Thursday / April 25

How We Use Writing to Make Learning VISIBLE

How We Use Writing to Make Learning Visible

What 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’s 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. 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 or 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?

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

Follow this process and you will be able to lead students to improve writing skills and content area understanding.

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—and that the writing will have a structure we will introduce step-by-step.

“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.” (Hattie, 2013)

Analyze a model piece of writing

Our criterion for success begins by sharing an example of the type of writing we will be doing. Projecting examples keeps all the students’ heads up and looking forward rather than bent over a piece of paper on their desk. Remember, 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?” and “Who is speaking?”

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. “The more important task is for teachers to listen.” (Hattie, 2013)

Of course this doesn’t mean anarchy, a lesson with no design. Rather, we mean you should 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

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.

“The more the student becomes the teacher and the more the teacher becomes the learner, then the more successful are the outcomes.” (Hattie, 2013)

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 also 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.

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.

The mistake is to assume that because students ‘sit in groups’, there is learning in groups…[M]erely placing students in groups rarely means that they work in groups in any form of differentiation.” (Hattie, 2013)

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. As the students collaborate, they teach each other.

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.

Remember, it’s going to be a bit noisy—engagement is not quiet.

Write as individuals or with partners

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. 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 baed on their 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  by soliciting ideas from the rest of the class and to foster an environment where not being 100% correct all the time is all right.

“School leaders and teachers need to create…classroom environments in which error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, in which discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed.” (Hattie, 2013)

We think aloud with the students and when we find them a little off base during the writing process, 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.


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, or rearranging lines to find a stronger lead or some other strategy to get to Version Two. Then, 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 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.


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.

This is not 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 with public speaking.

As students read their work,the rest of the class benefits from the work done by the presenting students. Opportunities for discussion naturally occur as well as the chance to correct misconceptions.  “Challenge and feedback [are] two of the essential ingredients of learning.” (Hattie, 2013)

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 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 them 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, 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.

Isn’t that your goal?

Visible Learning books

Written by

A fixture in the performance poetry and education community, Michael Salinger has been writing and performing poetry and fiction for over twenty years. His work has appeared in dozens of literary journals published in the U.S. and Canada, and he has coauthored three professional books with Sara Holbrook: Outspoken!, High-Definition, and High-Impact Writing Clinics. Michael is also the founder and chief facilitator of the teen writing and performance program at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Foundation–the second largest performing arts center in the United States after Broadway.

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