Using Visible Thinking Routines in the Writing Process 

Cloud mind with bright connecting colors

I began my teaching career in August of 2001. Over the years, I have seen countless instructional plans, new technologies, supposedly groundbreaking research, and have attended every type of professional development opportunity imaginable. I was always doubtful about the flavor of the week–until I learned about Visible Thinking Routines.  

Visible Thinking Routines (VTR) were developed as part of the Harvard Project Zero. They are a systematic way to view students’ thinking and encourage reflective practice. They involve a series of steps or questions to help reveal students’ thinking.  

My first exposure to VTR was in the spring of 2019. I was at an English Language Learners professional development session. The VTR was Word, Phase, Sentence. To say I was confused would be an understatement. We were asked to choose a meaningful word, phrase, and sentence from a passage.  I asked the leader if I could choose the word “the” as my word. She lovingly said, “Well, if that’s the word in the article that speaks to you the most!” 

There were other exposures to VTR but nothing as notable. However, somewhere along the way, they captured my attention. In August of 2022, I read the book “Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence of All Learners,” (Richard, Church, and Morrison, 2011). I was impressed with VTR in a way I had not experienced with other instructional strategies. I immediately had a whole new toolbox of instructional ideas for my English for Academic Purposes class.  

Some of the routines were rehashes of typical instructional strategies like creating a headline or a glorified Know-Want to Know-Learn (KWL) chart, but there were many others that lent themselves to countless opportunities instructionally. I set off on a year-long journey to implement them into the academic writing process. Here are four of the VTRs I used and their outcomes.  


I implemented this VTR into a lesson about synthesizing information from multiple sources. Students worked in groups to read three short news articles on the same topic. They were instructed to write key facts from each article on note cards, sort the note cards into categories, name the categories, and synthesize the information into a few salient thoughts. 

Most of the groups were reasonably successful except for one. Instead of sorting the facts from each of the articles, they put the facts together in a group that were from the same article. So the information had not been properly synthesized. They basically summarized each article separately. With this concrete representation of their thinking, I was able to redirect them immediately before they continued on the wrong path any further.  


We had been working through the stages of writing a research paper. Several times throughout the process, I asked the students to share on the Padlet what they were excited about, worried about, needed, and what steps they needed to take to successfully complete their paper. The results revealed that they were excited about their topics. Many of them noted that they needed and were worried about finding enough resources. With this feedback, I was able to pivot our instruction to include more time and strategies to find additional sources. 


In our study of plagiarism, we read a short article about a researcher who had their work retracted because of a plagiarism issue. I did not want a class discussion where merely a few people chimed in with their thoughts, nor did I want people copying and pasting answers to standard comprehension questions, nor did I want people copying and pasting a summary from the article. Students were directed to find the word, phrase, and sentence they thought conveyed the overall message of the article. Although many of the students struggled with the concept of this routine, the students who could produce a reasonable answer hit the nail on the head. With repeated exposure, the rest of the students become more successful. This VTR gave me instant, comprehensive data about how many students understood the point of the article.  


As an introduction to citing sources, students were shown an example of a reference list. They were instructed to share with a partner what they see on the reference list. Then they were asked to make some predictions about what they think about the list. Finally, they were asked to pose a few questions about what they wonder about the reference list. Students gave answers like: “I see years,” “I see names,” “I think they are in alphabetical order,” “I think we need italics and regular [font] at different times,” “I wonder where we can find this information,” “I wonder if this is actually important,” etc. The VTR gave me a chance to get out of the way and allow the students to notice the details before we proceeded. It also allowed us to work from whole to part and expedite the process of learning how to create a reference list.   

Through these activities and others, I was amazed by how efficiently I could see the students thinking and tailor the instruction accordingly. These routines gave me instant, concrete information about the level at which the students understood the task. It allowed me to redirect, pivot, expedite, and gather data immediately to hit the bullseye of their most crucial needs. 

These activities were completed in an English for Academic Purposes class with English Language Learners at an upper intermediate ability level, but the VTRs can be adapted for virtually all ability levels and content areas.  

I definitely dropped my cynical view and now wildly embrace these new tricks in my instructional arsenal. They continue to serve me well in all the classes I teach. I enjoy sharing my favorite flavor of the week, which for me, has now lasted four years and counting.  

Rebecca Reel is currently an adjunct professor at Webster University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in the MATESOL program.  Most of her career she taught public high school ESL and also taught at the tertiary level in China. She is incredibly grateful to share practical advice with new and experienced teachers. She is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 


Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. 2011. Making Thinking Visible : How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass.