Tools to build the Reading Brain using Microsoft Word #1: Finding and using the clues to create a mindmap (by Peter de Lisle)

This is another guest post from Peter De Lisle from Hilton College in Kwazulu-Natal. Peter is one of our Microsoft 2016/2017 MIEExperts from South Africa. Every so often Peter shares a great blog post on the SchoolNet blog.with his last one beingDon’t just collect data – ask it a question (Using Excel Forms and Pivot Tables to conduct a meaningful survey)‘ and prior to that OneNote with the 16 habits of mind’.

This post and the following blog post describes a series of lessons which are intended to use ICT tools, in particular Microsoft Word, to:

1. Help students understand the complexity they face in reading;

2. Develop some reading skills in moving from linear text to understanding its structure;

3. Develop some writing skills in moving from a structure of ideas to its linear representation.


David Christian and the Big History movement point to the importance of language, and in particular reading and writing, as a way for our species to do what no other species has managed: to be able to transmit what has been learned in one generation to the next, as opposed to relying on instinct.

Doug Lemov points out that “Reading is the skill. Teaching students to unlock the full meaning of the texts they read is the single most powerful outcome a teacher can foster. lf your students can read well, they can essentially do anything.”

Maryanne Wolf is in agreement: “Reading is one of the single most remarkable inventions in history.”

However, she starts her book on the reading brain with these words: “We were never born to read.” She goes on to delve into the neuroscience of why it is so difficult to read, and why so many people battle to master this fundamental skill.

Fixed Mindset problems

In contrast, there is a general perception that reading is easy, and that it is something everyone should “just pick up”. This can easily feed into a Fixed Mindset (“I really ought to be able to do this, so I better fake it”) instead of a Growth Mindset (“This is difficult, so I must devote myself to mastering it”) (see the writings of Carol Dweck).

The Fixed Mindset problem is further exacerbated by the focus on the teaching of literature in English classes. Most English teachers studied literature in their degrees, and so fall back on this, rather than developing expertise in teaching reading and writing. Literature is easy because it is a “story”, and does not follow the rules of most other writing. Of course, serious writers layer their work with deeper meanings and complex themes, and university people study these and make it even more complex. But everyday people read everyday stories and find them relatively easy.

Linear and non-linear sequences of events

The basic structure of a narrative (a linear sequence of events) fits well with the way we write (a linear sequence of words). That is why reading stories is fairly easy.

In contrast, one of the key problems in reading for information is that it is a structure of inter-related ideas, not a linear sequence. It is only represented in this limited way. So the trick when reading is to decode the linear, and understand the structure. The trick when writing is the opposite: to encode the structure in a linear format. If you are old enough, here is a metaphor: it is like trying to find a song on a cassette tape versus on a CD. The tape is linear, and has no structure, but the song is there somewhere; you just can’t find it. The CD is well structured, and so, by referring to the CD cover, you can easily skip to your favourite track. When you read, you are converting the text from “tape” to “CD”.

Lesson 1: Finding and using the clues to create a mindmap

This section consists of ideas for the teacher:

Phase 1

1. Introduce the idea that reading is difficult for everyone; that it is something that gets better with practice. Link to Growth Mindset if possible. 

2. Display and invite students to view the document “Origins of Language”. Tell them they have 2 minutes to study it for a test. After a short time (less than 2 minutes) let them off the hook, and debrief why it was so difficult. You could prompt by asking “: What is missing that makes it difficult?” Answer: a title/heading; paragraph breaks.

3. Ask students to skim the first couple of lines, and then ask them to provide a title; (Where does language come from?); also ask how many paragraphs there should be. “There are 3 theories…” So 3 paragraphs, plus introduction and conclusion = 5.

4. Follow up by asking what we would expect to find in those paragraphs. Each paragraph describes a different theory.

5. PAUSE/REFLECTwhat we have learned so far: (1) paragraphs are important for finding meaning; (2) it is important to “guess ahead” – predict what is coming up using whatever clues you can (NB this is not a mystery novel where the outcome is kept secret!).

· OK, now we need to put the paragraph breaks back in. Invite students to use the find (Ctrl-F) function to search for “First theory”, and put the paragraph break into the text at the beginning of that sentence. And they can surely figure out what to do next.

6. When the students have put all the paragraph breaks back in, give them 30 seconds to find what the 3 theories are.

Answers: 1 – Gift of God; 2 – natural Sounds; 3 – Evolutionary changes. Follow up – How did they find these? Answer – each paragraph has a topic sentence which is an introduction to the paragraph. What does each mean? Invite the students to make some guesses without reading the paragraphs.

