Comprehension Skills or Strategies: Is there a difference and does it matter?

  • Reading comprehension
  • 19 May, 2018
  • 27 Comments

Blast from the Past: This blog first posted May 19. 2018 and was re-posted on February 19, 2022. These days arguments over reading comprehension tend to pose strategy teaching against developing world knowledge. Accordingly, this piece may appear to be outdated. It is nothing of the kind. A claim often made by knowledge advocates is that strategy teaching is ineffective. That isn’t the case. The claim confuses strategies with skills. Strategies help, skills not so much. Strategy proponents shouldn’t take solace in this. Though strategies can improve reading comprehension, it’s important not to overdo it – don’t spend too much time on strategy teaching. Also, no matter how much strategy teaching you provide, it’s still smart to make sure students gain lasting knowledge of their world from the texts used for reading instruction. Knowledge and strategies, together, are a powerful combination. This blog entry should help schools to emphasize comprehension strategies rather than skills.

Teacher question:

What’s the difference between comprehension skills and comprehension strategies? Are they synonyms or do we teach different things when we are teaching them?

Shanahan response:

I’m glad you asked.

Comprehension skills and comprehension strategies are very different things.

They are often confused; the terms are often used interchangeably by those who don’t understand or appreciate the distinctions they carry.

And, most importantly, these concepts energize different kinds of teaching.

The older of the two terms is “reading comprehension skills.” It was used occasionally throughout the Twentieth Century, but really took off in a big way in the 1950s. Professional development texts and basal readers were replete with the term and its use burgeoned for about 30 years before slackening a bit.

“Comprehension strategies” were rarely heard of until the 1970s. The term had wide use throughout the 1980s, both because of the extensive strategy research and because those promoting comprehension skills appropriated the newer, trendier label—old wine in new bottles. (Some of this due to honest ignorance and some to the frequent but idiotic claim of educators that any new practice is “what we were already doing.”)

Use of the term strategies finally overtook skills in 2000, but not necessarily because the practices of teachers actually had changed.

Basically, the term comprehension skills tend to refer to the abilities required to answer particular kinds of comprehension questions. Skills would include things like identifying the main idea, recognizing supporting details, drawing conclusions, inferencing, comparing and contrasting, evaluating critically, knowing vocabulary meaning, and sequencing events.   

The old basal readers would make sure kids got plenty of practice with particular comprehension skills by making sure they practiced answering particular kinds of questions.

These days, the core reading programs do pretty much the same thing with the educational standards, with each standard being translated into a question type in lessons and assessments.

For most of these skills, there are no studies showing that they can be taught in a way that leads to higher comprehension, and even in those few instances where there is such evidence, the effects are quite small (and probably due to greater attention to reading the text than to practicing the so-called “skills.”)

In fact, there have been a number of studies and logical analyses showing that these skills lack any kind of psychological reality… they are indistinguishable from one another in test performance, though that hasn’t stopped instructional designers from trying to come up with programs that would teach these skills in a way that would benefit achievement (e.g., Wisconsin Design).

There has been a lot of research into question types over the past 50-60 years. Despite the claims, this body of research is a morass. There are so many variables that may be affecting any of these results, that it would be impossible to know what it all means.

Here are just a few of the variables found to affect how readers answer questions: poor/good readers; low/high knowledge readers; story/information text; the centrality of the information queried; verbatim vs. paraphrase; open-ended versus close-ended questions; reading or re-reading; text available or unavailable during answering; amount of text; factual vs. inferential; immediate recall vs. delay; and so on. (Of course, it is this complexity that undermines any possibility that one can teach question answering as a skill).

Reading has much more to do with being able to read particular kinds of texts and to deal with particular kinds of text features than to answer particular kinds of questions. The ACT (2006) concluded, for example, that if texts were easy, students could answer any kinds of question about them, while with sufficiently complex texts, they couldn’t answer any question types, no matter how simple.

An odd kind of skill the performance of which is totally dependent on the contexts in which it is used. Each text presents information in its own way, and reading comprehension is heavily bound up in the readers’ knowledge of the topic covered by the text. As such reading comprehension (different than decoding) is not a skilled activity, per se.

