Reading Guide

Reading speed & comprehension

  • Each type of reading has a different rate;
    an exciting novel is a quicker read than a text in biology.
  • Text books vary in how well they are written;
    as a consequence some are more difficult to read.
  • Each semester, time yourself reading a chapter
    in each of your text books. See how many pages an hour you can read. Once you have an accurate estimate of your reading rate, you can better plan your reading time and studying time.

Scan the chapter first.
Identify the sections to which the author devotes the most amount of space. If there are lots of diagrams for a particular concept, then that must also be an important concept. If you’re really pressed for time, skip the sections to which the least amount of space is devoted.

Read the first sentence of every paragraph
more carefully than the rest of the paragraph.

  • Take notes on headings and first sentence
    of each paragraph before reading the chapter itself.
    Then close your book and ask yourself what you now know about the subject that you didn’t know before you started.
  • Focus on nouns and main propositions in each sentence. Look for the noun-verb combinations, and focus your learning on these.
  • For example, consider the following text:

Classical conditioning is learning that takes place when we come to associate two stimuli in the environment. One of these stimuli triggers a reflexive response. The second stimulus is originally neutral with respect to that response, but after it has been paired with the first stimulus, it comes to trigger the response in its own right.

Rather than read every word, you might decode this text graphically:

Classical conditioning = learning = associating two stimuli
1st stimulus triggers a response
2nd stimulus = originally neutral, but paired with 1st –> triggers response.

Rather than reading and re-reading your text, take notes in this form, so that you’ve re-written the important parts of the text. Once you have written notes, you don’t have to worry about the text itself.

Pre-reading Strategies

What you bring to the printed page
will affect how you understand what you read,
and may be what is most important in understanding what you read


Examine the title of the selection you are about to read
List all the information that comes to mind about this title
Use these pieces of information to recall and understand the material
Use this knowledge to reframe or reorder what you know, or to note what you disagree with, for further research


  • Relax. Play some creative music.
  • Spelling or style doesn’t count.:>)
  • Don’t worry about organization.
  • Think quantity.
  • Be positive, don’t criticise.
  • Free-associate ideas. Keep them simple.
  • Write or sketch as quickly as you can.
  • Write or sketch in any order.
  • Develop all ideas.
  • Keep working.
  • Combine to improve each other’s ideas
  • More brainstorming tips and techniques

Webbing Strategies:

  • Work from a central idea, concept, topic or question, gathering and linking thoughts in text and/or pictures. Expand thoughts from the center like branches on a web. Weave the web. When one branch stops or an idea doesn’t fit create a new branch.
  • An alternative is to free associate a random list then sift, sort and develop relational links and design the web. Expand web branches and links. Explore any associations that strike your fancy.
  • Use paper and pencil, text or free sketch. Connect thoughts with relational links. Use sticky notes as an effective alternative. Free associate a different idea on each note, regroup the sticky notes into categories, then construct a web on butcher paper. Use different colored sticky notes to denote headings or categories that emerge from the brainstorm. Develop links on the paper — text or sketches can be added at any time.
  • By far the most effective and efficient method is to use a commercial software program such as Inspirations.
  • Software programs have significant advantages over paper and pencil. They encourage building, creating and inventing — yet keep the web legible. Webs become unwieldy as they grow. Software program manage growth. Select the look — cluster, branching, right to left etc. Try different looks and nudge the cells to for style. An emerging new thought? Click on another cell or start a new branch. Change of mind? New insight? Revise, move, delete and paste. Save, print, or export the map into various formats. Some programs produce a nice neat linear text outline. Cool!
  • Group guidelines are a must when for maximum effectiveness. Use a strategy called ‘Think, Pair, Share’. Work from individual association to sharing with a partner then collaborating as a group to develop the web.

ABC Brainstorm

What Is An ABC Brainstorm?

Before having your students talk about a major topic, it’s essential to activate their background knowledge about it. One way to do this is the ABC Brainstorm. The idea is meant to be fairly simple. Students try to think of a word or phrase associated with the topic, matched to each letter of the alphabet.

How Does It Work?

Have students list all the letters of the alphabet down a sheet of paper (or use the printable ABC Brainstorm sheet available through ReadingQuest), leaving room beside each letter to write out the rest of a word or phrase. Let them work individually at first, thinking of as many words as they can that could be associated with the topic you identify. Do note: The topic should be big and general enough that students can actually think of a lot of possible terms. Then, in no particular order, let them begin filling in the blanks beside each letter of the alphabet. For instance, if the topic were World War II, students might list Allies, Bombers, Concentration Camps, Dachau, Europe, French Resistance, Germany, Hitler, Italy, Japan, and so on.

It seems to work well if you give students enough time to think of a lot of ideas, but then let them pair up or work in small groups to fill in blanks for letters they had not yet completed. In this way, you can let the brainstorming function like a Think-Pair-Share. This would be the “Pair” phase. Then, go around the room or get students to report out (“Share”) possible terms for the different letters of the alphabet. Be open to a wide range of possibilities! Make sure students know that you’re not looking for exact answers, just justifiable and relevant ones.

What Sorts of Topics Are Good for an ABC Brainstorm?

I say, keep it more broad and relevant. Topics like government, Islam, war (or a specific war), the Great Depression, or a broad geographical region are probably pretty fertile for an ABC Brainstorm. Topics previously studied, about which students know much, can be good recap brainstorms. This might include topics like The Gilded Age, Progressivism, a given decade (the Sixties or the Roaring Twenties, for instance), or capitalism. It’s doubtful whether a narrow topic (Saddam Hussein, Circular Flow Diagram, the Constitution) would provide enough latitude for a good ABC Brainstorm, but you won’t know until you try.

What Variations Are There?

An idea that has been credited to Janet Allen is AlphaBlocks. Rather than brainstorm ideas for all 26 letters of the alphabet, students brainstorm ideas within groups (“blocks”) of letters (ABC, DEF, GHI, and so on). This simplifies and speeds up the brainstorming, while still causing students to turn their attention to and think about the topic at hand.

Another variation of ABC Brainstorm involves turning the topic on its side, and writing the letters of the topic down in the same was a name poem or an acrostic. Students then brainstorm a word or phrase associated with the topic, one for each letter of the topic starting with each letter of the topic. For example, if the topic were COMPETITION in Economics, students might think of: Compete, Options, Monopoly, Perfect, Economy, Trade, Imperfect, TV ads, Inside information, Oligopoly, Natural.

What Is a Carousel Brainstorm?

Whether activating background knowledge or checking understanding after studying a topic, a carousel brainstorm allows you to have students pull out and think about what they know about subtopics within a larger topic.

How Does It Work?

Begin by putting students in groups of 3 or 4. Give each group a sheet of newsprint/chart paper. Each group’s sheet has a different subtopic written on it. One student serves as the recorder and has a particular color of magic marker. Explain that the students will have a short time (say, 30 seconds) to write down on their chart paper all the terms they can think of that they associate with their topic. Explain upfront that you will then have them pass their sheet over to the next group, and a new topic will be passed to them. Make it clear which direction you’ll have them pass the sheets so that this is orderly AND so that each group will receive each of the subtopic sheets. At the end of the 30 seconds, tell them to cap their markers, remind them to keep their markers, but have them pass their sheets to the next group according to the pre-determined path for passing. After three or four passings, you will probably want to extend the writing time to 40 seconds, then 45 seconds, and perhaps up to a minute, because all the easy ideas will have been taken by previous groups, and the students will need more time to talk about and think of other terms to be added to the brainstorm list. Keep having students brainstorm, write, and pass until each group has had a chance to add ideas to each of the subtopic sheets. Let them pass it the final time to the group who had each sheet first.

