February 25, 2016 - Michael Salinger

Making Learning Visible

mns999.jpgWhat is your goal?

This is a question I pose to teachers whenever they ask my advice about a lesson or when I am trying to find out more about what is going on in a classroom before I come in to guest teach.

Sara Holbrook and I do what teachers would do if they had more time. We come up with lessons. We create engagement strategies centered on writing frameworks. We discuss, collaborate, write, revise and present in real time about content area subjects. It is our version of a quick write – short texts that summarize concepts using established frameworks. We incorporate creative writing tools and poetic elements into this academic writing, which encourages the students to think deeply about their studies. In short we help to make learning visible, a lesson process that dovetails nicely with John Hattie’s exhaustive research into what works in education as articulated in his Visible Learning books.

So, what is your goal? Is it to pass a test, get kids ready for university; is it to just make it to the end of the week? Or is it – as Hattie suggests –knowing the impact of your teaching? Is the nature of the learning you wish to impact as he hopes, “more than passing surface level tests?”

Our lesson process can work across the curriculum to make learning in your classroom visible and engaging. I’m going to go over each step and link them to best practices highlighted by Hattie’s research. Specifically I am using Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning as my reference.

Here’s a checklist of our basic structure.

  1. Discuss lesson goals
  2. Analyze a model piece of writing
  3. Write together to model writing process
  4. Research and discuss collaboratively in small groups
  5. Write as individuals or with partners
  6. Revise
  7. Share

No matter the content area or writing genre – our process remains consistent. Once students become familiar with the lesson process, they can move across the curriculum to predict, synthesize and summarize their learning. Not a writing teacher by training? No problem! Follow this process and you will be able to lead students to improve writing skills and content area understanding.


Discussion is a two way street.

Discuss lesson goals.


We begin every lesson by telling students what we hope to accomplish:

We are going to write a short summary narrative about the water cycle.

We will write refrain poems about the suffragette movement.

We are going to write a recipe for Lady Macbeth.

Like that.

Students know up front that they will be expected to produce an artifact of their learning – a short piece of writing. The writing will have a structure that we will introduce step-by-step.

Hattie says, The more transparent the teacher makes the learning goals, the more likely the student is to engage in the work needed to meet the goal. Also, the more the student is aware of the criteria of success, the more the student can see and appreciate the specific actions that are needed to attain these criteria.”

So, our initial goal is to produce a piece of writing and along the way we will be thinking deeply about our content learning.

Analyze a model piece of writing.

Our criterion for success begins by sharing an example of the type of writing we will be doing. We are big fans of projecting examples so that all the student’s heads are up and looking forward rather than bent over a piece of paper on their desk. One of our goals is engagement.

By analyzing a model piece of writing, the students are made aware of the standard of performance that is expected. The teacher and the students discuss and discover the piece together, its construction and use of writing conventions. The teacher leads this discussion, but it remains a discussion rather than a lecture encouraging students to think about the piece with open-ended questions like, “Why does this comparison work?” “What is the purpose of repetition here?” “What is important here? Who is speaking?”

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We know you’re overloaded – we’ve got some ideas to get writing doing double duty in your classroom and lighten the load.

Have the students discuss among themselves after each question before taking answers. We like to use a six second rule. “Turn and talk for six seconds.” Everyone is engaged and students have an opportunity to test out ideas before offering them to the entire class. Engagement is not quiet. Students learn best when the teacher isn’t talking.

Hattie says, The more important task is for teachers to listen.”

Of course this doesn’t mean anarchy, a lesson with no design. Rather we mean, trust your own instruction to lead your students to discover the concepts being taught. A safe environment of civil discourse where all feel they have a voice leads to an atmosphere where engagement is the norm.

Write together to model writing process

Co-creating a mentor text is probably the most important step – but also the one that instructors are most likely to skip. We can both teach and learn through this process. We become aware of the students prior knowledge (or lack thereof) as we struggle through the writing process, prioritizing and articulating ideas. Sometimes when I ask a teacher if they ever write with their students – modeling the writing process on a board or projection so that their class can see the piece as it is developed in front of them in real time – they stare at me blankly. Not the answer I look for.

Don’t skip this step! As our good friend Stephanie Harvey says, “In real estate it is location, location, location – in education it is modeling, modeling, modeling.” Just showing a student a mentor text is not enough. We need to lead them through the building process before we set them off on their own.

Hattie agrees, What is most important is that teaching is visible to the student, and that the learning is visible to the teacher. The more the student becomes the teacher and the more the teacher becomes the learner, then the more successful are the outcomes”


By co-researching and co- creating a text with students in real time the students see thinking about a subject as it happens rather than a canned lecture. We always title whatever we are modeling the same thing: Version One. This instills the idea that we are going to go back, improve and fine-tune our writing. It does not have to be flawless from the start.


Co-creating text, the missing link in writing instruction.

Modeling this idea of expecting revision is a very important strategy to give our students – the permission to start with something that is not perfect, that there are sometimes false starts and always the need to go back and refine. When the students see their teacher making these same decisions as they model the writing process, there will be less trepidation when it is their turn to write on their own.

Hattie says,A safe environment for the learner (and for the teacher) is an environment in which error is welcomed and fostered –because we learn so much from errors and from the feedback that then accrues from going in the wrong direction or not going sufficiently fluently in the right direction. “

While the end product may vary, a poem, a short narrative, or an infomercial – the process of modeling the writing with the students providing input as the teacher co-creates a text remains the same. What varies are the individual steps and composition structure of the intended finished piece. The subject matter during this part of the lesson is almost inconsequential.

We transition students into writing about their studies. For instance, if we are modeling the writing of a word definition poem – we may co-compose the model piece about friendship or family. Our research approach here is to interview an expert – in this case, the class. The students have prior knowledge and we can concentrate on the steps and conventions of writing the piece. Then when the students begin their pieces on content area learning – volcanoes, free tail bats, the industrial revolution – they understand the process and can transfer it to these pieces, while using a variety of sources to research evidence to support their arguments.

Once the different text types are modeled and taught a couple times the students understand and become comfortable with the process and can jump into the pre-writing process straight on. This enables a content area teacher to use the strategies taught by another teacher in their classroom. For example, a class that has learned to write a compare and contrast poem in Language Arts while studying character traits in a piece of literature could use the same process and strategies to write a compare and contrast poem about elements on the periodic table in chemistry class.

Research and discuss collaboratively in small groups

The social skills developed and the camaraderie instilled by collaborating in teams is a good reason to make it part of our classroom routine – but it is also great pedagogy.

Sara and I know from our former business experience that almost no writing is a solo act. Whether a novel, a poem, an annual report, or a college essay, writers run their ideas past co-workers, colleagues, supervisors and editors. The ability to collaborate and cooperate is an asset we look for in all interactions. Research shows that collaboration is one of the best ways to synthesize new information. That said, effective collaboration requires a specific goal.


Hattie recognizes,The mistake is to assume that because students ‘sit in groups’, there is learning in groups. Galton and Patrick (1990) have shown that merely placing students in groups rarely means that they work in groups in any form of differentiation. While most classrooms are structured in groups or pairs, most activity is still individual or whole-class instruction.”


Students research their topic in small groups and arrange their data in graphic organizers. They compile their notes as a team, discussing the different aspects of their subject, what is true and what is not. We encourage the students to gather more information than they are going to end up using in their finished pieces so that a prioritizing of information is required when they move on to writing their Version One. As the students collaborate they teach each other.

Hattie says,The greatest effects on student learning occur when students become their own teachers.”


As the students deliberate their topics, the teacher’s role is to move around the room – dropping in and out of the discussions, monitoring the students learning and understanding. This is an opportunity to catch misconceptions, highlight a keen insight, or to steer a team back onto the intended subject matter. Research collaboration adds an extra layer of processing of new data as the students discuss details as they are discovered. It’s going to be a little bit noisy – remember engagement is not quiet.

Hattie quotes Nuthall,Nuthall (2007) noted that 25 per cent of the specific concepts and principles that students learn are critically dependent on private peer talk.”

Students need to talk about what they are learning with each other – collaborating and gathering evidence before a writing assignment provides an authentic reason for these discussions.

Write as individuals or with partners

Keep in mind your classroom goals as you direct students to write as individuals or in pairs. After students have collaborated on their research we like to give them the option of either writing as a team – in which case each team member produces a copy – or as individuals. Is your goal to see how the students individually synthesize the learning or are you more interested taking the overall temperature of the group? There will also be another opportunity later in the lesson to split off and write individually.


Students take their research and use it to create their piece based on the one co-created at the beginning of the lesson. They have two models to reference – the one initially shared and discussed and the one co-composed with the instructor. Students should have a clear idea of the structure of the piece they are going to write.

We continue to check in with the students during the writing process, asking them to share a line or portion out loud. Doing so allows us to ensure the students are on the right track or to make a course correction before they have gone too far astray. These real time check-ins give us the opportunity to model thinking through a snag – to solicit ideas from the rest of the class – and to foster an environment where not being 100% correct all the time is quite all right.

Hattie notes, “School leaders and teachers need to create schools, staffrooms, and classroom environments in which error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, in which discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed.”

We think aloud with the students; when we find them a little off base during the writing process (and since they are working on Version One,) we are happy to help them amend their course. Discussing and making these corrections publically also serves as tips for others who might benefit from the same advice.

