Using the Jigsaw Strategy to Acquire Content in Biology


Classroom teacher Wanda Littlejohn shares how she engages striving readers using the Jigsaw Strategy. Read more about Wanda at the end of the blog.

My classroom teaching experience began over 20 years ago in an affluent school district where there were only a few elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. All of the schools focused on student academic growth and excellence, and they collaborated well together to ensure the content taught was aligned vertically and horizontally. Most of my students read fluently, were motivated to learn new things, and had similar experiences at home and at school. As a science teacher, I rarely had to provide interventions to gain student interest or to help them read and write like scientists. However, over the years I have learned that my experience as a classroom teacher is vastly different and not all students make it to high school knowing how to read and write fluently. According to the 2023 SC Ready test results, only 53% of eighth grade students either met or exceeded the reading expectations for the state while other subgroups such as pupils who are in poverty, Black, multilingual learners, and with disabilities performed at a rate of 42.3% or less (SCSDE, 2023). Because of these results, it is evident that students entering high school need reading support, and high school teachers need to be equipped with strategies that will assist students in all content areas, specifically in science. In this post, I will share how I utilized the jigsaw strategy as a means to facilitate success for striving readers a biology class.

In the January 4, 2022, issue of EdWeek Madeline Will states: “For the millions of students who struggle to read at grade level, every school day can bring feelings of anxiety, frustration, and shame” (p.1). The highly rigorous curricular standards outlining the knowledge and skills students should have by the end of each science course are designed to prepare students to predict outcomes, create procedures, analyze data, and draw conclusions. If over half of the students entering high school are unable to read at grade level, they are not able to meet the science classroom demands, ultimately leading to students’ feeling frustrated and lost in their science classes. Will (2022) goes on to state “…children who don’t receive appropriate support can fall behind in multiple classes, even though they are capable of intellectually understanding the material” (p. 2). If students are intellectually capable of understanding the material, scaffolds need to be put in place to bring that intellectual understanding out of them. Moreover, those strategies need to assist the striving reader’s comprehension of scientific text and vocabulary.

I had the pleasure of providing corrective instruction for several groups of students taking a Biology I course, many of whom were either multilingual learners or were students with a learning disability. During the lesson, we addressed the processes of cell division, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis and their importance to sustaining life. Because these concepts are so abstract, many students find them difficult to grasp.  The teacher’s initial testing showed these students needed more time with the content because they were unable to clearly define the concepts or processes which had been taught nor were they able to identify models that represented each concept. It was evident from these data that students needed a way to better comprehend the vocabulary.

Addressing the concern of providing appropriate support for striving readers, I chose to use the jigsaw strategy to support these learners as we revisited the concepts stated above.  In John Hattie’s research, the jigsaw strategy has a large effect on student achievement.  Hattie proclaims in his book Visible Learning (2009) that self-instruction, organizing, and transforming are valuable tools to get students to be active in their learning and all create a high impact on student growth and achievement. The jigsaw strategy adds student discourse to the lesson and allows students to read, write, speak, and listen within a cooperative setting. 

During the lesson, the students were assigned one of the four concepts (photosynthesis, cellular respiration, macromolecules, cell division).  The students were given 20 minutes to read articles and listen to videos about their assigned topic.  Each student was given a graphic organizer that supported their reading and listening and contained questions they had to answer during their individual research time to ensure they were obtaining the right information about their concepts.  After their research phase was complete, the students were given 30 minutes to work in expert groups with other students who had the same concept so they could synthesize and organize their information.  The students also had to create a model representing their concept and produce talking points they could use to explain their concept to others.  It was imperative for me to conference with each group during the expert phase to ensure they were on the right track and they had accurate descriptions.  The final step in the process was to jigsaw the students so each group contained an expert on each concept.  During this phase, the students shared their models, while other students filled out a graphic organizer capturing the new information learned.  As the jigsaw ended, one student indicated she really felt better about the concepts and she learned so much in the smaller group setting.   At the close of the lesson, the students took a short assessment again on each concept.   