The first time I saw this strategy used was actually in an 8th grade science class. The topic was the Circulatory System, and students had read the textbook chapter on it the night before. The teacher began the day with Carousel Brainstorming. The individual chart paper sheets were labeled with subtopics relevant to the Circulatory System: Heart, Lungs, Capillaries, Arteries, Veins, Exchange of Gases, and so on.

Isn’t This Like “Graffiti?”

Yep, almost exactly like it, but the difference is that with Graffiti, the sheets are posted on the wall, and the students move around from sheet to sheet. With Carousel Brainstorming, the students stay seated and the sheets are passed. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell the difference.

How Might I Push It a Step Further?

I like to go beyond the simple brainstorm and have the group who started with the sheet look it over when it returns to them, note all the other ideas that were added after it was passed around to the other groups, and then circle the three terms that they think are most essential, most important, or most fundamental to the topic at the top of their sheet. That way, they spend some time critically evaluating all the possible terms and topics and making decisions about which are most representative of or most closely associated with the given topic. Sometimes, students do this quickly or almost glibly, but often the groups will spend quite a while hashing this out. That tells me that they are really thinking about it. Then, I’ll have them try to write a definition for their topic, a statement that explains to someone who is unfamiliar with it what that topic is really about. I tell them that since they have already circled three terms that they consider essential or fundamental to their topic, they’ll probably want to USE those three terms in their definition, or be darned sure to consider them for inclusion in their definition. While this has the limitation of having students think deeply about only ONE of the subtopics (the sheet they have before them, not all the other subtopics on the other sheets), I still find great value in the depth of thinking and conversation as we take the strategy this much further.

Group discussions

Group discussions in and out of class will help you to discover what you bring to your reading, what your fellow students bring, as well as shared experiences
If you find they have new background information, ask for more information from them

Concept or mind mapping

This is a type of brainstorming where you place the title/subject as the main idea, then develop a “mind map” around it. It can be effective either in a group or by yourself.


  • Develop an understanding of a body of knowledge. Explore new information and relationships. Access prior knowledge. Gather new knowledge and information. Share knowledge and information generated. Design structures or processes such as written documents, constructions, web sites, web search, multimedia presentations.
  • Problem solve options.

Critical Questions:

  • What is the central word, concept, research question or problem around which to build the map?
  • What are the concepts, items, descriptive words or telling questions that you can associate with the concept, topic, research question or problem?


  • Use a top down approach, working from general to specific or use a free association approach by brainstorming nodes and then develop links and relationships. Use different colors and shapes for nodes & links to identify different types of information. Use different colored nodes to identify prior and new information. Use a cloud node to identify a question.
  • Gather information to a question in the question node.


Often chapters in texts provide organizing questions.
You can also write out a series of questions you expect to be answered when reading:


What is….? Where does … fit? What group does … belong to?

How would I describe…? What does … look like? What are its parts?

What is a good example of …?
What are similar examples that share attributes but differ in some way?

What experience have I had with ….? What can I imagine about …?

Visual Aids

Pictures and other visual material can activate your prior knowledge.
Use the Internet to search for pictures related to your title/topic to give you visual images of what you are about to read.

Advance Organizers

Relate new reading material to something you already know, to your background or experiences. Ask your teacher for assistance in developing these.

Reading Strategies

Marking & Underlining

Read a section of your text (that you own!)
that you consider “manageable” but make no entries

Review the section:

Number important or sequential ideas in the margins

Underline or highlight:

  • main subjects
  • examples of these main ideas that help you understand them
  • unfamiliar vocabulary and/or definitions

Jot down paraphrases, questions, and summaries
in available space within the text

Develop a system to coordinate various sources
of information: workbooks, CDs, Web sites, classroom notes, etc.

Taking notes

First: read a section of your textbook chapter
Read just enough to keep an understanding of the material.
Do not take notes, but rather focus on understanding the material.

It is tempting to take notes as you are reading the first time, but this is not an efficient technique: you are likely to take down too much information and simply copy without understanding

Second: Review the material
Locate the main ideas, as well as important sub-points

  • Set the book aside
  • Paraphrase this information:
    Putting the textbook information in your own words forces you to become actively involved with the material

Third: write the paraphrased ideas as your notes

  • Do not copy information directly from the textbook
  • Add only enough detail to understand

Review, and compare your notes with the text,
and ask yourself if you truly understand

SQ3R reading method

SQ3R is a reading strategy formed from its letters:

Survey! Question! Read! Recite! Review!

SQ3R will help you build a framework to understand your reading assignment.

Before you read, Survey the chapter:

  • the title, headings, and subheadings
  • captions under pictures, charts, graphs or maps
  • review questions or teacher-made study guides
  • introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • summary

Question while you are surveying:

  • Turn the title, headings, and/or subheadings into questions
  • Read questions at the end of the chapters or after each subheading
  • Ask yourself,
    “What did my instructor say about this chapter or subject when it was assigned?”
  • Ask yourself,
    “What do I already know about this subject?”
    Note: If it is helpful to you, write out these questions for consideration.
    This variation is called SQW3R

When you begin to Read:

  • Look for answers to the questions you first raised
  • Answer questions at the beginning or end of chapters or study guides
  • Reread captions under pictures, graphs, etc.
  • Note all the underlined, italicized, bold printed words or phrases
  • Study graphic aids
  • Reduce your speed for difficult passages
  • Stop and reread parts which are not clear
  • Read only a section at a time and recite after each section

Recite after you’ve read a section:

  • Orally ask yourself questions about what you have just read, or summarize, in your own words, what you read
  • Take notes from the text but write the information in your own words
  • Underline or highlight important points you’ve just read
  • Reciting:
    The more senses you use the more likely you are to remember what you read Triple strength learning: Seeing, saying, hearing
    Quadruple strength learning: Seeing , saying , hearing, writing!!!

Review: an ongoing process

Day One

  • After you have read and recited the entire chapter, write questions in the margins for those points you have highlighted or underlined.
  • If you took notes while reciting, write questions for the notes you have taken in the left hand margins of your notebook.
  • Complete the form for a critical reading review

Day Two

  • Page through the text and/or your notebook to re-acquaint yourself with the important points.
  • Cover the right hand column of your text/note-book and orally ask yourself the questions in the left hand margins.
  • Orally recite or write the answers from memory.
  • Develop mnemonic devices for material which need to be memorized.
    Make flash cards for those questions which give you difficulty.

Days Three, Four and Five

  • Alternate between your flash cards and notes and test yourself (orally or in writing) on the questions you formulated.
  • Make additional flash cards if necessary.


  • Using the text and notebook, make a Table of Contents – list all the topics and sub-topics you need to know from the chapter.
  • From the Table of Contents, make a Study Sheet/ Spatial Map.
  • Recite the information orally and in your own words as you put the Study Sheet/Map together.
  • As you have consolidated all the information you need for this chapter, periodically review the Sheet/Map so that at test time you will not have to cram.

Critical reading

Characteristics of Critical Readers

  • They are honest with themselves
  • They resist manipulation
  • They overcome confusion
  • They ask questions
  • They base judgments on evidence
  • They look for connections between subjects
  • They are intellectually independent

Ask yourself the following questions as you read:

  • What is the topic of the book or reading?
  • What issues are addressed?
  • What conclusion does the author reach about the issue(s)?
  • What are the author’s reasons for his or her statements or belief?
    Is the author using facts, theory, or faith?

Facts can be proven
Theory is to be proved and should not be confused with fact
Opinions may or may not be based on sound reasoning
Faith is not subject to proof by its nature

  • Has the author used neutral words or emotional words?
    Critical readers look beyond the language to see if the reasons are clear
  • Be aware of why you do, or do not, accept arguments of the author

Clock Buddies

What Are Clock Buddies?

