I’ve never been entirely happy with my understanding of “reading strategies,” how they’re supposed to work, and which are the best ones.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a great job helping students understand how and why “reading strategies” (which, in my experience, have been ones like asking questions, visualizing, prediction, connecting, summarizing, evaluating, etc.) work, and, in fact, I’ve primarily used them as less a “reading strategy” and more of an “engagement strategy.” Even though our ninth-grade English curriculum is composed of very high-interest nonfiction texts, I can’t imagine how I’d get a good number of our students to really read them if I didn’t have those sort of “strategies” as assignments to apply either alone or with a partner.

Of course, the best way to become a better reader is to read, so, along with reading for pleasure, having students read these texts helps them become a better reader, including through developing additional background knowledge.

There has been a fair amount of criticism of spending a lot of time teaching reading strategies, particularly from Dan Willingham and Robert Pondiscio – two thinkers whom I highly respect. How Reading Strategies Can Increase Student Engagement is a post I wrote a couple of years ago on this issue, which including a useful dialogue in the comments section.

Dan Willingham elaborated on some of those criticisms recently in a Washington Post excerpt from his recent book and Grant Wiggins has written a post critical of the piece. The post is worth reading, though he bills it as “Part One” and I think his next one is going to be a “must-read.” (it is — you can find it here). I suspect that post, as have many of his other recent ones, will end up on The Best Posts On Reading Strategies & Comprehension – Help Me Find More!

My big “takeaway” today, though, is an older post that Grant linked to and which led me to one by Kristen Swanson titled Are You Addicted to Teaching Reading Strategies?

She shares a useful list of signs that show if you are addicted to reading strategies in your classroom. Here, as far as I’m concerned, is the “money quote” from it that really prompted this somewhat “stream of consciousness” post:

Sign 3: Students can’t explain why a certain strategy should be used in a certain situation.
Students use strategies so that they can meet the expectations in the classroom and get a good grade. They aren’t sure WHY they actually use these strategies, and they can’t explain WHY when you ask them.

It seems to me that, in addition to needing to spend more time becoming more familiar with the research on reading comprehension, one simple thing I could do — after students become familiar with the “reading strategies” I do use in the classroom — is to ask them which ones they are finding helpful, how and why and in what situations.

Though we do a similar exercise with the instructional strategies (asking students to describe, for each one, what it is, why we do it, how they think it helps them, etc.) we use in class, I can’t believe that I’ve never done it with the reading ones. Perhaps some of my colleagues have, but I haven’t heard them talk about it, and I’ll certainly be asking around.

Have you had this kind of discussion with your students around reading strategies?  If so, please share how it went in the comments section.