How to Use the “What Do You Notice?” Strategy in ELA

Teaching resume writing, launching dystopian literature circles, introducing poetry and novels in verse, analyzing infographics, writing book reviews, learning craft moves from mentor texts, reading the first chapter of a new novel, and more…

Wondering what all of these scenarios have in common? I’ve used one powerhouse of a strategy to teach them! This lesson framework is student-centered, inquiry-based, engaging, and low-prep…all because it relies on the power of one transformative question:

“What do you notice?”

Allow me to introduce you to the strategy I’ve used to teach poetry to 7th graders, resumes to second-semester seniors, and everything in between. “What do you notice?”  empowers students to be observant and curious as they explore a text set, topic, or essential question. This lesson is a great way to introduce a unit because it allows students to explore and “investigate” a question before you answer it with another slideshow, lesson, etc. Instead of lecturing or handing out all the information first, you can challenge your students to discover some of the answers on their own (and then you can fill in the gaps later). This simple switch can turn any lesson into a student-centered, inquiry-driven activity that flips the hard work—and the ownership—on the students.

While there are multiple ways to use this lesson structure, the gist is this: You give students a variety of texts or other artifacts to explore and ask them “What do you notice?” You empower students with the space, time, and support to be curious as they “investigate” the texts and work toward answering a question, defining a topic, or reflecting on a perspective. When used over time, this strategy will help your learners become more inquisitive, observant, and insightful.

Ready to try it out in your middle or high school ELA classroom? Here’s how to plan and implement a successful “What do you notice?” lesson for ANY text set, topic, unit, or essential question:

How to use the What Do You Notice? strategy in ELA

Determine your goal for the lesson.

What do you want students to notice? What do you want them to be able to understand or do by the end of the lesson? Think through these questions and backwards-plan from there.

For example, I created a “What do you notice?” lesson to introduce students to novels in verse. I wanted students to notice the unique format, structure, creative language, and craft moves of verse novels. I was hoping they would notice things like “These books are written as poetry, but it doesn’t always rhyme.” I wanted them to ask questions like, “Why do authors write some books in verse?” My goal was to prepare my readers to notice and wonder about these things in our whole-class novel in verse, Before the Ever After, and then in their choice novels during book clubs.

You might also want to look at your previous lesson plans and think about how you can turn them into an inquiry-based, “What do you notice?” activity. For example, perhaps you previously introduced the dystopian genre with a PowerPoint before reading The Giver, Fahrenheit 451, or 1984. Instead of giving students all of this information and asking them to take notes, consider this: How much could students gather on their own if you gave them a pile of dystopian books and asked them “What do you notice?” It turns out: a LOT. I recently did this activity with my 8th-grade students and they noticed most of the dystopian elements I wanted to introduce anyway. It was an efficient, student-centered way to introduce the genre and prepare them for our dystopian book clubs.

Determine your goal for the lesson.

Gather and display the texts you want students to explore.

Once you have a goal, your next step is to hunt and gather the “texts” students will explore during the lesson. By “texts,” I mean whatever media you want students to examine. It could be books, excerpts, poems, quotes, images, art, cartoons, articles, book trailers, mentor sentences, symbols, artifacts…anything! The possibilities are endless. 

By “display,” I mean line the books up on your whiteboard, hang the examples around your room, or link the “texts” on a digital interactive menu like the one pictured in the above section. If you go this last route, you can do this strategy digitally and set up clickable buttons that take students to online book samples, articles, and other links. You can find an editable, create-your-own template in this What Do You Notice? Resource for Any Text. 

The more inviting and prominent the display, the more you will pique students’ curiosity when they walk in! It does not have to be elaborate to be appealing and inviting. My go-to is a whiteboard display combined with a digital menu. (I like to give students the option to explore digitally, and it’s also helpful for absent students who need to make up the work.)

Gather the texts you want students to explore.

Model how to notice and wonder with your students.