Figure 1


Figure 2

In Biology, the standards require students to create models to illustrate the processes of both cellular respiration and photosynthesis. The figures above show some of the students’ interpretations of those process after completing the jigsaw activity. It was evident from the figures above that the students had a general understanding of both processes. Figure 2 shows an even deeper understanding that both processes depend on each other and produce a continuous cycle.

In closing, striving readers, according to Will (2022), need a supportive classroom environment where they are welcomed to be risk takers and to have a growth mindset.  During a jigsaw activity, there are a lot of moving parts and directions. The advice I would share is to be prepared to redirect students, repeat instructions, and visit each individual during each phase to ensure the students feel supported. Allowing students to research and read individually first gives them an opportunity to make meaning of things before they have to make meaning with a peer. Becoming an expert with a peer allows striving readers to reread and repeat information a second time, which enhances comprehension. I found the jigsaw strategy increased student knowledge of the concepts, gave them the confidence they needed to engage in discussion with their peers, and gave them the ability to complete the models shown in Figures 1 and 2. To learn more about the jigsaw strategy, click here.

Dr. Wanda Littlejohn has 23 years of experience in the field of education.  She is currently the Instructional Specialist at Carolina High School in Greenville, South Carolina.

Educational Frontiers: Unraveling AI’s Impact on Learning in the Next Decade.


January’s webinar features Dr. Ian O’Byrne, an associate professor of literacy education in the Teacher Education Department of the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He reminds us of the positive effect of open dialogue in the classroom when introducing new and controversial instructional tools such as artificial intelligence.

Click here to access the recording.

Writing to Learn: Strategies to Engage Students in Writing and to Deepen Content Knowledge


As a follow up to her webinar, Brooke Hardin expands on her resources for using multi-modal writing responses to engage students in writing.

In twenty years of teaching English Language Arts, helping students discover their “writerly life” has remained a passion. To live a writerly life means that individuals write often and with a fair amount of ease, that they see their everyday ordinary lives brimming with writing topics, and that they can use writing to reflect their ideas and potentially gain new ones. In order to begin to live a writerly life, one must be motivated to write. As teachers, engaging students in writing tasks can often be a challenge, but certain elements increase both students’ motivation for writing and their efficacy for writing tasks. Student choice in topic, modeling of strategies and techniques, consistent time to share, give, and receive feedback on writing, and invitations to write in varying modes have all been identified as ways to more likely engage students in writing. This post serves to provide strategies related to the latter idea, using various modes for writing and how these modes might inspire students to write and deepen their knowledge of disciplinary content.

What is Multimodal Writing? What Might it Look/Sound Like?

Multimodal texts are print-based and digital texts using more than one mode or semiotic resource to present meaning; mode is defined as a socio culturally formed resource to make meaning (Kress, 1010; Serafini, 2015). Authors have been exploring multimodal response for over a decade and have seen its potential to engage students in personal response and critical analysis of literature, while also developing their appreciation of genres (Dalton & Grisham, 2013). Expanding students’ literacy palette to include the modes of image, video, audio, and writing offers them more choices for how to develop and express their thinking about reading. When readers write about, interpret, or respond in some fashion to their transaction with a text, a new text is produced as the reader-turns-writer; that is, a writer or creator who seeks to express that experience with the text (Rosenblatt, 1994). Writing in a poetic form or creating a digital design as an aesthetic response to the reading positions the reader-turned-writer to adopt an aesthetic stance in which the student’s attention is focused on the lived-through experience of the reading: the emotions, moods, intuitions, attitudes, and tensions connected to the ideas and characters embodied in the text (Rosenblatt, 1994). Thus, one of the benefits of multimodal writing tasks is their potential to deepen comprehension and/or content learning.

