Implications of Brain Research

Through this school year, we have investigated the idea of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to literally change.  Brain research tells us that it is possible to change learning, mindset and even intelligence.  It is when we use and process information in the prefrontal cortex—learning happens and encodes to long term memory!  We have learned how stress inhibits learning and self-confidence.  Judy Willis, Edutopia 2012, shared that when studying neuroimaging scan of students in states of boredom, frustration and sustained stress within the classroom the brain increases the metabolic state and blocks processing in the prefrontal cortex.  Knowing these facts makes you a powerful change agent for students.

Building on these ideas, an article from Education World on October 26, 2016, there are twelve principles or ideas that can help us make small changes in our instruction. Educators can change ways we plan and execute lessons to make a HUGE impact. Here are my five favorite to share.

  1. The brain is a parallel processor. This means that thoughts, experiences and emotions are being processed simultaneously within the brain.  This matters because it is a reminder that environment and social/emotional needs must be considered and met to ensure optimal learning. We cannot control the students’ environment but we can make sure our school and classrooms are safe and inviting.
  2. Learning engages the entire body and physiology. Increasing active movement will increase engagement and neural activity.  Increase student to student interaction to increase listening and speaking while reading and writing which will boost sensory input. Engaging students in movement, gestures, games, etc. will increase their neural input and increase the brain’s ability to put the information in long term memory.
  3. The brain is constantly searching for meaning and is instinctive. Begin your lessons with a question, problem or scenario that requires students to figure something out or discover.  Even using photographs to spark intrigue will increase the brain’s innate search for meaning and to seek answers.  When the brain is seeking meaning—engagement is present.
  4. The brain searches for patterns. Repetition is crucial because it helps students organize and put things in order.  In addition, explicitly teaching a concept and then having students discover or apply information repetitively will help them develop a pattern of thinking.  When you hear the term layering it refers to teaching a concept and then providing the concept in a different way which causes the brain to first seek meaning and then organize this information by the previous pattern learned. This causes students to access information from memory and reuse it in a different way which is problem solving at the highest level.
  5. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat. We must challenge our students with complex text and content but remember that scaffolding them and supporting them will keep the threats limited and engagement guaranteed.  (Keep the carrot dangling in front of them)

Wonder, graphics, student interaction, and movement all help increase student engagement and increase the ability to process information.  Using what we know about the brain helps us plan lessons to optimally produce student learning.  Remember explicit instructions and modeling help to lay the foundation of learning. Providing students a chance to interact and talk helps to make the concepts make sense.  The use of graphics, movement and games will increase the brain’s ability to remember and retrieve the information.  Increasing the challenge or layering new ideas upon patterns of learning helps students develop connections and deepen learning so that it is processed to long term memory and becomes automatic.


In October, as the weather changes and leaves fall, weariness begins to settle over the staff members at our elementary schools.  August and September are filled with the excitement of new students and building relationships within the frenzy of BOY testing.  Much like the mist during our October mornings, stress and testing data begins to permeate throughout our classrooms.


I recently ran across this quote which seemed to sum up the process:

“…weariness seemed to settle on him like a coating of dust.”

― M. Snyder

As this weariness sets in, the stress increases because the need for action continues to grow. As the end of the first nine weeks grows closer, our teachers have data on student strengths and weaknesses and it is time to begin “rolling” with a plan.  A PLAN?  Having the data and knowing the problem is the easy part—creating the road map and putting the plan into action is the hard part.

This blog will focus on reminding you of the amazing things YOU,  as elementary teachers,  accomplish the first six weeks of school by using the word—WEARY!


W is for WITNESSING and Discovering Abilities:

Gathering and digging into data can be a daunting task but elementary teachers sift through school, class and individual data to determine student strengths and needs. Tier I paperwork has been created to highlight the needs of our classrooms and plans to address these needs have been generated.  You, as a grade level, have identified needs and are implementing best practices within each daily schedule to ensure that the class deficit is filled.  In addition, digging deeper into data, Tier II paperwork has been created to identify needs of individual students and how to address their needs.  Planning for WHO—WHAT—WHERE and DURATION of interventions and best practices to help “build” individual foundations and make the “Swiss Cheese” go away is exhausting but necessary!  In addition, these plans are being implemented daily to make sure that the lowest deficits are addressed and progress monitoring happens to ensure the interventions are working!  We are continuously assessing progress and adjusting instruction as needed.  (W– May also stand for WOW!  Think of ALL you do each day!)

E is for EMBRACING change and learning:

Flexibility is part of your day as you have to adapt.  Embracing this change is a gift that you model for students.  Accepting the change of education and learning the new practices, ideas and concepts being taught.  Trying new ideas, adapting instruction and classroom procedures is all part of creating an inviting environment for students.

A is for ADVOCATING for student learning and needs:

Daily you advocate for your students and their needs including reaching out to the social worker or counselor to intervene with students who have an environmental or social need.  New shoes, money for fieldtrips, school supplies and any other need seems to find the way to students though the recipient rarely knows their teacher was the contributor.  Learning needs are met because YOU reach out, ask questions, find resources and simply give all you have to ensure learning. A—may also stand for AMAZING—that is what you are!


Within six weeks, communication and trust has been built through conversations, planners, notes and simply reaching out with positive interactions.  Creating relationships is difficult but elementary teachers have the ability to create open two way communication AND a sense of support within weeks of getting to know their students.  Think of the ways you reach out each day—phenomenal!


Y is for YIELDING results and success:

With all that you do each day—YOU DO YIELD positive results.  Think of  what you have already accomplished and what your students can do that they could not do six weeks ago.  YOU DO make a difference.


As the nine weeks comes to a close, take a deep breath of the crisp October air, remember that you do make a difference even among the mist of stress and weariness that is settling around you.

Please do the following:

  1. Take care of yourself because stress affects your hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. It can dampen your immune system; decrease your brain cells and memory.
  2. Ask for help when you are overwhelmed, do not understand or get behind. Support help is here to help you!
  3. Use your planning day to try to get a long range plan and where you want to go. Once you know the materials you need—use assistant help and tutors to help you create those materials in advance.
  4. Remember YOU ARE AMAZING and make a difference every day!

A Deeper Look at Non-fiction Text Structure

Last week, I focused on how text features and signal words must be explicitly taught to help students understand that the “structure” of the text helps the reader better understand the main points of non-fiction. We teach different fiction genres to ensure students understand how to adjust their reading strategies, thinking and note taking.  A reader must adjust their metacognition differently when they read a myth vs. fairytale.  Non-fiction has differences in structure as well but we often forget to directly teach these to students. Don’t we read a social studies article differently than an essay on Global Warming?  This takes explicit instruction.

The main structure types of non-fiction are:

  • Cause and effect: describe cause and effect relationships.  The text describes events and identifies reasons (causes) for why the event happened.
  • Description: text that visualizes information which utilizes sensory and descriptive details that provides the 5W’s about a topic.
  • Sequential: chronologically organized from beginning to end
  • Compare and Contrast: comparisons used to describe an idea and similarities and differences are shared
  • Problem and Solution: author introduces a problem and presents solutions


Instruction of non-fiction text structure helps the student meet the depth of the Common Core Informational Standards.   The first three informational standards are organized under “Key Ideas and Details” and require students to interact with the text in a “surface” manner.  When you move on to standards 4, 5 and 6—notice that they are organized under “Craft and Structure.”

**Notice the words—CRAFT AND STRUCTURE!  Those words remind us as educators that the structure must be considered to fully meet these three standards.  Please view these three standards.

Craft and Structure:

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.


Within these three standards, students are challenged to do the following:

  1. Notice the word choice of the author.
  2. Analyze the structure of the text.
  3. See how the author’s choices “build” the text and how to interact with each section or part
  4. Determine the author’s point of view.
  5. Discern differences in the author’s opinion and their own.
  6. See subtle changes in how the author’s point of view changes the text and choices by the author.


When a student can identify the text structure of the text, it immediately alerts the brain to apply certain strategies as they read and to look for certain main points.  Knowing the text structure is important for many reasons including:

  1. The structure sets the purpose for the selection and lets the reader know what points the author WANTS to make to the reader. This allows the reader to search for this information rather than only discerning information from their own point of view. (RI.6)
  2. Text features and signal words help “lead” students to main points of the article. (RI.5)
  3. The structure helps students see which details are most important and sift through to determine relevant and irrelevant information. (RI.5 and RI.6)
  4. The structure helps the reader decide what kind of notes to take such as looking for the problem and list solutions or creating a timeline with an article written in chronological order. (RI.5)
  5. The signal words and text features help to point out what the author thinks is important and show their opinion or perspective. (RI.6)
  6. When a student “sees” the structure, they are able to more clearly organize their thoughts for a summary or to explain.