If comprehension is not a skill, then why has that been such a popular way to teach it? Initially, the concept fit the times. In the late 1950s when it “broke out,” B.F. Skinner’s version of behavioral psychology (e.g., stimulus-response, programmed learning) was in vogue. The idea that learning would result if we could simply induce particular responses to questions and then reward kids for their answers—rinse and repeat—seemed very convincing.

It has been harder to eradicate than a fungus, I assume, because it appears to map onto educational standards and the high-stakes tests. Principals and teachers assume it makes sense to practice the “comprehension skills” that tripped the kids up on the tests. So, they “use their data”: combing through test results to identify the kinds of questions that students failed on and then practicing those supposed skills over and over in the hopes the kids will be enabled to answer such questions on the next test. That it hasn’t actually worked doesn’t seem to dissuade them at all.

The idea of comprehension strategies is more recent, and it has a substantial body of research behind it. If the notion of comprehension skills emerged from behaviorism, then comprehension strategies is the child of cognitive psychology. Instead of repetition and automaticity as the watchwords to learning, intention and decision-making and thinking move to the forefront with strategies.

The basic premise of strategies is that readers need to actively think about the ideas in text if they are going to understand. And, since determining how to think about a text involves choices, strategies are tied up in meta-cognition (that is, thinking about thinking).

Comprehension strategies are not about coming up with answers to particular kinds of questions, but they describe actions that may help a reader to figure out and remember the information from a text.

For example, the idea of the summarization strategy is that readers should stop occasionally during reading to sum up what an author has said up to that point. Doing that throughout a reading and at the end has been found to increase recall… recall in general, not of any particular type of information.

Another frequently studied comprehension strategy is questioning. Students read, stopping throughout to quiz themselves on what the text says (and going back and rereading if one’s questions can’t be answered). The point isn’t to ask particular kinds of questions, so much as to think about the content more thoroughly, more actively than one would do if they just read from the first word to the last.

The same can be said about monitoring, visualizing, thinking about the way the text is structured or organized, rereading, and connecting the content with one’s prior knowledge.

These kinds of actions—these strategies—are used intentionally by readers to increase the chances of understanding or remembering what one has read.

Comprehension strategies need to be practiced too; however, they aren’t learned by repetition and reinforcement, but by gradual release of responsibility (including modeling, explanation, guided practice).

If you are serious about raising reading achievement, there is no point to teaching most comprehension skills. (Note: vocabulary is often listed as a comprehension skill and there are benefits to teaching that.).

On the other hand, there are very good reasons for teaching comprehension strategies, but there are at least three big problems with that kind of teaching.

First, studies of comprehension strategies have tended to be brief, usually about 6 weeks in duration (there are exceptions). Somehow that has been translated into substantial amounts of strategy teaching across students’ school lives. To be perfectly honest, no one, including me, knows how much strategy instruction is needed. But there is certainly no evidence that there are benefits to be derived from 8 to 10 years of 30-35 weeks of strategy teaching.

Second, the only point to using strategies is to make sense of texts that couldn't be grasped without that effort. Many texts are easy enough that a reader would not need to expend that amount of energy in comprehending. Unfortunately, most strategy instruction that I have seen takes place in texts that frankly are relatively easy for the kids to read. That means they have to pretend to apply those strategies in situations that wouldn’t benefit from such effort. If kids ever do apply these strategies to complex text, they are usually on their own. Most skip the effort since what such teaching conveys is that you don’t need strategies.

Finally, even major proponents of explicit comprehension strategy instruction (like the late Michael Pressley, for instance) argued that as important as it was to teach strategies, teachers needed—even when teaching them—to make sure the kids were actually learning the text content and not just the strategies they were using to think about that content. That principle largely has been ignored by teachers and publishers.

More on the teaching of comprehension skills and strategies next week; should we guide students' reading?

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Sam Bommarito
May 19, 2018 11:41 PM

Having lived through the transition from skills instruction to strategy instruction I found this analysis helped me to make sense of what happened. More importantly it raises the issue of how all this relates to complex text and scaffolding students in making sense out of complex text. Can't wait for the next installment!!!!

