SWI Inquiry: Spelling “Hear” vs “Heard”

My friend, Q., had a question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?” Hmm. I don’t know why! What an interesting question, Q. !!! What we do know is that “heard” is the past of “hear” and we know that it is not spelled hear + ed-> *heared.

What is the reasoning behind the spelling of <heard>?

First, let’s look at both words:



We note that although <hear> appears in both words, there is a stem vowel shift as we say the words aloud: “hear”/”heard” although they both contain the letter strings <hear>; the words are pronounced differently.

Might this signal that these words come from Old English? I know from my class with Rebecca Loveless that there are Old English-derived strong (showing an action or state of being or feeling) verbs that mark the past tense with a stem vowel shift, such as “eat/ate”; “run/ran”; “sing/sang” and “”grow/grew.”

I notice that, unlike the words above, “hear” and “heard” have a vowel shift but not a letter string or grapheme shift. Hmmm. There is another example of am Old English-derived strong verb that has a vowel sound shift without a letter string or grapheme shift:

Present tense: “read”/Past tense: “read”

So, I ponder what, if anything does the “hear/heard” and “read/read” pairings have in common? They are all homophones: read/reed; read/red; hear/here; heard/herd. So, it would have been important for the scribes long ago to follow the homophone principle: “where possible, words that are pronounced the same, but are unrelated, will have different spellings to mark the differences in meaning.”

So, it would have been important to have graphemes in <heard> that would signal the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>.

Now, with those thoughts in mind, I will investigate <heard> and <hear> using the 4 questions of Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) to determine if any other new understandings come to light:

So, after considering all my current understandings, my answer to Q.’s question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?”, my hypothesis is that <heard>, as an Old English-derived strong verb, is spelled that way in order to show the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>. I will continue to refine my hypothesis as I learn. Thank you, Q., for a very thought-provoking question!

Update: I wasn’t feeling confident about my analysis about why <heard> is spelled that way so I continued to do research. I came across Dr. Peter Bowers’ wonderful exploration of <say> and <said> here. His analysis taught me something new: <-d> is a non-productive suffix ( a suffix that is not currently being used to generate new words). In his etymological investigation, <saith> was historically replaced by <say> and he is aware of the OE suffix -th (-th, according to Gina Cooke, is a verbal inflection that has been replaced by the <-s> in says. It has an <-eth> variant, like in <prayeth>) so

saith-> sai + th

If <sai> is an earlier version of <say> and <-d> is an earlier, now non-productive, suffix then

sai + d-> said

Dr. Bowers concludes, “our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <say> and <said> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root secgan. “

That makes me update my hypothesis that <heard> is spelled that way as a result of <hear> + the now unproductive -d suffix hence

hear + d->heard

Based on my updated hypothesis and my current understanding, our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <hear> and <heard> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root heran.

Thank you, Dr. Bowers, for your illuminative analysis of <said> and for all your scholarship related to spelling and Structured Word Inquiry.

Note from Real Spellers Toolkit (Theme 2D):

  • We know that the homophones < hear > and < here > have different meanings because they are spelled differently. The one that is to do with listening shares a spelling with < ear > because that’s what we listen with.

The other word is the one to do with place: < here >. It shares a spelling with the other words that are clearly about place: < there > and < where >, even though the pronunciation is different.


Peter Bowers, Structured Word Inquiry

Rebecca Loveless

Etymology Online

The Noun Project

Neil Ramsden’s Mini-Matrix Maker

Real Spellers Forum and Toolbox

Gina Cooke and Lex Exchange

Oxford Dictionary

Embedding “Structured Word Inquiry” Within a Reading Lesson

After a text has been presented and discussed, ask students to select a word that interests them from a text.  Guide students through the following 4 questions using the Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) Framework.  (Note: This does not have to be explored during one sitting.)

  1. Meaning?
  2. Relatives? (Etymology)
  3. Structure?  (Morphology)
  4. Pronunciation? (Grapheme/Phoneme Correspondence)

Sample Text:

“Sorry, But It Was Beautiful” by Andrew Vecchione (6th Grade Student of Kenneth Koch)

This is just to say

Sorry I took your money

And burned it.

But it looked like the world falling apart 

When it crackled and burned.

So I think it was worth it.

After all

You can’t see the world fall apart every day.

