Strategies or Skills: Does It Really Matter?

  • 20 March, 2008

Blast from the Past: Do you ever wonder what the difference is between skills and strategies? Originally posted March 20, 2008; re-posted on September 28, 2017. 

  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 the 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 of 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 do 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 a 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).


See what others have to say about this topic.

Cassandra Gaisford Apr 20, 2020 04:42 AM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,
I hope you and your family are all well.
Help me! I seem to remember a couple of years ago that you had spoken in a webinar about assessments that assess strategies and skills. In my memory, you stated that if students could access the text, decode and fluently read the text, that they could find the main idea and answer the questions about the text. And, that if they could not yet decode the text, then they could not answer the questions. Does this seem familiar? I teach second grade, and I highly value DIBELS assessments. I dislike the district created interims because the students who are not reading on grade level yet don't seem to have a chance to answer the questions. How do I find value in such reading comprehension assessments that are assessing the RI and RL standards?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Strategies or Skills: Does It Really Matter?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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