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How Reading Strategies Can Increase Student Engagement

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A few days ago, both Daniel Willingham and Robert Pondiscio — two thinkers and educators whose opinions I value highly — wrote posts critical of the use (or, perhaps, the over-use) of teaching reading strategies to students. They both suggest that this can result in making students feel bored by reading.

I certainly agree that teachers misusing reading strategies in class can indeed, as Dan Willingham put it, cause “collateral damage.” I’d also suggest that poor teaching of just about anything can have a similar result.

Done well, regular teaching and reinforcing of reading strategies can have the opposite result, and I see it in my classroom, and the classrooms of my colleagues, everyday.

Reading strategies are not just for comprehension — they are also for engagement.

We don’t have students explicitly apply them (or, if they do, very seldom) during their pleasure reading. But for reading text they are unfamiliar with and often, at least initially, not interested in (especially informational text in English and in content area classes) reading strategies like highlighting, visualizing, connecting, asking questions, evaluating, and summarizing provide a tool for students to extend their thinking and also a provide a system for accountability. Explicitly being challenged to ask questions, expand those questions to higher level orders of thinking, and then share them with their classmates agitates everyone to wonder and explore what the answers might be. Some reluctant readers become more engaged when they know they can draw and visualize what they are reading. Pushing students to consciously agree or disagree with what they read and provide evidence for their beliefs helps students develop needed critical thinking skills. And, yes, all that engagement reinforces comprehension, too.

I’ve invited Kelly Young, an extraordinary consultant from Pebble Creek Labs for our school (and for many others), to also comment on this issue. I’ve written often about Kelly, who I consider a mentor.

Here are his comments:

I appreciate Mr. Willingham’s spur to open a conversation about the value and weight of reading strategies in the larger milieu of reading instruction.

For openers, I cannot imagine responsible reading instruction without the teaching of reading strategies, though I too worry about appropriate balance and priority.

Just as teachers of music, dance and sports use exercises and drills to refine, expand and enhance learner skills and technique, so should reading teachers give students’ methods and means for making text more available and understandable, and thus enjoyable.

When I take a tennis lesson, I don’t expect to only play during the lesson… I expect to learn strategies through exercises that will expand my skill set. I also don’t expect to just do drills, as I need to apply my sharpened skills to the larger game.

The same holds for reading instruction. Through strategy work, in appropriate balance with general reading and free reading, we make transparent via modeling and practice varied means of engaging with text in novel and more sophisticated levels of thinking. This expansion of reader tools has the effect of broadening and strengthening students’ reading repertoire. Students are asked to read and interact with text through different lenses and points of contact. This arms students with more tools through which to connect with and enjoy reading. Done correctly, it simultaneously makes text more engaging while sharpening and expanding meaning-making competencies.

Done poorly, indeed it feels monotonous and superfluous, though not a reason to deny expanded and powerful tools from students. That is a teaching problem. Reading strategies are not to be confused with teaching methods, they are learning strategies for student to own and apply as needed with varied levels and types of text. They are also not to be confused with assessment and poorly worded multiple-choice questions testing student comprehension. Such “methods” do not teach reading skill; they only test it, weakly.

Reading strategies are an amalgam of tactics and approaches for making reading more available and understandable, more vivid and rich. As with most teaching and learning challenges, the magic is in the right mix of applied practice and inquiry. More tools, and more understanding of these tools, only enriches the reading and learning experience.

How do you use reading strategies in your classroom?

(see Robert Pondiscio’s thoughtful response in the comments)

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Larry, which I think is a sensible and nuance response to mine. I don’t detect that we are in any substantial disagreement. Indeed, I have consistently argued that strategies have some value, principally helping students understand that there is “communicative value” in text. To the degree that a skillful teacher can use reading strategies to create engagement, it would be foolish to take issue with it.

    The “collateral damage” of strategies that Dan describes–making reading dull drudgery–is one problem. Another, perhaps greater bit of damage is creating and reinforcing the mistaken notion that reading comprehension is a transferable skill like riding a bike, and that armed with an ability to decode and sufficient expertise in strategies, a student can successfully comprehend any bit of text he or she encounters. This is clearly not true, yet it’s an assumption that seems to undergird much of how reading is taught and tested in our schools.

    More here: http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2009/09/28/willingham-reading-is-not-a-skill/

    And here: http://prospect.org/article/theres-no-such-thing-reading-test

    Robert Pondiscio

  2. Pingback: Links I Shared With Staff This Week 5-14-12 « principalberry

  3. Interesting discussion. …I teach upper elementary reading. I am disappointed at the degree with which teachers over teach the use of strategies. The strategies themselves have become the end rather than the means. These hard working, devoted teachers devise and purchase “games” with names like ‘the monitor and clarify game’, or- my favorite- ‘prediction bingo’. Kids are tested several times per year over these skills. Yet they never take a test over the content of a novel or short story. The tests themselves have titles like ‘text features assessment for learning’ or ‘author’s purpose common assessment.’’ Imagine you are a fifth grader and as you are handed your graded quiz you are told that your predictions are wrong because they are not based on details from the text. Perhaps you’ve lost some points because the answers you wrote didn’t include your schema as stated in the question. Sadly, some of our best readers are baffled by this stuff and would just like to discuss the ‘story’. Often these short-sighted tests discourage creative answers or outside-of- the- box thinking. Frankly, I’d rather put great literature in their hands, allow them to read it, act it, wonder about it, draw it—anything rather than kill it with this mind-numbing nonsense. But, alas—I’ll hit the hallway early tomorrow morning and kindly shrug my shoulders when my well intentioned fellow teacher asks me if I’ve seen the Jumbo Inferenceing Concentration Card Game.

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