Showing posts with label Strategies and skills. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Strategies and skills. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Spirit is Willingham, but the Flesch is Weak

Teacher’s Question:
I have read a few articles and books by Daniel Willingham in the past, and I wonder if you are familiar with his work. I recently read an article (attached) about reading comprehension strategies and am curious to know what you think of his ideas. He says that focusing heavily on reading strategies isn’t really necessary.

(I often question the need for so many reading strategies, particularly when they take away from reading being a pleasurable activity. I can understand the importance of visualizing, using prior knowledge, and maintaining focus, but teaching the other “strategies”, in my opinion, is confusing the issue. I realize there are many studies to say otherwise, but, I just can’t be convinced.)

Anyway, again, just wondering what you think of Willingham’s paper.

Shanahan's Response 
Thanks. This is the second time in two weeks I’ve been asked about Daniel Willingham’s writing on comprehension strategies. I don’t know Dr. Willingham, but I’ve read his vita.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist with a good research record—on topics other than reading education. Although I know of his book, it is written for lay audiences—and the short excerpts or off-shoots that have come to my attention, suggest to me that he hasn’t actually read much of the research that you are asking about. But he has read some appropriate summary pieces about the subject and/or talked to some respected experts).

In my opinion, he is kind of right. 

What is the good Doctor W right about? He is right that comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring) are effective. There are a number of research reviews of this work, both focused on individual strategies and strategy teaching overall, and they are consistently positive. Teaching comprehension strategies appears to improve students’ reading comprehension, and it doesn’t matter if the review is somewhat comprehensive (NICHD, 2000) or highly selective, only including in the highest quality studies (Shanahan, et al., 2010); the answer is the same.

And, he is especially right to raise the issue of, “How much of this kind of teaching is needed?”

But that’s where my answer would deviate from his, and where reading the actual studies instead of the reviews can make a big difference. He claims students learn everything they need after 2 weeks of strategy instruction, and that we should limit such teaching to that extremely limited duration.

I think that claim is on very thin ice and it ignores a lot of issues and a lot of studies (remember the National Reading Panel reviewed more than 200 studies on the topic).

I say three cheers for Dan Willingham for questioning the amount of strategy instruction and I give him the raspberries for then answering his question that two weeks of strategy teaching is appropriate.

One thing that originally shocked me in reading the studies in that research literature was how brief the interventions were. Most studies focused on 6 weeks of instruction or less (though there were a few longer studies). That such brief interventions are potent enough to impact standardized reading tests is good. That we have no idea whether stronger doses have any added benefit is a serious problem. That’s why I agree with the notion that we are probably overdoing the strategy teaching. The only evidence we have on amount of strategy teaching is correlational and it is weak at best.