Clock Buddies is meant to be a quick and easy way to create pairs for partnered activities while avoiding the problem of kids always having the SAME partners. It begins with a clock face, with slots for names extending from each hour on the dial. The basic idea is that each student has his or her own copy of a Clock Buddies sheet, with the names of 12 classmates on each hour’s slot. Each of those other students, in turn, has this student’s name in the matching hour slot on each of their clock sheets.

How Does It Work?

When the teacher needs to quickly pair up students without it always being the same partners every time, she can say to the class: “Get with your 4 o’clock buddy.” Each student will pull out his or her clock buddies sheet, look at the 4 o’clock slot, and then join the partner indicated. This works because when the strategy is set up, it is done so that partners always have each other’s names on their matching hour on the clock buddy chart.

clock buddies

Sounds Complicated…How Do I Set It Up?

The reason it may sound complicated is because you need to see it…reading about it here is about the least productive way to really get it. Nonetheless, we’ll press on! Look at the example graphic that appears here.

This is Joey’s clock buddies chart, and 12 of his classmates are listed on it. If we were to pull out Rick’s chart, we’d see that Joey’s name is on Rick’s 1 o’clock slot, and other children’s names fill out the rest of his clock.

What’s the Best Way to Set It Up?

From the Massachusetts D.A.R.E. Program I get this idea: Clock buddies are chosen by giving each student a clock handout with a blank line next to each hour. Each student then goes to classmates to find a buddy for each hour. If Mike goes to Joe, Joe signs Mike’s clock at ___PM and Mike signs Joe’s clock for the same time. Students cannot use a name twice and all hours must be filled in. The clocks are then attached to the inside cover of their notebook or workbook. When you want students to work with a buddy, you call out a random time, for example, “It’s time to work with your _____ o’clock buddy.” Students will then move to and work with the buddy whose name is at that time slot.

I’ve also set this up using two concentric circles, with half of the students on the inside circle, and around them in the larger circle is the other half of the group. (I usually take the left half and right half of the room, or the front half and rear half, to make the two concentric circles. That way, the opposite circle is composed of students who don’t normally sit near each other.) Once the two concentric circles are formed, each student will have one person directly across from him or her. (If there is an odd number of students, the teacher joins the circle that has one fewer student in it.) Have the students in pairs across from each other write each other’s name in their 1 o’clock slots. Then, tell the outer circle to move one person to the right. Now, each student has a new partner across from him or her. This would be the 2 o’clock buddy; students write each other’s name in the 2 o’clock slot. Next, tell the inner circle to rotate one person to the right. Again, now new partners are matched up, and these should write each other’s name in the 3 o’clock slots. Continue until all students have been all the way around or until all 12 clock slots are filled, whichever comes first. I alternate having the outer circle move, then the inner circle, then the outer, and so on. If each always moves to the right, you’ll have an orderly progression all the way around.

Comparison-Contrast Charts


Comparison-Contrast Charts do just about what you’d expect them to with a name like that: they’re useful for looking a two quantities and determining in what ways they are similar and in what ways they are different. The chart pictured here is one way to approach this comparison. First you look at the similarities. Then you consider the differences, making sure to indicate on what criteria you are drawing out the dissimilarities.

There are certainly many ways to have students compare things and to represent that comparison visually. Even more well-known than the comparison-contrast chart is the Venn Diagram. The Venn diagram is also very useful, as long as we keep in mind that the real value of a Venn is in the DOING of it…they work best when we have students, not teachers, determining what the relevant similarities and differences are between two or three concepts, people, places, or ideas. The website offers several types of comparison-contrast charts and Venn diagrams, which can be downloaded and printed out from the links below.

Concept of Definition Map

The idea is that it’s not enough to know how a word is defined in a dictionary sense. Consider what happens with the following word that many 9th graders reading To Kill a Mockingbird may not have encountered before:


“of or related to a church”
Example of Appropriate Use in a Sentence:
The minister’s ecclesiastical robes danced in echo to his wild gestures from the pulpit.
Example of Sentence Written by a Student:
Church members are reminded to park in the ecclesiastical parking lot, rather than in the shopping center across the street.

Besides the fact that “ecclesiastical” is probably not central to students’ understanding of the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird, it remains that the definition they were given is too one-dimensional. They have not experienced its richness of meaning, nor the shades of meaning that help us distinguish words more precisely from one another. The best way for students to comprehend a new vocabulary term is for them to experience it. A concept of definition map helps broaden their experience of new words.

How Do They Work?

Concept of Definition maps consider words in light of three properties or attributes:

  • category – What Is It?
  • properties – What Is It Like?
  • illustrations – What Are Some Examples?

Help Me Visualize A CD Map. Got a good graphic for me?


Graphic Organizers

What Are Graphic Organizers?

You can call them graphic organizers, pictorial organizers, webs, maps, concept maps, or whatever other name you wish to give them…but graphic organizers are basically visual ways to represent information. You can create maps that arrange information:

  • according to main ideas, subtopics, and details
  • in sequence
  • to show the relationships between the different parts
  • according to the similarities and differences between two or more concepts
  • by its components, as in the elements of a story
  • …and lots of other ways

There are literally dozens upon dozens of versions of graphic organizers; there are almost as many books, manuals, and guides, not to mention websites, that can give you a whole range of examples. For our purposes here, I only want to show you how graphic organizers can be simply an extension or adaptation of the Power Thinking strategy.

How Do They Work?

Since you know that some of your students are visual learners, and that a picture is worth a thousand words, then you should have in your toolbox some ways to organize ideas, facts, and concepts graphically. Graphic organizers are just the thing.

Using boxes, circles, ovals, rectangles, and other shapes, not to mention lines for connecting, students can show information according to its level (main ideas, subtopics, details or elaboration, and so on). They can show how two ideas compare to one another (as in a Venn Diagram) or Comparison-Contrast Chart. They can trace the order or sequence or stages of a process. They can show how characters in a story, or officeholders in a government, work with and relate to one another. In economics, that time-honored Circular Flow Diagram is an example of a graphic organizer.

History Frames/Story Maps

What Are History Frames?

Here is one of the strategies that we ought to be using in history and social studies classes because it lets us take advantage of a tool that students probably already possess … namely, the story maps they’ve been using in English and Language Arts and Literature for years and years.

When looking at stories and novels, students are often asked to focus on the “elements” of story: setting, characters, plot, and theme, among others.
When we look at historical events, we’re interested in the same things:

  • where and when did the event take place?
  • who was involved?
  • what was the problem or goal that set events in motion?
  • what were the key events?
  • how was it resolved?
  • and, for theme, so what? what’s the universal truth, the reason this matters?
[For you science teachers our there who have stopped by this site, you might also consider taking advantage of the traditional story map (if your students are already using these maps in other classes) to have them write up their lab reports … see the chart below.]

How Do These Frames & Maps Work?

  1. Characters: Who are the people who were involved in this? Which ones played major roles, and which ones were minor?
  2. Setting: Where and when did this event take place? Over what period of time?
  3. Plot: This section is broken into three parts:
    1. Problem/Goal: What set events in motion? What problem arose, or what were the key players after?
    2. Events/Episodes: This is to get students to focus on summarizing…they focus on the key steps or events that capture the progress of the situation.
    3. Resolution/Outcome: How was the problem solved? Was the goal attained? (It’s probably pretty important to stress to students that they should go back to the problem or goal they identified in order to say how it was resolved or whether it was met.)
  4. Theme. I think of this as the “so what?” of a history frame or story map. You might think of it as the universal truth or revelation, the larger meaning or importance, the moral, the “what we’ve learned from this,” and so on. A wonderful teacher named Donna Feary suggested to me that the theme ought to be the way that a student relates the event to his own life, and we decided that perhaps the Theme can be divided into two components:
    1. a universal truth
    2. a personal truth

Inquiry Chart

What Is An I-Chart?

