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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

4 Effective Instructional Strategies That Work for Math, Writing, and More

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 28, 2024 10 min read
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What teacher isn’t on the lookout for new and effective instructional strategies?

In this multipart series, educators will share their “nominations” for those teaching strategies that can be effective in all content areas.

My personal choice is inductive teaching, which you can learn more about here.

Here are what today’s guests suggest ...

‘Thinking Routines’

Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi, M.Ed., is a veteran social studies educator, school leader, teacher coach, and now program director for Re-Imagining Migration. She is also an educational consultant that focuses on the needs of Arab and Muslim youth:

Tapping into students’ social-emotional learning can be a difficult task when creating lessons. Many times teachers have created a lesson that is very engaging, crosses all the checks for a high-level lesson, but then falls short of knowing how to tie all of the learning together. That is not uncommon for educators, especially when they are always looking for new ways to engage their students.

One instructional strategy that has saved me a lot of time and effort that I have used and still use today that can be applied across multiple content areas is Harvard’s Project Zero Thinking Routines. These routines are backed by research, can be used across multiple content areas, and create depth to any classroom activity along with creating space for students to focus on their emotions to provide navigation into a discussed topic. The Thinking Routines are divided into types of thinking categories, which makes finding the right type of routine to fit your activity easy to manage. The Thinking Routines can be used in a group setting, individual work, or as an exit ticket. There is no limit as to how to implement the various routines, but here are two of the best that I would recommend:

1. The 3 Whys - This routine helps center the topic into the student’s world. Students, especially younger students may have a difficult time connecting with the content so using this routine would allow students to dig deep to find the connection. The 3 Whys are: Why might this [topic, question] matter to me? Why might it matter to people around me [family, friends, city, nation]? Why might it matter to the world?

2. See-Feel-Think-Wonder - Social-emotional learning can take place in many forms. Using this routine will help students build the bridge of empathy but also understanding why curiosity is important to learning. This routine has students break down their own perceptions from what is being taught and also allows them space to ponder other feelings, ideas, or thoughts that may surface. It also uses the following as a strategy to reach that depth in a student’s own understanding: See What do you see? Feel What feelings emerge for you as you look at this piece? Think What does this piece make you think about? Wonder What do you wonder about this piece?

These are just two of the many routines that can be utilized in many classrooms across many contents. As an educator, my advice would be to find a few routines that you enjoy teaching, perfect them, then move on to more. There is no shortage of finding an engaging method to help your students learn, so why not work smarter and not harder by using Project Zero Thinking Routines into your next class session.


Graphic Organizers

After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:

Envision a small stone cottage from 16th-century France tucked away in the corner of a field with bees buzzing the lavender at the door. You walk inside and bemoan all the cleaning and the stones that have tumbled to the ground, letting in chinks of light.

With some sturdy scaffolding, you build it back to serviceability, leading to many lazy afternoons in the pleasure of its company. This is how I see the learning of my freshmen students arriving at my door after the wreckage of middle school. I call them my “COVID babies.” The cliche “learning loss” irritates me because they didn’t lose learning. They couldn’t lose something they never had. Like the cottage, they have gaps to fill and rooms to sweep, but the prior years haven’t been a total loss, and this year has been one for repairs. Having taught English for over 20 years before returning to history, I know the power of graphic organizers and that they can be used in every subject area (yes, math, even you).

The lovely thing about all types of graphic organizers is that they are freely available all over the internet. Our county has focused on writing across the curriculum this year. For years, I have remediated students who are struggling with writing, even up until their graduation day. The special education teachers in my early years confirmed graphic organizers are life rafts for students. These days, we need to use all the wisdom we can get from the special ed. teachers to help our struggling students.

To incorporate writing into my history curriculum, I provided graphic organizers at every step. When the time came to write an essay, I handed out a graphic organizer with more than five areas to fill because I never want students to think the five-paragraph essay is a natural, organic entity. Above each area of the organizer was a guiding question they could answer to formulate the paragraph. A 2020 study shows that doing it by hand rather than on the keyboard will light up more neurons (Askvik, van der Weel, van der Meer), so this organizer was on paper. (One caveat is to tell them to photograph the organizer at the end of each workshop because my “COVID babies” lost papers like the little flower girl leading the wedding procession.)

Some students freely wrote with a glance at the organizer and some organized on the computer. The majority used the organizer and were surprised at how easy it was to express their thoughts when they organized them. They had told me that eliminating accountability for state writing tests in middle school had led to less writing instruction, which I’d expected, so the last time they’d made a concerted effort to organize essay-length writing was in elementary school.