My conclusions:
(1)  Strategy instruction is effective when the instruction is concentrated. In all of the studies, students were given daily ongoing instruction of and practice with strategies. Programs that give occasional doses of instruction in various strategies may be effective, but there are no studies of that kind of practice.
(2)  Strategy instruction can be effective at improving reading comprehension scores at a variety of grade levels, including the primary grades. This surprised me, too. I was pretty sure that comprehension strategies made sense with older students, but not so much with younger ones. That’s not what the research has found, however.
(3)  Strategies are not all equal. There is a greater payoff to some strategies than to others, so I would definitely put my instructional nickel on the ones with the big learning outcomes. The most powerful strategies by far are summarization (stopping throughout a text to sum up) and questioning (asking and answering your own questions about the text). The weakest: teaching students to think about how to respond to different question types (effect sizes so small that I wouldn’t waste my time).
(4)  Strategy instruction can be effective with about 6 weeks of teaching and practice. Here I’m going with the modal length of strategy studies. Perhaps the effects would have been apparent with fewer weeks of instruction, per Willingham’s contention, and, yet, this hasn’t been studied. Weaker dosages may work, too, but with so little evidence I’d avoid such strong claims. 
(5)  Even more strategy instruction than this may be effective, but, again, with so little research no one knows. We do have studies showing that 3 years of phonics instruction are more effective than 2 years of phonics instruction, but we don’t have such studies of reading comprehension teaching, so let’s not pretend. 
(6)  You raise a question about the value of different strategies, Willingham does not. The research reviews show that the teaching of multiple strategies, either singly in sequence or altogether, is beneficial—with stronger results than from single strategies. Multiple strategy teaching may be better because of the possibility that different strategies provide students with different supports (one strategy might help readers to think about one aspect of the text, another might foster some additional insights or analysis). Teach multiple strategies.
(7)  The Willingham claims fails to consider the outcome measures. Strategies are good or bad, but he doesn’t focus on what they may be good at. His focus is on motivating readers, but the studies of strategy teaching do not focus on this outcome. I think we overdo the strategy thing, and yet, I’d be surprised if an overemphasis on strategies is why kids don’t like reading. The whole point of strategy teaching is to make students purposeful and powerful, focused on figuring out what a text says. Those kinds of inputs usually have positive motivational outcomes.
(8)  It is great that comprehension strategies improve performance on standardized reading tests, but their bigger impact has usually been on specially designed instruments made for the research. Thus, summarizing usually helps students to summarize a text more than it builds general reading comprehension. I think the best test of strategies would be to give two groups a really hard text—like a science textbook—and have them read it and see who would do the best with it (passing tests, writing papers, etc.). I suspect strategies would have a bigger impact on that kind of outcome than passing a test with fairly short easy passages, multiple-choice questions, in a brief amount of time. If I'm correct about that, then strategies would worth a more extensive emphasis. Willingham apparently hasn't read the studies so he is considering only what they have found, not what they haven't considered.
(9)  Most students don’t use strategies. Though we know strategies improve comprehension, they are not used much by students. I suspect the reason for this is our fixation on relatively easy texts in schools. The only reason to use a strategy is to get better purchase on a text than one would accomplish from just reading it. If texts are easy enough to allow 75-89% comprehension (the supposed instructional level that so many teachers aim at), there is simply no reason to use the strategies being taught. Teachers may be teaching kids to use strategies, but their text choices are telling the kids that the strategies have no value.
(10)   Willingham is trying to reduce the amount of comprehension strategy instruction so that kids will like school better. I doubt that he spends much time in schools. He hasn’t been a teacher of principal or even a teacher educator and his own research hasn’t focused on practical educational applications. I’ve been conducting an observational study of nearly 1000 classrooms for the past few years, and we aren’t seeing much strategy instruction at all. There definitely can be too much strategy teaching, but in most places any dosage, not overdosage, is the problem.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Why Reading Strategies Usually Don't Help the Better Readers

Last week, I explained why disciplinary reading strategies are superior to the more general strategies taught in schools. That generated a lot of surprised responses.

Some readers thought I’d mis-worded my message. Let me reiterate it here: strategies like summarization, questioning (the readers asking questions), monitoring, and visualizing don’t help average or better readers. They do help poor readers and younger readers.

I didn’t explain better readers don’t benefit, so let me do that here.

Readers read strategically only when they have difficulty making sense of a text.
Recently, I was took a second shot at reading the novel, Gilead. I tried to read it a few months ago, but couldn’t follow the plot. I often read just before sleep and especially subtle or deep texts are not usually best read a few pages at a time like that.

In the meantime, Cyndie read it with great enjoyment, so now my self-image as a sophisticated reader was on the line. For my second reading, I carved out bigger chunks of time, and marked the text up quite a bit (even writing a summaries of the first several chapters). This time, I read with great understanding. Whew!

If the book had been easy for me, I never would have gone to that kind of trouble.

Let’s face it: school texts are not particularly hard for average readers and above. We teach strategies to them, but they don’t really need them—at least not with the texts we use to teach reading.

