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Teaching Opinion

Response: Using Reading Strategies Effectively in Literacy Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 27, 2018 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the roles of reading strategies in literacy instruction?

There is little disagreement that reading strategies have a role in literacy instruction. There is, however, some dispute about how they should be used and how much time should be spent teaching about - and using - them in class.

Today’s guests responding to the question are Colleen Cruz, Ross Cooper, Lindsey Moses, and Elaine Miles. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with all of them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this very topic, and you can read about a dialogue I had with those who are concerned with reading strategies being over-used in school (see Reading Strategies, Student Engagement, & The Question Of “Why?” and How Reading Strategies Can Increase Student Engagement).

You can find additional related resources at:

Previous posts in this column on Reading Instruction.

The Best Posts On Reading Strategies & Comprehension

Response from Colleen Cruz

Colleen Cruz is a fierce advocate for making rich literacy instruction accessible to every child. She was a Brooklyn public school teacher before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, where she is Director of Innovation. In addition to her most recently published book, Writers Read Better: Nonfiction, Colleen authored several other titles for teachers including The Unstoppable Writing Teacher and Independent Writing, as well as the young adult novel, Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Finalist:

I often, facetiously say, the role of reading strategies can be either good or evil.

In that yes, of course, if a student is not able to do something that he or she very much wants to do, one of the most powerful moves a teacher can make is to teach the student a strategy that has the potential to move a roadblock. But, I feel that the operative words in that sentence are a strategy for something the student wants to do.

Too often we get tunnel vision when it comes to reading strategy instruction. We look at our assessments, standards or community expectations and teach the strategies we believe will allow the student to meet those outside factors. And then we get frustrated when our strategy instruction doesn’t seem to be moving readers.

However, we know that one of the biggest motivators to action - whether children or adults - is purpose. When we have purpose, we can drag ourselves out of our cozy bed, we can lace up those sneakers, we can sit down at that computer and write. So, when we talk about the role of reading strategies in literacy instruction, it is important that we are clear about our own purposes behind teaching them and our students’ purposes for learning them.

When we have meaningful purpose behind the strategies we teach, when we think of obstacles the student might face, what our knowledge about this student tells us about possible strategies that would lead a student to grow as a reader, then reading strategies can become one of the central tenets to our work. But only if we also bear in mind that students too have beliefs about themselves, reading and world interests they might want to expand, or larger goals where stronger reading skills could be a help. I feel it is incredibly important that we don’t simply work through a list of skills, teaching them in the order that they show up on the list. Instead, our reading strategy instruction works best when it is grounded in a student’s zone of proximal development as well as their own purposes.

Additionally, reading strategy instruction should not be isolated. The very best reading strategy instruction is grounded in all literacy practices, including connecting the work students do as readers to the work they’ve done on the other side of the desk as writers. When students see that the strategy that they just tried as a writer (such as carefully describing a character’s emotions through action) and see how the flip of that skill work as a reader (by inferring what the character in their book is feeling by focusing on character actions), they begin to appreciate that by learning one strategy they are in fact learning many. When we let students know that literacy skills are reciprocal within literacy, and connect them to authentic purposes, students are deeply motivated to learn strategies they want to learn.

If we want to take it one step further, we can also show students how these same strategies apply in other disciplines, such as social studies or science. “That same vocabulary strategy, breaking down a word into its roots, works really well in science,” we might say. If we want to go for broke, and ensure that students see the real-life connections between the strategies they learn as readers and what they need in life, we can show them how these same strategies apply to life situations. Whether it’s the ability to predict based off a person (character)'s behavior or interpret a passive aggressive conversation from a friend, when students ground their reading strategies in everyday life they not only see another layer of purpose, but also gain another opportunity to transfer and practice those skills.

Response From Ross Cooper

Ross Cooper is the Elementary Principal of T. Baldwin Demarest Elementary School in the Old Tappan School District in Old Tappan, New Jersey, and the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator:

Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels, in “Comprehension and Collaboration,” succinctly explain the significance of reading comprehension strategies, “Explicitly teaching comprehension strategies remains one of the key principles of reading achievement, and the flexible use of comprehension strategies allows readers to hurdle the background knowledge gap when reading challenging text.”

As a fourth grade teacher, the reading comprehension strategies my students and I relied upon were: monitoring comprehension, activating and connecting to background knowledge, questioning, visualizing, inferring, determining importance in text, summarizing and synthesizing information.

I introduced the strategies to my students, one at a time, sometimes through the use of a co-created anchor chart. Generally, we spent 1-2 weeks learning and practicing each strategy (often times while instinctively combining its use with previously learned strategies) before moving onto the next. The exception to the rule was monitoring comprehension, on which we spent 3-4 weeks, because (1) it serves as the basis for all other strategies, and (2) it was always learned first and students needed more time getting used to the idea of breaking down texts in a way that was for the most part foreign to them.

After initially introducing a strategy, I chose a text to which the strategy applied and read it aloud to my students while making my thinking visible, especially in regards to how I utilized the strategy to better understand the text. Then, I always called on a handful of my students to do the same (and I was known to grab former students to also model the way).

For a few years I made the mistake of treating these strategies as the end-game. If you were to have walked into my classroom and asked my students what they were learning, the chances are they would have named one of the strategies; this is a problem. The goal should be to build each student’s “comprehension toolkit” by hitting each strategy hard and fast, for about 1-2 weeks, and then moving on to the next one until all are learned, enabling students to use them flexibly and almost subconsciously to develop deeper understandings of what they read. (And, if consistent strategies are established across grade levels, teachers could instead potentially spend 1-2 weeks, or less, reviewing everything and therefore have more time to spend on independent reading, guiding reading, close reading, etc.)

After all, when was the last time you picked up a book and said, “This time I’m going to visualize!”

Response From Lindsey Moses

Lindsey Moses is an associate professor of literacy education at Arizona State University. Lindsey researches, publishes, and provides professional development related to literacy instruction in diverse settings. She is the author/co-author of three Heinemann books: Comprehension and English Language Learners, Supporting English Learners in the Reading Workshop, and What Are the REST of my Kids Doing? Fostering Independence in the K-2 Reading Workshop:

Proficient readers are constantly using comprehension strategies to make meaning of what they read. In attempt to better support reading comprehension (and instruction), reading researchers studied the processes of proficient readers. Pearson and colleagues (1992) summarized proficient readers as using the following strategies: making connections; asking questions; drawing inferences, determining importance; synthesizing information; and monitoring their understanding. Sensory imaging (visualizing) was added to the list by Keene and Zimmermann (1997). These strategies, that are often internalized for proficient readers, have evolved into explicit strategies taught to students to support their comprehension.

Strategy instruction is part of our everyday classroom reading instruction. It is an on-going conversation. We don’t just talk about predicting in October and making connections in April. During whole-group, small-group, and conferring time, we revisit old strategies and introduce new ones. We use a common language to support and foster independence, and we always come back to the purpose of reading--meaning making. Through strategy instruction, we teach our students to think while they read, to interact with the text, and ultimately to become metacognitive readers who read to construct meaning.

A couple of practical tips we have follow for supporting the introduction and continued use of comprehension strategies are as follows:

  1. Introduce strategies as needed (not in a prescribed sequence)

  2. Name the strategy and discuss the PURPOSE (Why and for what purpose would you use this strategy?)

  3. Document strategy instruction on anchor charts with visuals, academic language, and sentence stems to help support our emerging readers and bilingual students. These charts become part of the classroom environment, so students can continually refer to them.

  4. Give students opportunities to try out the strategy, document their thinking, and discuss it with peers. We color code stickies according to strategy and ask students to try it out over the course of the week (while continuing to document other comprehension strategy use).

  5. Give an authentic purpose for documenting strategy use. We have students use their stickies as conversation starters during whole-class literature discussions, partner reading and conversations, and small-group literature circles. They also submit these as part of their reading response for the week.

  6. Help them continue to use strategies for appropriate and varied purposes. Here is an example of an anchor chart with language frames and corresponding sticky note colors to help support their continued use of multiple strategies.

(Moses & Ogden, 2017)

Warning: Comprehension strategies should be taught based on needs and goals for students- in context! We have seen classrooms where well-intended literacy instruction consists of a strategy of the week, every week, in the same order year after year, regardless of whether or not the students need it. Strategies should be introduced as the teacher identifies a need to help readers be more independent. The purpose is not for students to demonstrate the strategy use for a grade or to document the ability to use strategies when prompted. Instead, they should use the most appropriate strategy to help them access and make meaning with texts. The ultimate goal is that students will no longer need to document their strategy use with sticky notes because the processes will become internalized. As Duke (2014) and Keene (2008) note, strategies are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves.

Response From Elaine Miles

Elaine Miles currently serves as a Literacy Coach at Estes Hills Elementary School in Chapel Hill, NC. She has worked in the field of education as a teacher and instructional coach for 19 years. In addition to working with the school system in Chapel Hill, Elaine is a fellow with Hope Street Group. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from Trevecca Nazarene University as well as a Master’s degree in Reading Education from UNC Pembroke:

One of the most impactful things a teacher can do is foster a true love of reading in students. Teachers can do this from very young ages all the way up to high school. While students are in early elementary grades, teachers can foster a love of reading through a combination of explicit phonics instruction, opportunities to hear rich read alouds, and by providing many different ways to interact with texts. As students progress into the upper grades, the focus of literacy instruction tends to shift more towards strategy with the goal of students being able to transfer the strategies to their own reading.

Sometimes the focus on strategy can supersede the application. Teachers must be sure that students have time to apply reading strategies to books they are choosing to read. A very practical way to do this is to provide time for self selected independent reading where students can read books they choose. Often, teachers feel that by allowing for independent reading time, they are sacrificing instructional time. Independent reading is instructional only if the teacher is being explicit with how to practice specific strategies and reading conferences are conducted to provide feedback to the students while they read. The key to remember is that the goal is to develop lifelong readers and teach students to apply reading strategies so they can think deeply about the texts they read.

Thanks to Colleen, Ross, Lindsey and Elaine for their contributions.

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