One confounding issue I'd like to see addressed- where do relatively easy to decode complex texts fit in to all this? Take a math textbook explaining complex formulas. Taken by themselves some individual sentences in some explainations would test at a relatively low decodability levels. I know some decodability formulas take this into account to some degree, but others do not. Overall I'm sensing there is more to complex text than most decodability formulas are able to measure. Thoughts about this???? Thanks. Sam

Timothy Shanahan
May 20, 2018 03:26 AM

Sam— readability measures like Lexie’s predict difficulty levels, but they don’t measure them... essentially they say that texts that have rarer vocabulary and longer sentences tend to be more difficult than ones that don’t and they place texts on that kind of continuum. There are many other factors that matter in what makes text complex than those two variables. Those methods are useful for identifying which texts your kids are likely to struggle with (not perfect, but acceptable). Once you have such texts then you need to scaffold text elements and content features to support the student in making sense of the text (including text structure, syntax, cohesion, vocabulary, tone, decidability, literary devices, graphic elements, etc.).

Thanks

Kevin Kuehn
May 20, 2018 12:09 PM

Hey Tim,

I really appreciate this distinction. In particular, I can definitely see how the “skills” that are taught are often simply rephrased standards. Something has always felt off about that. I could be way off, but it seems as though there is a misconception that because standards reference outcomes or things that effective readers should be able to do, they can be taught, as you mentioned, by repeatedly asking the same types of questions or as I’ve often seen, by teaching a “three-step process” for finding the main idea. It’s one of the things that has rubbed me the wrong way about the Teacher’s College approach to reading instruction. I’ve tried to jump down the proverbial rabbit hole of comprehension strategies (mainly through Mosaic of Thought for reading strategies and Harvard's Project Zero for thinking strategies and more specifically, building/activating prior knowledge), but I’m not sure I’m entirely on the right track.

You alluded to comprehension strategies not being enough. Could you point me to other resources that you think would help develop a well-rounded reading program? If this is going to be addressed in a future post, no worries.

Thanks!

Elisa Sansone
May 20, 2018 01:39 PM

My third grader are completing a two month research based reading and writing unit on feature articles. The texts available for research in reading and writing included a variety of great web sites for kids. Students chose people of personal interest. They were encouraged to find a specific focus or angle on the person to research. For example: " where is Einstein's brain and why is it there?"
The web sites for kids were of varying reading levels, some far higher than my third graders. In spite of this, I found students comprehended with few strategies or skills articulated and taught in isolation.
The one comprehension strategy I did teach repeatedly was the use article features such as titles, sub-titles, section titles, photo and photo captions. Acquisition of the skills used to comprehend was assessed through the content and the use of format in their completed written feature articles.

My point: In spite of complex texts with minimal attention to isolating strategies or skills in their research, students were able to demonstrate comprehension in the gathering of facts and the ensuing development of opinions that were then written about in the format of a TimeForKids - used as a writing mentor text. They were encouraged to understand "as much as they could", take notes, and then complete feature articles.
I believe their success in reading comprehension of complex texts was the choice of high interest topics, and a driving desire to share work with others. The published pieces were completed on google.docs which provided big inspiration.

Timothy Shanahan
May 20, 2018 01:48 PM

Kevin— read my next post and if you’re not satisfied that I’ve provided an answer to this please comment again. Thanks.

Tim

Natalie Wexler
May 20, 2018 04:32 PM

Thanks for this! But I still have a couple of questions about whether skills and strategies are really that different, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

First, you seem to be saying that reading comprehension skills aren't really skills because whether or not they "work" is highly dependent on the complexity of the particular text (agreed, and, I would add, also on the reader's relevant background knowledge). But you also seem to be saying that strategies are different because they are generally applicable--e.g., you mention summarizing boosts "recall in general, not of any particular type of information."

That may be true, but you have to be able to understand the text first, at least at some level, before you can apply the strategy of summarizing, just as with a skill like "main idea." So--as with skills--if the text is more complex, won't the usefulness of a strategy vary with the complexity of the text? And therefore also depend on context?

Second: You say that strategies, as distinct from skills, are used intentionally by readers. My understanding, though, is that the strategies were originally derived from things that expert readers were found to do when their comprehension breaks down. That doesn't mean they're doing them intentionally, though. They may ask themselves questions when they reach the end of a paragraph they don't understand, but they're not thinking, "Hmm, I think I'm going to use the strategy of asking questions." They just do it (judging from my own experience, at least).

Inexpert readers might have to apply strategies consciously at first, but isn't the ultimate goal to have them do it UNconsciously, as expert readers do? It seems to me that constantly stepping back and thinking about what strategy to use--rather than just using one automatically--makes comprehension MORE difficult, because it's another thing to juggle in working memory. So isn't the ultimate goal with strategies to have readers start using them unconsciously--just as with skills?

Thanks for any guidance you can provide!

Natalie Wexler
May 20, 2018 04:33 PM

Thanks for this! But I still have a couple of questions about whether skills and strategies are really that different, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

First, you seem to be saying that reading comprehension skills aren't really skills because whether or not they "work" is highly dependent on the complexity of the particular text (agreed, and, I would add, also on the reader's relevant background knowledge). But you also seem to be saying that strategies are different because they are generally applicable--e.g., you mention summarizing boosts "recall in general, not of any particular type of information."

That may be true, but you have to be able to understand the text first, at least at some level, before you can apply the strategy of summarizing, just as with a skill like "main idea." So--as with skills--if the text is more complex, won't the usefulness of a strategy vary with the complexity of the text? And therefore also depend on context?

Second: You say that strategies, as distinct from skills, are used intentionally by readers. My understanding, though, is that the strategies were originally derived from things that expert readers were found to do when their comprehension breaks down. That doesn't mean they're doing them intentionally, though. They may ask themselves questions when they reach the end of a paragraph they don't understand, but they're not thinking, "Hmm, I think I'm going to use the strategy of asking questions." They just do it (judging from my own experience, at least).

Inexpert readers might have to apply strategies consciously at first, but isn't the ultimate goal to have them do it UNconsciously, as expert readers do? It seems to me that constantly stepping back and thinking about what strategy to use--rather than just using one automatically--makes comprehension MORE difficult, because it's another thing to juggle in working memory. So isn't the ultimate goal with strategies to have readers start using them unconsciously--just as with skills?

Thanks for any guidance you can provide!

Harriett Janetos
May 20, 2018 11:08 PM

The recommendations in the Writing to Read report available in your resources are excellent. I hope you'll include these in next week's piece. Thanks.

Timothy Shanahan
May 21, 2018 01:58 AM

Natalie—
I’m saying there is no such thing as a comprehension skill at least in terms of how those skills are typically conceptualized (e.g., the ability to answer questions of particular types). Teaching vocabulary, teaching the interpretation of syntax, asking cohesive connections may be more appropriate because it deals with how to read the texts than how to answer particular questions. Strategies help, but they are overtaught.

Tim

Troy Fredde
May 21, 2018 12:52 PM

Elisa, I am glad you noticed teaching in isolation is an issue. I totally agree! I wrote this blog post about it. https://wp.me/p9oCzw-1b
I am not the expert Shanahan is and I didn't separate skills from strategies, but he is right on with his explanation of the differences.

Margaret Ridgeway
May 26, 2018 06:58 PM

Love the distinction you've made between skills and strategies. I sometimes think of it as the difference between action and thoughts. You can do a skill, but for deep understanding, you have to employ strategies that cause you to dig deeper. I recently took a short course on teaching students the skill of question formation through the Right Question Institute at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. The question formation by itself is a skill, but the questions generated provide the strategic plan for comprehension.

Robbie
Jun 10, 2018 04:47 PM

Thanks for this helpful blog Tim.

"In fact, there have been a number of studies and logical analyses showing that these skills lack any kind of psychological reality… they are indistinguishable from one another in test performance..."

Would it be possible to point me towards a couple of references?

