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. (Underpinning all my reading instruction is that decoding and encoding (spelling) are related processes and instruction should support that.)

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 (It is important to blend syllable knowledge within SWI as needed, especially when it comes to understanding the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables and syllabic understandings such as having each syllable contain a vowel.
  • Morphemic Knowledge

I would 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 “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 grapheme function coherently here?

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 our instructional focus should be on teaching meaningful units (morphemes: bases, affixes).  (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.) Understanding of syllables and syllabication is a key skill, however, and can be addressed as needed during the 4th question of Structured Word Inquiry. Students need to understand stressed and unstressed syllables and how that impacts pronunciation and parts of speech. It may be also helpful to let students know that each syllable in English contains a vowel and to demonstrate the emergence of the schwa sound in word pairs like athlete-athletic and nation-national.

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 very 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>. The <o> in <chocolate> could be an etymological marker that connects the word <chocolate> to the Mayan word, <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. (Patti Bottino-Bravo, who is teaching the “Fun with Phonetics class that I am taking recommends these resources.
  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. (I do not need to create these as they are available here.
  5. Continue to deepen my orthographic understanding through study of the Real Spelling Toolkit and SWI classes with Pete Bowers, Rebecca Loveless and others. (11/20 Update: I am taking another wonderful class with Dr. Peter Bowers and have recently started attending his free Monday evening Zoom drop-in classes.)
  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.

“Creating the Visual Journal” Class


In the beginning of the pandemic, I read a NY Times article that was subheaded:  

                 “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives” 

I was engulfed in the feeling that all we had taken for granted- toilet paper, hand sanitizer, our daily lives- could be taken away.  Looking at Lissa Jensen’s beautiful pages that captured, in words and drawings, the minutes of her life made me want to capture mine.

Lissa taught an online asynchronous class called, “Creating the Visual Journal” but there was one problem: I can’t draw- at all.

I needn’t have worried because Lissa is a gifted artist but also a talented teacher.  Each themed week of her 8-week class was filled with techniques, suggestions and examples of things we could try.  Under her guidance, I started to focus less on what I couldn’t do as an artist and more on what I could do!  There were some techniques that she showed us through videos that were just a delight: Collage!  Painting over pictures! Drawing without looking!  She also made us feel that all mistakes can be fixed: Paint over them!  Collage them!  Add tissue paper!  I started to see my mistakes as opportunities to try something else.

Each day, I would turn off CNN and try out an idea from Lissa’s website.  I had selected a small journal (8” x 5 ¼”) and that was a good decision because the cozy size felt manageable to me.  Lissa invited us to share a page (or pages) from our visual journal each week and would give such detailed, kind and thoughtful feedback that I went into each new week re-energized!  Besides being able to look at Lissa’s beautiful pages each week, my classmates’ pages were another source of inspiration.  There were so many stunning interpretations of each week’s theme!  We also created pages to help us process the pandemic, the death of Floyd George and the civil unrest.  During a time of relative isolation, this class gave us all the gifts of creativity and community.

Due to popular demand, Lissa will be teaching a Part II (Dates TBD)!  2020 may be one of the must tumultuous but, amid the chaos, these are still many moments to cherish and, in my visual journal, I have a record of the strife but also the beauty.

For more information:

Jensen, L. (2020, July 23). Creating the Visual Journal. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://writers.com/classes/creating-visual-journal

Sethi, S. (2020, March 23). Why Mundane Moments Truly Matter. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/smarter-living/why-mundane-moments-matter.html



Reflections: NGA Summer Institute

             National Gallery of Art Online Summer Institute for Educators

Art and Thinking

July 6-10, 2020



In the middle of the pandemic, I received a glorious package of cardstock, collage papers, watercolor markers, glue, crayons and a craft knife.  These materials would be used during the National Gallery of Art “Art and Thinking” Online Summer Institure.

The goal of the Summer Institute was to empower teachers to teach critical thinking using works of art in an exemplary online format.   There were daily live synchronous events, both large and small group, and asynchronous self-paced components.  The 163 participants ranged from early career to veteran teachers, including K-12, College, Art and Museum educators, administrators and consultants.

It was an incredible learning experience, with workshops guided by master teachers and researchers.  I learned so many new thinking routines, became familiar with amazing works of art and explored new modes of creative expressions.