See the following SWI Thinksheet for a guided exploration of the student-selected word, “crackle“:

SWI ThinkSheet:

One of the notable understandings for this investigation is that the suffix “-le>” is represented by the grapheme<l>marker <e> and the phonemes /ə/ and /l/.

After the exploration, ask students for their lingering questions or provide extension activities for further study. In this case, an exploration of the -le suffix in the Oxford Dictionary showed that one meaning of this suffix is “a repetitive action.” As one collects words with the -le suffix, it was noted that many of those words refer to repetitive sounds. This resulted in a sort of the words with an -le suffix (or ending, as we determined some of the words had <le> as part of the base, not as part of the suffix) into two groups: -le words that referred to repetitive sounds and those that did not.

As a result of this investigation, there was heightened understanding of the -le suffix and future investigations to explore the -le suffix in English as it seems to have evolved (Latin -el?) or be connected to the -el suffix.

From Etymology Online, entry for -el:

-el (3)

derivational suffix, also -le, used mostly with verbs but originally also with nouns, “often denoting diminutive, repetitive, or intensive actions or events” [The Middle English Compendium], from Old English. Compare brastlian alongside berstan (see burst); nestlian (see nestle) alongside nistan). It is likely also in wrestletrampledragglestruggletwinkle, also noddle “to make frequent nods” (1733). New formations in Middle English might be native formations (jostle from joust) with this or borrowings from Dutch.

I am wondering, for example, if a word sum for <prattle> (from the Middle Dutch praten, “to chatter“) which would be expected to be prattle-> prat+le-> *pratle except that is not correct. The “Etymology Online” site notes in the entry for -el that in Modern English the -el suffix is represented by -el. Note that prat(t)+el->*prattel would explain the doubling but is not the correct spelling. At this point I will just consider <prattle> a base based on my current understanding but I will research the -el/-le connection. (As I feel the pronunciation of the -le suffix, I realize that the first phoneme I hear is the schwa, which is a vowel. Is there any doubling rule that takes into account a suffix that starts with a vowel sound even though the suffix does not start with a vowel?) (Update: After examining the etymology of the words below here, I became aware of a class of verbs called frequentatives with in English marks its verbs with an -le or -er ending and referee to words that show some sort of small or intense repeated action. Read here and here and here. My latest understanding says that for a verb to be frequentative, it must be derived from another word with the addition of the suffix. That doesn’t explain why a word like <prattle> which is most likely frequentative and arising from <prate> does not follow the rules for doubling. More to ponder and explore!)(Update #2: I just saw this on Gina Cooke’s site:

“Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.”

Based on my new understanding of <le> as a vestigial suffix that functions as a vowel suffix, we can use that information to understand how many of the words were historically built.

Embedding Structured Word Inquiry within a reading lesson offers many opportunities for generative learning. Using the basic framework of Structured Word Inquiry is appropriate for whole class instruction with follow-up activities that can be designed to address individual needs. After a SWI lesson, some students may use a matrix to write word sums while another student may illustrate the meaning of words in the word family (crackle, firecracker, cracked) while still another may do further research on words with -le in the suffix or the base.

Most of all, Structured Word Inquiry allows for a joyous exploration of understanding how our spelling system actually works. An educator does not have to have perfect understanding of the spelling system to embark on the journey, just an openness to learning as you (and your students) go along. Let your questions guide your learning within a true inquiry experience. I encourage you to conduct your own inquiries as part of your reading lessons. Feel free to email me at movoelkel@me.com if you have any questions.

For further information:

Dr. Peter Bowers: http://www.wordworkskingston.com/WordWorks/Home.html

Mary Beth Stevens: https://mbsteven.edublogs.org

Rebecca Loveless: https://rebeccaloveless.com

Gina Cooke: LEX

Noted from Real Spellers Toolbox:

-Screenshot from Real Spellers Toolbox (Theme 1D, “Final <e> that is not single” <coffee>

Updated Theory of Reading

I used to think that Reading and Spelling was largely based on visual memory. Yes, you needed to know the graphemes and phonemes but the goal was to synthesize that information quickly to aid quick visual word identification or spelling.

