Visible thinking routines

May 22 / Jessica Marshall

Visible thinking routines - what are they and how can you use them in class? Inspired by a talk by Alex Warren at IATEFL Brighton 2024, Jessica Marshall looks at ways to get learners to make their thinking more 'visible'. 

The content of this post is based on and inspired by the talk, ‘Visible Thinking Routines in the EAP Classroom’ at IATEFL Brighton 2024 by Alex Warren, who is a Senior Academic Consultant at National Geographic.

'Thinking routines' are patterns, procedures and processes which are used to achieve specific goals or tasks. Classrooms have a lot of these - some help to manage student behaviour and communication and some help to structure the learning that happens.  Bringing these routines to light and making them visible has multiple benefits, including helping to expand on and develop learners' thinking skills and their content learning. For more on this, have a look at the Harvard website here:

The ‘routines’ described below provide simple, low-preparation ideas for promoting communication, motivation and engagement. Whilst the talk centres around the EAP classroom, you will see that these activities can be adapted for any classroom, be it General English, Exams or EAP. I’ve taken a few of the ‘routines’ and demonstrated how they could be used with images in your classrooms, just as Alex Warren did in his talk.

I see..... I think....  I wonder.... 

Let’s imagine you’re doing a lesson about travel/adventure and you want to engage learners in the topic before perhaps coming to a reading or listening text (or not! – see below). The image below could be used with the ‘I see…I think…I wonder….’ task as a lead-in to the lesson.
Photo: Mael Balland, Unsplash

What do you see?
Ask your students to describe what they can actually see, not what they think they see.
e.g. In the image, we can see horses in a field, there’s a woman bending down to touch them, etc.
What do you think about that?
What do you think is going on? What in the image makes you think that?
e.g. I think she’s probably travelling/a backpacker, based on her clothing, maybe she’s stumbled across these animals on a hike.

What does it make you wonder?

What questions does it provoke?
e.g. I wonder if it’s safe to touch the animals? I wonder where she’s going and why?

These questions alone could form the basis of an entire lesson. Maybe you could:
⭐Focus on emerging language.
⭐Get students to imagine they are the woman, someone in the woman’s life, the farmer who owns the land, the horse -your learners decide! They can write a diary entry, a travel blog, a dialogue etc. based on students’ imagined answers to the ‘I wonder’ questions they asked.

SEE  >  THINK  >  WE  >  ME

SEE   Look closely at the photo. What do you notice?

THINK   What thoughts do you have about the photo?

ME  What connection can you make between you and the phot?

WE  How might the photo be connected to bigger stories - about the world and our place in it?

Again, depending on your choice of image, you might want to use it to generate ideas for a speaking class, discussion, debate etc, and therefore an image that could generate a range of ‘me/we’ ideas would be ideal. Alternatively, you may be choosing an image as part of a lead-in to a topic, so this might be something more specific.
The image below could be to introduce the topic of environmental issues and sustainability:

SEE – I can see pots, soil, raised beds, a watering can, seedlings, etc. 

THINK – I think it’s either somebody’s garden or maybe an allotment, based on the makeshift nature of the beds, I guess they’re trying to grow their own food.

ME – I’ve got a balcony and I’ve been trying to grow some tomatoes, and I’ve recently got a lot more into gardening than I ever thought I would…

WE – It makes me think about sustainability, about environmental issues, how people should be growing more of their own food to limit the damage we’re doing to the planet.

Photo: Jonathan Kemper, Unsplash
Again, where you take the lesson really depends on you and your students. The joy of these tasks is that they are very student-led, so it might go in a different direction to how you planned or imagined – and that’s ok!


This is another great ‘routine’ that encourages empathetic perspective taking, and encourages students to make connection between themselves and others.

SAME – In what ways might this person and you be similar?
DIFFERENT – In what ways might the person and you be different?
CONNECT – In what ways might the person and you be connected as human beings?
ENGAGE – What would you like to ask, say or do with the person if you had the chance?
Photo: Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

The image above could simply be used to generate a discussion, or perhaps as a lead-in to a lesson where students talk about a specific skill they have, for example.

SAME – I had a skateboard when I was a child, and once I did a 2-hour indoor-skateboarding class, but beyond that I can’t think of too many possibilities! I suppose we both like doing outdoor activities…

DIFFERENT – He is certainly a lot more daring than me! I’d be too scared to try tricks like that. He’s probably more disciplined than me too, as I imagine perfecting his skill takes hours and hours of practice…

CONNECT – We’re human beings on the planet! Maybe, like everyone in a way, we are part of some sort of community, whether it’s a circle of friends, or people you meet when you learn a new hobby…

ENGAGE – It could be fun to get a skateboarding lesson! I want to know how long it took to become as skilled as he is, how often does he train? Has he ever really injured himself? What advice for someone getting into skateboarding?

One of the key takeaways for me from this inspiring talk, is that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. The core purpose of these activities are to promote engagement with a topic, critical thinking and communication between your learners. This is able to happen because it moves away from the traditional comprehension model, or from learners being told what to specifically say or discuss about an image or a text. It therefore allows them to respond to material in a much more natural way, and to create the content of the lesson, thus giving them agency, which spurs motivation.

These are just a few of the many, many ideas and worksheets that you can find on the Project Zero website – so take a look and try it out!

What are your ideas about making thinking routines visible?

Which ones will you try out?

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