            One strategy for multimodal writing is called a half-and-half portrait (see Image 1). To create this piece, a student would first “write” the portrait about themselves. The portrait is a visual representation of an individual done by drawing one half of the person’s face using physical features (i.e., hair style, eye color, nose shape) and then filling in the other half of the face with images, quotes, or other ideas that relate to the person’s attributes, interests, life experiences. Once a student has created a half-and-half portrait about themselves, they can apply the strategy to a character from text, historical or present-day figure, or any other person. For example, the physical side of the portrait is created using the features visualized by the reader based on descriptions in the text. The other half of the character’s face uses images and other ideas related to the character and inspired by evidence from the text. For example, students might read the middle grades novel Refugee by Alan Gratz, which portrays the refugee experience of three distinct, fictional adolescent characters. Students reading this novel could further explore and demonstrate their understanding of these characters through the creation of a half-and-half portrait (see Image 2).

Image 1: Personal ½ and ½ Portrait (created by author)                  

Image 2: Isabel from Refugee (created by author)

In addition to creating the portraits, students can also create video or audio recordings that explain the thinking behind their multimodal writings. Teachers might ask students to discuss both the materials used to create the portraits and the ideas represented in the portraits. In multimodal writing using a visual art form such as this portrait, selection of materials and images or quotes used should be as intentional as word choice is in written texts. An example of my explanation for my half-and-half portrait can be found using this link.

As with any new genre of writing, students need mentor texts they can reference for ideas and inspiration. Picture books, especially those that have been recognized for their illustrations, serve as some of my favorite mentor texts for multimodal writing with visual art (see Images 3 and 4).

Image 3: Illustrations made with stones in Stepping Stones: A Refugee FAmily’s Journey by Margaret Ruurs

Image 4:

Illustrations made with layered collage featuring book pages,

tattered book covers, neon paints, and cloth in How to Read a

 Book by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Engaging Students in Writing with Poetry

Poetry is another genre that often engages students in writing tasks. Poetry is subjective and its structure can vary. Some forms, like haiku, have a particular form, but poetry can also be as simples as a collection of a person’s favorite words. The rules of writing become more relaxed in different types of poems, which allows students to tap into their creativity and use their voice to play with words, line breaks, and the appearance of the poem. Many poems are what I call “bite-sized;” thus, they are also less intimidating to write for more reluctant writers.

Definition Poems

Definition poems are a specific type of poetry that follows a form but also holds space for students to use craft moves and have agency with the writing. This form of poetry is inspired by some of the pages from the middle grade novel The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (see Image 5). Written in verse, the novel features several poetic styles, including definition poems, that might serve as mentor texts for students poetic writing. The definition poem invites students to engage in writing while also enhancing their vocabulary knowledge and using learned content to create something new.

Image 5: Definition poem from The Crossover

When teaching students to write definition poems, teachers should use the same principles they would use with teaching any other genre. Reference the mentor text, such as one of Alexander’s poems from The Crossover, and engage students in inquiry by asking them to take notice of how the author wrote the poem – that is, to think about and name aloud the “ingredients” used in the poem and what might be required for someone else to write the same style of poem. For example, teachers would point out how each stanza begins with “As in:” and how the vocabulary term is used in each stanza. Teachers might use a shared writing approach to co-author a definition poem with the whole class and invite students to co-author this kind of poem in pairs before they write one independently. Again, this kind of poem can be used with vocabulary from novels students read and to other content areas. See Image 6 for an example definition poem written about the math term parallel. As seen in the example, the poem offers students the opportunity to sustain their thinking about a word and its meaning and invites them to see how vocabulary terms are relevant to their lives. Additionally, these kinds of poems can serve as a piece of writing in a larger multimodal piece. For example, students might be invited to illustrate each stanza of the poem to add a visual layer.

Image 6: Example definition poem (created by author)

Golden Shovel Poems

Golden shovel poems are a poetic form created by Terrance Hayes and inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool.” To write a golden shovel poem, the writer must do the following:

  • Take a line or lines from a poem you like.
  • Use each word in the line as the end word in each line of your poem.
  • Keep the words in order.
  • Give credit to the original poet.
  • The new poem does not need to be about the same subject as the original poem, but they can be related in some way if the writer chooses to do so.

Inspired by Terrance Hayes, Nikki Giovanni wrote the book One Last Word, which is a book of golden shovel poems about the Harlem Renaissance. Using two of the poems from this book as mentor text (see Images 7 and 8), teachers can help students see how the poem is written and gain inspiration for their own writing.