Don’t expect students to know how to notice. This is a skill that must be modeled, practiced, and strengthened over time. When you introduce the “What do you notice?” strategy to your students, invest time in modeling how to closely “notice” the texts. Using an example, “think aloud” for your students. Share what you notice, what you wonder, and what you think might be important. 

The more you use this strategy with your students, the more skilled they will become at noticing and wondering. Don’t be disappointed if their observations and questions aren’t very insightful or specific the first time you do this. Pull out the best examples, give students feedback, do more modeling, and keep practicing. It gets better every time, I promise!

Model how to notice and wonder.

Give your students time to explore, notice, and wonder.

Once you’ve set students up for success, it’s time for them to explore the texts and record what they notice and wonder. Challenge students to be as observant and curious as possible. Encourage them to notice anything and everything…even if they’re not sure it’s important. This keeps the activity low-risk and meets the students where they are. You don’t want to stifle students’ curiosity with the idea that there are “correct” or “expected” answers. Keep things open-ended, and check in with students during the activity. If and when you see students recording weak, surface-level observations, offer more support. Modeling, sentence starters, or other forms of scaffolding can help students achieve more insightful inferences.

Give students time to explore.

Ask students to summarize and/or reflect on what they noticed.

So students recorded everything they noticed and wondered…now what? Wrap up the lesson with an exit ticket or quick question to help them process the activity. I usually keep this simple and ask students to explain the most important thing they noticed. (This is such an underrated and under-practiced skill, in my ELA teacher opinion; students need to learn how to filter what’s important and what’s not.) I often frame it like this: “What do you think is most important to keep in mind for this unit?” For example, after our Novels in Verse: What do you notice? lesson, I ask students: “What do you think is most important to know as we begin reading a novel in verse?” 

Sometimes, I’ll make this question more specific to fit the goal of my lesson. For example, when we do our Dystopia: “What do you notice?” activity, I ask students to define dystopia in their own words (based on all the elements they noticed). 

Ask students to summarize or reflect after the lesson.

Facilitate a whole-class review.

Whether you debrief at the end of the lesson or the following day, it’s crucial to review what students noticed with the whole class. I like to open up a Google doc and create a digital “anchor chart.” This way, we have a place to add what we notice, wonder, and learn throughout our unit. Sometimes, I’ll even use these docs to help form rubrics or student checklists throughout the unit. For example, I recently asked students what they noticed about a book review, and then I compiled their observations into a checklist that they used to write their own reviews. I wove what they noticed into the final rubric, too.

Using what students notice in lessons and assessments is a great way to increase ownership in their learning. Plus, it’s always nice to remind students that they were the ones who noticed the criteria on their rubric! 😉

Facilitate a whole-class review after What Do You Notice?

Rinse and repeat!

If you want to maximize the benefits of “What do you notice?” and help your students become curious, lifelong learners, use the strategy again…and then again! Each time, you can increase the complexity of the “texts” and your expectations for students’ observations and questions. If you use this strategy all the time, like I do, you’ll eventually hear students starting sentences with “I notice…” and “I wonder…” totally unprompted!

When you use this lesson and other inquiry-based strategies, you can truly create a culture of curiosity in your ELA classroom. After all, isn’t that what we all want, not just in our classrooms but in our world, too?


Curious to learn more?

If you’re curious about this strategy but want to notice and wonder on your own first, here are some links to peruse. Below, you can find pictures and videos with examples, tips, and more information on facilitating “What do you notice?” in your classroom. Feel free to “wonder” and ask me any questions in the comments section here or on Instagram.

Lesson template for any text set, genre, or question

Ready to try this lesson in your classroom?

If you’re ready to dive right in to “What do you notice?” with your students, then scroll down to see some student-ready resources, including a more detailed guide, lesson template, and graphic organizer pack. This “What do you notice?” resource contains everything you need to adapt this strategy to any unit, topic, genre, essential question, text set, etc. If you can dream it up, you can create a lesson that will get students noticing and wondering.

Examples of What Do You Notice? lessons
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