Leaving Tracks of Impact and Thinking


Do you have a book that you associate with a particular time in your life? Maybe a saying that when you repeat it, you think of a friend? Do you have a strategy that, for the rest of your career, you’ll associate with a colleague? Me too. I want to share some work I’ve done around ‘leaving tracks of thinking’ but I can’t truly do it justice without also paying due respect to my colleague Niall Cooke.

This is Niall.  Today.


We shared our Adolescent Literacy Gap Closing results in a Regional Network for Brantfordconsultants in Brantford. This was work we had engaged in with elementary and secondary teachers from four communities of schools in Woodstock.


Niall and I share many common interests: we’re news addicts, we devote as much time to twitter moments as our twitterfeed, we teach with editorial cartoons, we (think we) are humorous, we share a penchant for devouring YA novels. We incorporate those passions into our work. And we are both desperately interested in getting to know students so well that we can put a book in their hands and then discover if they comprehend it. Our guiding question is:  how do you really know they comprehend text?

Our go-to strategy, the lynchpin, for determining whether students make sense of text has been: leaving tracks of thinking.  Perhaps you know it as annotating (in high school), or reading with a pencil. Whatever you call it, this strategy gives teachers insight into how kids are making sense of text by making their thinking visible. (For more info, please refer to Cris Tovani, So What Do They Really Know, or Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels, Comprehension and Collaboration)

I like to model the strategy with a pen under the doc camera. I keep learning more about the importance of choice of text.  We’ve tried this strategy with narrative, with informational, with graphic, all as a means to inform when students, and teachers, benefit from it most. We vehemently oppose killing students’ love of reading by engaging in this strategy with their independent reading of self-selected text.

This year in our cross panel work, Niall and I collaborated with Karen Masson from our spec ed portfolio to equip teachers to see the power of annotating text in Google Read/Write. With me, she simultaneously modelled the strategy in real time. This chrome add-on provides accommodations for students to type in text or offers speech to text capabilities in comment boxes, and is an invaluable tool for students to make their thinking visible on a piece of text.

leaving tracks.jpg

Niall and I stake a claim that end-of-chapter comprehension questions deceive teachers into thinking their students understood what they read…since we can ALL fake read depending on the depth of questions. Instead, when annotating, students record what they’re thinking as they’re reading, whether questions, comments, connections, etc. Imagine the insight educators gain from leveraging this information to inform their next step with a student?

Of course, none of us invites vulnerability, so it can require coaxing and ‘trying it on for size’ when we initially model the strategy for teachers. You see, teachers are all proficient readers and barely notice what we’re thinking anymore while we’re reading. It takes persistence to slow down the process while reading to record exactly what you’re thinking. To remind myself of its power, I encourage and practice taking a cold read (text unseen) and leaving tracks of my own thinking.  In fact, I tried it again last night in Chapters…

amy tan leaving tracks

I’m consistently reminded of the insights I gain into how I make sense of text by forcing myself to leave tracks of thinking while I’m reading.  What strategies do I rely on? Where does my thinking break down? Which parts do I re-read to check for my own understanding? How does my background knowledge enhance or deter from my comprehension? Slowing down the process to record my thinking helps me pay attention to the text.

In our Adolescent Literacy cross panel project this year, we asked teachers and students to share their reflections on the impact of leaving tracks of thinking.  Teachers shared their own reluctance with modelling the strategy but found they not only learned more about how students were making sense of text, but they noted the unintended consequence of students sharing their thinking helped them build relationships.

Today was the last time Niall and I will present together. His expertise in visual literacy has transformed any power point presentation my portfolio has created, as evidenced in our slide deck from today. There are tracks of his impact across my work. And everytime I see students and teachers leaving tracks of thinking, I’ll think of him.

ppt slides



One thought on “Leaving Tracks of Impact and Thinking

  1. Pingback: Why Shared Reading after Primary? | annette.gilbert

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