Image 7: “Storm Ending” from One Last Word 

Image 8: “Truth,” a poem written by Nikki Giovanni using a line from “Storm Ending” by Jean Toomer

Teachers should immerse students in reading many different poems, invite them to bring in poems – including song lyrics – that they admire, to gain ideas and inspiration for writing their own golden shovel poems. Again, teachers may want to scaffold this kind of writing and co-author poems with students in a whole group setting before tasking students with writing one on their own. Golden shovel poems are complex but also provide students an opportunity to play with word choice, syntax, line breaks, and be creative in their writing. Inspired by a poem from Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, I show students my own attempt at this poetic form (See Images 9 and 10).

Image 9: Excerpt from “Luke’s Junkyard Song” by Mary Oliver                    

Image 10: Golden shovel using the last two lines from “Luke’s Junkyard Song” (created by author)

Final Thoughts

No matter the strategy used, teachers must remember to embrace vulnerability and write alongside of students, both modeling the techniques and making the cognitive side of writing – word choice decisions, art medium choices, etc. – become evident and accessible for students. Writers need to see and hear other writers engaged in writing to discern the process and be inspired. Writers also need room for creativity. Each of the strategies offered here provides space for creativity and the opportunity for students to express themselves while also learning and showing their content knowledge.


Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London, UK: Routledge.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The transactional theory of reading and writing. In R. Ruddell et al. (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Serafini, F. (2015). Multimodal literacy: From theories to practices. Language Arts, 92(6), 412-423.

Brooke Hardin is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at USC-Upstate. Her experience includes elementary and middle grades classroom teaching as as well as curriculum literacy specialist. This webinar reflects Brooke’s special interest in multi-model writing as a response to reading.

Webinar: Providing Access to Content Area Learning for Students with Disabilities


Literacy in the Disciplines, 6-12 (LiD) is pleased to announce our next after-school Webinar Series session.

Providing Access to Content Area Learning for Students with Disabilities.

When you think about instruction in the content areas, do you automatically think that all students have the opportunity to engage in this type of learning?  Can students beyond those with learning disabilities meaningfully participate in content area classrooms?  In this session, we will explore what access means for students with disabilities and identify ways to engage this group in content area instruction.   

The video recording of the session is available at the bottom of this page.

When:  Thursday, July 14, 2022, 6:00 – 7:00 pm ET.

Where: Please register here for the July session.  A Zoom link will be sent one day before the session.

Cost: Free. LiD6-12 is funded by the South Carolina Middle Grades Initiative.

This session will feature Dr. Kavin Ming.

Kavin Ming is a Professor of Literacy at Winthrop University.  Her research interests include at-risk student populations, culturally responsive pedagogy, content area literacy instruction, disciplinary literacy, and multisensory teaching of literacy skills.  She is published in a wide variety of journals that include general and special education populations.  She currently serves as the Curriculum and Pedagogy department chair in the Richard W. Riley College of Education. 

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Webinar: Supporting Literacy and Content-Area Learning


Literacy in the Disciplines, 6-12 (LiD) is pleased to announce our next after-school Webinar Series session.

But I Want to Teach What I’m Really Teaching: Supporting Literacy and Content-Area Learning

This webinar will include activities and discussions intended to help educators understand some of the ways that literacy differs across disciplines. The focus of the session is to encourage teachers to support literacy while helping students meet content-specific learning goals. Being aware of our own use of literacy strategies opens up discussions of how to continuously enrich every lesson, every day with content-area and disciplinary literacy practices.  

When: Thursday, May 12, 2022, 6:00 – 7:00 pm ET.

Cost: Free. LiD6-12 is funded by the South Carolina Middle Grades Initiative.

The recording of this webinar is embedded below. The slide deck is available beneath the video.

This session will feature Dr. Britnie D. Kane and Charlene Aldrich.

Britnie Delinger Kane is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at The Citadel’s Zucker Family School of Education. Broadly, her research interests focus on DL and instructional coaching. Dr. Kane has published in Teachers College Record, the Journal of Teacher Education, the American Educational Research Journal, the Journal of the Learning Sciences, and elsewhere. She serves as the Literacy Program Coordinator at her home institution, the Associate Director of the Lowcountry Writing Project, and the Vice President of LiD 6-12.

Charlene Aldrich is an instructor in the Office of Professional Development at the College of Charleston. While content-area literacy is her specialty, she also teaches Assessments in Reading, Foundations in Reading, and Instructional Practices as required by South Carolina for recertification. She serves as the Treasurer of LiD 6-12.

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Webinar: Using Diverse Picture Books to Craft Critical Middle and Secondary Classrooms


Literacy in the Disciplines, 6-12 (LiD) is pleased to announce our first after-school Webinar Series session.
A Picture[book]’s Worth a Thousand Words: Using Diverse Picture Books to Craft Critical Middle and Secondary Classrooms.

Through juxtaposing images and text, picture books have the unique power to facilitate critical reading and critical literacy for students of all grade levels, reading readiness levels, and with diverse interests. This webinar presents three analytical approaches to develop critical reading and critical literacy skills through picture books to help students: (1) critically analyze broad representation, (2) engage in critical visual analysis, and (3) analyze voices and perspectives in picture books. Through approaches like these, teachers can use picture books to craft critical classrooms. Concrete examples will be used that allow participants to immediately apply these approaches in their classes.

When: Thursday, February 24, 2022, 6-7PM ET. The video for this webinar is embedded below.

Cost: Free. LiD6-12 is funded by the South Carolina Middle Grades Initiative.

This session will feature Dr. Jennifer D. Morrison from the University of South Carolina.

Dr. Jennifer D. Morrison is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina and a National Board Certified Teacher in AYA/ELA. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, Reno, in Language, Literacy, and Culture. She worked as a middle and high school English teacher and instructional coach for 19 years. Her research agenda focuses on teacher induction, literacy attainment (particularly digital and multimodal), and teacher inquiry processes. She has been published in such journals as English Journal, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Talking Points, Principal Leadership, and Educational Leadership.

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Photo by J on Unsplash

Lotería: The Reimagining


By: James Campbell, South Carolina High School Spanish Teacher

Students were arriving to their first day of AP Spanish class, some timid and some visibly relieved to be in a familiar classroom. Many had taken a Spanish-for-heritage-learners’ course with me, most had experienced being in a Spanish class designed for students well below their proficiency level. We discussed their academic experiences a little to start the short semester. We all listened quietly while students took turns telling stories about how they were called “cheaters” for knowing Spanish already, how they had all been approached to “share” their work with other students, how other students were surprised that they could speak English, and how they were always tasked with the “Spanish part” of any collaborative project they were doing. After hearing them describe the antiquated academic requirements in a system not designed for them, I stared blankly over the silent classroom into the painting on the back wall. “We should go over the syllabus,” I thought. “We only have a few months before the exam and we have a lot to cover,” but I just couldn’t get myself to say it out loud. One student said, “Well, those students aren’t going to get college credit for knowing Spanish,” keenly aware of the irony. “When are we going to play Lotería?” we heard from a quiet student in the center of the room. The room exploded with excitement.

The Original Game

Lotería is a bingo-like game with images that represent different elements of traditional Mexican culture, though the game is not only played in Mexico. I am not Mexican or Hispanic but I love seeing the nostalgic mood rush over many of my Spanish-speaking students who almost hum hearing the short verses on the back of each card, who argue over how to play according to their family’s reglas, and who have memorized an entire tabla (a 4 x 4 grid on which the game is played). It is a great listening game with the entire room silent until someone calls out “¡Lotería!” with a full tabla. It is an authentic game that everyone can play. It does, however, have some problematic elements. 

One day, after one of my Spanish 3 Honors students asked, “Are we going to play that racist bingo game again?” I thought more about the disclaimer I give about some of the images in the game. I never tried to explain them away but challenged them to research where they came from and how they ended up in the game. I discussed this some more with my AP students that next period, and it hit us almost simultaneously – we should update some of the images for our classes.