Now I think (after my research on the theories of Dr. Peter Bowers and Dr. Linnea and the work of Dr. David Kilpatrick) over these past three years that Reading/Spelling is a morphophonemic process. When students encounter a word, they analyze the spellings and map the graphemes to the phonemes and to the meaning and retrieve this representation from memory. It can take from 1-20+ exposures for this representation to make it into long-term memory but, once there, the word is immediately accessed.

Thus, the 4 questions of Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010) can be analyzed through the lens of orthographic mapping (Linnea Ehri), which is the process by which sight words (any word, not limited to our previous understanding of irregular words), are immediately accessed.)

The 4 Questions of Structured Word Inquiry:

  1. What is the meaning? (Meaning)
  2. What are the relatives? (Etymological information adds a layer of meaning as it can explain why a word is spelled as it is while morphological information helps students to focus on morphemes (base, affix), the meaningful units in a word.)
  3. What is the structure? (analyze the spelling using word sums and/or a word matrix)
  4. Pronunciation? (map the graphemes to the phonemes, articulate the sounds, note pronunciation shifts across the word family, articulation activities, spelling-it-out, and writing-it-out to consolidate understandings. Chart new phoneme and grapheme understandings as references.)

I might add a fifth question, “Can you use this word in a meaningful way?” as a way to monitor and assess developing word understandings. I would also be interested to map exposures, as possible, to begin to understand how many exposures is optimal for each of my students, as well as continuous informal assessments of comprehension, decoding and encoding(spelling) (with grapheme/phoneme analysis).

Here is a recent SWI thinking sheet that I created for <judge>:

As I was working on this, I had some questions about <judge> and <judicial> which was resolved with the help of some friends:

I have seen Structured Word Inquiry have such a positive impact on the word learning and spelling of diverse learners. It has been exciting to see the research on orthographic mapping confirm this. Looking forward to more explorations on the science and the magic of word learning!

Explaining the “Why?” of Spelling

I just listened to a Reading League podcast with Dr. David Kilpatrick. Dr. Kilpatrick has helped translate Dr. Linnea Ehri’s excellent research on orthographic mapping, which is the process of automatic word recognition, into classroom practice. He has written two great books, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, and Equipped for Reading Success.

As I listened to Dr. Kilpatrick’s explanation on how he would explain the spelling of <yacht> to a student, he used the words “tricky parts” to refer to the <ch> in the word.

As part of my learning journey to uncover how our spelling system really works through Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010), I once again reflected on how closely SWI connects to the research on orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping research has demonstrated that for words to be recognized automatically, the graphemes (letter or letter strings that represent phonemes) must be bonded to the phonemes (unit of sound) and the meaning in memory. It may take anywhere from 1 to over 20 exposures for the word to move from having to be decoded to being instantly recognized.

Structured Word Inquiry looks at a word and asks four questions:

  1. What is the meaning?
  2. What are the relatives?
  3. What is the structure?
  4. What are the sounds that matter?

The following is an inquiry into the word <yacht>:

An investigation of the word shows that the <ch> in the word <yacht> is an etymological marker that connects the spelling to its Germanic origins. It has been my experience that being able to share the real reason behind a spelling adds another layer of meaning that can be further explored during question 4 through grapheme/phoneme matching.

This would just be the initial inquiry into the word. Exposures can be continued through word-sums, spelling-out-loud, writing-out-loud and using the word in short student-created texts.

Map Tricky Phonemes to Graphemes with a Listening Activity!

Screen Shot 2020-10-27 at 12.00.15 PM

Help students at the “Partial Alphabetic” phase (Ehri, 1995) to map phonemes to graphemes by asking them to listen for words that represent a particular phoneme like /iː/ as in <eat> ( first give them time to feel the phoneme in their mouth and look in a mirror as they articulate the sound) as you reread a picture book aloud. Words with the targeted phoneme can be listed during the rereading and then sorted afterwards by grapheme (spelling pattern) and grapheme position. Afterwards, engage the students in the “So what, Now what” Thinking Routine. Some possible outcomes:

“So what?”: “The phoneme /iː/ can be represented by a variety of graphemes: <ie><ee><ea><i> and <y>. Are there other graphemes that represent /iː/?”

Now what?: “In my reading and spelling, I can use what I learned today to decode and spell. I will add graphemes and words to the chart as I find them. The words on the chart can be used as a word bank for my writing.”