As the semester ends, and I look back with utter mental exhaustion, as always, I question if everything I’ve done is meaningful and helpful. Last week, I met a parent for an IEP meeting who said, “I’ve been letting my daughter’s English teacher for next semester know that the graphic organizers you provided for writing the essays in history class made her successful for the first time in writing an essay.” This easily provided scaffolding made all the difference.

In high school, we may sometimes regard graphic organizers as too basic or something they’ve shed on their path to high school and no longer need. Especially since they’ve emerged from the recent academic tunnel, graphic organizers are the scaffolds all our “COVID babies” need to rebuild with the intellectual blocks they’ve salvaged from the storm. The pieces of treasure they’ve gathered may have suffered a sea-change, but, if we can help them organize, those building blocks are waiting to coalesce into something rich and strange.


‘Turn, Talk, and Share’

Kanako Suwa (she/her) is a queer, multilingual TCK (Third Culture Kid)turned international educator, currently working at Chiang Mai International School as the EAL coordinator. You can follow her on Twitter at @kanakosuwa:

As an English-as a second language specialist, the strategy that I use the most frequently and with success is “Turn, Talk, and Share.” This is an extension of the well-known “Turn & Talk” strategy that adds an element of active listening and peer check-in. This strategy can be used in any content at all age groups, whether in a Grade 1 science lesson or a Grade 11 AP seminar, and is really simple to implement. After explaining instructions for an activity or introducing a new concept, ask students to turn to a classmate and take turns talking about what they heard and understood.

The traditional “Turn & Talk” ends here, but I challenge you to add on the “Share” aspect. This can be done in two levels. One: Have students share with the class what they said to their partner. Two: Have students share what their partner said to them. With level one, you are inviting students to share their own understanding, which may be helpful for everyone in the class to listen to. Especially in the case of EAL students, the same concept explained in multiple different ways, which can be considered to be a part of “multiple exposure,” can help solidify understanding.

Level two requires more effort from the students. This involves teachers asking students to share what their partner said, either verbatim or as a summary. This gives partners the chance to share, negotiate, and solidify their understanding—sometimes, partners listening will notice that there is a misunderstanding and will correct the other. Both partners may admit to not understanding and will be able to discuss without feeling like they are the only one who didn’t understand. And by discussing and co-constructing meaning before they share with the rest of the classroom, you can ensure that students have adequate understanding before you move on.

In addition to checking for understanding, Turn, Talk, and Share helps students build foundational skills for learning—active listening, negotiation of meaning, collaboration, and summarizing, to name a few. For example, while summarizing is generally considered to be a literacy skill, students should also be practicing the skill of summarizing by listening and summarizing lab findings from a science class. Providing transdisciplinary opportunities to practice critical skills is crucial in helping students apply these skills beyond one content area.

Finally, by having students talk to each other and collaboratively create meaning, you, as the teacher, can ensure that there is a shared understanding of concepts and activities in your classroom!



Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 18 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on X @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

The best instructional strategy that I have used is preassessment. During my first 1.5 years as a teacher, I found myself running out of time. I didn’t have enough time to facilitate all of the lessons that I had planned for a unit before needing to move on to the next unit. I found myself cutting important tasks and activities from the end of my units. I noticed that my instruction was surface level and we were not going deep enough. I was spending most of the time on prerequisite skills or skills from the previous grade level rather than on grade-level content.

For example, a 3rd grade math standard was telling time to one minute. I wanted to make sure that my students had a solid foundation. I spent too long on making sure my students knew the parts of a clock, telling time to the hour, telling time to the half-hour, and telling time to the five minutes. Once I started preassessing my students, I had a lot more time to spend on rigorous grade-level content.

My preassessments were very informal. Before starting each unit, I would show a picture or sample problem from the previous grade level that was aligned to the current topic. Students would solve the problem or create a web explaining everything they knew. I analyzed the student work and I was able to glean a lot of important information. I learned what vocabulary they had internalized. I learned what strategy or tools they were familiar with. I learned what they already knew and what gaps they might have.

Preassessments gave me the evidence I needed to not start each unit focusing on prerequisite skills. Most of the time I was able to get started further along in the unit. I was also able to be proactive because I had a better idea of where students might get stuck. I had just in time supports such as manipulatives, graphic organizers, visuals, and sentence frames ready for my students.


Thanks to Abeer, Donna, Kanako, and Cindy for contributing their thoughts.

They answered this question of the week:

What is the best instructional strategy that you have used that can be applied across multiple content areas?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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