Why Reading Strategies Usually Don't Help the Better Readers

  • 29 December, 2014
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. 


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sharon Kinsey Jun 13, 2017 06:23 PM


I am curious as to your thoughts on the best way to teach reading strategies to the majority of the class (who need them) and yet not bore the good readers to tears?


Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:23 PM


This might be one of those times where you give everyone the same instruction (the same explanation and model of the strategy), but then you have the students concluding the lesson by trying the strategy out with a text and not all of the students would get the same text. In other words, I would likely ramp things up on the better readers giving them a text that would "kick their butts" rather than "boring them to tears." (Of course, I'm assuming the poorer readers will find the regular classroom text to be sufficiently difficult and challenging).

Kylie M. Jun 13, 2017 06:24 PM


I am really interested in this post and would like to know if you have a published article around this that I could cite please? It is very relevant to my classroom observations as part of the thesis I am working on, so I am very interested in any published works in journal articles etc that I could cite please?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:24 PM


Sorry, Kylie, I don't have such an article. Good luck.

Kylie M. Jun 13, 2017 06:25 PM


That's a shame Tim as it would make a great journal article :)

Sharon Kinsey Jun 13, 2017 06:25 PM


Thanks Tim. I will be teaching 6th grade reading next year (first year teacher, although been student teaching/volunteering since January 2014 at the school I hope to teach at).

I guess I would have them try it out using their independent reading book since there will not be a class "text." I have not decided if we will do "whole class" reads yet.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:25 PM


Research is very clear that kids make better learning gains in small group versus whole class. However, they surrender those gains when the teacher goes off and works with another group (thus, overall small group does not outperform whole class in the real circumstances of classrooms). Teachers need to learn to use the small group and large group in combination, and need to use both more effectively. It is critical to hone assignments and organizational plans to allow the non-teacher time to be as productive as possible and to hone teacher skills in management to ensure maximum interaction and engagement in large group instruction.

Margaret Jun 13, 2017 06:26 PM


Tim, I really appreciate reading the research side of the issue, especially in this age of emphasis on research based interventions. From reading numerous posts on your sites I'm on the lookout for true complex text, close listening versus close reading, the merits of scaffolding as needed while using grade appropriate text for grades two and up. That said, there's a difference between the intellectual pursuit and putting it into practice. It would be great if you could comment on the particulars of an actual lesson. For instance, what do you see as the merits and failings of the lesson in this video? http://vimeo.com/89001348

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:27 PM


What a fascinating question. I reviewed the video (quickly) and would say it looks like a nice traditional reading lesson with good student engagement... but it has very little to do with close reading. This is an example of someone teaching reading in superficially different ways that pre-CCSS, and claiming it is a big advance because of CCSS. Nevertheless, despite the claim, there is no effort here to plumb the depths of this text's "layers of meaning." It is a traditional lesson in which the teacher tells the kids what to listen/read for, does some prior knowledge review (in this case, in with regard to adaptation, reads the text for them (yikes), and has them mark up the text and then write down the main ideas and key details. Not a bad lesson, but irrelevant to close reading (no, reading the text more than once and reading with a pencil--both terrific ideas--are only superficial features of close reading, not its distinguishing features; it doesn't even use rereading for the right purpose). This lesson would get high marks from most observers, but it is a weak effort in terms of its stated purposes, in terms of CCSS goals, and in terms of it's consistency with reading research (with regards to reading the text to the kids, or in terms of how well it teaches reading strategies). This is a good example of student engagement in a reading lesson (this teacher runs a tight ship--it looks very positive), and yet, following this plan won't get you where she says she will take you.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:27 PM


Thanks! This is my exact frustration. While there are many resources on the web for middle school and up, and some for upper grades, there is so little for primary grades. I have yet to find a video that demonstrates true common core differences for ELA. We are given a target to shoot for, but not how to get there. If you or your readers know any other good resources for primary I'd love to see them.

Unknown Jun 13, 2017 06:28 PM


Margaret, Have you checked out these? https://www.engageny.org/video-library/?f[0]=im_field_subject%3A13596&f[1]=im_field_grade%3A13476&js=1

I think that video can be a powerful format for showing how instruction should be different under CCSS, but by the same token, in the elementary grades especially, sometimes the big picture of what's changing is hard to capture. For example, the bullfrog book in that video (which you can preview here http://www.wtps.org/cms/lib8/NJ01912980/Centricity/Domain/1915/Bullfrog_at_Magnolia_Circle_eBook.pdf ) is part of a unit focusing on building background knowledge (which perhaps should have been presented as the thrust of that video vs. close reading.)

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 06:28 PM


There are some terrific lessons here in these videos, but several of them suffer from the same problem as the one I analyzed: they simply aren't based upon a very deep understanding of the concept of close reading. If you think close reading is just good reading comprehension (e.g., you grasped the author's message, that is you remember what the author said and implied), then you aren't understanding what close reading is. Nothing wrong with only getting what a text says, of course, past standards stressed that for the past few decades, but close reading asks for more than that and the state of NY should make an effort to help its teachers understand the concept itself. They'll be more likely to accomplish the goal if they do understand it.

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Why Reading Strategies Usually Don't Help the Better Readers


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