Looking for Patterns

Call me crazy, but I don’t think we have yet begun to realise the full significance of recognising ‘patterns’ in learning across the curriculum. So much so in fact, that one of my favoured Seven Reading Strategies for exploring a text, whether the text is written, spoken or visual, is Looking for Patterns. Where once, as a young English teacher, I would often spend time creating a set of close reading questions to try to elicit the main points from the study of a text, or to start a discussion, now I would do it quite differently. One of the strategies I would use is simply to ask students, working in pairs or groups, to identify any patterns they can find, and begin the discussion from there (*note that this is only the start of the discussion, not an end in itself). In that way, the students are not immediately playing the ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ game,and the questions raised are ‘real’ questions, in the sense that the learners genuinely want answers to them.

The patterns identified will usually include elements of the plot (if there is one), structure, elements of grammar, layout, use of graphics etc. Some will focus on language patterns, the repeated use of particular words, images or symbols, and the recognition of common themes in a text or group of texts. So whether you have set out to teach an aspect of language, or structure, or author’s purpose and viewpoint, you are in a very real sense teaching these things because you have been asked to, and the difference is tangible.

One of the most obvious contexts for this kind of approach is when studying poetry. Ask students to read and listen to this classic poem, From a Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stevenson – listening is important since many of the patterns are aural – and write down as many patterns as they can find. Now use their findings to explore the significance  of the patterns, their contribution to the whole text and the overall effect in terms of the writer’s purpose. By learning this simple strategy, and using it regularly to compare and contrast different texts, students begin the journey to becoming more sophisticated readers, with a growing understanding of the concept of ‘genre’, which, after all, is simply the study of patterns in literature.

mapping51.39.jpgIt isn’t only in the study of literature that patterns are important however: patterns in number, musical notation and in art immediately spring to mind. I was also intrigued to find this link recently to a fantastic resource called Mapping History, a site created by the University of Oregon. Thanks to Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers for bringing it to my attention, and for the following insight:

“Some of my favourite social studies lesson plans included having students use maps to analyze data and identify patterns in history.” Richard Byrne

It stikes me that the ability to recognise patterns is an essential element of reading, and of learning, regardless of the curriculum area or context, but as always of course I would love to hear from you on whether, and how you think it might apply in your own particular area.

2 thoughts on “Looking for Patterns

  1. I agree, Bill, and would go further. I think that the ability to recognise patterns, and to DERIVE PLEASURE FROM PATTERNS is hardwired into us as humans as part of our evolutionary development. The ability to recognise patterns, in other words, favoured those who could do so, in all sorts of ways and so it became an intrinsic part of the human psyche. We enjoy patters as a species, visually and aurally, from birth, and therefore your strategy is at a subconscious level, pleasing and rewarding.



    • Hi Gordon,
      Thanks again for a perceptive contribution. The pleasure principle is one which I hadn’t really given much thought, but now that you mention it……….

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