Are Students Using Strategies on Their Own?

On occasion I hear teachers in grades 3-6 say, “I taught lots of strategies to the students, but there are some kids who don’t seem to be using them.” If students are not using the strategies independently to help them comprehend texts, we need to ask ourselves these 6 questions:

1.  Are the students in appropriate texts?  The students need to be in texts that are not too hard for them.  When texts are too challenging, kids expend so much energy solving the words that they have nothing left for comprehending.

2.  Was my modeling explicit enough?  Think about your modeled lessons. Did you really show students how the strategy (of activating schema, making connections, questioning, visualizing, etc.) helped you to comprehend or solve problems as you read?  Is there another way you could have presented it?  Students need to get the message that this strategy could help them at another time while reading on their own.  If they viewed your demonstration as an activity to watch, but were not engaged, then they will never take on that strategic action.

3. What happened during the shared demonstrations? Who talked?  Oftentimes we think the lesson went well because there was lots of strong discussion going on.  But think about which kids did all the talking.  If only 5-8 of your most verbal students participated, then you can’t assume that every child reached the same level of understanding.  It would be wise to do some follow-up small group lessons with the quieter or less able students.

4.  Who is all this strategy teaching for?  Remember, some students are already using plenty of strategies in an integrated way.  If they comprehend well, then their network of strategies is working just fine.  They don’t need to tell you which strategies they used to understand what they read.  Their strategies are working so fast and automatic they might not even be aware of how they comprehended. But for those students who do not comprehend what they read, you may want to provide some scaffolding in order to help them connect to a strategy anchor lesson.  For example, “Remember when we kept those questions in our mind as we read that article on the SMART board together… Let’s try that here and see if that helps you.”  Peter Johnston says, “As teachers we have to decide what to be explicit about for which students, and when to be explicit about it.” (Choice Words, p. 8.)

5.  How much guided practice was given to students with the most difficulties? Another thing to keep in mind is that not all students need the same amount of guided practice.  Be sure you are doing enough small group work with the students who need the extra time.  The transfer (of taking on strategies and using them independently) may take longer for some readers who struggle.  Also think about your language and the way you have set up various activities.  Have you changed your language in order to help the students take over the strategy use?

6.  Are you staying focused until you see evidence of children taking it on? What assessments do you have in place for discovering which students need more practice?

Keep a watchful eye on students and observe their work or conversations to decide how they are doing. On-going assessments can take many forms — individual conferences, texts that can be written on, sticky notes, listening in on group conversations, coding texts with symbols  (? = I’m unsure of this;  * = this seems like important info;  +  = I already knew this; ! = wow, that was interesting.)  Harvey and Goudvis say that these observations and assessments are the way that “we derive authentic understanding of how they (students) are doing and what they have learned or not learned.” (Strategies that Work, 39.)

What are your thoughts on your students’ strategy use and comprehension?

Chapters 8 & 9 in Catching Readers Before They Fall elaborate on these ideas.


  1. Pat,
    Thank you so much for sharing these valuable questions. My school has recently gone to using the reader’s workshop model as our sole model for reading instruction. I am a third year teacher and have been using since the middle of my first year teaching. I often have questions from colleagues about how to assess our students during workshop, since many are used to using end of story assessments in basals. I often struggle with understanding if my students are truly understanding the thinking strategies I have taught them. This post will serve as a guide for looking deeply at my instruction and assessing my students understanding.

    Thank you again,
    Emma Townley

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, I paused to think about who is responding? I often find the same kids are participating in the conversation, leaving other students sitting silent. These are the kids I visit first for conferences or call into small groups for further work. The group discussions that involve my quieter kids are the GREAT lessons! Thanks for reminding us to look closely at the whole class.

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