As students weave their research into writing, they organize and prioritize the information they have collected. They think deeply again about the data they have assembled as they plan and design how to best integrate it into the task at hand. This re-engagement with the material builds fluency with the details of whatever they are learning. Students “overlearn” information as they reword, rework, and refine it to fit into the text they are creating.

Hattie says,We know what ‘fluency’ is when we talk of being fluent in a language; the same concept can apply to any learning. ‘Over-learning’ can be a factor in helping us to achieve fluency. Over-learning is what happens when we reach a stage of knowing what to do without thinking about it; its critical feature is that it reduces the load on our thinking and cognition, allowing us to attend to new ideas. “

Our Writing Clinic version of quick writes provide fluency in content as well as construction as the two play hand in hand while the students synthesize and articulate their understand of current lessons.


Once the students have completed their Version One – we set immediately to revision. First we model the process by revising the mentor text that we co-composed at the beginning of the lesson. Our revision process may entail going back into the text and incorporating more detail, selecting the most important “power words” from our text and using them to build a companion piece, rearranging lines to find a stronger lead or some other strategy to get to Version Two. We leave this revised edition of our piece up as a reference for the students.

This is another opportunity to give the students the option of splitting off and writing solo if they have been working as a team. This is a nice option for the student who may not have the strongest writing skills yet, but who can benefit from honing editing strategies on their own after co-composing their Version One.

This is also where, if our goal is a piece of creative writing, we begin weaving in creative elements such as figurative language or poetic devices. We first want to have content before we worry about rhyme or alliteration. Too often it has been my experience that students begin with the tools of creative writing as the goal – those very tools boss the piece around. But, if instead we use these components after we have already gathered content, the deeper thinking associated with actually incorporating those devices with the facts increases literacy and learning.

Hattie says, “It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner’s construction of this knowledge and ideas that is critical.“

In practicing figurative language and quick writing about our studies students construct and evidence their knowledge “in their own words” add collaboration to this and they prioritize and sort information with peers before publishing via deeper thinking of the subject matter than simply replying with a memorized answer from a lecture or text. Adding a pre-determined structure on top of the writing, whether a questioning poem, similes, or prepositional phrases – adds a layer that requires thinking about the material in a more profound way. As mentioned earlier, these structures can travel across content areas.


Every one of our lessons incorporates a sharing component where the students read their work out loud. We believe communication to be a three-legged stool –reading, writing and speaking. We have found that most teachers do not give their students a choice when it comes to learning to read and write – but often they give a pass when it comes to speaking out loud. We do not believe that this is doing our students any favors.


Just as these writing clinics are quick writes that evidence learning and teach writing convention in concentrated doses – the performing of the finished product can be a quick speaking opportunity. If we get pupils accustomed to standing up and speaking their short work out for the class, eventually they will become more comfortable public speaking. When that five-minute presentation in humanities comes up, they will not be paralyzed by nerves.

As students read their work – either as individuals or in their writing team groups – the rest of the class benefits from the work done by the presenting students. Opportunities for discussion naturally occur as well does the chance to correct misconceptions. This allows teachers to assess their teaching – what have the students learned – what do they perceive as the important part of the lesson – is there something that needs to be covered again or retaught? The learning becomes not only visual but also aural.

Hattie says that, ”Challenge and feedback: two of the essential ingredients of learning.”


Oral presentation provides a challenge and an occasion for immediate feedback. We understand that speaking in public is scary for many – but where is there a safer a space to practice than in a classroom where collaboration and co-composing are already a part of the fabric?

We scaffold students into becoming outspoken by first asking everyone to read their Version One out loud at the same time. This creates quite the cacophony, but it also gets the students used to the sound of their own voices at a volume appropriate for the room but still safely anonymous.

Then we ask the pupils to read their piece out loud to another in the room and finally we ask for volunteers to read their pieces to the class. After a few folks have volunteered breaking the ice, we begin asking students to stand where they are and to read their work.

Most of the pieces produced in our writing clinics are short – less than half a page long so they do not take very long at all to perform. Like ripping a Band-Aid off – it’s over before the student knows it. Non-compliance is not an issue when the expectation that the students will read their work aloud is part of the classroom culture.

This allows for many of the pieces to be read in a session – again reiterating the data that is being studied and providing formative assessment for the instructor during class time when it can best be acted upon. Instead of finding that a student has missed the mark four paragraphs into a five-paragraph essay on a Sunday afternoon days after the assignment was turned in – teachers have a real time picture of the effectiveness of their instruction.

You can evaluate the impact of your teaching right when it matters most.

And, isn’t that your goal?


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“Sara and Michael bring infectious energy and joy leavened with deep knowledge of best practices in literacy to their work with children and teachers.” Ellin Keene – Author of Mosaic of Thought and The Teacher You Want to Be
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