Many thanks,
Robbie

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 09, 2022 11:53 PM

Pete--
A skill is only a skill if it can be repeated again and again in largely the same way. When I am asked to add 2+2 that is a skill, because no matter how you ask the question, 2+2 is going to come out to the same answer. The same is true for decoding skills. The letter P will usually be associated with the /p/ sound, though there are exceptions (for instance if the p is followed by an h, then it is associated with another phoneme). In other words, skills may be simple or they may be a bit complex (such as having conditional rules as with the letter P), but they are highly repeatable.
How do you determine the main idea of a text? That is not a repeatable skill which is why when adults are asked to provide main ideas of texts they come up with such widely differing answers. We say things like, "it is what the text is all about" but that information doesn't lead to some set of repeatable steps that would allow someone to identify main ideas for a range of texts (across genres, contents, degree of match with reader's prior knowledge, vocabulary difficulty, sentence complexity, etc.). That means that students may be able to cobble together a main idea that you agree with for a particular text, but if they did the same thing with another text, you wouldn't be happy with their result. It's that non-repeatability that makes such instruction a waste of time. Thus, having students practicing answering particular types of questions with various texts is a weak way to teach reading comprehension (though we see more and more of that kind of thing -- having kids read passages similar in length to what they will be asked to read on their state reading test and then answering the kinds of questions that will be asked -- with the idea that they'll become more skilled at it and that proficiency will translate to better performance when they take the state test.
You, however, are interpreting my antipathy for such non-teaching as meaning that there shouldn't be text discussions, writing about text, synthesis projects with multiple texts, analysis of the information in texts and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kids should be engaged in all of those kinds of activities -- and instruction should be guiding them to do things that are transferable from text to text (like learning vocabulary, learning how to break down sentences to figure out what they mean, working with text structure and cohesion, etc.).
Good luck.

tim

Pete
Jan 06, 2022 11:52 PM

First, I very much enjoy your blogs I have a few questions! Obviously comprehension skills (main idea/details, cause/effect, sequencing) have always been in every reading curriculum that I've used. I am an upper elementary teacher so my reading focus as always been on close reading the text and instruction in reading comprehension skills. Are you saying that teachers shouldn't be explicitly teaching students to compare and contrast within a text, shouldn't be using Venn diagrams and shouldn't be having conversations with students around the main ideas in a text and take two column notes jotting down main ideas and details? Won't all of these processes model for students how to closely look at text? Isn't it important to have conversations with students about retelling stories in order?

Maybe I'm missing your point. But, just because there isn't research saying that teaching cause and effect will help students be better readers (I'm basing this off of your claim above) , there is research that shows that close reading does have a positive impact. And aren't all of these skills helping students to recognize text structure and read closely? I'm confused. Thank you!

Larraine S Harrison
Jan 29, 2022 02:26 PM

Thank you. Very interesting. I have just written a book for Routledge ( out April 22) on Drama and Reading for Meaning ages 4-11: a practical book of ideas for teachers and this has given me some background in what I have tried to encourage in the book. I have read books that claim comprehension has to be purely text based but I think you can teach the actions that support comprehension as you explore the content. I run CPD for teachers who are keen to use creative approaches to reading comprehension such as drama in education strategies- but I am keen to encourage book talk along the way. As far as I know there is no research on how drama can support reading comprehension - but would love to know if any has taken place as I know drama can make a significant contribution. Groups I have been involved in have conducted action research but only informally. Any thoughts would be welcome.

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 13, 2022 07:32 PM

Larraine--

There is very little research on using drama to improve reading comprehension, particularly in the grades that you note. One recent exception was a study by Young, Durham, Miller, Rasinski, & Lane, 2019 that found engaging students in Readers' Theatre had a positive impact on reading comprehension (beyond. what was accomplished by a group involved in more usual fare). Unfortunately, it was a complex intervention, so it is not entirely which parts of it improved comprehension (or whether the comprehension effects came about because of the improved fluency that resulted). In any event, there are benefits to translating text into oral language (discussion) and written language, so it would not be too surprising if story-acting and the like might have a positive result, too.

tim

Maya
Feb 19, 2022 04:42 AM

I've been reading and learning a lot from your blogs and other related resources. Thank you!
Now I feel ready to ask some questions.
- To "summarize" a text, don't you need some of the skills (e.g., identifying the main idea, inferencing)?
- Can we still ask students questions such as "What is the main idea?" "Compare & contrast __." "How did the character change?"
- For students with an expressive language impairment, retelling or summarizing a text is difficulty even if they have understood it
so I tend to rely more on asking them questions to check their comprehension. Should I stop this approach?
- I want to learn more about skills vs. strategies. Can you recommend some articles or books?