The New Game

So, we began our year-long journey to re-imagine a highly recognizable piece of Mexican culture. As with any project that begins as organically as this, their trajectory almost immediately began to shift from changing just a few of the images on the board to a weeks-long brainstorm on reimaging the entire gameboard to represent the diverse Hispanic experiences in the Upstate of South Carolina. The students drew from a seemingly endless mental library of personal and familial experiences to create a list of over 200 people, animals, places, foods, clothing items, and more. The students, from different parts of the Spanish-speaking world, began to see how similar some of their experiences were as Hispanic students and how unique they all were at the same time, not just the stereotypes others had for them or that they might have had of each other. After much discussion and debate, the students were able to reduce their ideas to the standard 54 images, which they divided amongst themselves. Each student produced a visual concept and a catchy phrase, poem, or quote for their peer-assigned tarjetas

Student sample.

They then presented them to the class, one-by-one, each fielding questions and feedback from their critical peers. The students took the feedback seriously, not personally. Our classroom artists decided on a cohesive theme for the boards. Our creative writers went to work rewording some of their classmates’ verses on the back of the cards. Other students spent time making sure not to repeat the reason they started this whole thing and took votes on replacing some that may unintentionally perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes of themselves. They spent the last 20-30 minutes of each 90-minute class in a buzz of “do this,” “don’t forget to mention that,” “should we add this?” and “who was in charge of these?” completely owning what would become a way to tell the story of their community. I, their teacher, had become a giddy observer, fully convinced that they could produce and distribute their version of this game to the community.

In what I can only describe as a completely serendipitous moment, I ran across a painting done by an artist in South Carolina that told the story of an immigrant girl in the format of a Lotería tabla. It was a moving piece with an even more incredible story behind it. I talked to the artist and set up a visit for later that month. In the meantime, I showed my students the painting, at which time they immediately wanted to drop everything and make their own. “Working together is just too exhausting,” one said. After a couple apologies and recommitments, everyone was back on board. A week later was our last day of the semester together due to COVID-19 (I just checked, and the Google Doc we were working on was last edited on March 13, 2020). The biggest and most exciting project that my students had ever come up with was over. Or so I thought.

After a few weeks of figuring out eLearning and doing what we could to prepare for who-knows-what the AP test would look like, we had our first virtual class meeting. After getting updates from everyone and going over their virtual assignments they all wanted to know what would become of their Lotería project. Not wanting to stress students out any more than I needed, I sadly told them I had no plans to continue it collaboratively but they were welcome to continue it on their own. “It’s just too hard to facilitate such a big project together right now,” I said. Then, without hesitation, a student suggested they all make their own board, “You know. Like that artist did”. 

The Final Product

Photo by Christy Ash on Unsplash

Over the last two months of the semester, as the students prepared for an abridged AP Spanish exam, they drew, took pictures, wrote reflections, and all designed a tabla that told the story of their own journey of how they got to where they are now. During this time, we hosted virtual visits with Hispanic community members, writers, artists, and teachers from across the Carolinas. The students’ voices grew more confident with each new guest and, since I got to hear them repeat their stories multiple times, I noticed them embracing images that told stories of deep, personal sorrow and joy. Their classmates noticed this too. One of my younger students, in tears, shared at the end of the course how glad he was to be a part of listening to his classmates’ stories even when he wasn’t as comfortable sharing his at first because he thought it wasn’t as cool as the others’. “No, no, no,” an older classmate chimed in, “we couldn’t have done it without you.”

I think about this project almost every day. Even though they all designed and presented individual products, there was a sense that this was a complete group effort, even in its final iteration. It makes me wonder how I could ever again do a project in my class where a student says (or even thinks!), “we couldn’t have done it without you” at the end of it to another student. But, I know that something like this will never happen again if I can’t learn to listen to and trust students. It won’t happen again if I don’t find space in my curriculum for students to find their voice. And, students will never have as big an impact on each other’s learning and emotional well-being as they did with their Lotería boards if they don’t feel safe enough to share their voice. They did this and proved this together and I couldn’t have done it without them.

About the Author

James is in his 14th year as a Spanish teacher and is the 2020-21 Teacher of the Year at Carolina High School.