A few highlights:


Arzu Mistry showed us how to make accordion books using paper bags and and covers. These books become magical tools for recording, reflecting and adding to our thinking.  Arzu showed us how to create books that adapt and expand to our thinking through added flaps, pockets, extensions and pop-ups.  As I documented my thinking throughout the week, my accordion book grew in all directions and became a treasured map of what I learned during the week.  Arzu also shared some ideas about how to revisit an accordion book and code thinking using a personalized legend and visual metaphors. 

Arzu has also generously shared a series of instructional videos for accordion books here.


Shari Tishman of Harvard Project Zero and the author of Slow Looking, shared the Artful Thinking palette that was the framework of the week.  (The thinking dispositions of observing and describing, reasoning, questioning and investigating, exploring viewpoints,  comparing and connecting, and finding complexity are explored through various thinking routines over the course of the Summer Institute week with a different thinking disposition highlighted each day.)

Shari guided us in looking fast and slow at the image, Winged Ones, by Joanne Leonard.  She asked us (from an activity by Ruth Slaven, University of Michigan Art Museum)  two questions about the image:

What does your heart know?

What is your body telling you?

Shari also gave us a framework for designing learning using art:

  1. Set expectations and time frame.
  2. Use simple observation strategies.
  3. Give time to dwell. (describe/experience using words, sounds, tableaux etc.)
  4. Discover how others see things.
  5. Discover how you see things.

Shari also reminded us about the skill that is needed to manage information, response and feedback.  My own experience with using art to teach critical thinking has also highlighted the need to carefully plan enough time for each phase of the lesson, when to give background information and use a variety of response modes (oral, written, think-pair-share, whole group, drama etc.)

One question that she asked was, “What does (this element) mean to you.”  Such a powerful question to explore viewpoints and metaphor!  Shari also gave some tips with exploring metaphor with younger children by asking:

               If this artwork was a flower, what flower would it be? 

              If this artwork was an animal, what animal would it be?

I also realize that one of the benefits of the Zoom experience was that everyone was able to respond at the same time and that we had a front-row seat to the artwork.

Shari emphasized the simple yet profound key tenet of Artful Thinking and using artwork in the classroom: slow looking: “taking the time to notice that there is more there than meets the eye at first glance.”  


                                                                  Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Liz Diament, NGA Educator, guided us through the Looking 5 x 2 (Far and Near) as we explored The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole.  I have used this activity before, where you ask students to name 5 objects they see and then look again; naming 5 additional objects but I loved how Liz used the zoom tool on the NGA website to slowly scan over a close-up of the work before we named 5 new objects.  She further guided us to “step in” to the artwork and tell her something that we might…hear…smell…touch…taste…see…here.

I loved two questions that we were asked that encouraged me to think metaphorically and plan on using these questions with my students:

     1. Choose one main element.  What might this mean or symbolize in the painting?

  1. What if this element was a metaphor for our hopes for this week together?  What might that mean to you?

Jessica Ross, Harvard Project Zero, and Deirdre Palmer and Dina Rappaport, NGA Educators, explored recognizing perspectives using art.  One of the ideas Jessica highlighted was for us to see observation and interpretation on a continuum:


Observation                                                                                                       Interpretation

This is so important because as human beings we sometimes think we are just making an observation when we are actually making an interpretation and it is important to know the difference for ourselves and our students.

I was most excited about thinking routines that Deirdre and Dina used shared using an incredible image by Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson (1942):

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                                            Gordon Parkshttp://www.usda.gov/oc/photo/01di1383.htm

First, we took time to just look at the image by asking,

What do you see?

We took time to list the people and objects in the image.  It was so interesting to see how much there was to see and notice and one of the benefits of our Zoom chatbox was that we could instantly read other’s observations.

Then, we were given the title of the photograph and just a little background information on Ella Watson, Washington D.C. and the photographer, Gordon Parks.  You can read some background here.

Next, we participated in a thinking routine, Step In, Step Out, Step Back, that is designed to nurture cultural perspective taking responsibly.  We were also asked to make personal connections and share a headline after small group discussion.  We also took time to make a sketch of the artwork which helped us slow down and really see the image.

This was such a timely activity because it highlights the importance of context and asks us what we know and what we may never know.  This activity resonated with me because it emphasized taking the perspectives of others responsibly.