Research shows that readers at the “Partial Alphabetic” stage have not yet “glued” the phonemes to the graphemes which, along with understanding the meaning of the word, is crucial to cementing these understanding into long-term memory so words can be automatically identified.

Teachers, through informal and formal assessments of decoding and spelling, can determine what phoneme/grapheme relationships are not yet stored in long-term memory. If using a Structured Word Inquiry approach, teachers can introduce, in addition to student-led inquiry, words that contain graphemes that are not yet fully bonded to the phonemes in memory. After word inquiry, including phoneme/grapheme correspondence, a teacher could create a chart, like the one above, to explore grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

The Science of Reading Instruction: Is My Word Reading Instruction Aligned with the Latest Research?

 By Mona Voelkel, NBCT

After reading, “The Science of Learning to Read Words: A Case for Systematic Phonics Instruction” by Linnea Ehri (Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 55(1); 30 August 20):

https://ila.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/rrq.334 , I wanted to compare my Structured Word Inquiry instructional approach with current research.

A deep understanding of The Big 5 Pillars of Reading Instruction  (Phonemic Awareness, Morphophonemic Instruction (usually called phonics but as a Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010) practitioner, I now reject phonics as the correct term for the study of our orthographic system), Fluency, Comprehension and Vocabulary) ground my instructional practice.

Each pillar needs to be carefully assessed and addressed in any classroom or reading intervention program. 

What has been so exciting over the past few years is how our knowledge of how children learn to read has been enhanced by developments in neuroscience and reading research.  What stands out to me, however, is the tireless research of Linnea Ehri.  She rejected Ken Goodman’s theory of reading as a psych-linguistic guessing game” many years ago and has spent her career researching topics in reading, especially how students learn words.  I think her most recent hypothesis of how students learn words has really bad news for devotees of the cueing of context clues, good news for disciples of the analytic and syllabic approaches to learning words and excellent news for converts to “Structured Word Inquiry” (Bowers, 2010).  The best news of all, though, is for the children who will benefit when her latest research is applied to classroom instruction.  After reading her article, I wanted to analyze how my instructional practice aligns with her latest research.  

While Ehri agrees that words CAN be read by using context clues or through the process of decoding letters into sounds, what contributes MOST to reading and comprehension is “reading words automatically from memory by sight.”


That means that there are no sub-classification of words called sight words.  All words are sight words when read by the accomplished reader.

Key Foundational Skills Needed to Move from Pre-alphabetic to Partial and Full Alphabetic:

What are the key foundational skills?

  • Letter Knowledge (names, shapes and sounds)
  • Phonemic Segmentation
  • Grapheme/Phoneme Knowledge (Including seeing spellings of words)
  • Onset-Rimes and Syllabic Knowledge (SWI focuses on morphemes, not onset-rimes or syllables but it will be important to blend syllable knowledge within SWI as needed, especially when it comes to understanding the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables.”
  • Morphemic Knowledge

I would pre-add to this list

  • Oral Language (Students must “float in a sea of talk”(Britton, 1970) as much as is possible to be able to read, write and spell.)

Spellings, letter strings, graphemes, however you refer to the building blocks of words, “attach to pronunciations and meanings in memory and enhance memory for vocabulary words.  When a word is seen, these connections are activated in memory to read the word.”

Ehri makes the point that spelling and word identification draw from the same knowledge and skills and that “spelling instruction benefits beginner word reading and that learning to read and spell are two sides of the same coin.”

In SWI, foundational approaches like “spelling-out-loud” and “writing-out loud” and phoneme/grapheme tapping help anchor grapheme/phoneme correspondence. For more about this important SWI practice: http://www.wordworkskingston.com/WordWorks/Spelling-Out_Word_Sums.html

This is a clarion call to make sure that practitioners teach the meaning of words, word identification and spelling simultaneously with grapheme/phoneme correspondence. 

I teach word identification(decoding) and spelling using an approach called “Structured Word Inquiry” (Bowers, 2010).  It is an inquiry framework where the teacher guides the students through 4 questions:

  1.  What is the meaning of the word?
  2. What are the relatives? (Morphological and Etymological)
  3. How is this word built?  (Analyzing and synthesizing elements using lexical word sums)
  4. What are the grapheme/phoneme correspondences?

So far, SWI would seem to set the stage for a word learning framework by grounding students in the meaning and spelling of the word while grounding students in the grapheme/phoneme correspondences.

