Reading within the Lines: Sentence-Phrase-Word & Other Thinking Routines

This summer I came across a thinking routine on twitter called the “see-think-wonder”. It was usually paired with an image (of mostly white people) followed by the caption “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” aiming to get the reader to notice that the panel or image was mostly of white folks, but regardless of where it came from,  I thought it would be an useful exercise to help students begin to pick out salient details from texts or images (I even used it in my research ED presentation!). When bringing it to students however, I encountered some roadblocks. This blog aims to discuss the limitations and advantages of see-think wonder (STW) routine and other methods to use when attempting to teach students how to analyze writing. 

See Nothing, Think Nothing, Wonder Nothing

If you’re unfamiliar with the STW, the idea is to “emphasize the importance of observation as the basis for the thinking and interpretation that follows” (Ritchhart et. al 55). It’s pretty simple. You show something to students and ask them: What do you see? What do you notice? What do you wonder? While the generality of the routine may seem like a good idea for getting students to think about a topic, say for activating background knowledge, this generality can potentially pose a hindrance to the lesson. Because the STW is so individualized, because it casts such a wide net, the goal of the task may feel unclear to students if not introduced properly. If we show an image or present an article without giving context to students, and then ask “what do you notice? what do you wonder?”, we inadvertently rely solely on their prior knowledge in hopes that they reach an answer that we have actually already decided we want them to arrive at (and no one likes to play ‘guess what’s in the teachers head’). 

In essence, this strategy can almost become a sort of faux attempt at critical thinking even though we may have not really told students what we’d like them to critically think about. Worse, when used as an analysis strategy, this can privilege the students that have more knowledge of a certain topic or those that already have the schema developed to be able to make the connections between other facts they have learned. 

This isn’t to say that this strategy doesn’t have a place, but in wanting to create the optimal thinking conditions for my students, particularly in this distance setting, I’m wondering: how I can use the STW framework  of moving from a big idea to small, but with a more explicit focus? 

Sentence-phrase-word & Sensitivity Analysis

Sensitivity analysis, a word-level analysis strategy outlined in Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered, asks students to consider how a text would read differently if the author had chosen a different word (this was something we did in my Shakespeare course at Uni and so I was glad to see this being done with students at the secondary level). Consider the following line from Macbeth:

Line to Analyze: “Hell is murky” (5.1.37).

Teacher asks: What do you notice about this line?

If we asked students what do they notice, they might say “Lady Macbeth is talking about hell so she feels guilty”. This is an ok response as its not wrong, but if we use sensitivity analysis, we can get a much deeper look at Lady Macbeth’s state of mind by zooming in to the word “murky”.

Line to Analyze: “Hell is murky” (5.1.37).

Definition of Murky from the OED : Of a place: dark;gloomy. Of air, the atmosphere,etc.: obscured by mist or vapour; foggy, cloudy. Of mist, clouds, etc., or darkness itself:dense, thick, intense

Teacher Asks: Compare the definition of “murky” to the definition of “dreary”. How is Shakespeare’s image of hell as “murky” different from calling it dreary?

By changing out words and asking students to contemplate how word choice impacts both the literal and figurative meaning of a line, we draw students attention to the power of language.

Sentence phrase word, another thinking strategy, is from Making Thinking Visible and “helps learners to engage with and make meaning from text with a particular focus on capturing… “what speaks to you”. As a starting point, this draws student attention to the finer points of a passage with less scaffolding than sensitivity analysis but more than the STW; Instead of taking the whole of a dense or long text and asking, “what do you notice”, which can potentially burden their working memory, asking them to instead choose a sentence, phrase, and/or a word both narrows the task, prepares them for ‘academic talk’, and builds a foundation for them to begin incorporating their ideas into writing. This is posited as a group discussion activity but can also lend itself easily to individual work (which also worked great for distance learning). 

There is a potential, again, for this approach to feel too centered on the individual feelings rather than grappling with the text directly, so my adaptation (call it sentence-phrase-word 2.0) is to give a guiding question or topic that you want them to focus on as they choose a sentence-phrase word. This was an example from my 11th grade (y12) class while reading the introduction to Fences by August Wilson.

hastily made example for distance teaching

To Zoom or not to Zoom

overall, none of the given strategies are perfect for every instance, but given the conditions of this school year, not being able to properly formatively assess my students, I’m hoping to continue trying to make their thinking conditions as optimal as possible because our attention and time is limited. Have you used a variation of sentence-phrase-word? What other variations do you see as a potential?

I’m on twitter @Msjasminemn

Stuff I referenced:

  1. Making thinking visible 

2. Reading reconsidered 

3. Shout out to Matt Carton for recommending Making Thinking Visible! Lots to take from it.

One comment

  1. Welcome back!

    If you showed me a picture of a bunch of white people having a picnic in a park and asked me “What do you notice?” I would zoom in on the squirrel clinging upside-down to the bottom of a tree branch hanging over the picnickers, or the cloud that looks like a bunny rabbit, or the fact that the grass hasn’t been mowed in weeks except for that one patch over there and what’s that about, or something else completely irrelevant to your point.

    I think a little more guidance is needed. In your example of Lady Macbeth, perhaps “What do you notice about the word choice in this line?” would send me in the right direction, but even so I might focus on “Hell” instead of “murky.”

    I think I spent too much time as a child working on those “find the differences” puzzles where you really have to look at the details.


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