It may not even matter much if a student understands a text. Students can often hide out, letting the others answer the hard questions, and gaining sufficient info from the discussions and illustrations. No need for strategies under such circumstances.

The new emphasis on teaching students with more challenging texts—texts not as likely to be understood from reading alone—should increase the value of general reading strategies.

Of course, even good readers sometimes confront challenging texts at school (like ninth grade biology textbooks). Unfortunately, they often don’t use reading strategies even with such texts.

My guess as to what is going on is two-fold: students who usually get by on the basis of language proficiency alone, have no idea what to do when confronted with such demands. They go into default mode, not using the strategies at all—even though in this context such strategies would probably be helpful.

But let’s face it. Too often, meaning just doesn’t matter at school. Students can often get by with a superficial purchase on the content. I once got half credit on an astronomy exam question that asked how to measure the distance to the Northern Lights (my answer: use the same method that you’d use to measure the distance to the moon—a correct answer, and yet one that doesn’t require any grasp of the content).

Superficial understanding is often enough in school. Low readers may not be able to gain this successfully by applying their language skills alone, so strategies increase their chances. Good readers can, but when the stakes are raised they don’t necessarily adjust and start using the general reading strategies. But no matter how challenging the texts are, if “acceptable levels” of performance are low enough, strategies again won’t be necessary.

Yes, we should teach reading comprehension strategies, even to good readers. But we should do so in an environment that emphasizes the value of knowledge and understanding, and that requires students to confront genuine intellectual challenges. Those disciplinary literacy strategies touted in my last entry seem to have motivation built in: trying to connect the graphics and the prose in science to figure out how a process works; or judging the veracity of multiple documents in history; or determining which protagonist an author is most sympathetic to in literature tend to be more purposeful and intellectually engaging than turning headers into questions or summarizing the author’s message. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

To Teach Comprehension Strategies or Not to Teach Them

I don’t hear anything about comprehension strategies anymore. Was that idea just another fad or are should we still teach those?

Your question raises an interesting point about American reading instruction. We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in teaching students how to think effectively about the ideas in texts. There was lots of research on how to engage prior knowledge, summarize information, ask questions, monitor understanding, and so on—and lots of interest in bringing these strategies into classrooms.

Strategies engage readers in thinking intentionally—rather than just reading a text and hoping something sticks, the reader enters the enterprise aware the text is like a mountain to be scaled or a problem to be solved. In such situations, you take actions that help you to reach the goal.

Thus, readers may preview texts ahead of time to increase anticipation and to ensure that relevant prior knowledge will be at the ready. Readers may set purposes too—like turning headings into questions to be answered. As they read, they may stop occasionally and sum up the information provided to that point—rereading if there are apparent gaps.

In the strategy world, readers need to be “meta-cognitively” aware. That means, for instance, that they should notice when they are not understanding something and to do something about it (such as rereading the pages that you you phased out on, looking up a word in the dictionary, or asking someone for help).

The whole language movement has been pilloried for nudging phonics out of the primary classroom, but—something not often noted—it booted comprehension strategy teaching, too. Strategy teaching tends to be direct instruction—the teacher explains what the strategy is, how to use it, and why it’s important. Then the teacher may demonstrate the use of a strategy and engage kids in a heavily scaffolded version in which the teacher does much of the work (“This would be a good place to ask a question about what we have read. If you ask and answer questions you’ll remember more of the information later.”). Over time, the teacher would fade the support with kids doing it more and more on their own.

Strategies came back a bit during the 2000s, probably as a result of the National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies.

As your question reveals, now strategies are on the retreat, yet again. The reason this time is almost surely due to the fact that the Common Core State Standards don’t include any comprehension strategies. They don’t prohibit the teaching of comprehension strategies, but they don’t require them either.

I’ve long been a proponent of the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies, and yet, there is a part of me that says their omission is not that big a loss.