See Dr. Pete Bowers demonstrating the “Structured Word Inquiry Approach” that he pioneered here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjdUK5YmkEo


Ehri talks about “unitization” as when all the identities of a word (meaning, spelling, pronunciation) are “immediately accessed from written to spoken words when seen.”  We know from prior research about orthographic mapping that some students require just 1-4 exposures to be able to achieve this automatic word identification but other students may need over 20 exposures. ( I would make quick spelling assessments during each intervention session to continuosly monitor developing orthographic understandings. It is also helpful to get a sense of how many exposures each student needs to achieve orthographic mapping or unitization.)

Teaching in Isolation vs Context

It is also important to note the importance of teaching words in isolation and in context.  Students who were taught words only in isolation had better spelling but struggled with meaning tasks while students who were taught words in context had better understanding of meaning but struggled with spelling, according to Ehri’s research.  

In SWI, the target word is presented in context and then the word is analyzed in isolation for meaning, structure and grapheme/phoneme correspondences.  I have asked students after the inquiry to use the word in a meaningful context to “show what they know” (see here) and Ehri’s discussion highlights the importance to me of bookending the isolated word study with meaningful context.

Should You Teach Syllabication?

Structured Word Inquiry teaches how our orthographic system is really organized and besides the shock of -tion not being a suffix (it’s -ion), the next shock was when I found out that English is not a syllable-timed language, it is a stress-timed language.  That means that we should teach meaningful units (morphemes: bases, affixes) not syllables.  Interestingly, Ehri references a study in the Portugese language (which is a syllable-timed language) that found that teaching grapheme/phoneme correspondences better prepared readers to read and spell than teaching syllables.

Stretch But Do Not Break

As part of SWI, students learn to tap out the grapheme/phoneme correspondences on their arm and then slide their hand down their arm as they say the whole word.  It was interesting and supportive of this practice, along with a reminder for grapheme/phoneme analysis work, that Ehri found that students who were instructed to “stretch out but not break up” the speech stream of a word had better reading and spelling, including reading medial letters.  I have noted students in the past, before using SWI, that had great difficulty decoding medial letters and I wonder if those students may have benefitted more from a stretching out rather than a breaking up sound by sound speech stream.


SWI students become aware of many bases and affixes through the inquiry process and become better able to analyze unknown words through “spelling-out-loud” and applying their morphophonemic knowledge.  I have seen dyslexic students become so confident as they can trust their ability to deepen their understanding of any word and their understandings become generative and lead to even more confidence.  Given my informal experiences, I was very happy to see that Ehri’s research showed that when compared to a control group, students who were morphophonemically trained showed the greatest transference and gains for reading words and nonwords.  

What are the Stages for Word Reading Development? (From Linnea Ehri)

Pre-alphabetic Phase

-relies on visual/context clues but NOT letter-sound cues.

Example:  “Reading” the McDonald’s sign

Partial-alphabetic Phase

-uses knowledge of letter names and sounds to write and read but can’t decode unfamiliar words.

Example:  Can write and read <dog> but also gets “stuck” on many words.

Full Alphabetic Phase

-acquired decoding skill and can fully analyze and form grapheme/phoneme connections within words to read and spell from memory.

Example:  Student can read and spell many words but struggles with content vocabulary.

Consolidated Alphabetic Phase

Accumulated fully analyzed spellings of many words in lexical memory and has acquired knowledge of larger spelling patterns and morphemes.  Students can write multi-syllabic words from memory.

Example: Students are comfortable writing and reading content vocabulary and other words.

Ehri notes that students should receive both structured phonics- and meaning- based instruction tailored to student needs and developmental phase.  Teachers need to assess students in order to determine appropriate instruction.

Practices to Improve Word Reading Instruction:

  1.  Ehri cites research that spelling is improved by creating “spelling connections” for words.  For example, in order to spell <chocolate>, the research advocates having students pronounce the word by emphasizing the <o>”  choc-O-late.  

 As a SWI practitioner, I would create a different “spelling connection” based on etymology by framing an inquiry into, “Why is there an <o> in chocolate”? To find out, visit Etymology Online to discover that the spelling may have been influenced by the Mayan word for hot which was <chocol>.