Sam Bommarito
Feb 19, 2022 08:01 PM

New comment from Feb 19 2022. Great article and the part about gradual release was especially useful. Was talking about comp with some folks on twitter when this repost popped up. Talk about great timing! Thanks- Sam

Bill Conrad
Feb 20, 2022 03:41 AM

Hello Tim,

Thank you for the enlightening distfinctions between comprehension skills and strategies. This will blog will be most helful to teachers. I found in my work in school districts that many teachers had real challenges in undert=standinbg fundamental reading ideas like the differences between phonemic awareness and phonics.

Do you think that our colleges of education are doing an adequate job of helping teahcers understand, distinguish, and appropriately use these fi=undamental ideas? What should we do?

Thanks as always for being such a great champion for reading and supporting our teachers.

Bill Conrad

Deborah Parkhill Mullis
Feb 20, 2022 05:02 PM

I once had a 6th-grader tell me that he would always hate reading. "Okay," I said. Then I asked, "What do you like?" Without missing a beat, he replied, "Horses." We started working through the O-G sequence according to what he needed to review/didn't know. We also started reading an abridged "movie version" of Black Beauty that he owned. He knew this book very well but I wanted to hear him read it. Next, we perused other novels about horses at the public library where I tutored and picked one that was little more difficult. We read between 15 and 20 minutes at the top of his twice-a week lessons. I modeled reading a page as he followed along. He read a page as I followed along. We traded every other page. I jotted down notes as inconspicuously as possible to address with a game or within a lesson plan later. We discussed each chapter as we finished it. He was writing seven sentences that I dictated to him after completing an O-G lesson before I began the next one in order to apply his skills. When we finished a book, he would apply those skills to writing a paragraph or two about that book. Within a year, he was reading an adult "horse" novel based on a true story that was set in North Carolina where I live. As we went through all these books and O-G lesson plans, he built the skills necessary to read with fluency, comprehend and write with fluency. If my student hesitated on a word like "chortle" I only had to do was say r-controlled first syllable and sometimes consonant -le second syllable but usually he had it after I gave a clue about the first syllable. We would discuss the meaning of chortle or any other unfamiliar word. Because I had focused on horse novels, I gave this student a non-fiction book about horses for his birthday which was exactly one year after I started working with him. It took me a long time to choose the right book. One that didn't contain too much information that he already knew about horses. We didn't have our O-G lesson that day because he could not stop reading the book. Mission accomplished. I use this strategy often with older students. I once had a high school student that loved playing WW II and playing video games related to WW II. Rather than let that hobby go to waste, we read, "Night" and then "Prisoner B-3087" and finally "The Book Thief." I believe children learn comprehension skills/strategies by reading books that interest them. Those skills do transfer to other areas of study but honestly all of us fail to comprehend what we find boring. That's just human nature.

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 21, 2022 02:02 AM

Bill-
I'm sure there are exceptions, but generally I am not satisfied with the quality of preparation that our prospective teachers are getting at universities. Quality outcomes do not seem to be the bottom line there.

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 21, 2022 02:18 AM

Maya--

There is nothing wrong with asking kids main idea questions, unless you think that is teaching kids how to determine main ideas. Ask questions that make sense for the text that the kids are reading (not questions aimed at matching the standards). Then, if they can't answer a question, try to figure out what's going on, what did they misunderstand? Practicing answering questions does not teach kids to comprehend. (Summarizing is both an outcome -- like a question answer-- and an action that allows the reader to operate on the text-- try to retell what you have read). i don't teach kids to summarize with the idea that they'll practice finding main ideas, but to encourage them to be active readers -- to stop and think about the text as they read, to try to remember key information, and to go back and look again if they don't.

tim

Mat
Feb 21, 2022 08:04 AM

Hi Tim,
1) I'm confused by what you mean by asking particular kinds of questions. After examining a text, I do end up formulating particular kinds of questions that I will ask my students once we have worked on gist comprehension of the text. Examples would be 'what is the main character's motivation?' or if it's a nonfiction text, 'what is the main idea?'. Are you suggesting not to do that?

