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Does Your Comprehension Strategy Instruction Have this Key Element?


Strategy use only makes sense when success isn’t certain. Teaching students to use strategies with relatively easy texts neither lets them see how to use the strategy nor reveals to them the power that it can provide.

I was observing writing instruction in an 8th grade suburban classroom. The experienced teacher was quite skilled and he both managed his classroom well and was sophisticated in his ability to interpret literary text and to engage students in reading that penetrated deeply into the meaning of the text.

On this day his lesson focused providing students with tools that would overcome writing blocks. His students often struggled to figure out what to write about; they agonized when given a writing assignment. He demonstrated his strategy and directed the students to give it a try.

One especially bright young man towards the back of the room was being a pain and I was trying to get him engaged. He was refusing to do as the teacher asked and was being confrontational about it.  

But as I listened to his complaint, I came to see he was right. He knew what he was talking about. The day’s lesson plan wasn’t terrible, it had just missed the mark in an important way.

As I thought about it, it became clear to me that strategy lessons were often ruined by the same omission. Although this lesson was on writing, it could have easily been reading comprehension strategy instruction. No wonder so few kids actually use the strategies we teach.

What is a strategy?

According to the International Literacy Association, a strategy is a “systematic plan, consciously adopted, adapted, and monitored, to improve one’s performance in learning.” That’s pretty good. Their notion of metacognition, a related idea, also seems to be on point: “Awareness and knowledge of one’s mental processes that allow one to monitor, regulate, and direct self to a desired end.”

One key part of these definitions is the idea that strategies are always goal directed. That’s what the “improve one’s learning performance” or “desired end” are about. If we are trying to understand something or trying to communicate something and we want to succeed, we should take steps towards those goals. Strategies are goal directed efforts.

Sometimes that goal-directed bit is where strategy instruction goes bust — though that was not the problem raised by my obstreperous middle schooler.

Students may blow off strategy use because they either aren’t goal directed or they simply have different goals. The student’s real goal might be something like, “I want to get this assignment done as fast as possible.” If higher comprehension isn’t their goal, then they won’t use strategies aimed at slowing them down and making them think.

Another key feature of strategies is their intentional quality (“consciously adopted,” “awareness and knowledge of one’s mental processes”). Strategies aren’t automatic. We have a goal we want to accomplish, so we come up a plan for accomplishing it. There is a plethora of strategies, so strategy use requires intentional choice.

In this middle school class, the teacher had the kids identify a couple of words (I came up with “hair” and “lake”). Then they were to brainstorm ideas that were connected to each word and to do this until they saw a connection between the two original words. I ended up remembering an event in my life where I had to shampoo my hair in Lake Michigan (brrrrr!). Another possibility that I often use when I’m stuck is not to write the piece I’m trying to write, but to write a letter to someone that explains what I’m trying to write. Hemingway was known to engage in non-stop writing, just doing a brain dump on paper until he found his way.

You want to write something, and you can’t get going, any those strategies can be quite successful… and yet, Mr. I’m Not Going to Do It wouldn’t play along.

Why not?

Because he didn’t need the strategy.

Remember, strategies are about intentionally trying to accomplish goals.

If you can accomplish your goal satisfactorily without a strategy, then why bother?

That was what that middle-schooler explained to me:

I think about what I want to write about. Then I make up two words. I brainstorm other words for a few minutes until I connect them so I can write about what I already decided to write about.

Strategies help us to surmount barriers. He was a prolific youngster and had no problem coming up with a writing idea. Pretending to have a problem so he could practice solving it seemed dumb to him and he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to write.

You might think that is a rare circumstance, but it isn’t.

Most reading programs recommend placing students in texts that they can read with 75-89% comprehension — a level of success good enough for most circumstances (including for showing the teacher that you understood the text by answering her questions). The students — by design — are able to read these texts with comprehension. But these are what are used for strategy teaching.

Most kids won’t buck the order of the day by refusing to pretend to use the strategies.

They’ll go through the motions, doing the required activity, but it won’t be connected to accomplishing any goal — since the strategy wasn’t actually necessary.

Strategy use only makes sense when success isn’t certain.

Teaching students to use strategies with relatively easy texts neither lets them see how to use the strategy nor reveals to them the power that it can provide.

Many times, I’ve heard P. David Pearson talk about starting strategy off with an easy text that students can already read well… it allows the teacher to demonstrate the steps of the strategy clearly. I have no problem with that. At that point, strategy lessons should focus not on texts that students can read well, but on texts that they can’t.

Strategy instruction is one of those scaffolds that we teach to enable students to read complex text. Let’s stop pretending, and place students in reading situations in which strategies can really help.