  1.  If you are using analogy-based spelling instruction like Words Their Way or other programs, Ehri’s research shows that word reading outcomes improved by adding grapheme/phoneme instruction.  It is a key part of SWI instruction to explicitly map graphemes to phonemes and phonemes to graphemes.
  1.  Students learn letter best when taught using embedded pictorial mnemonics in the  letters as opposed to teaching the letter with a separate picture.  In the distant past, I had used “Secret Stories” and other programs (Ehri mentions “Letterland”) that used letters embedded with pictorial mnemonics to highlight the grapheme/phoneme connection but I realize that I have not been using this tool for SWI.  I was very excited but as I thought about this I realized that there are 44 phonemes that are represented by letter strings of one or more letters and that phonemes may be represented by multiple graphemes.  It didn’t seem enough to just represent the consonant and short vowels graphemes with embedded pictorial phoneme mnemonics, perhaps I should try to represent the range of grapheme/phoneme possibilities.  I need to think more about this but here is a quick attempt at some embedded pictorial mnemonics:

          In SWI, I share the IPA with my students to represent phonemes.  I am wondering if 

          I should create foundational cards with the IPA symbols and the embedded pictorial  


  1.  When teaching for word reading development, teach students to articulate along with letters in order to strengthen the connection between grapheme and phonemes.  Structured Word Inquiry practitioners like Peter Bowers and Rebecca Loveless have taught me to, instead of asking students, “What do you hear?”, ask students “What do you feel?” when articulating the phonemes.  Ehri says that, “Teaching students to segment using articulation along with letters helps to strengthen the connection between graphemes and phonemes.  Articulation is more central to the representation of phonemes in the brain than acoustic cues are.”  Ehri would agree with Rebecca Loveless about the importance of teaching beginning readers to monitor mouth positions and sounds during phoneme segmentation instruction.  This is a reminder to add a mirror and visual representation of the sounds in the mouth to my word teaching toolkit.  

My Next Steps:

  1.  I want to deepen my knowledge of articulation by taking a course on phonetics. (I just signed up for a course in phonetics starting 11/28)
  2. Add a mirror and visuals that show how sounds are articulated in the mouth to my toolkit.
  3. Ponder if embedded pictorial representations would be helpful for digraphs. (In email conversation with Dr. Ehri, she mentioned that the embedded representations were for learning letters so no, I don’t think at this point that the embedded pictorial representations are necessary for digraphs but it could be used as an intervention for someone having difficulty mapping digraphs.)
  4. Ponder if I want to create reference cards that would contain the IPA symbol with phoneme/grapheme representation and the mouth position.
  5. Continue to deepen my orthographic understanding through study of the Real Spelling Toolkit and SWI classes with Pete Bowers, Rebecca Loveless and others.
  6. Continue to keep up with current educational research.

MTV Series: “What’s Going on in this Picture?

A Thinking Routine adapted from Ron Ritchard’s book, Making Thinking Visible and the New York Times’ weekly feature, “What’s Going on in this Picture?”

Courtesy of Library of Congress

A Thinking Routine that strengthens inferential thinking, observation skills, develops vocabulary and increases a sense of global connection.

What’s Going on in This Picture Image Set  (Use “Speaker Notes” to see photo information.)

New York Times. “What’s Going on with this Picture?”


  1. View a photograph (without any identifying captions) and discuss these questions with your students:
  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  1.  As the discussion moderator, stay neutral and accepting of multiple interpretations.  When students make a claim about what is going on in the image, gently ask them, “What makes you say that?  This encourages them to provide evidence from the image or from their background knowledge to support their claims or inferences.
  2.  Think about not revealing the origins of the photograph at  the end of this activity but instead use the photograph on another day as part of a teaching lesson.

What’s Going On in this Picture? Extensions

Before the group discussion, have students answer the 2
questions in partnerships. This gives students who need
more thinking time, such as ENL students, a chance to talk
with a partner and reflect before the whole group

Partnerships can use the “What’s Going on in This Picture?” Thinking Sheet as a “script” to support ENL students or students with language disabilies.

To encourage active listening, have students pose the
“What’s Going on in This Picture?” questions to their partner. The student can interview their partner and jot down his/her responses. Later, during conferencing or when students return to the whole group, make partners responsible for telling the group what his/her partner thought was going on in this picture and why.