2) If students only need strategies when text is challenging, then does that follow that when we place students into book clubs, that the books are also challenging? I'm confused here as I've also read in other blogs that you have said texts should be harder when we are guiding students and less hard when they are reading by themselves. I do guide book clubs, but I can only work with 1 or 2 in each lesson.

Also, does the research say anything about whether students in book clubs are better off organized in homogenous groups or heterogenous groups in terms of reading ability? Surely students who have less receptive vocabulary, poorer syntax awareness and less background knowledge will struggle more than those who do and even reading strategies can't make up for that can they?

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 20, 2022 05:06 PM

Debbie--

I very much like you selection of texts that are of high interest to your student. That's good pedagogy. However, typically, people use strategies mainly when they are struggling to read a text with understanding, have a need to comprehend and remember an especially high percentage of the information in a text (such as when being examined on a text or needing to know the information for a high value activity like work), or are having difficulty maintaining interest/focus. That means that kids will need to know how to operate on texts that they are not particularly interested in, and not just the ones they like (and find relatively easy because of their level of motivation or the high degree of overlap with thier prior knowledge).

tim

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 21, 2022 02:21 PM

Mat--
The reason why teaching students to answer certain kinds of questions doesn't improve reading is because reading is not the ability to answer particular types of questions. How do you figure out the main idea of a text? Understanding what a main idea is doesn't help much because each text communicates main idea in a different way (and many don't have what you might call a main idea and many more have several). But what do you have to do to the text information to determine which idea is main? If you could teach students some kind of generalizable way to determine what they main idea is, then that might improve reading -- but since no one has been able to figure out how to do that, it doesn't help. Even identifying the topic sentence of a paragraph is fraught (some schemes claim it is the first sentence, some the last, and so on -- there isn't any system to it, so it doesn't really help). I think it is very reasonable to ask about character motivation in a piece of fiction but asking those questions does little -- teach kids how to locate and identify that kind of information in a text and you'll have something worth having.

I would stay to relatively easy (for the students) texts when they are in book club. If you won't be nearby to help kids to negotiate a challenging text, the assignment of one doesn't make much sense -- especially for the struggling readers. The idea of intellectual struggle is a good one, but only if there is real opportunity for success.

tim

Mat
Feb 22, 2022 09:11 AM

Hi Tim,
Maybe my confusion about the main idea comes from the generalizable ways to teach summarizing, which include the main idea. In another blog post you highlight the work of Brown & Day (1983) who suggest to delete what isn’t necessary, collect into groups ideas that fit together, and then find or compose a sentence that describes the important ideas that are left. Isn't this procedure actually quite skill like because it can be used in different passages?

With regard to book clubs, you said it doesn't make sense to assign challenging texts if we are not nearby to help kids negotiate the text. But conversely it doesn't make sense to assign texts that don't require students to use reading strategies to read them. I thought the point of this stage of the gradual release of responsibility model is for students to now try out using reading strategies by themselves to unpack a text. We could for example use reciprocal teaching to do this so students can help each other in the book club. Is the teachers's role to identify texts that are above their independent reading level but not quite as hard as what you might choose if the teacher was guiding the group?

Timothy Shanahan
Feb 22, 2022 07:55 PM

Mat--
If the idea of book club is for students to practice the use of a particular strategy with a challenging text then the teacher should monitor those discussions to see what happens and to be able to either intervene and follow up. This might be done by moving from group to group to observe or by video-audio recording. The "you do it" phase of reciprocal teaching is not a distant from the teacher as you seem to assume.

tim

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Comprehension Skills or Strategies: Is there a difference and does it matter?

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