Shedding Light on Reading Skills and Strategies

  • 01 April, 2023

Teacher question: 

I want to clarify the definitions of reading skills vs reading strategies. I know you have written about this, but I’m still confused. I’ve read your blogs, the National Reading Panel Report, Zimmerman's Mosaic of Thought book, Oakhill et al.’s language skills, Chris Such’s book, Scarborough's reading rope, etc. I tried to summarize what those sources had to say about each of more than a dozen strategies and I found several contradictions and lots of general confusion. Some of them label background knowledge as a strategy, while others say it is a language comprehension skill. Comprehension monitoring shows a similar pattern of disagreement, though the various authors might change sides about how to classify that one (and some treatments ignore it altogether). Scarborough shows language – which most classify as a skill – to become increasingly strategic with development. I could go on, but who is right here? 

RELATED: What's the Role of Amount of Reading Instruction?

Shanahan response:

That’s an easy questiom. I’m right!

Aren’t I always? I’m surprised that you didn’t know that. I thought you said you’ve read my blogs before.

Okay, maybe we’ve all been a tad sloppy with the old language, carefully delineating these concepts when addressing their distinctions explicitly, but not so much when we are just referring to skills and strategies in other treatments. Unfortunately, our carelessness is needlessly confusing and, perhaps, it is even a barrier to supporting the highest quality comprehension instruction.

Let’s see if I can cast light on this problem.

And, that, in fact, is a very good place to start…. with light.

Physicists during the 19th century and early part of the 20th, were all in a tizzy over the nature of light. Did light travel in waves or particles?

They argued back and forth over that. Scientists would conduct an experiment proving that light must be moving in waves. Which was convincing right up until some contradictory experiment showed that it must be transmitted as a series of discrete packets, particles, or photons.

That argument raged for quite a while before Erwin Schrödinger let the wind out of all their balloons with his equation that described the dual nature of light. He showed that light possesses both qualities under various conditions and put an end to the argument so they could get on with business. (Schrödinger was good at that kind of thing. You might remember he was the guy with the cat that was both dead and alive. I’m sure glad you didn’t ask me to explain that one!)

Much like Herr Schrödinger, I think this dead cat is amazingly lively.

That is, it’s possible for something to be both skill and strategy.

Sometimes we teach something as a strategy initially, and with development it gains skill status. The reverse can happen as well (à la, Hollis Scarborough’s rope, with language becoming increasingly strategic with development).

Background knowledge, for instance, plays a fundamental role in reading comprehension. This role, however, is often not intentional. Our minds seem to be designed to make connections. We almost can’t stop ourselves from making comparisons (“Mom liked you best”), recognizing similarities, and seeing contrasts.

That’s why Jimmy Kim’s latest work (Kim, Burkhauser, Relyea, Gilbert, Scherer, Fitzgerlad, Mosher, & McIntyre, 2023) is gaining so much attention these days. It seems to be showing that building children’s knowledge about a topic can generalize – automatically, without prompting – to other related or analogous topics. That would make background knowledge a skill.

That’s exciting because most of the people promoting background knowledge as the golden road to high reading comprehension have been viewing it as a skill – as something that can be used productively in reading without conscious intentions of the reader. If students know a lot of science and social studies, this would mean that they’ll often connect that body of information to whatever they read and as a result comprehension will rise.

However, other researchers have demonstrated that we can successfully teach people to use their background knowledge intentionally – that is, more strategically – to improve their understanding of what they read (Hattan & Alexander, 2021; Hattan, Alexander, & Lupo, 2023; Lupo, Tortorelli, Invernizzi, Ryoo, & Strong, 2019).


Well, for example, what if, prior to reading, I look over the material and see if any of it is familiar and ponder how I think it may connect up with what I already know? Maybe I’ll decide to pay more attention to some sections than to others.

Or, what if I identify the major topic and then brainstorm for a few minutes before reading that text – bringing what I already know to conscious attention? That seems to improve comprehension, too.