This is NOT an upper grade concept!  We do this with Kindergarten and small children when we read a story aloud. We stop and ask what is happening and model the structure of a story. When we read something, we look at the title and ask what the selection will be about which shows how the title relates to the book.  We must begin to show students how the small pieces of information are put together in a format to help the reader learn.  Seeing a text from the “macrolevel” or the overall level helps them see the framework or structure that the author “built” the selection. Powerful don’t you think?  If a student can SEE the structure—they can fully understand it. An added bonus to understanding text structure is that it aids the student when expressing their thoughts in writing.

Text Features or Text Structure?

Literary elements are the “skeleton” of fictional text.  These literary elements give fiction structure but what about non-fiction?skeleton-6  Non-fiction is “held up” by the text features and signal words which help to determine the “skeleton” or structure of the text.  An author creates a text structure by designing or writing the text by using common text features to “build” the main ideas.  8cxanm5cpThe signal words are embedded to let the reader know what ideas are important and to better understand them.  The main structure types of non-fiction are:

  • Cause and effect: describe cause and effect relationships.  The text describes events and identifies reasons (causes) for why the event happened.
  • Description: text that visualizes information which utilizes sensory and descriptive details that provides the 5W’s about a topic.
  • Sequential: chronologically organized from beginning to end
  • Compare and Contrast: comparisons used to describe an idea and similarities and differences are shared
  • Problem and Solution: author introduces a problem and presents solutions

Text features must be explicitly taught to help students navigate through informational and non-fiction text.  These features help readers “see” how the author crafted the article or selection. The use of subheadings, columns, graphics, and other features help the reader determine what is important.

Educators spend a great deal of time teaching text features because we want them to navigate the text effectively.  This intentional instruction is important—right?  The answer to this is “YES” but that is simply not enough for a young reader to fully navigate the text. They must be taught the different text structure types, text features that accompany each structure and the signal words that the author uses to organize a selection.  Together these elements are used to create a text and help a reader find and understand the main points of the selection.  Explicitly teaching signal words helps students determine how the author organized or structured the information for the reader to understand.  Signal words are the author’s way of helping  the reader see and understand the main points.  Signal words help suggest and show the reader how the author has structured their writing to help you better understand the text.

Click this site to see important signal words to focus on:

What Questions Do Text Features and Signal Words Help a Reader Determine?

  1. How do I navigate a text?
  2. What main ideas and details does the author feel are important?
  3. What type of TEXT STRUCTURE does the non-fiction selection have? (The text features and signal words guide this!)

In conjunction with text features, an author uses signal words to help a reader determine the structure that was used to create the text. Please click this link to see a chart which shows the text structure types and signal words:

I have created a guide for students to use to determine the text structure of a text.  This is a step by step process and requires students to interact with the text and self question.  They must determine what they see and how it is organized using text features and signal words. Understanding the structure helps students to apply the correct type of note taking, look out for main ideas and to make sense of what the author finds important.

Click here for the guide:  analyzing-text-structure

What can you do to teach text structure explicitly?

  • Teach text structures using examples of texts and discuss how it has been organized.
  • Take text features out of a text and allow students to figure out where the features should go and why.
  • Discuss main idea sentences and key words that show a certain text structure.
  • Model how to preview a text and to collect information from the text prior to reading and information they can gain while reading in the form of annotation.
  • To solidify learning have students write using that specific text structure to ensure they understand how this type of text is crafted.

Check out resources below from FCRR which can help you gain more ideas about text analysis for students.  Student understanding of how something is written helps to aid their comprehension. We know that teaching by genre can help a student better understand fictional text by knowing what elements they are looking for as they read. Once a student knows they are reading a fairytale, they know that magic will be an element and contain a heroic event.  If the child is reading a tall tale, they will understand that hyperbole is an element which aids in the understanding that the story may not make sense at times but is meant in a humorous manner. Non-fiction and informational text takes many forms as well and deserves the explicit instruction that we provide when we teach literature.

Start noticing as you read non-fiction text what text structure the author has utilized.   Notice how you read differently if you know it is organized sequentially rather than in problem solution format. How does it change what you are looking for as you read? Do you take notes differently? When you notice how you read differently—you will see the importance of showing your students.


Florida Center for Reading Research Text Structure Resources:

FCRR: Text Analysis (Grades 2-3)

FCRR: Text Analysis (Grades 4-5)

FCRR: Expository Texts (Grades 2-3)

FCRR: Expository Texts (Grades 4-5)

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