Over time, the the questions can be used to prompt thinking and to draft an analytical paragraph:

Topic sentence/Claim:
What is going on in this picture?

What is going on in the picture that makes me say that?

Another thing I think is going on in this picture…

What is going on in the picture or world that makes me say that?

Every Monday, the NY Times Learning Network posts an uncaptioned photograph and invites students around the world to participate in a “What’s Going on in This Picture?” activity. Students are invited to post their inferences and evidence on a live blog moderated by Visual Thinking. (Students must be 13 or older to post but a teacher can post for younger students.) On Thursday, the photograph is identified with links to the original captions and/or news article. An exceptional and highly recommended learning experience with intriguing pictures for students in Grades 3-12. 


After extended practice with the “What’s Going on in This Picture?” thinking routine, have students use these questions to make claims about written text and support those claim with evidence from the text:

What’s going on in this text?
What makes you say that?

Sample Thinking Sheet:

SWI: debate

Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers, 2010) helps students deeply understand our orthographic system. Using investigations, students learn why words are spelled the way they as they explore the history, structure and pronunciation of words. It is also intellectually absorbing. Please explore this investigation of <debate> and share your new understandings or connections:

Mini-Matrix Maker by Neil Ramsden

Book Review: “The Power of Making Thinking Visible” by Ron Ritchart and Mark Church

What is powerful about “The Power of Making Thinking Visible”?

Ron Ritchart’s and Mark Church’s new book, “The Power of Making Thinking Visible” builds on the excellent foundation of the original, “Making Thinking Visible.”

It adds 18 new thinking routines to the MTV (Making Thinking Visible) toolbox.  It thoughtfully frames those routines as one of four classroom practices that deepen student understanding, along with questioning, listening and documentation.

It lets us know that if deepening student understanding is the main goal of our instruction, that deeper learning is at the intersection of mastery, identity and understanding.  For example, it’s not enough for a student to learn how to read.  To be a true reader, a student must see themselves as a reader and to initiate personal reading journeys.  

It also shares and explains the “6 Powers of Making Thinking Visible”:

-Foster deep learning

-Cultivate cognitively engaged students

-Change the role of students and teachers

-Enhance formative learning

-Improve learning (even as measured by standardized tests)

-Develop thinking dispositions (Observing, Wondering, Making Connections, Exploring Viewpoints, Building Explanations and Interpretations, Reasoning with Evidence, Uncovering Complexity and Going Deeper, Capturing the heart and Forming Conclusions.

If you want to be a better teacher for students that are striving to improve thinking skills, you first need to be mindful of the type of thinking that student needs to master and choose a routine that addresses that thinking disposition.  Based on the original book, Project Zero has a matrix of thinking routines connected to a range of thinking dispositions: https://pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Thinking%20Routine%20Matrix.pdf

Over time, the results of regularly having students engage in thoughtfully selected routines, with teacher monitoring and scaffolding considerations, will be profound. Students appreciate these routines that ask them to be active and thoughtful learners as they deepen their understanding. Cognitively, the

To really understand this book, I suggest that you read and engage with the original, “Making Thinking Visible” book and thinking routines.  For those of you already familiar with those routines, I know you will read and explore these new routines with a sense of excitement as you look for a routine that supports your teaching goals.

My goal was to find a new routine that would help me to deeply understand the book, “The Power of Making Thinking Visual” and, after careful consideration, I chose the “Peeling the Fruit” Routine. (I found this on the web and really like the layout: https://thinkingpathwayz.weebly.com/peelthefruit.html ). 

I started by jotting down what felt “important” as I read the book in the space outside the orange.  Then, after I finished reading the book, I took time to reflect and build explanations about what this book is about, make connections and consider other viewpoints.  Lastly, I thought deeply to conside what I thought to be the heart of this book, “Be a student of your student and also of your curriculum so you can facilitate the teaching and learning moves that lead to deep learning.”

Engaging the “Peeling the Fruit” routine facilitated a deeper understanding of this book than if I hadn’t engaged with this routine.  It also allowed me to document my thinking for myself and for you in a way that we can return to again and again, if desired.  Engaging in this thinking routine also allowed me to have access to a range of ideas that were available to me as I crafted this blog.  Let me know if you decide to deepen your understanding of Making Thinking Visible!  I have found it to be a meaningful and joyful journey of understanding.