Or, what if, as I read, I intentionally stop whenever I see something familiar and try to connect that information explicitly with what I already know – maybe even trying to identify what’s new and where it may fit with what I already know? Again, a winning strategy.

Those kinds of intentional steps are strategic and that makes the use of background knowledge a strategy. Whereas just building up knowledge and hoping it will have relevance to what you read someday is betting on knowledge as a skill that can improve reading comprehension. 

The studies seem to say that knowledge can operate as both skill and strategy – it just depends how we try to apply it.

Vocabulary knowledge (knowing the meanings of lots of words) is certainly a skill. When I read, for the most part, recognizing the words triggers the meanings without much conscious attention. For example,

if I read the word, “green,” I think of that color automatically, I don’t usually make decisions about it because I have that word firmly in my lexicon. I can’t say I don’t “think about it”, because my mind must be thinking about (as I know the term to mean). And, yet, the process seems to keep conscious Tim out of the equation altogether. I do it, but I’m not aware that I’m doing it.

On the other hand, had the author used, prasine, smaragdine, greeny, viridescent, or verdant, that choice might change everything. I’d have various strategic decisions to make with those words. I kind of know what “verdant” means and the shade of green that may imply. I likely would do nothing with that one. The same would be true for “greeny.” I might be able to gain purchase on “viridescent” through a moment of morphological analysis (yeah, it does have something to do with iridescent). But “prasine” and “smaragdine” are not in my vocabulary. For those, I’d have to decide how much I cared. Whether it would be worth trying to ken those from context or by looking them up in the dictionary (my most likely strategy for solving those) would depend on my desire to fully comprehend the message.

Those schemes that we have for dealing with unfamiliar words – context, morphology, reference guides, ignoring – tend to be strategic, intentional choices the reader deploys to address a potential problem.

Lessons in which children memorize the definitions of vocabulary words are skills lessons.

Lessons in which children must identify unknown words in passages and figure out their meanings are strategies lessons.

That means vocabulary can be skill or strategy, just as light can be waves and packets. It just depends.

I think you should worry less about classifying them and more about how you think students need to apply them. Is the goal to teach students to respond automatically, without conscious direction, without intention, without being triggered by some conditional event? If so, automaticity is going to be important and you are going to want to work hard at memorization and repetition, to ensure that your students master these skills.

Or, are you preparing students to respond flexibly when confronted with a particular challenge or problem, that they are going to have to make decisions about?

Then, you want to teach it as a strategy. Here you teach them what it is, why it has value, when to use it, and you give them guided practice in applying it in various situations. 

We tend to think of those kinds of situations as belonging to the comprehension realm. How would you read a short story differently from a science text? That passage made no sense – now what are you going to do?

However, as much as we consider decoding to be a skill, there are situations when students must make choices and at least some of those will require conscious decisions. at least for a while…

“I know CVCe words tend to have long vowels, but that pattern doesn’t seem to be working when I try to read the word done.” The best strategy in that situation is to consider other possible pronunciations of the vowel.

That kind of word reading problem is interesting and complicated. Early on, I want students to see that CVCe pattern as a skill to be learned to the point of automaticity because of its high likelihood of working. But I also want them to know how to respond to it strategically because of the important exceptions that exist. Over time, as students gain familiarity with the exceptions (e.g., done, have, one, live, come) the need for a strategic response will become unnecessary as reading these kinds of words will move into the house of skills.

How we use it and how we learn it are what determines whether something is strategy or skill. I suspect those apparent contradictions that you are seeing may be more due to differences in what those experts were focused on rather than to real differences in our understanding of skills or strategies.

It also can help to think about whether what you are teaching can really be a skill or a strategy. For years, we've tried to teach the various question types as comprehension skills. Kids are supposed to to learn the approrpriate way to answer main idea, supporting details, inference, and drawing conclusions questions. The problem with that is that there isn't any systematic way to answer those kinds of questions. 

There are question types that could be learned. For example, teaching kids the various words that signal cause-and-effect relations can be helpful in guiding them to respond appropriately to many cause and effect questions. Likewise, how to connect cohesive links across a passage (such as connecting pronouns with the subjects they refer to) is teachable and should allow students to respond to a whole category of inferential questions (it isn't too clear how to teach other kinds of inferencing). However, in both of those cases, the instruction would focus on how to read the text and think about it, rather than how to answer particular questions. That's just not a skill or strategy that good readers use and it doesn't prepare students to excel with future test performance (despite the certainty of many school administrators).

Teaching kids to be strategic in teasing out the author's point of view in a social studies text, or the characters' conflicting goals in literature, or to connect up the causes and effects in science all could be strategies that students could learn to wield in various kinds of texts. Over time, with lots of practice, they may take those actions on as habits of mind that they engage in without much conscious decision making. In other words, those strategies may become more skill like with acquistion. 

READ MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Blog


Hattan, C., & Alexander, P. A. (2021). The effects of knowledge activation training on rural middle-school students’ expository text comprehension: A mixed-methods study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 113(5), 879–897.

Hattan, C., Alexander, P. A., & Lupo, S. M. (2023). Leveraging what students know to make sense of texts: What the research says about prior knowledge activation. Review of Educational Research,

Kim, J. S., Burkhauser, M. A., Relyea, J. E., Gilbert, J. B., Scherer, E., Fitzgerald, J. Mosher, D., & McIntyre, J. (2023). A longitudinal randomized trial of a sustained content literacy intervention from first to second grade: Transfer effects on students’ reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology.

Lupo, S. M., Tortorelli, L., Invernizzi, M., Ryoo, J. H., & Strong, J. Z. (2019). An exploration of text difficulty and knowledge support on adolescents’ comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 54(4), 457-479.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anon Apr 01, 2023 11:55 AM

Thank you for this. Would love your take on this confusing and simplistic “guidance” for families produced by the MA Department of Elementary & Secondary Education. Check out the table at the bottom of this webpage with the green and red flags:

Maureen Ruby Apr 01, 2023 12:13 PM

Thanks, Dr. Shanahan!
This is excellent! I’ve tried to use analogies outside of reading to explain this as well- learning to drive, play golf, etc. etc.

This, and the references, are keepers.
Have a great day!

Sharon Apr 01, 2023 12:33 PM

A million thanks for this brilliant explanation of the duality of skills and strategies. I can’t wait to share this with my graduate students - I think it will prompt them to question and develop insights into what they are teaching and why.

Miriam Trehearne Apr 01, 2023 01:47 PM

Miriam P. Trehearne

Thanks Tim for shedding some light and clarification on the multiple differences between the definitions and the uses of the terms "reading skills and reading strategies".

I would also suggest that readers read this article: "Clarifying Differences Between Reading Skills and Reading Strategies"
Peter Afflerbach, P. David Pearson, Scott G. Paris from The Reading Teacher, 61(5), pp. 364–373. I found it very helpful as well!

Paul Zavitkovsky Apr 01, 2023 04:16 PM

If only we could gin up an equation that put American reading and math wars to bed as successfully as Erwin Schrödinger extinguished the wave/particle debate. But what a big step Tim Shanahan takes in that direction using the "softer" tools of example and analogy.

All hail Tim Shanahan!

Jo Anne Gross Apr 01, 2023 08:14 PM

Great article and so direly needed.

Reid Lyon used to say Fluency is the bridge to reading comprehension.

Recently the illustrious Psychologist from Canada, Jordan Peterson had a shared video by David Boulton.
He made it shore and sweet,if they don`t read fluently they`ll get bored and won`t get much out of it or something like that.

We`re getting stuck in the muck again.

Jo Anne Gross Apr 01, 2023 08:14 PM

Great article and so direly needed.

Reid Lyon used to say Fluency is the bridge to reading comprehension.

Recently the illustrious Psychologist from Canada, Jordan Peterson had a shared video by David Boulton.
He made it shore and sweet,if they don`t read fluently they`ll get bored and won`t get much out of it or something like that.

We`re getting stuck in the muck again.

Scott Paris Apr 02, 2023 05:03 AM

Looks like there is some overlooked history regarding the distinctions between skills and strategies. In our 1983 paper Becoming a Strategic Reader, Paris, Wilson and Lipson described strategies as intentional versus skills as automatic in the same way that other cognitive skills develop. We characterized strategies as the conscious analysis of skills that is necessary during initial learning, trouble shooting, and teaching, and we said that the strategies become automatic skills with extensive practice. These ideas and others were elaborated in more detail by Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris (2008) in an article in the Reading Teacher entitled Clarifying Differences Between Reading Skills and Strategies Strategies. I humbly suggest that readers might find the historical papers informative about this enduring issue.

Rachel Segev Miller Apr 02, 2023 06:23 AM

I wonder why Professor Paris didn't also mention their more recent chapter on the topic:
Afflerbach, P., Pearson, P. D., & Paris, S. (2017). Skills and strategies: Their differences, their relationships, and why they matter. In K. Mokhtari (Ed.), Improving reading comprehension through metacognitive reading strategies instruction (pp. 33-49). Lanham, MD: Rowman
& Littlefield.
I adopted Paris et al.'s definitions both in my dissertation on the strategies underlying the performance of discourse synthesis and my book on the explicit instruction of L2 reading comprehension strategies.

Miriam Apr 02, 2023 04:44 PM

Excellent article. In my opinion we teachers often spend too much time on terms and labels or trying to have students understand something in the way we do rather than on expanding understanding and then applying what they know and can do. I think we should think more in terms of increasing capacity and less in terms of labeling and identifying.

PETER P AFFLERBACH Apr 03, 2023 02:04 AM

Hey Tim and all:

P. David Pearson, Scott Paris and I focused on this in 2008. It might be
a helpful take on this issue:

Afflerbach, P., Pearson, P. D., & Paris, S. G. (2008). Clarifying differences
between reading skills and reading strategies. The reading
teacher, 61(5), 364-373.



Harriett Janetos Apr 03, 2023 03:30 AM

Here's the conclusion from The Reading Teacher article:

When we are teaching strategically, we help students to analyze tasks, to consider various approaches to performing the task, and to choose among alternative actions to reach the goal. Teaching skills involves practice and feedback to improve speed and efficiency, which taken together amount to what we call fluency. One challenge for teachers of reading is fully investigating the strategy–skill connection and determining how an effortful strategy can become an automatic skill. A related challenge is designing instruction that makes clear the steps of strategies while providing practice so that strategies may transform themselves into skills.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 03, 2023 04:08 AM

Peter and Scott,

I'd be happy to cite you here, but I didn't think it was really necessary. You weren't the first to define strategies as intentional or skills as automatic, so I really don't think I needed to cite you on that (in fact, I could you fault you for not citing earlier works on that especially given the nature and length of your article). I myself had one page handouts that covered this ground back in the 1990s. The questioner was asking for clarity -- your article on this is very good but it took you thousands of words to say what I said in hundreds. Clarity is not its strength. Given when your article was written, it didn't pay much attention to where knowledge and language fit into this dynamic (one wouldn't have expected it to), which this reader wanted to know about. I wouldn't turn to your piece for insights on that because you didn't address it. I certainly would encourage readers who want to read more about skills and strategies to read the article that these gentlemen cited -- it is a good one -- but it really isn't necessary for answering this readers' question.


PETER P AFFLERBACH Apr 03, 2023 03:09 PM

So glad I could help!

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Shedding Light on Reading Skills and Strategies


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.