7. PAUSE/REFLECT – what we have learned so far: (1) a paragraph is information related to ONE idea; (2) well written paragraphs have a topic sentence; (3) to get a quick summary of a text, skim the topic sentences of each paragraph; (4) it is a good idea to do this before reading a passage so as to get a “map” to guide detailed reading.

8. Students can now close this document.

9. SWITCH APPLICATION – as students to open the mindmapping tool which you use – Inspiration/Webspiration if you have it or Mindmeister.

10. Create a tree diagram as follows and minimise (students replace the ????) 

Phase 2

The next phase is to find the information which will be used to fill in the detail on the mindmap; ie finding the supporting information for each of the 3 theories.

1. Open the document entitled “Origins of Language – Clues”; note the text has been doctored to indicate the clues which can help to understand the structure. Explain to the students that when we read, we are looking for two kinds of information – KEY WORDS (orange) which indicate the ideas and information we need to grasp; STRUCTURE words (blue) which indicate the way we need to read those key words – ie how they relate to each other and the overall text. Basically, all the details within a paragraph tell us more about the main idea of that paragraph – explanations, examples, extra details. The black words are less important and should only be used to clarify the others if necessary.

2. PAUSE/REFLECT – not all words are of equal value or function. Good readers do not read every word, and do not read the words they do read in the same way.

3. Let’s look at the first paragraph – this theory says that language is a gift from God. What does this mean? Guess & discuss. What does the paragraph say:

4. Take it step by step, trying to use only the blue and orange words.

5. “For example” – (blue) a structure clue; this tells us that what is comping up is “just” an example.

6. The example – “Adam” (orange) named the animals somehow that became their “built-in” name. Maybe students can come up with other examples? Eg Where does the word “Mama” come from? Why do people all over the world use that word for mother?

7. Discuss – if you have a theory, and you want to prove it, what do you do? Answer – test it. OK, how would you test the theory that language is somehow built in to humans? Discuss. Answer – somehow deprive a child of human language contact. Think of an example from literature/movies. (answer – Mowgli in the Jungle Book).

8.“Experiments” (blue – it provides structure of what is to come) – testing the theory.

9. There were two experiments – who conducted the first one? What did he find?

10. Who conducted the second one? What was their finding?

11. The last sentence is a conclusion, introduced by “so” (blue). What is the conclusion?

12. Display this update to the mindmap, and ask the students to fill in the ???? and blank bubbles on their mindmap.

Phase 3

1. PAUSE/REFLECT: Reading is complicated; one could probably get a general grasp of the ideas in this paragraph, but by reading it properly, one understands exactly what is going on. When poor readers read, they tend to grasp at any details they can in the linear sequence; so in this paragraph, they might remember the name of King James IV of Scotland, but not understand why he is important (or not). If they went into a test feeling they had studied hard, but only remembering random bits of unrelated information, they might emerge from the test saying, “I studied so hard, and somehow I just didn’t know what was going on”. This is particularly the case if the study “method” is just to keep on reading and re-reading the text. There are 170 words (in a linear sequence) in this paragraph alone (show students how to highlight and see the number of words displayed in the status bar); but there are only 8 items in the mindmap. Which is easier to remember? Obviously the mindmap, especially if you read it from top to bottom – the higher up items make sense of and suggest the lower ones. Eg if you remember the keyword “experiments”, it helps you find your way to the two experiments and their results, and the conclusion. There is a logical progression to the ideas which is embedded in the structure.

2. Invite students to work on the paragraphs containing the second and third theories. Look closely at the topic sentence and the other introductory sentences. In both cases there is a trick to understanding these paragraphs.

3. Natural sounds – “There are two versions of this theory” – (blue) this alerts us to the fact that the paragraph has two sections, the first version and the second version. So the mindmap needs to branch. Each version follows the same pattern – example(s) and problem(s). And finally there is a conclusion.

4. Evolutionary changes – this paragraph also splits into two: physiology and brain. For each there are then examples. There is a problem which applies to both. Finally there is an overall conclusion to the paragraph.

5. A Mindmeister version of this mindmap complete could look like this: 


1, Dr Maryanne Wolf

2. Doug Lemov

3. David Christian: Big History

4. Carol Dweck: Growth Mindset

5. Mindmeister 

NEXT: Lesson 2: Use Outline tools to represent text structure 

One of Word’s most powerful features for organising structuring ideas is Outlining. This tool makes it easy to work with text in such a way that it becomes a structure of ideas rather than a sequence of words. Lesson 2 in the next blog post will look at how to use this tool, and provide some practice exercises.

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