Inquiry Charts were developed by James V. Hoffman, based on the work of McKenzie, Ogle, and others. I-Charts offer a planned framework for examining critical questions by integrating what is already known or thought about the topic with additional information found in several sources.

How Does It Work?

On a given topic, you’ll have several questions to explore. These are found at the top of each individual column. The rows are for recording, in summary form, the information you think you already know and the key ideas pulled from several different sources of information. The final row gives you a chance to pull together the ideas into a general summary. It’s at this time you’ll also try to resolve competing ideas found in the separate sources or, even better, develop new questions to explore based on any conflicting or incomplete information.

How Does It Look, Generally?

The I-Chart that appears below is merely a suggestion. You and your students can create for yourselves an I-Chart to help you analyze several sources of information. You should feel free to modify the I-Chart, such as including a bottom row to list new questions.

Question Area 1 Question Area 2 Question Area 3 Question Area 4
What I Think
Source #1
Source #2
Source #3

K – W – H – L

What Is K-W-L?

K-W-L is the creation of Donna Ogle and is a 3-column chart that helps capture the Before, During, and After components of reading a text selection.

  • K stands for Know
    This is the prior knowledge activation question.
  • W stands for Will or Want
    What do I think I will learn about this topic?
    What do I want to know about this topic?
  • L stands for Learned

What have I learned about this topic?

How Does It Work?

  1. On the chalkboard, on an overhead, on a handout, or on students’ individual clean sheets, three columns should be drawn.
  2. Label Column 1 K, Column 2 W, Column 3 L.
  3. Before reading (or viewing or listening), students fill in the Know column with words, terms, or phrases from their background or prior knowledge. If you are having them draw on a topic previously learned, then the K column may be topic-related. But if the topic is something brand-new, and they don’t know anything (or much) about it, you should use the K column to have them bringing to mind a similar, analogous, or broader idea.
  4. Then have students predict what they might learn about the topic, which might follow a quick glance at the topic headings, pictures, and charts that are found in the reading. This helps set their purpose for reading and focuses their attention on key ideas.
  5. Alternatively, you might have students put in the middle column what they want to learn about the topic.
  6. After reading, students should fill in their new knowledge gained from reading the content. They can also clear up misperceptions about the topic which might have shown up in the Know column before they actually read anything. This is the stage of metacognition: did they get it or not?

Common Issues with K-W-L

  • “My students don’t have background knowledge!
    The reason to do the K column of the K-W-L is to have students bring to mind something they already know, as a hook to which new information can be attached. Some people who use K-W-L complain that their students either don’t know anything or what they know is wrong. That’s a great sign that the students have been asked not about what they know, but about what they don’t know. Please “know” this: ALL students have background or prior knowledge. As teachers, we have to know our content well enough that we know how it’s like something that would be familiar to our students. That should determine what we ask in the K column. It may OR MAY NOT be the topic.
  • “I ask what they want to know, and they think of a zillion things!”
    Especially with younger elementary children, they’ll suggest all kinds of questions for what they want to know. And with older kids, maybe they say, “Nothing!” That’s why I like Pat Widdowson’s suggestion: Use the W to ask what they think they WILL learn. Then, it’s predictive, which is what good readers are anyway.

Can You Show Me What the Chart Would Look Like?


What Do I Already Know?

What Do I Think I Will Learn?
What Do I Want To Know?
What Have I Learned?

Problem-Solution Chart

What Is a Problem-Solution Chart?

The Problem-Solution chart is a variation of column notes. It helps students focus on the four areas critical to problem-solving: identifying the problem, listing the consequences or results of that problem, isolating the causes, and proposing solutions. It is a great tool to use in social studies, but you can imagine how it might be every bit as useful in areas such as science or literature.

How Does It Work?

A Problem-Solution chart breaks offers a way to visually organize the distinct components of problems toward educative ends. Because it uses a format based on column notes, students can readily understand its layout and function. Students (or the teacher) will first identify a problem; the effects or consequences of that problem are then listed. Students then brainstorm all the possible causes of that problem and also come up with solutions to the problem.

But don’t think this is only good for content area topics…consider some other uses as well. For instance, if a student misbehaves, you might hand him a Problem-Solution chart to fill out before you counsel him about his behavior. Either you can identify the problem, or you can tell the student to identify the problem. Then, the Problem-Solution chart becomes a way for a student to reflect on his own behavior, its consequences, and what he might do to change it. Or perhaps it’s time for a class meeting: you can tell your students you’ve tried everything you can think of, and you need their help to solve a problem. Put a Problem-Solution chart on the overhead, and tell them you want to solve the problem of homework not being turned in (or of the noise level in the lunchroom or…) It’s a great strategy for jointly solving thorny issues that the class as a whole can address.

How Is the Problem-Solution Chart Arranged?

Here’s the basic idea…

Problem-Solution Chart
What Is The Problem?
What Are The Effects?
What Are The Causes?
What Are Some Solutions?

Question-Answer Relationships

What Is/Are Question-Answer Relationships?

Raphael created Question-Answer Relationships as a way to help students realize that the answers they seek are related to the type of question that is asked; it encourages them to be strategic about their search for answers based on an awareness of what different types of questions look for. Even more important is understanding where the answer will come from.

Teaching QARs to students begins with helping them understand the core notion: that when confronted with a question, the answer will come either from the text or from what kids know. These are the Core Categories, which Raphael calls

  1. In the Book (or video or WWW page…)
  2. In My Head

Once students are comfortable with these simpler distinctions (and do note that this does not take very long!), it will please them to move to the next level of understanding question types. Raphael divides “In The Book” into two QAR types (Right There and Think and Search); and “In My Head” into two QAR types (Author & You and On My Own).

Explain Those Four QARs!

  1. Right There. The answer is in the text, and if we pointed at it, we’d say it’s “right there!” Often, the answer will be in a single sentence or place in the text, and the words used to create the question are often also in that same place.
  2. Think and Search. The answer is in the text, but you might have to look in several different sentences to find it. It is broken up or scattered or requires a grasp of multiple ideas across paragraphs or pages.
  3. Author and You. The answer is not in the text, but you still need information that the author has given you, combined with what you already know, in order to respond to this type of question.
  4. On My Own. The answer is not in the text, and in fact you don’t even have to have read the text to be able to answer it.

What Does This Look Like in Practice?

Good question. Just for practice and as an example, let’s apply it to the following passage of text. Following the passage are one example for each type of QAR.

The sun was setting, and as the senator gazed out his office window, he could see the silhouettes of some of the unique buildings and monuments of Washington, D.C. Directly in front of him at the other end of the National Mall, the stark obelisk of the Washington Monument thrust dramatically skyward, its red warning lights blinking in the approaching dusk. Although he couldn’t quite see it, he knew that beyond the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool just past it, a huge statue of Abraham Lincoln sat thoughtfully in the Lincoln Memorial.

The senator was worried. A bill was before the Congress, called Safe Surfing for Safer Schools, that would deny federal education dollars to states that didn’t have laws against internet pornography on their books. He was concerned about kids having access to dirty pictures, and even more concerned about internet predators having access to kids. But he also believed strongly in the right of people to freely access information, even if it meant sometimes children might be exposed to adult materials. And it seemed dangerous to take money away from schools, where the need was desperate, if state legislatures balked at this federal pressure on them.

His constituents had let him know in no uncertain terms that they supported strict standards of decency on the internet. He knew if he didn’t support the bill, his next election opponent would paint him as pro-pornography, and anti-child. But he didn’t want anything to get in the way of providing monetary support to schools through federal grants.

The unique spires of the original Smithsonian Institution were getting harder to see, but there was still a faint gleam on the green dome of the Museum of Natural History. What was the right thing to do?

Right There What legislation is the senator worried about?
Think and Search What arguments is he having to weigh in his mind?
Author and You How would you advise the Senator, and why would you advise him so?
On My Own How would you advise the Senator, and why would you advise him so?

Questioning the Author

What Is Questioning the Author?

Questioning the Author is a protocol of inquiries that students can make about the content they are reading. This strategy is designed to encourage students to think beyond the words on the page and to consider the author’s intent for the selection and his or her success at communicating it.

The idea of “questioning” the author is a way to evaluate how well a selection of text stands on its own, not simply an invitation to “challenge” a writer. Students are looking at the author’s intent, his craft, his clarity, his organization…in short, if the author has done well, students can say so, and they can identify why they say so. Likewise, if students are struggling over a selection of text, it may be because it hasn’t been written very clearly. Students can see this, and say so, but then they are invited to improve on it.

How Does It Work?

The standard format involves five questions. Students read a selection of text (one or more paragraphs, but generally not as much as a whole page), and then answer these questions:

  • What is the author trying to tell you?
  • Why is the author telling you that?
  • Does the author say it clearly?
  • How could the author have said things more clearly?
  • What would you say instead?

As developed by Margaret McKeown, Isabel Beck, and Jo Worthy, Questioning the Author becomes a tool for recognizing and diagnosing inconsiderate text. Sometimes, as we know, students struggle with content not because they are failing as readers but because the author has failed as a writer. It is this notion of the “fallible author” that McKeown et al wish students to become aware of. When they think a failure to understand is their own fault, students often pull away from their reading. But if they will approach text with a “reviser’s eye,” as McKeown and her colleagues put it, they can shift from trying to understand text to making text more understanable.

Got Some Text I Could Practice On?

Here’s a selection that’s offered just for fun, but I think you’ll get the idea.

Each employee must wash his hands thoroughly with warm water and soap after each trip to the toilet and before beginning work.
Each employee must wash his hands thoroughly with warm water and soap after each trip to the toilet and before beginning work. The author is telling me that I must be clean before I can work at my job; in particular, I have to wash my hands whether I’m just starting work or if I’ve just been to the bathroom.
Why is the author telling you that? I think it has to do with who the author is; in this case, I think the author is the Health Department, which is responsible for sanitation issues in restaurants. To keep customers of an eating establishment from getting sick and to reduce the transmission of disease, employees who handle food or utensils or plates have to make sure they have clean hands.
If the author were the owner of the restaurant, though, she would probably want her employees to wash their hands for a similar reason, only in her case she is concerned about different consequences. If people who eat at her restaurant get sick because employees weren’t clean, then it would hurt her business.A customer might also express the same sentiment as the Health Department or restaurant owner, but his motivation would simply be that he doesn’t wish to get sick because of unsanitary practices by employees.
Is it said clearly? It seems pretty clear and straight-forward.
How might the author have written it more clearly? Well, it has a real legalistic sound to it. That’s probably necessary because of a uniform health code and the nature of governmental agencies and the way that they communicate. You can hear the unspoken tagline: “By Order of the Health Department.” In this case, it’s probably written pretty clearly and might be hard to improve upon. It does seem a little wordy. For instance, if you tell someone to wash his hands, do you have to remind him to do so with soap and warm water?
What would you have wanted to say instead? “Please don’t make me eat your germs. Wash your hands before touching my food!”

RAFT Papers

RAFT Papers are simply a way to think about the four main things that all writers have to consider:

  • Role of the Writer
    Who are you as the writer? Are you Abraham Lincoln? A warrior? A homeless person? An auto mechanic? The endangered snail darter?
  • Audience
    To whom are you writing? Is your audience the American people? A friend? Your teacher? Readers of a newspaper? A local bank?
  • Format
    What form will the writing take? Is it a letter? A classified ad? A speech? A poem?
  • Topic
    What’s the subject or the point of this piece? Is it to persuade a goddess to spare your life? To plead for a re-test? To call for stricter regulations on logging?

RAFT Papers give students a fresh way to think about approaching their writing. They occupy a nice middle ground between standard, dry essays and free-for-all creative writing. RAFT papers combine the best of both.

They also can be the way to bring together students’ understanding of main ideas, organization, elaboration, and coherence…in other words, the criteria by which compositions are most commonly judged.

That’s Nice, But How About an Example?

Here’s one that could be a demonstration that a student has an idea of the circular flow diagram in economics:

Role William Dollar
Audience U.S. Mint/Bureau of Engraving
Format Memorandum
Topic Plead for Time Off

TO: Personnel Director
FROM: William Dollar
DATE: April xx, 19xx
RE: Request for Vacation
My name is Dollar, Bill Dollar. I’ve been on the job for the last twelve months without a break, and I am writing to request a two-week vacation. In considering my request, I think it’s essential that you understand exactly how much work we dollar bills have to do during our time of service for the United States Treasury. One-dollar bills are the more prevalent, most used, and most abused of all the paper currency. Our life expectancy is only about 18 months. By comparison, the average $100 bill has been in circulation around nine years!

My journey through the many hands that hold me begins after I leave the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and get sent out to a Federal Reserve Bank. I was shipped to Richmond, Virginia, although I could have been sent to any one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks located throughout the country. While it’s nice to travel and see the country, that first trip involves being bundled in currency “bricks” and chunked into armored trucks…no daylight or sunshine for us there! Then we get sent to regular banks when they need to increase the cash they have on hand for their customers. So while it seems like our job is pretty easy to start with, let me assure you it gets much worse from there.

In my case, I went out of our bank with a whole lot of other bills to become part of the day-laborer payroll of a construction company. It turns out there’s a lot of house-building going on in the fast-growing Research Triangle area of North Carolina, and a lot of temporary help is hired on that has to be paid at the end of each day. I was paid out to a guy who’d been hauling sand all day to the cement mixers. On his way home, he stopped by the Better Burger place for a buffalo burger and fries, and I ended up going into the cash register there. When they were closing up that evening, the manager divided up tip money among the wait staff, and I was off again.

I went into this very nice woman’s purse, but I didn’t stay there long. In fact, I didn’t stay any place too long; I was in and out of cash registers, fed into soft drink machines, passed back and forth between husbands and wives and kids, folded into swans and other strange shapes at late-night dinner tables, crumpled up and wadded into jeans pockets, and even washed a few times in laundromats.

But I know how crucial we are: employers use us to pay their workers, and the workers use us to buy food and medicines and clothes and gas, and then we’re used to pay the people who work in the grocery and drug stores, the malls, and the gas stations. Then those people use us all over again to pay not only for goods but also for services like haircuts and car washes.

It is true that in some ways my life is easier than it was for dollar bills that came before me, because people use checks, credit cards, debit cards, and other electronic transfers more and more all the time. But there will always be a need for good old hard cash like me. It’s just that I’m awfully tired from all my travels, and I may only have another year at the most left in me before I’m recalled, retired, and shredded into thousands of tiny pieces. I’d like to have time to recover from all this wear and tear so that I can keep on circulating until I’m in no condition to continue. Will you consider my request?


William P. Dollar

Reciprocal Teaching

What Is Reciprocal Teaching?

The creation of Palinscar and Brown, Reciprocal Teaching is in some ways a compilation of four comprehension strategies:

  • summarizing
  • questioning
  • clarifying
  • predicting

Please understand that some think the choice of “reciprocal” in the name of this strategy is slightly misleading. It conjures up the image of a student in front of the class, or of students taking turns telling each other important ideas in the text. Instead, the strategy is best at seeking to promote comprehension by tackling the ideas in a text on several fronts.

How Does It Work?

The order in which the four stages occur is not crucial; you’ll want to try out different versions of the strategy to see if a particular protocol suits your teaching style, and your students’ learning styles, better. You will also want to choose text selections carefully to be certain that they lend themselves to all four stages of reciprocal teaching.

How Might I Implement Reciprocal Teaching in my Classroom?

Before you can expect reciprocal teaching to be used successfully by your students, they need to have been taught and had time to practice the four strategies that are used in reciprocal teaching. Doesn’t it make sense that they should already have learned and become comfortable with summarizing before attempting to use it in a reciprocal teaching situation? Or questioning? Or predicting? Or clarifying?

One approach to teaching reciprocal teaching might be to have students work from a four-column chart, with each column headed by the different comprehension activity involved.

You might also consider implementing reciprocal teaching the way Donna Dyer of the North West Regional Education Service Agency in North Carolina recommends. Here’s one way she suggests you use reciprocal teaching:

  1. Put students in groups of four.
  2. Distribute one notecard to each member of the group identifying each person’s unique role.
    1. summarizer
    2. questioner
    3. clarifier
    4. predictor
  3. Have students read a few paragraphs of the assigned text selection. Encourage them to use note-taking strategies such as selective underlining or sticky-notes to help them better prepare for their role in the discussion.
  4. At the given stopping point, the Summarizer will highlight the key ideas up to this point in the reading.
  5. The Questioner will then pose questions about the selection:
    1. unclear parts
    2. puzzling information
    3. connections to other concepts already learned
    4. motivations of the agents or actors or characters
    5. etc.
  6. The Clarifier will address confusing parts and attempt to answer the questions that were just posed.
  7. The Predictor can offer guesses about what the author will tell the group next or, if it’s a literary selection, the predictor might suggest what the next events in the story will be.
  8. The roles in the group then switch one person to the right, and the next selection is read. Students repeat the process using their new roles. This continues until the entire selection is read.

Selective Underlining

What Is Selective Underlining?

Well, there’s underlining, and there’s underlining selectively. [By the way, even though I’m using the word “underlining,” you can feel free to know that that also means highlighting.] The way to make underlining useful as a tool for comprehension is for it to be strategic, selective, and purposeful. The underlining must be undertaken toward particular ends.

Do you remember how wonderful it was to discover the highlighter, perhaps when you were in college? I know that for me, I was more likely NOT to read the stuff I was highlighting. For some reason, that’s the effect that a highlighter had on me. Or maybe I’d look back at the selection and find I’d pretty much colored the whole darn thing yellow. With selective underlining (and highlighting!), the idea is to underline ONLY the key words, phrases, vocabulary, and ideas that are central to understanding the piece. Students should be taught this strategy explicitly, given time and means to practice, and reinforced for successful performance.

How Can I Teach My Students to Selectively Underline?

There are several ways to go about it. You may be saying, “Selective underlining is all well and good, but have you eggheads up in the university forgotten that we use textbooks, and that our kids only get to use them for the year, but we have to use them at least five years??” That’s a fair question, so how can you teach this strategy anyway?

  1. First of all, let’s realize that not every single bit of text you have students read is in a textbook and untouchable.
  2. Second, consider seeking out appropriate content sources, such as newspapers, that students can indeed learn this strategy with while still pursuing meaningful social studies goals.
  3. Third, think about how you can get around the problem of textbooks that can’t be marked in. For instance, in order to teach the strategy, you might photocopy a page or two out of the text that students use and distribute it to them. Make an overhead of that selection for yourself. Model for them and guide them in practicing the strategy on the photocopies. Alternatively, if you have enough of the materials available to you, give each student a sheet of transparency film, some paperclips, and some overhead pens. Let them practice directly on their texts by using the transparencies.

Think about how this strategy would work when combined with power thinking. Students might put a box around Power 1 ideas; an oval around Power 2 ideas; and an underline under Power 3 ideas.

Students might also use different colors in their underlining. Power 1s could be blue, Power 2s could be red, and Power 3s could be green.

Practice selective underlining for different purposes: underline key vocabulary and its definitions or explanations, and use this as an opportunity to focus on how authors reveal the meaning of new terms within the context. Or have students underline cause and effect. Or ask them to underline the facts and concepts that support a particular viewpoint, as might be useful with a strategy such as Opinion-Proof. Remember, you’re limited only by your own imagination with teaching and applying selective underlining.

Semantic Feature Analysis

What Is It?

With a Semantic Feature Analysis chart or grid, one can examine related concepts but make distinctions between them according to particular criteria across which the concepts can be compared.

How Does It Work?

A set of concepts is listed down the left side (or across the top; it doesn’t much matter which) and criteria or features are listed across the top (or down the side). If the concept is associated with the feature or characteristic, the student records a Y or a + (plus-sign) in the grid where that column and row intersect; if the feature is not associated with the concept, an N or – (minus-sign) is placed in the corresponding square on the grid. For instance, consider types of government: democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, and republic. What might be the characteristics of governments that might be associated with various types?

Help Me Visualize A Semantic Feature Analysis Chart.

Got a good graphic for me?

FDR JFK Nixon Reagan Clinton
Democrat + + +
War Time President + +
Congress of Same Party -/+ + -/+ -/+
Re-Elected + + + +
Served in Congress + +
Won Majority of Popular Vote + -/+ +


What Is Summarizing?

Summarizing is how we take larger selections of text and reduce them to their bare essentials: the gist, the key ideas, the main points that are worth noting and remembering. Webster’s calls a summary the “general idea in brief form”; it’s the distillation, condensation, or reduction of a larger work into its primary notions.

What Are We Doing When We Summarize?

We strip away the extra verbiage and extraneous examples. We focus on the heart of the matter. We try to find the key words and phrases that, when uttered later, still manage to capture the gist of what we’ve read. We are trying to capture the main ideas and the crucial details necessary for supporting them.

When You Ask Your Students to Summarize, What Usually Happens?

  • they write down everything
  • they write down next to nothing
  • they give me complete sentences
  • they write way too much
  • they don’t write enough
  • they copy word for word

What Did You Want Them To Do?

  • pull out main ideas
  • focus on key details
  • use key words and phrases
  • break down the larger ideas
  • write only enough to convey the gist
  • take succinct but complete notes

How Can I Teach My Students to Summarize?

Please be warned: teaching summarizing is no small undertaking. It’s one of the hardest strategies for students to grasp, and one of the hardest strategies for you to teach. You have to repeatedly model it and give your students ample time and opportunities to practice it. But it is such a valuable strategy and competency. Can you imagine your students succeeding in school without being able to break down content into manageable small succinct pieces? We ask students to summarize all the time, but we’re terrible about teaching them good ways to do this!

Here are a few ideas; try one…try them all. But keep plugging away at summarizing. This strategy is truly about equipping your students to be lifelong learners.

  • After students have used selective underlining on a selection, have them turn the sheet over or close the handout packet and attempt to create a summary paragraph of what they can remember of the key ideas in the piece. They should only look back at their underlining when they reach a point of being stumped. They can go back and forth between writing the summary and checking their underlining several times until they have captured the important ideas in the article in the single paragraph.
  • Have students write successively shorter summaries, constantly refining and reducing their written piece until only the most essential and relevant information remains. They can start off with half a page; then try to get it down to two paragraphs; then one paragraph; then two or three sentences; and ultimately a single sentence.
  • Teach students to go with the newspaper mantra: have them use the key words or phrases to identify only Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
  • Take articles from the newspaper, and cut off their headlines. Have students practice writing headlines for (or matching the severed headlines to) the “headless” stories.
  • Sum It Up: Pat Widdowson of Surry County Schools in North Carolina shared this very cool strategy with me. How’s it work? You have students imagine they are placing a classified ad or sending a telegram, where every word used costs them money. Tell them each word costs 10 cents, and then tell them they can spend “so much.” For instance, if you say they have $2.00 to spend, then that means they have to write a summary that has no more than 20 words. You can adjust the amount they have to spend, and therefore the length of the summary, according to the text they are summarizing. Consider setting this up as a learning station, with articles in a folder that they can practice on whenever they finish their work early or have time when other students are still working.


What Is Think-Pair-Share?

Think-Pair-Share is a cooperative discussion strategy developed by Frank Lyman and his colleagues in Maryland. It gets its name from the three stages of student action, with emphasis on what students are to be DOING at each of those stages.

How Does It Work?

  1. Think. The teacher provokes students’ thinking with a question or prompt or observation. The students should take a few moments (probably not minutes) just to THINK about the question.
  2. Pair. Using designated partners (such as with Clock Buddies), nearby neighbors, or a deskmate, students PAIR up to talk about the answer each came up with. They compare their mental or written notes and identify the answers they think are best, most convincing, or most unique.
  3. Share. After students talk in pairs for a few moments (again, usually not minutes), the teacher calls for pairs to SHARE their thinking with the rest of the class. She can do this by going around in round-robin fashion, calling on each pair; or she can take answers as they are called out (or as hands are raised). Often, the teacher or a designated helper will record these responses on the board or on the overhead.

Why Should I Use Think-Pair-Share?

We know that students learn, in part, by being able to talk about the content. But we do not want that to be a free-for-all. Think-Pair-Share is helpful because it structures the discussion. Students follow a prescribed process that limits off-task thinking and off-task behavior, and accountability is built in because each must report to a partner, and then partners must report to the class.

Because of the first stage, when students simply THINK, there is Wait Time: they actually have time to think about their answers. Because it is silent thinking time, you eliminate the problem of the eager and forward students who always shout out the answer, rendering unnecessary any thinking by other students. Also, the teacher has posed the question, and she has EVERYONE thinking about the answer, which is much different from asking a question and then calling on an individual student, which leads some students to gamble they won’t be the one out of 30 who gets called on and therefore they don’t think much about the question. Students get to try out their answers in the private sanctuary of the pair, before having to “go public” before the rest of their classmates. Kids who would never speak up in class are at least giving an answer to SOMEONE this way. Also, they often find out that their answer, which they assumed to be stupid, was actually not stupid at all…perhaps their partner thought of the same thing. Students also discover that they rethink their answer in order to express it to someone else, and they also often elaborate on their answer or think of new ideas as the partners share. These, it seems, are powerful reasons to employ Think-Pair-Share in order to structure students’ thinking and their discussion.

Three-Minute Pause

What Is a Three-Minute Pause?

At a wonderful workshop on the backwards design planning process (as suggested by Ralph Tyler and further developed by Grant Wiggins), Jay McTighe incorporated a Three-Minute Pause as a break in large sections of content. The Three-Minute Pause provides a chance for students to stop, reflect on the concepts and ideas that have just been introduced, make connections to prior knowledge or experience, and seek clarification.

How Does It Work?

  1. Summarize Key Ideas Thus Far. The teacher instructs students to get into groups (anywhere from three to five students, usually). Give them a total of three minutes for the ENTIRE process. First, they should focus in on the key points of the lesson up to this point. It’s a way for them to stop to see if they are getting the main ideas.
  2. Add Your Own Thoughts. Next, the students should consider prior knowledge connections they can make to the new information. Suggested questions: What connections can be made? What does this remind you of? What would round out your understanding of this? What can you add?
  3. Pose Clarifying Questions. Are there things that are still not clear? Are there confusing parts? Are you having trouble making connections? Can you anticipate where we’re headed? Can you probe for deeper insights?

Why Should I Take the Time for a 3-Minute Pause?

It depends on how much “stuff” you want students to be thinking about before they get a chance to process the new information. If you don’t want to have to keep reteaching information, then you should give your students time to think about, make sense of, organize, and reflect on their learning. The Three-Minute Pause is a perfect bridge, a chance for students to consolidate and clarify their emerging understanding, before you move on to teach more new ideas or concepts. It’s simple, straightforward, productive, efficient, and instantly useful.

Venn Diagrams

What Is a Venn Diagram?

Venn Diagrams have been around a long time. We borrow them from the field of math, but their application to all subjects is pretty well-established now. They are a visual representation of the similarities and differences between concepts. Created by overlapping two (or three) ovals, students record features or characteristics of the concepts in the respective ovals, making sure that any shared characteristics are written in the overlapping portion of the ovals.

Venn diagrams are useful as a graphics organization tool when comparing two things (and particularly for use with younger children). Simple Venn diagrams are used, in which no more than two curves intersect at a common point. Shared characteristics are listed in the overlapping section allowing for easy identification of which characteristics are shared and which aren’t. String or colored yarn can be used to make circles on the floor and manipulatives and pictures are strongly encouraged.

venn diagram

What’s the Use?

The value of the Venn diagram is in the “doing” of it. They are for us simply a graphic organizer, in this case one whose purpose is to help structure the way students think about the similarities and differences between concepts. They work best when we have the students completing them, not when the teachers are doing it for them. Students are already able to compare things, because they do it all the time: they compare clothes, they compare movies and TV shows, they compare musical artists, they compare parents, they compare boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s not that they lack the capacity to compare. What we want to do as teachers is to channel and support their thoughtful consideration of important similarities and differences.

A Venn diagram serves to organize students’ thoughts, and is labeled according to the topic at hand and the aspects that need to be compared and contrasted. Due to their relatively simple structure and visually effective nature, Venn diagrams are considered to be an indispensable educational technique, equally useful for both children and adults. Most teachers prefer to use a Venn diagram as a pre-writing activity in order to help students categorize the knowledge they have already gained. Having classified all the similarities and differences, students are able to make an in-depth analysis of the topic and draw a well-grounded conclusion.

Venn diagrams can be successfully applied to a wide range of subjects. For instance, students can compare and contrast several cities and their climates during a Geography lesson, organize various animals or different cell structures in Biology and study the character traits of different protagonists in works of twentieth century Literature. The key point is to determine the objects that need to be compared beforehand. The more aspects that are included in a Venn diagram, the more comprehensive the analysis is. To optimize the process you can use various colors and shapes. Originally, Venn diagrams were made using simple circles; however, triangles and quadrangles can be also used, especially when constructing several diagrams at the same time. If used correctly, this graphic tool makes the teaching and learning process a lot more interesting and effective.

How Do I Teach Them?

You can and should model how you want them to use the Venn, but you should also move quickly to putting the task into their hands. Chances are the strategy is not new to the students. Even kindergartners use Venn diagrams; I’ve seen many creative uses of hullahoops overlapping on the floor that these youngsters then place cards or pictures in. But still you should keep it simple at first. What MAY be new to students is your request of them that THEY complete the Venn diagram instead of merely copying what you put on the overhead or front board. [Remember: the value of the Venn is in the doing of it!] This means they need to first be able to identify significant characteristics of the topics or concepts (see some of the other stratregies, such as selective underlining/highlighting, or consider the usefulness of Post It notes for text reading selections).