The reason for my skepticism about strategies? I’m well aware of the fact that many students—perhaps the vast majority of students—don't actually use these strategies when they read. They use them when teachers guide the process, but they don’t do so on their own. I don’t believe, for instance, that “good readers” make predictions before they read a text, even though I have no doubt that good readers could be induced to make such hypotheses under controlled conditions.

The problem is that comprehension strategies are only useful for helping readers to make sense of text that they can’t understand automatically. Many texts are easy for me to read; they are comfortably within my language and knowledge range. This morning I read USA Today and didn’t feel the need to look up a single word or to stop and summarize any of the information.

But if you asked me to read a chapter on theoretical physics—and you were going to evaluate my understanding somehow—that would be a different story altogether. Now I’d have to suit up for heavy combat, which would mean doing various things that I don’t do in my daily reading (like taking notes or turning headers into questions).

What I’m saying is that in the past we taught strategies—overtaught strategies???—but we then asked students to apply them to relatively easy texts (texts at the students' instructional levels). Now, the new standards are asking us to ignore strategies while assigning harder texts.

Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

I would encourage you to continue to teach comprehension strategies as a scaffold for dealing with challenging text. The point would be to make it possible for kids to make sense of truly challenging texts; the use of strategies could be enough to allow some kids to scaffold their own reading successfully--meaning they might be able to read frustration level texts as if they were written at their instructional level.

Friday, June 22, 2012

We Zigged When We Should Have Zagged

I’ve been fielding a lot of complaints recently about the lack of comprehension strategies in the common core state standards. And, in fact, no reading comprehension strategies are included in the common core.
I’m asked how that can be if comprehension strategies are research-based? If the common core is aimed at making students better readers, how can they leave out instructional approaches proven to advantage students?

The fact is the National Reading Panel concluded that teaching reading comprehension strategies was beneficial. Later, the What Works Clearinghouse allowed a group that I chaired to recommend the teaching of reading comprehension strategies to K-3 readers—and they rated that recommendation as being based on strong research evidence.

Why would the common core neglect this evidence? The reason that these strategies were not included in the standards is because the standards are learning goals. That is, they are the learning outcomes that we are striving to for students to accomplish. Strategies are not an outcome. Neither the PARRC or Smarter
Balanced tests will test students’ knowledge of strategies; they will test ability to read and interpret text.

That makes sense to me (though it is somewhat inconsistent with the common core stance on “close reading,” certainly a method for teaching students to read text in particular ways). But it is a peculiar situation:
For years, we have taught students to read with relatively easy texts and have taught reading comprehension strategies. This is puzzling since the purpose of strategies is to help you to make sense of a text that challenges your linguistic skills – in other words, strategies help you to read hard text, not easy text. 

Now we are pivoting to teaching reading with challenging text, right at the point where strategies are being made optional (you can teach them if they help students to read better). We zigged when we should have zagged.

I have no problem with strategies being omitted from the standards – they are not outcomes, but tools. But they are tools that I would definitely include in my teaching regimen, particularly when dealing with challenging text.  

Sunday, April 25, 2010

IRA in Chicago: Disciplinary Literacy

IRA is in Chicago and Cyndie Shanahan and I spoke at a preconference institute arranged by Cathy Collins-Block, John Mangieri, and Susan Neuman. Cyndie and I each spoke about disciplinary literacy and strategy teaching. Our presentations are both linked below:


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Strategies or Skills: Does It Really Matter?

Recently Peter Afflerbach, David Pearson, and Scott Paris published a nifty article, “Clarifying differences between reading skills and reading strategies” in the Reading Teacher (February 2008, pp.364-373). They did a great job of that. Below I have summarized some of their major points, added some explanation of why you should care about the distinction, and showed the differences in assessment and instruction for strategies and skills.

1. There are no widely-accepted definitions of strategies and skills.
To tell the truth, most teachers don’t stay up nights puzzling over this distinction. In common discussion, strategies and skills are used interchangeably, as synonyms, rather than distinctive terms. (You can further complicate this by adding the term “process” from writing instruction where that is used in a similar way to how reading experts talk about strategies). The reason it matters that we recognize the differences between skills and strategies is because they get assessed differently and they need to be taught differently.

