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)