Using Systems Tools to Develop Intra and Inter-Textual Awareness in Young Readers

For many parents and their young children there are few times of the day as special as the last few minutes before bed when parent and child are snuggled together reading a story.  A few stories become favorites as evidenced by their tattered pages and memorized words and phrases. For the parent, these readings can be tiresome as the child begs for their repetition night after night.  For the child these words bring comfort and pleasure.  They form the fundamental building blocks of their literacy development, lasting well into adulthood.

In homes where children have the benefit of this bedtime ritual and other opportunities to hear stories read aloud, they are developing intra-textual awareness, i.e. a deep sense of how stories are written, the predictable patterns, the structure of the text.  When these children enter school they believe that the purpose of reading is to make meaning; they believe that when they read a piece of unfamiliar text, it should make sense; they can anticipate what is coming, confirming their predictions as they read. 

Unfortunately, far too many children enter formal schooling without these rich, early literacy experiences.  Hart and Risley write about what they describe as the 30 million-word gap.  They paint a picture of children who have not only missed out on being read to, but who have had so little conversation that they have heard as many as 30 million fewer words than their peers.

Children from both of these groups can be found in almost every kindergarten class in the world.  The kindergarten teacher is responsible to advance students from both groups in literacy skills so that they attain proficiency in reading and writing.  The Behavior Over Time Graph (BOTG) has proven to be an effective tool to help develop intra- and inter-textual awareness in children. While there is no substitute for preschool years filled with language, conversation and story, this systems thinking tool can be effective in supporting young children to develop fundamental literacy skills.

BOTGs provide a visual representation of a story.  They create a picture of the structure of the story.  Many familiar children’s books have the same pattern, based on a character’s repeated attempts to solve a problem or achieve a goal, followed by the resolution or happy ending.  blog-textual-pic1For example, in “The Little Red Hen” the hen asks her friends to help at each step of baking bread, only to be refused by her animal friends.  In the end, however, when it comes time to eat the bread, they are happy to help.  In the folk tale “Abiyoyo,” the villagers are constantly annoyed with the young boy and his father.  That is until they successfully rid the town of Abiyoyo, the monster that has plagued them forever.  That common pattern, sad, sad, sad, happy, is illustrated on the BOTG pictured here.

When skillfully used by primary teachers, the BOTG offers a visual representation of the story not found in retellings, innovations and other graphic organizers.  As young children are exposed to multiple stories with similar structure, they can visually see the similarities and thus have one more tool in developing the intra- and inter-textual awareness.  Inter-textual awareness is the ability to recognize stories that have similar patterns. 

Repetition of pattern as illustrated by a BOTG is great for helping young readers develop a sense of story.  In addition, the BOTG can also represent more complex story structures.  blog-textual-pic2As students increase their familiarity with the graphs they will become aware of the patterns and similarities, sometimes even naming the line.  For example, students in one preschool class call this oscillating pattern the crown story.  In this example, a student looking at the graph of the crown story, Goggles, by Jack Ezra Keats, determined from the “points” that every time Peter took action he felt less afraid of the bigger boys that were chasing him.

Using BOTGs helps students with delayed language development acquire a deep sense of intra and inter-textual awareness; in addition, it is an effective literacy strategy for all young readers.  We have strong evidence that use of BOTGs in the primary grades improves a student’s ability to retell a story.  Identifying and sequencing the key events over time, determining the important events and understanding how those events cause things to happen in the story all contribute to more skillful retellings. Using BOTGs in literacy instruction increases engagement, causing readers to be more active in the reading process.  Again, this is recognized as a quality of strong readers, but using the tools of systems thinking encourages these active reading behaviors in all students.

Much of the current focus on education is on closing gaps.  Use of BOTGs in the primary grades offers teachers a specific tool to help young learners become strong readers.  Accelerating reading achievement is certainly one important step in closing a gap, while at the same time being mindful that the ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to support reading as a process of constructing meaning.


Keeping in Step with the Big Picture

“Focus on the forest rather than the detail of any one tree.”
“Take the 10,000 meter view.”
“See the big picture.”