Early on, use familiar topics (for instance, at the beginning of the year, have students pair up and complete a Venn diagram on the similarities and differences between the partners). Or pick a popular topic, fad, event, and so on. Keep pushing them to note significant traits or attributes of topics; keep the focus on how to compare them. As students begin producing their own Venn diagrams, DO NOT fall into the trap of thinking there is a right Venn and a wrong one. (The worst thing I can imagine happening is that you let students create their own, and then tell them you’re putting the “correct” on the overhead!) Judge them on how well they selected out key characteristics and whether they can justify the classification of similarities and difference.

What Are Some Social Studies Topics for Comparing?

It is an endless list, but consider having students compare regions of the state or country; economic features of the North and South before the Civil War; Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; terrorist versus freedom fighter; capitalism vs. communism vs. traditional economies; branches of government; political parties; US invasion of Iraq vs. Russian invasion of Chechnya (or Georgia); national vs. state vs. local government; or CIA vs. FBI.

Vocabulary Word Maps

What Is It?

A vocabulary word map is a visual organizer that helps students engage with and think about new terms or concepts in several ways.

How Does It Work?

The new term goes in the middle of the map. Students fill in the rest of the map with a definition, synonyms, antonyms, and a picture to help illustrate the new concept.

Help Me Visualize A Vocabulary Word Map.

Got a good graphic for me?


3 – 2 – 1

What Is a 3 – 2 – 1?

The idea is to give students a chance to summarize some key ideas, rethink them in order to focus on those that they are most intrigued by, and then pose a question that can reveal where their understanding is still uncertain. Often, teachers use this strategy in place of the usual worksheet questions on a chapter reading, and when students come to class the next day, you’re able to use their responses to construct an organized outline, to plot on a Venn diagram, to identify sequence, or isolate cause-and-effect. The students are into it because the discussion is based on the ideas that they found, that they addressed, that they brought to class.

How Does It Work?

Students fill out a 3-2-1 chart with something like this:

  • 3 Things You Found Out
  • 2 Interesting Things
  • 1 Question You Still Have

Now, that’s just the suggested version. Depending upon what you’re teaching, you can modify the 3-2-1 anyway you want. For instance, if you’ve just been studying the transition from feudalism to the rise of nation-states, you might have students write down 3 differences between feudalism and nation-states, 2 similarities, and 1 question they still have.


What Is Opinion-Proof?

Opinion-Proof is a particular application of column notes. It’s designed to take the power of students’ own opinions about their content and harness them as tools of learning. The basic idea is that an opinion can be put forward, but it should be a supported opinion, based on ideas, facts, or concepts found within the material being studied (or based on research that a student has done).

How Does It Work?

Two columns are set up for the basic Opinion-Proof chart. Label the left column “Opinion”. Label the right column “Proof”. Whatever opinion the teacher assigns or which students choose themselves is written in the left column. Then, support for that opinion is culled from the text, video, newspaper, story, or other source of content. Students can then use their Opinion-Proof charts to write a persuasive essay, compose an editorial suitable for a newspaper, or to prepare themselves for a classroom debate, among other things.

What Does an Opinion-Proof Chart Look Like?

Imagine using the following as a pre-writing activity for a persuasive essay.

President Truman was justified in resorting to the use of the atomic bomb in the final days of World War II.
  • The Japanese government and military had committed to fight to the last man.
  • The alternative to atomic bombing was an invasion of Japan, which would have resulted in enormous numbers of casualties among U.S. troops.
  • The United States was in a race to develop atomic weapons and had no idea whether or if the Japanese were also developing their own weapons of mass destruction.
  • A continuation of the war indefinitely would cost untold thousands of military and civilian deaths on both sides of the fighting.
  • A continuation of the war indefinitely would continue to drain the resources of the United States and the other Allied Powers.
  • A continuation of the war indefinitely would further delay efforts to rebuild the war-torn nations.

Column Notes

What Are Column Notes?

Some of you will think, Gosh – this sounds like the old Cornell note-taking system. Column notes share characteristics in common with the Cornell system: information is grouped according to its type, and then arranged in columns. We’ll begin with 2-column notes, but you should quickly see that the number of columns one uses is dependent upon the type of information you are dealing with and what your purpose for engaging in it is.

How Does It Work?

The column notes format lends itself to many variations. It may be that students would use it as a note-taking guide for their textbook reading; if so, then main ideas or headings would be listed in the left column, and details or explanations for each would be written in the right column. Alternatively, you might have students reading for cause and effect; if so, then causes can be listed in the left column and the effects in the right column. Students might list key vocabulary in the left column and definitions, examples, or sentences in the right. It may be as simple as reworking your typical question worksheets so that questions are on the left and answers are put on the right.

The Cornell system recommended that the left column be one-third of the page, and the right column two-thirds. It really doesn’t matter much; students may find it much easier simply to fold their notebook paper down the middle to create the two columns neatly. Using the folded sheet can be a great study aide: students can quiz themselves or each other with the answers safely hidden on the other side of the folded sheet, but they can also check back and forth between questions and answers. This format becomes a very handy tool, but it also shows the organization of information more clearly, more dramatically, and certainly in a more visually-useful manner.


Power 1: Main Idea, Chapter Title, Etc.
Rower 2s Power 3s
Questions, Section Headings, Vocabulary, Subtopics, etc. Questions, Section Headings, Vocabulary, Subtopics, etc.

What about when you need three columns?

Early Native American Regions
Region/Group Primary Housing Environmental Interaction
Eastern Woodland
  • wigwam
  • made of branches and bark
  • lived near water and wooded areas
  • carved canoes from trunks
  • diet of clams, fish, oyster
  • teepees made of animal hides
  • holes in top for smoke to escape
  • followed herds of buffalo
  • food and clothing from buffalo
  • wood scarce on the Plains
  • lived in pueblos
  • houses made of adobe
  • clothing made from cotton
  • lived in the desert
  • extended droughts forced relocation

Reading difficult material

Reading difficult material can be a matter of concentration
or of simply organizing the challenge into steps:

  • Choose a moderate amount of material or a chapter to begin
  • Get a grasp of how the material is organized:
  • Scan the section for titles, headings, sub-headings, and topic sentences to get its general idea; pay attention to graphs, charts, and diagrams
  • If there is a summary at the end of a chapter, read it.
  • Check the beginning and the end for leading questions and exercises
  • Read first for what you do understand, and to determine difficulty.
  • Mark what you do not understand to review later

As you read, practice the look-away method:

Periodically look away from the text
and ask yourself a stimulus question relating to the text
Phrase the question positively!
Respond, or restate, in your own words

Make connections and associations,
but don’t use this exercise to memorize–but rather understand

  • Look up words
    Look up words whose meanings are important to your understanding of the material, but you cannot discern from the context.
  • Read to the end
    Do not get discouraged and stop reading.
    Ideas can become clearer the more you read. When you finish reading, review to see what you have learned, and reread those ideas that are not clear.
  • Organize your notes by connecting ideas
    you choose into an outline or concept map.
    Pay attention to relationships between ideas.

Do not confine yourself to words!
Use representations, graphics, pictures, colors, even movement to visualize and connect ideas. Use whatever techniques work to help you understand

At this point, if you do not understand your reading, do not panic!
Set it aside, and read it again the next day.
If necessary, repeat. This allows your brain to process the material, even while you sleep. This is referred to as distributed reading.

  • Re-read the section you have chosen with the framework
    (outline or concept map) you have constructed in mind
    Separate out what you do understand from what you do not.
  • If the reading is still a challenge,
    consult with either your teacher, academic counselors, or reading specialists.