2. One distinction between strategies and skills has to do with size or scope.
Strategies are larger or more overarching than skills; skills tend to be smaller and more specific. We may, for example, teach children the skills of sounding out the letter p or recognizing the silent e, or we could teach an organized strategy for sounding out words (such as breaking the word into syllables, then sounding the first letter or combination of letters, etc.). In this example, the skills of sounding specific letters end up being used within a larger strategy. Such skills tend to be simple and discrete, while strategies tend to be multi-step and complex. Skills tend to be embedded within strategies, but not all complex or multi-skilled activities are strategic (figure skating obviously involves many skills strung together into a beautiful performance, but figure skaters when they are firing off this sequence of skills try to keep them skillful rather than strategic because of the speed needed to carry them out effectively).

3. Automaticity and/or intentionality are another second important distinction.
Skills need to be automatic, while strategies are intentional. Skills need to be learned to a point where you don’t consciously think about them. When I’m reading, I don’t consciously decide to move my eyes to the next word, or to focus on the first letter for decoding. Instead I learn to do those things so well that they just seem to happen: being able to do the action with a high level of success, but without conscious attention. Those are skills. It’s not just decoding that has to be learned to that level of automaticity either; fluency, where one learns where to pause appropriately within sentences has to become automatic, as does most vocabulary interpretation, and most local inferencing. Even the ability to determine gist (especially for brief messages) has to become quick, easy, and seemingly unintentional. Strategies tend to be multi-step processes carried out intentionally in varied ways depending on circumstances.

4. Reading comprehension tests measure reading skills directly and strategies indirectly.
Tests may measure ability to determine word meanings or to draw an inference or remember or be able to locate a discrete piece of information. Students are not usually asked to demonstrate how to predict or infer, or to describe the steps they used to come up with a good summary for a story. They can be asked for a prediction, inference, or summary, and only brief time is usually provided, suggesting that typical tests are aimed at automaticity (skills) not strategic processing.

Strategies and skills might ultimately be thought of as a continuum rather than discrete or absolutely different items. Don’t see these terms as too distinct, as some operations or actions can be learned as either a strategy or a skill, or someone can carry out an action skillfully or strategically. For example, you can teach students to be strategic in their thinking about the setting of a story. To do this you might teach them to intentionally make several specific determinations about the functioning of the setting, and when you would have them do this: deciding whether the story took place in the past, present or future, whether it was realistic or fantasy, how the setting enables the plot actions, establishes a mood, or creates distance for the reader/viewer, etc. Students could learn to intentionally carry out this planful analysis of text at strategically helpful times, but it would also be possible for the reader to simply read and to notice the setting without conscious attention, and to weigh it only as it was brought into consciousness by the author’s moves—or even to just touch on this aspect of story within the context of some larger strategy, like story mapping. Skills and strategies may be psychologically different, but the various actions of readers can often be characterized both as strategies or skills—depending on how they are learned and used. (That means lots of state standards call for schools to teach strategies, but the state tests will measure the skill versions of these strategies.)

5. An important distinction between strategies and skills is in how they are taught and learned.
Skills need to be learned to the point of automaticity. If you want something learned to that point, you need to provide lots of repetition and practice (yes, drill and practice does have a place in reading instruction). Time can be a real issue in that practice as well (speeded practice helps). But strategies are more about analysis and reasoning and they require a different kind of teaching impetus. Strategies take longer to learn, they need to be tried out under varied circumstances and in varying contexts, students need to learn procedural steps that specify when and how to carry them out, and there needs to be real opportunity for reflection and explanation. To master a strategy students need to know what it is, how to use it, when to use it, and under what circumstances to use it. That means lots of modeling, guidance, practice, and reflection (no drill here).