Welcome, Stephanie Sommers: A Conversation @ Instructional Routines

Welcome, Stephanie Sommers!

Thanks for joining us this week for a conversation about instructional routines.

To get us started, Stephanie, what are instructional routines, and how do they benefit both students and teachers?

Members, what routines are you using in your teaching? Let us know what questions you have for Stephanie.

Bio: Stephanie Sommers earned her M.Ed. from the University of MN and entered the field of ABE in 1998. Since then she has worked in both large and small ABE programs teaching ESL, GED, Adult Diploma, TOEFL, citizenship, and work readiness. For the past 14 years, Stephanie has been a teacher with Minneapolis Adult Education, part of Minneapolis Public Schools. She is the current Writing Curriculum Lead and Adult Diploma Coordinator. She also serves as the Academic, Career and Employability (ACES) Coordinator for ATLAS at Hamline University.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP



Thank you, Susan, for inviting me to have this conversation with you. I am so excited to talk about one of my favorite topics with the LINCS community! To get started, an instructional routine can be defined as a sequence of actions that is regularly followed. Here are some basic examples

  • A teacher always introduces new vocabulary words on Monday and quizzes the students on Friday. To strengthen this routine, she might do the same routine activities to practice the words during the week.
  • Students write in their journals on the same day every week for the same length of time.
  • Students always use the same graphic organizer for note taking in class.
  • Students regularly complete an "exit ticket" that asks them to reflect on when learning was best during the week and when they struggled.
  • There is a folder in the classroom that students check when they've been absent to look for handouts or assignments that they might have missed.

These are just a few examples, and I am hoping that we'll get to see a lot more ideas as we discuss this topic throughout the week. I think of routines as ways that I can build consistency into the classroom. Routines can be built around anything that you want your students to practice on a regular basis. I think that most teachers develop some routines to lend order and a rhythm to their instruction. I really started paying attention to routines when I became someone who does a lot of training around soft skills. Routines are a really effective way of getting students to practice a variety of soft, or professional, skills. They can help students build self-management, including time management skills, and there are even routines that teachers can introduce to help students relax and let go of stress, which results in better learning. Making student reflection a regular part of instruction helps students become more aware of how they learn best, and where they need to focus their efforts. Introducing students to a variety of graphic organizers and giving them regular practice with using them builds critical thinking skills.

I will dive into this deeper as the week goes on, but routines are also a way of creating a more equitable classroom for learners of all ability levels. When students know what to expect and they clearly understand the directions and the task that they are being given, they are able to put more focus and more thought into the content. Being able to predict what is going to happen in the classroom makes it easier for struggling learners to feel successful and want to participate in learning. Using routines is actually a way to implement UDL (Universal Design for Learning) practices.

Stephanie, Thanks for sharing these examples of routines as well as your initial thoughts on the value of routines. I'd love to hear more about routines to practice professional skills as well as routines that can support students to reflect on what they are learning.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Hi Susan,

I'd be happy to share a couple of ideas for routines to build learners' professional skills.The first routine comes from the New England Literacy Resource Center (NELRC) and their Managing Stress to Improve Learning resource collection (https://nelrc.org/managingstress/routines_and_rituals.html). This website does a great job of explaining how using routines fosters better learning.

Here are some quote to consider from the Routines and Rituals section of the website:

"Creating predictable, stable classrooms supports stress reduction and the promotion of mental health. Knowing what to expect - from the program and from teacher - can help lower students' anxiety and help them focus on learning content."

"Following predictable routines does not have to counteract creativity and novelty in teaching content; rather, it can enhance students’ willingness to engage in something innovative because the classroom framework is safe and supportive."

A favorite routine of mine from the collection involves using a "letting go" bowl in the classroom (https://nelrc.org/managingstress/pdfs/lessons/Letting%20Go%20Bowl%20Lesson%20Plan%20-%20Bayer.pdf). In this easy routine, which promotes self-awareness, teachers place a bowl filled with water by the classroom door. Students entering the classroom write down any problems or issues they are having on a slip of paper and drop it into the bowl. As the ink dissolves from the paper, the students imagine their problems being washed away for at least the duration of the class period.

To encourage active reflection on learning, the Teach Thought website has some great journal prompts to get students thinking (https://www.teachthought.com/literacy/20-types-of-learning-journals-that-help-students-think/). Having students routinely use a learning journal has many benefits, including increasing metacognition and recognizing connections between ideas, content, goals, etc. 

Hi Stephanie and all, The "letting go" bowl is new to me. I could certainly use that now and then! Would you tell us how you introduce this idea to a group of students? How have learners responded to this routine?