I am looking forward to exploring more of Gordon Parks’ images and the Gordon Parks Foundation (Pleasantville, NY), with the Step In, Step Out, Step Back routine.  I would also like to explore more of Gordon Parks’ powerful images with other Artful Thinking routines.


Mary Hall Surface, playwright, director, author and educator,  guided us through an amazing sequence of activities based on Pablo Picasso’s, Family of Saltimbanques during her “Monologues from Art.”  We started by slowly looking at the image and then choosing a character from the artwork for our focus.  She then showed us how to do word sketching, where we did quick sketch of the selected character and then labeled our sketch with what we saw and later, our wonderings.  We explored the character through a series of dramatic activities and explored our interpretations of the character’s feelings.  Through a series of whole group and small group exercises, we “wrote out loud” and then acted out  a “3-emotion, 2-turning point” monologue.  The depth of the interpretations, the quality of her instructional sequence and graphic organizers was so exciting that I can’t wait to recreate this lesson in the future.  We were also invited to draft a monologue after the experience and here is mine:

Boy with barrel speaking to his mother (red skirt):

I am so alone here.  In this world no one cares if I live or die.  Anything I eat, everything I do depends on the sweat of my brow.  The days are so long; my burdens heavy.  It wasn’t always like this.  Mother, remember when you were here with me.  I took laughter and ease for granted then.  Remember when you brought me to the circus for a lesson with the acrobats?  After we spent the day with them and they showed me their secrets, I said it must be a hard life for them, always on the road, and you said,  “They are following their hearts, Andre, and that is the best thing any of us can ever do.  There will be hard days but always, my dear son, follow your heart.”  I think of your words, Mama, and they give me all the energy and hope that I need to take this next step.

Mary Hall Surface also shared a wonderful way to give feedback when we read our colleagues’ monologues.  She said, “Respond by asking the character a question you are curious to know the answer.  Then, offer a wish or hope for the future.”

Mary Hall Surface also guided us to use the wonderful See/Feel/Connect routine to become familiar with Sigmar Polke’s, Hope Is: Wanting to Pull Clouds, explore feelings that emerge and frame a response that helps us connect to the work and each other.  We were skillfully guided through a series of questions, a freewrite and then given the title of the artwork and a sentence frame to “talk to the painting.

My “talking to the painting”:  I see hope in your beautiful colors on the horizon because, I, too, try to clear away the clouds of today to reveal all of tomorrow’s possibilities.  

I am excited to use this routine with some of the other recommended works of art.  As educators, we are look for ways to deepen thinking and this routine is a powerful way to encourage connection and inferential thinking.


Nathalie Ryan, NGA Educator and Manager,  guided us, after looking at artwork by Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, through a visual metaphor drawing/writing activity that asked us to consider our roots, strengths (trunk), connections/impact (branches), and what we need to survive and thrive.  It was a very moving and powerful exercise and though it was targeted for teachers, could be adapted for any setting.  Nathalie shared her process of creating a visual metaphor and  I am interested in exploring more visual metaphors as it spurred thinking and connections. 

Over the course of the week, the presenters grounded us in the research behind the lessons, shared ways to adapt lessons for diverse populations and made available a wealth of additional artwork and lesson resources.  I have participated in several courses in Artful Thinking/ Visible Thinking but this Summer Institute was one of the most meaningful and enjoyable professional development experience of my career.  

Consider this a brief overview- there were so many other incredible workshops.  We also received access to view workshops we did not attend and revisit resources until October, with the option of staying in touch with attendees throughout the year on an informal basis.

 My deepest thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Summer Institute, the incredible presenters and the facilitation team: Sophia Howes, Amanda Beck, Genesis Flores, Heather Hinish, Jessica Metzger and Julie Carmean.  

For more information:

Summer Institute for Educators: Art and Thinking (Overview)

Information about the Institute.  Check back here in February 2021 to sign up.

National Gallery Online Course: “Teaching Critical Thinking Through Art”

This free online self-paced course is an excellent introduction to Artful Thinking.

I have taken in once but am retaking the course using an accordion book to document my thinking and revisit this wonderful course.

National Gallery of Art: Educator Resources

Download images and explore these incredible lessons from across the curriculum.