Girl looking across a landscapeThese common phrases suggest the value of appreciating the whole versus an emphasis on the detail of parts of a situation or a system of interest.  Systems thinkers are active in appreciating the large view and use tools and strategies to see the big picture.

Have you ever watched a marching band perform during halftime of a football game? 
Marching band formation of a U.S. flag

By FUMO7887, Wikimedia Commons

The goal of the performing group is to play music and create patterns that spell out words and formations designed for spectators’ entertainment.  Each band member plays an important role as the formation moves and changes throughout the performance.

The view from the stands is a big picture view, where spectators interpret the formation the band members’ movements create.  Spectators with a big picture view easily notice irregularities when performers are not quite in line or in step with the group.  This big picture view provides information that may not be noticeable by performers down on the field.


Marching band on field
By Krista Mericle, Public Domain

Band members have a very different view while performing.  While marching, musicians pay attention to surrounding members, the markings on the field and the conductor.  They do not have the advantage of seeing firsthand the big picture because they have to pay attention to the details of their surroundings.  They have to imagine the formations they create that are best appreciated by a broader perspective.

Like a marching band performance, spectators observing a system can be in the best positions to see the behavior of the system as a whole.  Those physically situated within the system can have limited views.  When we are in the trenches and active as members of systems, our decisions, actions and contributions greatly influence the whole, but we rarely have a chance to appreciate the wider view.  

UT/Rice Football Game Panorama
By Dave Wilson from Austin, Texas, USA
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Systems thinkers take time to take on the role of spectator.  They change perspectives by stepping back to increase understanding of a system. For example, when school leaders bring together students, teachers, parents, administrators and community members to share perspectives and points of view about school environment and student success and achievement, all in the system are able to “sit in the stands together” and appreciate the big picture. 

A Tool for Seeing the Big Picture: The Iceberg

Iceberg visualThe Iceberg visual of systems thinking is a great tool to help a group of people see the big picture of a system of interest. As people come together using the iceberg to share their views (mental models*), reflect on patterns and trends and examine the structure of the system, they increase their understanding of the system.  This deeper understanding of the system increases the group’s ability to plan and implement high leverage actions in the future. 

Filipino and Indonesian educators analyze their education systems using the iceberg.
Filipino and Indonesian educators analyze their education systems using the iceberg.

In addition, when used as an instructional strategy in classrooms, the iceberg tool helps students gain a deeper understanding of systems they are studying.

See elementary student example

See middle school example.

To learn more about the iceberg click here, and to gain access to a wide variety of iceberg templates, click here.

* Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.  
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 1990


Big Picture Reflections

Reflection in lakeConsider your workplace, your school or classroom, or your life with friends and family.  Can you think of times when you were “in the stands” and truly had a big picture view of a circumstance or event?  Did this view provide you with a perspective that broadened your view or enabled you to see something differently than if you’d been “in the band?” When you see things differently, how do you react? How can tools like the iceberg help you gain understanding of the big picture and the contributing details of your system?



Welcome to Systems thINK!

Just like naming a new baby, naming a blog was no easy task.  Blog-naming experts encouraged us to be clever, to consider name searchability and to settle on titles that are short and concise.  After days of trading ideas, we settled on the term “systems” which is near and dear to our hearts, and dissected the word “think” to highlight the importance of “ink, “ to blogging, or putting pen to paper and fingertips to keys.  After checking through Google to make sure the name was truly unique, a new blog was finally born!!

This blog is a team effort that highlights the writing of a variety of thought leaders focused on the integration of systems thinking habits, concepts and tools in schools and in communities.  We hope to make it fun and participatory by encouraging responses and replies that will open up a welcoming space for thoughtful inklings and insights.


Literature Connects

updated sheriSheri Marlin of the Waters Foundation, authors the Literature Connects blog. She helps educators make connections to excellent children’s literature in order to develop children’s systems thinking capacity. She gives specific examples as a way to help teachers generate new, creative ideas. Sheri adds new titles weekly.

Read more here.