Regarding the learning journals, is this something students share with the teacher and/or other students or is this meant to be a private journal for the student? How do you structure the journal writing task for students?  In your classes, is the learning journal optional or is it an expectation of all students in the class?

Thank you for linking us to these excellent resources!

Cheers, Susan


Hello!  In my HSE class,  I started every day with a two-part warm up:  first was a test-taking strategy, like answering the easy question first, reading the question twice, having a good breakfast, and so on.  Second was a math or logic problem, and I tried to make those relevant to our particular group of students.  I did this for weeks and then one day I just ran out of time and didn't prepare it.  I didn't think the students would mind.  Oh was I wrong!  They wanted their test taking strategy and math problem!  So now I make sure to have plenty of slides (because I put each strategy and question into a slide show so I have the same format every time) prepared in advance so I won't get caught unprepared again.  Routines do matter, no matter how simple!

Hi Jana,

Yes, I think you make a great point! Sometimes we do vary from our routines, and I think students do miss them. I know that I have sometimes been tempted to stop following a routine because I think that the students might be getting bored of it. We sometimes even use the word routine in a negative way to describe something that is bland or uninteresting. For learners who have not had many positive school experiences; however, routines can be very comforting. When we know what to expect, we are better prepared and better able to perform. I'm sure your students were glad when you got back to your routine, and I love your idea of focusing on test taking strategies and problem solving!

When I taught "language fundamentals," at a private school for middle/ high school students with specific language learning disorders...there was so much routine !!! 

I also did the statistical analysis of student test scores at the end of the year.   Yes, some of us were more "routine" than others. The ones who were the most consistent (and somehow they did it in a way that didn't seem rigid -- just consistent!)   ... *always* had better results, even w/ students I'd have thought didn't need all that Structure And Routine.

I support students in college settings in a tutoring lab and love the teachers that consciously have instructional routines.   Everybody has a better idea what to do.   The brain is free to focus on the actual *content.*   It's also a confidence builder.   Somehow, it's easier to get to the writing part of the paper if you have this structure for setting it up.  There's stuff on your paper already!   In math... if the projects have a similar layout it is *so much* less intimidating.   

(I'm a lot happier supporting the routine -- I'm really lousy at creating or following it ;)) 

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Jana. I agree that when we build in routines, students come to depend on them. On the other hand, I've had teachers wonder if routines might be boring for students. How would you respond to a teacher who raises a question like this? How can we ensure that the routines we use do not become stale?

Cheers, Susan

I would have been that teacher ;)  ... I'd suggest "why not just try it and see what happens?"   
There is so much about learning that those of us who've been doing it all our lives "just know" to do... and our students don't.   So many of our students are anxious and think maybe this is all too hard... and routines mean there's more success built into every assignment.   

Stephanie, these first posts are already inspiring! I teach GED classes, where regular attendance is NOT routine, as you must know. I will use the idea of student folders for missed assignments right away. Have you any other routines for bringing students up to par when they've been gone more than a few days? Or, conversely, for encouraging regular attendance?  Do your programs have attendance rules? Our program can dismiss students after 3 unexcused absences, but often we don't dismiss, because family and work crises keep many students out of school, yet they want to come to class when they can. Also, we use the Essential Ed learning program, and serious students will use it to keep up with the class.

I'm not naturally an organized person, so I'm always thrilled and grateful to learn from those who keep calm and create order. Thank you.

Hi Mardie, 

Thanks for jumping into this discussion about instructional routines and for your great questions! Yes, I have issues with students not always attending on a regular basis. I think that all ABE teachers struggle with this. Our program uses a hybrid model for student enrollment. When our numbers are strong, we use a managed enrollment model, and new students can only enter at designated entry points. When our numbers are low, we have a more flexible system that allows students to enter on a more regular basis. We have also moved away from talking about any particular attendance policy, and now we talk about “suggested attendance guidelines.” We tell students that there is a strong connection between their attendance and progress, and we suggest that they try not to miss more than one day per week or 4 days per month. We do not exit students from classes for poor attendance unless the class has a waiting list.

In an effort to respond to the reality that many of our students are not able to attend on a regular schedule, we are making a big push towards Distance Learning in our program. You mentioned using something called Essential Ed in your program, which looks to be an online GED preparation tool. I am not familiar with that, but I do agree that giving students a way to practice skills outside of class is very important. We have a large ELL population in our program, so we use something called Moby Max for Distance Learning. Moby Max has content at a variety of levels from Kindergarten through 8thgrade. While it was designed to be used with children, the actual content is appropriate for adults. It has lessons on reading informational texts, for example, a variety of language and grammar content, math, and spelling. We have tried to make use of Moby Max routine in all of our classes. To support this effort, we have aligned the content in Moby Max to the curriculum in our various ABE classes. This took some effort up front, but now we are able to fairly easily assign content to students that reinforces what they are learning in class. For students who are not able to attend classes and use Moby Max for Distance Learning, we can assign content that somewhat matches what they would be doing if they were placed in a regular class.

Another routine that we are trying to implement program-wide is the use of an app called Remind. Remind allows teachers and students to communicate via text messages. The texts are not sent from either person’s mobile phone number; however, they come from an anonymous number that is created by the app. Teachers in our program are asked to routinely send out updates to students. These can be a re-cap of what happened during the week, or they can be a preview of what to expect in the week ahead. We are also able to communicate about upcoming tests, school closures, and other special events. Here’s an example of a message that I sent to my high intermediate ELL students over the summer:    

Thank you all for a great first week of class! I am looking forward to this coming week. I have used your answers to the questions that I asked you last Thursday to plan our activities. We will be reading an article about the importance of personality for our American presidents. We will also continue to work on the paragraphs describing a person who you admire.I will also be explaining a new grammar point. It will be about using gerunds after prepositions in a sentence. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow in class!

There is one more routine that I'd like to share that supports student attendance and persistence, and it's regular conferencing with students. Check back later today for more on this topic.

Conferencing with students is a great way to provide feedback and support. In our program, we have put a lot of work into establishing a strong culture of student conferencing. We operate on a trimester system, and teachers conference with students at least once per term. This usually happens after post-testing takes place. One great thing to talk about during a conference is attendance. I can go into our data tracking system and see how many days a student has been in class out of the total number of class days. I try to link the students' progress and performance to their attendance. We also talk about how many assignments/projects/tests or quizzes were assessed during the term, and how many the student completed. Again, I try to link this directly to the student's attendance. I talk about how I am able to give the most complete picture of a student's progress when I have the most evidence. I can only gather the evidence when students attend, so I am able to be the best partner in learning when students are in class on a regular basis.

A couple of years ago, I also got really into finding ways to foster a growth mindset with learners. During this time, I developed a growth mindset conferencing form. I use it to help students identify both their strengths and areas for growth, and then use that information to set specific goals for the future. Here is a link to the form.

Hi Stephanie and all, Thanks so much, Stephanie, for sharing your routines for supporting learners' persistence through conferencing. I love the idea of emphasizing a growth mindset during conferences with learners. Thanks for linking us to the form you use during these conferences. When I clicked on the link, I got a message saying I needed to request permission. Would you be able to make this document accessible to everyone?

Cheers, Susan

Hi Stephanie and all, Thanks for all the great information, Stephanie. We have a lot of content teachers who are part of our community, so I'm wondering if you might be able to share some specific routines that work well for different content areas.

Teachers, what routines are working well for you when teaching science, social studies, math, language arts?

Cheers, Susan


Thanks to Susan for helping to move this conversation forward. I'm happy to share some ideas for writing routines, and I hope that other teachers jump in and share what they are doing. It would be great to hear from a variety of content specialists.

There are a few consistent routines that I use with my students. For one, in order to build digital literacy skills, all of our student writing is done in Google Drive. All students who enter our program create Gmail addresses which follow a specific protocol (1st two letters of 1st name, 1st three letters of last name, student ID number). This allows them to use our Chromebooks and create documents in Google Drive. Using Google Drive has several advantages: it's cloud-based so students can access their work anywhere and anytime; I can make comments and suggestions right in the documents; and students can easily collaborate and share if working with others.

Another routine is that we always follow the steps in the writing process when creating written work. I insist that my students do a brainstorming or pre-writing activity as a first step. Then it is understood that all writing is done in drafts, and that a first draft is never a finished product. I provide feedback to students, and they edit their work based on the feedback. I have experimented with different ways of offering feedback, and one that I have found to work well involves highlighting. I highlight where there is a mistake on a student's paper, and the student attempts to correct the mistake once attention has been drawn to it. This routine works best if you stick to highlighting grammar points that you have been working on in class. For example, I explicitly teach lessons on how to recognize and correct a run-on sentence, so I often highlight mistakes with run-sentences in student work. I would not highlight something like a misplaced or dangling modifier, however, because that is not something that I teach. To make the editing and revising process as clear as possible, I provide a single-point rubric to students for every assignment. Here is an example for a comparison essay and here is an example for a pro/con paragraph. (I hope I have share settings right this time.) I have my students self-assess using the rubric, and then I offer my feedback using the same form. I also work hard to introduce and consistently use the academic language that is needed to discuss writing with my students. I have posters on the wall that explain the difference between a phrase and a clause, and the difference between a dependent and independent clause. Using the language with students makes it easier to discuss their writing with them.

