I wanted to share with you a really simple but incredibly effective strategy that I’ve been using for a while now. It has improved the quality of my class discussion, increased student participation, and generally resulted in a better exchange of ideas.
Here it is…
As you read a text with your class, whatever it may be, ask them to draw a dot next to anything they read or hear that they find interesting or confusing
And that’s it. I did say it was simple! But, there are a few things underpinning this strategy that make it effective. Its simplicity masks something quite interesting.
But first, how to introduce this idea to students? When I first started using this as part of classroom routine I first of all explained what I imagined the criteria might be for placing a dot next to something:
- It is interesting
- It is important
- It is confusing or puzzling
- A word seems to stand out, for whatever reason
- It connects to something that someone else previously said
- It connects to something else (an idea or image) discussed elsewhere in the text
I also, at the start, model this process under the visualiser by placing a dot next to what I find interesting or puzzling. I especially go to great lengths to emphasise a perfectly valid thing to place a dot next to would be something you don’t fully understand. I explain those aspects of a text that confuse or puzzle are precisely the moments most worth considering. I also explain that they should feel free to place a dot next to a part of the text they feel might be interesting to discuss, but don’t yet have any fully formed view as to why they think it’s interesting.
After going through all of this, they’ll quickly realise that pretty much anything could have a dot placed next to it. If it’s interesting, confusing or potentially important then it can be dotted. And this of course is the point: this is just a way of generating parts of the texts to explore together and to discuss. The physical marker of the dot helps provide a reminder to do this. There is nothing that couldn’t at least become a starting point for collective exploration and this is exactly the point of this strategy.
The low-key manner in which we do this, even the fact it is a tiny dot that sits in the margin of the text, all helps to give students that little bit of confidence to feel able to notate parts of the text that may even have just a passing resonance. This isn’t a big deal, the dot implies, but mark anything at all the seems interesting or puzzling.
Either just before or during our class reading, whatever it might be, I’ll very often remind student to be attentive to this process, and as above in many ways the dot exists to offer a physical focal point for such attentiveness. It is, in many ways, a kind of scaffold not for what to say, but rather the very process of thinking about what to say. I might remind them, for instance, to place a dot next to anything they find interesting or pause and suggest X is definitely something I would place a dot next to. Yet, what is even more gratifying, is that students often quickly embed this routine into their own reading voluntarily and without extra prompting. Without any reminding, I might look up as I’m reading and see, pen in hand, a room full of students placing little dots in the margins of their pages.
What happens next though is where I think this strategy really excels. Now, it’s time to discuss the text and to share ideas. I am a massive advocate for always beginning, where possible, with student response to whatever we’re studying. My starting point is with the students and what the text said to them or what resonated. Again, the dot simply becomes a way in which to localise and situate this process.
I might, for instance, begin by sampling the room and asking who wants to share something they dotted. I will always have at least a couple of hands go up because the nature of the process as explained to them means pretty much anything can have a dot placed next to it. And now we have ideas, resonances, thoughts to begin a discussion. Or, I might ask a specific student to share or even for them to share with each other in pairs. I could even ask them to pause and pick one thing they dotted and expand on why they did so in writing before then moving into a class discussion. During discussion, I could also take an idea and ask if anyone dotted anything that they feel would either support or challenge that idea. The opportunities are endless. And all from placing a simple dot in a margin.
The reason I think this works so well are for a couple of reasons:
- It is incredibly simple: there is effectively no barrier to entry as the actual task itself (placing a dot next to something) is effortless and the criteria is so broad there will always be something to mark
- It is offering a physical mechanic to the cognitive process we want to promote: it is not about what to think, but rather offers a simple cue to help prompt thinking about what to think
- It allows me to leverage whatever is dotted into class discussion, confident there will always be some material to work with and expand on
- It privileges authentic student response
So, there you go: simple but highly effective. The best combination.
Are you doing this in school books or on print outs? I love this idea but I worry about the repercussions of pupils defacing school property over time. Wondering how I can work it in without damaging the books for future years (although to my mind, if it’s only a dot, in pencil, then it’s hardly a major issue)