metaphorically.

Metaphors are a powerful way to develop our understanding of ideas by associating a new concept with a more familiar one and making comparisons. The connections and ideas students come up with need to be understood as highly personal. Therefore we should not evaluate them as they occur. All ideas are possibilities and students should generate as many as they can before identifying degrees of merit.

This routine is best used after students have read a passage from a book, a short story, or a poem, listened to a radio essay or watched a short film, reached the end of a topic or unit. Language level-appropriate, students explain and justify their choices in writing.

Step 1

After having gone through the source material, ask students to take the following steps:

Choose a colour that they feel represents the ideas discussed. Explain why they chose it. (One or two colours should be chosen by students.)

Choose a symbol. Explain why they chose it. (A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something else. For example, roses stand for romance, a heart stands for love, a dove stands for peace.)

Choose an image. Explain why they chose it. (Students may use a photograph or sketch their own drawings. They should not worry about their drawing abilities as it can be something very simple that captures their idea.)

Step 2

Have students work individually, in pairs or in groups. Working with a partner or in a group has the advantage over individual work in that students learn to offer arguments and negotiate meaning.

Step 3

Share the thinking and ideas. Use the student-made output as a teaching input. Have individual students, pairs or groups present their choices and hold a plenary discussion.

Classroom practice

We tried this routine at the end of the topic of war/peace. Students organized themselves in small groups and chose what they wished to represent – war or peace. In my mixed ability primary school classroom this organization worked well. Students shared their ideas with the other members of the group before deciding on the final outcome. Members of the group could contribute in diverse ways. Some were stronger at the verbal part while others at the non-verbal, drawing part. Students first kept notes of their ideas, then shared them among their groups and we used sheets of A3 paper size for the final outcome.

Examples of students’ ideas include:

Things to note: Some groups may find it easier to start with the other parts of the routine first, i.e. symbol or image. The order is not binding.


Papalazarou, C (2015) ‘Making thinking visible in the English classroom: nurturing a creative mind-set’ in Maley, A and Peachey, N (eds) Creativity in the English language classroom. British Council: 37-43.

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

Visible Thinking, Colour, Symbol, Image Routine

War/Peace: Colour-symbol-image, Art in the English Class project

Step Inside:perceive-believe-care about

Step Inside: perceive-believe-care about is a routine that can work effectively towards appreciation of the other’s perspective. It asks students to step inside a character and deepen their understanding. Perspective often shapes the way things are understood, so this focus on perspective appreciation can lead to a deeper awareness and help stimulate empathy.

Step 1

Show students a work of art, a photograph, a video. The source material may also be a story or a poem the class has read. When working on issues of social justice and fairness, choice of material that can evoke an emotional response and lead to more creative understanding is of importance. It might also be material that involves some sort of dilemma calling for multiple perspectives to be considered.

Step 2

Ask students to step inside, place themselves within the situation and imagine they are a character from the source material. From this perspective, ask them to reflect on the questions:

What do you perceive?

What might you believe?

What might you care about?

Perceive here can be replaced by see, observe or understand. Likewise, believe can be replaced by know or think.

It is interesting to note the use of might in the second and third question. Might sends the message to students that the idea is not to come up with a single answer, but to think broadly about alternatives. Using conditional language signifies our attempt to understand someone else’s perspective through hypothesis making and raising possibilities.

Step 3

Students can work individually, in pairs or in groups. They can first take notes of their responses before sharing them with the rest of the class.

Step 4

Share the thinking and ideas. If students have worked individually you may consider placing them in groups where each member has chosen a different perspective. Another idea would be that students who have chosen the same perspective are grouped together and compare their responses.

Classroom practice

We were working on the topic of deforestation. We tried the routine after having watched a short video of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and gone through a relevant ppt presentation of the story.  I asked students to Step Inside the story and imagine they were the tree or the boy. From their chosen perspective they had to respond to the questions. The ideas shared:

Another occasion was when we were working on the topic of bullying. In this case we used the routine to introduce the topic. The source material we used was a detail from Pieter Brueghel’s painting Children’s Games.  The detail showed six boys holding another boy by feet and hands. It was the bump bouncing game which involved bouncing someone’s buttocks on a wooden plunk as a form of punishment. I asked students to Step Inside and imagine they were the boy in the middle of the picture. Their ideas:

In this case I had asked students to Step Inside the character of the boy in the middle of the painting. It would be more complete and interesting in terms of understanding perspectives around bullying to have them also consider the viewpoint of the group of children who were bump bouncing him. I tried to bridge this gap with some follow up questions like: Why do you think the boys behave like that? or why do you think they punish him?

You can also read about this routine in Chapter 4 of the British Council’s new book ‘Creativity in the English language classroom’ (Edited by Alan Maley and Nik Peachey). It is a collaborative publication comprising of 18 chapters, each with a blend of theory and practical activities. The pdf can be found free to download here. Among the contributors there are many members of the C Group, an initiative that brings together a collection of people and a cluster of ideas sharing the belief for reinforced creativity in ELT through collective action.


Children’s Games: Perceive-Believe-Care About, Art in the English Class project

Ritchhart, R, Church, M and Morrison, K (2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 178-184.

The Giving Tree: Step Inside/Perceive-Believe-Care About, Art in the English Class project

Visible Thinking, Step Inside: Perceive-Believe-Care About


See-Think-Wonder: The impact of curiosity on learning

See-Think-Wonder is the first routine I’ve ever used and the first one I wrote about in a post for the Teaching English British Council blog community. It is a routine that asks students to observe carefully, think about what they see, and ask questions. The wonderful thing about it is that it taps right into students’ imagination and curiosity. Curiosity when aroused means they are highly motivated, alert and open to learning. This openness in turn, allows for interesting and original observations, thoughts and questions which are communicated through meaningful language.

Step 1

At the beginning of a topic or a unit, show students a painting, an image, an object. Make sure you choose a powerful stimulus to encourage observation, interpretation and wondering.

Step 2

Ask students to reflect on the questions:

What do you see?

What do you think about it?

What does it make you wonder?

Step 3

Allow for some quiet, uninterrupted observation time. Students can first jot down their responses before sharing them with the rest of the class. They work individually, in pairs or in small groups. It depends on how many ideas you want them to generate.

Step 4

Have students present and share their responses with the rest of the class. Document their thinking and ideas. You can do this by using the board, post-it notes, construction papers on the walls, by encouraging the students to jot down the ideas shared.

Classroom practice

See-Think-Wonder is a routine that works well when starting a topic. As with other thinking routines it’s important for a routine to be attached to meaningful content for thinking beyond surface to occur. I have used it with various topics: War/Peace, Asperger’s & Autism, School, The myth of Europe, Urbanization. I mainly used it when introducing the topic. I am sharing here two examples.

1. When introducing the topic of War/Peace I showed children Picasso’s Guernica. We first explored the painting through the Looking Ten Times Two routine. Groups then worked on the See-Think-Wonder. The ideas shared were:

2. A second case was when introducing the topic of Asperger’s & Autism. This time I chose Blue Butterflies Tongue, a fascinating painting by Steven Coventry, an artist with Asperger’s syndrome. This time many children chose to work in pairs so more ideas were shared:

In both these cases, the See-Think-Wonder routine unleashed in a beautiful way  students’ creative and metaphoric thinking. The surprise and curiosity evoked by the visual stimuli used led to a heightened state of consciousness and emotion brought about by something unexpected. They contemplated with joy, their interest was stimulated, the stage for further inquiry was set, and positive expectations for the next lessons to come were created.

Things to consider: Students must provide answers to all three stems at the same time (I see-I think-I wonder). When you first use the routine, they may respond only to the first stem (I see). In this case prompt responses to the other two by asking the follow-up questions (i.e. What do you think about it? What does it make you wonder?). Once they get used to the routine, they’ll provide answers to all three stems at the same time.


Blue Butterflies Tongue: See-Think-Wonder, Art in the English Class project

Future Megacities: See-Think-Wonder, Art in the English Class project

Guernica: See-Think-Wonder, Art in the English Class project

School: See-Think-Wonder, Art in the English Class project

Visible Thinking, See-Think-Wonder

Sentence-Phrase-Word: Capturing the essence of a text

In this post I will describe the Sentence-Phrase-Word thinking routine. It is a routine that helps learners engage meaningfully with a text with a focus on capturing “what speaks to them”. It also calls for them to justify their choices which makes it a useful springboard into a speaking activity.

Step 1
After reading a text ask students to identify:

    • a sentence that was important, meaningful to them
    • a phrase that moved them
    • a word that struck them as powerful

Students can work individually, in pairs or in groups. It depends on how many ideas you want to generate. They can first take notes of their selections and the reason behind them before sharing them with the rest of the class. There are actually no right or wrong answers since their choices of sentences, phrases, and words will reflect their own experience.

Step 2
Students can present and share their selections of sentences/phrases/words. Sharing can be done a) in pairs or small groups and/or b) in the form of a plenary discussion. Use the board to record their choices so that everyone can see and comment on them. Encouraging the rest of the class to take notes of their classmates’ selections is also an add-on.

Step 3
After sharing invite students to reflect on the discussion. They can a) identify common themes that have emerged from their responses and b) the implications that lie behind.

Step 4
If possible, post all answers in the classroom and provide some time for students to think again on their classmates’ sentences/phrases/words. This will contribute to a better personal and collective understanding of the text.

Classroom experience
I have tried this routine on two occasions so far. The first was with the topic of friendship where I used a short extract from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.  After reading aloud the extract to the children, they silent read it in small groups while I provided groups with some help on vocabulary where necessary. Groups then worked on the routine. The ideas shared in class were:

The second time was with Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree while working on the topic of deforestation. We first watched a video rendering and went through a ppt slide presentation of the book. Then, students worked in pairs, with a story hand-out and chose their sentences/phrases/words. Their responses:

Things to consider: An issue I had to deal with was how to explain to my 12 year old students, 2 multi-level (pre-intermediate/intermediate) groups the difference between sentence and phrase. I gave them an example showing the difference between sentence and phrase like so:

Sentence (begins with a capital, ends in a full stop, period, question mark or exclamation mark, expresses a complete thought): This is a sentence as you can see.

Phrase (part of a sentence, does not express a complete thought): as you can see

The routine can also work nicely with just two of the three stems (sentence/word).

The Ugly Duckling, Art in the English Class project

The Giving Tree, Art in the English Class project

Ritchhart, R, Church, M and Morrison, K (2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 207-213.