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.


Perceiving Patterns of Change

Like the spread of a celebrity “selfie” photo on Twitter or the ups and downs of a person challenged to maintain personal fitness, trends are part of daily life and our changing world.  We hear about them, see them in newspapers and feel them personally.

Examples of trending questions:

“Is this a one time thing, or have we seen it surface before?”

“Does that data show a trend or just a snapshot caused by extenuating circumstances?”

“After we launch this project, will we experience an implementation dip?”

”Did you notice how many “likes” I received on my Facebook post in such a short time?”

An important habit of a systems thinker is observing how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends.  The ability to see and make visible those trends helps people communicate viewpoints about how and why things change.

Trends can also be perceived in different ways, depending on one’s perspective. For example, a parent may view her teenage daughter’s repeated efforts to become more independent as rebellious behavior.  If not shared and discussed, these two different views of the same behavior can cause conflict and confusion.  The act of making choices without parent advice or approval can be perceived as rising rebellion, yet from a teenager’s point of view, the same pattern shows rising independence and movement toward adulthood.


Behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) are simple tools that illustrate patterns and trends.  Basically, a BOTG can show, through a quick drawing of a graph, how something changes over time.  Time is always on the “x” or horizontal axis and the element that is changing is on the “y” or vertical axis. Click here to learn more about this tool.

A third grade girl is learning how to manage her diabetes by tracking changes in her blood sugar over time.

 BOTGs can show changes using hard, numerical data or using general, perceptual impressions.  In either case, one might ask when viewing a change over time, “Is the trend growing or declining, leveling off or oscillating?”  The shape of the change then becomes the story of the change.  When individuals create BOTGs they not only visually describe the nature of the change but they also “outline” the rationale for the shape of the pattern or trend over time.  For example, a story of a graph might go like this:  “In the beginning, the line goes up because…and then levels off because… and eventually goes back down because…”


An Early Learning Example

One of the most powerful examples of how BOTGs help people see and understand patterns and trends comes from a preschool class of 4 year olds.  The class was reading a series of picture book stories and making simple graphs of changes over time in elements such as level of happiness or fear of main characters., or changes in the number of animals or amount of plants in a garden. After the teacher read each  story aloud, the class together would draw a BOTG of a key change and closed with a discussion about the graph.  The teacher would then hang the graph on a classroom wall. 

crown-graphAfter a few weeks following this routine, a child looked at the series of graphs that had been drawn from different books and noticed that some of the trend lines were similar.  She noticed several up-and-down lines showing that the level of change was sometimes going up and sometimes going down from several different stories.  She proudly pointed out this similarity and named those stories that had up-and-down graphs “crown stories.”  The graphs looked like a queen’s crown and that clever label helped categorize a pattern. 

VV_BOTGThat young girl’s revelation inspired the thinking of her classmates as they started naming other similarly looking graphs as “slides,” “stairs,” “tables” and “valleys.”  Now when reading stories, the 4 year olds actively listen for patterns and name them accordingly. Because the children have internalized the understanding that change can have shape and pattern, they use their own labels to identify the generic nature of patterns and trends they see and experience.  Are we trending toward a generation of systems thinkers?  Let’s hope so!



Trending Reflections

Reflection in lakeReflect on these questions as you consider important trends that impact you, your work and life.

What trends are important for you to pay attention to as you strive to achieve goals or desired outcomes?

What types of trends do you tend to notice?

How might these tendencies create blind spots that limit your ability to recognize other important patterns and trends?

 How can you actively listen to what’s happening in the stories you’re experiencing?

 How does your perspective influence the ways you see change?  How can you become open to other perspectives that may help you see patterns in different ways? 

 If you work with young people, what trends are important for them to be able to identify and understand? How might you facilitate that understanding?


The Success in “Successive Approximation”

“My path to success was my ability to make mistakes and make adjustments from what I learned.  The reason I was successful in business is that I learned to make mistakes faster than others.”
James Waters, Founder of The Waters Foundation

Artist assess his artwork to decide what changes to make.

Over the years, Jim Waters has offered us many words of advice based on his business and science experience and expertise.  
His favorite habit of a systems thinker focuses on Successive Approximation, or the ability to check results and change actions when needed.  There is no coincidence that the word “success” is embedded in this systems thinking habit.

Like any successful artist, writer, craftsman, actor, scientist or teacher, those who have high expectations monitor progress, make adjustments when needed, and most likely achieve impressive results. In essence a life-long learner holds the mindset of learning more from mishaps than from easily gained achievements. Having the courage to try new approaches when striving to reach a long-term goal, risking the chance that the short-term results turn out poorly, is a trait of a successful systems thinker.    

Suffice it to say that the more one learns, the more one realizes how much is truly unknown or misunderstood.  The quest for understanding then becomes an ongoing process of successive approximation. This approach requires patience, which is a challenge in times when pressures mount to produce immediate, noticeable, desired results.  Long-term, significant improvements take time and will not generally be accomplished as a result of quick fixes or snap decisions.

A Successive Approximation Tool: Goal and Gap Balancing Loop 

This causal loop shows that difference between desired and current performance as a gap.  Improvement strategies help improve current performance therefore shrinking the gap.


By Nicole Forrester.Panyd at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

This causal loop shows the difference between desired and current performance resulting in a gap.  When the gap grows, the need for improvement strategies increases, therefore changing the current performance and decreasing the gap.  Causal loops help us see the change over time and causal relationships in a circular manner.  Gaps grow and shrink constantly over time depending on a wide range of conditions.  Successive approximation helps systems continually adapt to growing or shrinking gaps in order to maintain progress.  Successive approximation also reminds us to always have a desired performance level or goal that is not yet achieved.

High jumpers are seldom satisfied with their first successful jump.  They acknowledge their success and then raise the bar to establish a new challenge or new goal.  They are allowed two misses, which become opportunities to assess what went wrong and what needs to change in order to clear new heights.  Without new heights as goals, along with the misses that take place to improve skill in jumping over those new heights, strategy would stagnate and records would never be broken.


When current performance improvements result in a shrinking, non-existent gap, the red arrow indicates the need to increase the level of desired performance. When raising the bar to increase the goal, a newly established gap defines ongoing improvement and the success in successive approximation.

Successive Approximation Reflections

Reflection in lakeTo what degree do you schedule time to pause, reflect, and assess the effects of a current plan and take necessary action?

Knowing that the recognition of gaps initiates learning, how do you help people learn by embracing and appreciating gaps in your work, your family and yourself?

What are the indicators of progress that you notice on a day-to-day basis?     Or in the long-term? How do these indicators guide your decisions and help you take action?



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.