I am also a big proponent of using graphic organizers to show text structure. For each new type of writing that I discuss with my students (comparison, cause-effect, process, pro/con, etc.), we deconstruct a sample text using a  graphic organizer that is aligned to the task. Then I give my students a copy of the same graphic organizer to plan their own piece of writing. I'm sure that most people reading this are probably already using graphic organizers, but the website Read, Write, Think has a good collection, as does Scholastic

These examples have mostly been about routines that I build into my class, so here is one that I do for a warm-up activity. I do editing practice a few times each week with paragraphs from a website called EveryDay Edits. I learned about this a few years ago at COABE. The paragraphs always have 10 mistakes, and they are always related to Capitalization, Usage & Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling. I teach my students the mnemonic device CUPS to remember these areas to focus on, and then they have to identify, fix, and explain each mistake. We do this in the hopes that students will eventually internalize the idea of CUPS and look for similar mistakes in their own writing.

Stephanie, Thank you for sharing these great routines and resources for teaching writing. I, too, have found that Google is an amazing resource, especially for teaching writing. One routine I like to use when teaching writing is having learners identify where they have questions about their writing. They can use the comment feature in Google docs to raise their questions. For example, "Is this the right verb tense?" or "Have I used the right word here?" Knowing where students have specific questions allows me to target my feedback to what students have been working on.

If you have additional routines specific to other content areas, we'd love to hear about them. 

It would be great to hear from teachers about routines as well as resources they have found useful.

Cheers, Susan

There are a couple of simple reading routines that I have found useful and worth implementing. These are simple things that become more powerful by doing them routinely.

When reading a text and answering comprehension questions, I teach my students to highlight the sentence from the text that contains the answer or provides evidence to support their answer. The students highlight the sentence(s), and then write the number of the question in the margins. For true/false questions, I ask students how they would change a false statement into a true one. They have to explain what word(s) they would change. 

After reading a text, I also always use the same formative assessment, but I usually do it on the next class day. This helps the students to develop a habit of remembering what we've read and talked about in class, and it allows me to assess their understanding. This activity works for a wide variety of things, but I started using it as a reading comprehension activity. I tell the students to draw a T-chart on a piece of paper. One column is True and the other column is False. Then I read a statement based on information from the text. If the students had read the story of Cinderella, for example, I might say, "Cinderella had four wicked step-sisters." This is a false statement, so the students would write the sentence in the false column. This routine is great because it can work for any level of student. Very beginning level students can either write very short, simple sentences, or they can just put check marks in the correct column. You can increase the rigor by using longer sentences with more complex vocabulary. 

Why it's the best routine ever:

Once the students get used to the task, you can use the T-chart with different content. Here's how I have used it for grammar lessons. I tell the students to label one column Correct Sentence, for example, and the other column Run-On. You could also use it to get students differentiating between two verb tenses. For vocabulary practice, I will dictate a sentence, and the students have to write it in the correct column: True or False. When doing a unit with my ELLs on household problems, for example, I might dictate this sentence, "I need to call a plumber because my sink is leaking." That sentence would be written in the True column. "The electrician can fix that broken lock." That sentence would be written in the False column. There are almost limitless possibilities, and the activity takes almost no prep. You don't even need to make copies.


In English classes where I taught, there were all kinds of routines and structures for analyzing texts... which could carry over into less structured questions in later classes and college.   So, a "quote analysis" has four parts:   

  1. Write the quote and the page it comes from. Put it in quotation marks.
  2. Explain who said those words, and to whom they were talking.
  3. Paraphrase the quote (put in your own words).
  4. Explain what this quote tells you about this character or the plot of the story.
    What kind of person would say these things? Why would they say it? What would they have to know, or be thinking about, to say it?

By having the list to refer to... students got a whole lot better at being more thorough... There's a routine for character analysis and analyzing a symbole (and I just found where I put it online a million years ago https://resourceroom.net/Comprehension/literature/holes/holes_19.html  )   

Thanks for reminding me of these... 

I want to thank Stephanie Sommers for joining us for this informative conversation on instructional routines. There are some wonderful ideas as well as resources in this thread shared by Stephanie as well as from members of our community including Susan Jones, Jana Harper, and Mardie Mcllmoyl. Thanks, friends!

I love the way Stephanie explained the innovative way she uses a T-chart. I'm looking forward to trying this out.

It's clear that embedding effective routines into our teaching is important for the learners we serve. Plus, I think it's important to point out that routines save precious time for us teachers.

Colleagues, please feel free to share additional ideas for the instructional routines that are working well for you. 

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP