I had a teacher in a workshop recently who told me she didn’t think she used any strategies when she read. I explained that, for proficient readers, we don’t even realize we are using strategies to help us comprehend; they are so second nature to us. Some people say that when we are proficient at comprehending, our strategies go underground. They act so fast and fluently that we are not consciously aware we are using anything at all – we just know we understood what we just read and we are fine with that. So what about all this strategy teaching?
First let me digress. Last week I finished reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, one of my favorite authors. It’s a wonderfully written story of Marina sent to the Amazon to find out more about the death of her colleague in the pharmaceutical research lab. While in the jungle she is also meant to check on the progress of Dr. Swenson who doesn’t send reports or updates on her research about the new drug she’s developing. I enjoyed the book and understood every single detail of it. Did I stop periodically and ask myself a question, or think through a picture in my mind, or literally make any connections as I read? No, not that I remember. But, do I think those strategies, as well as others, played a part in my understanding? Absolutely. If I had to go back now and answer the question, “Was there a picture in my mind when the young boy Easter was being attacked by a snake?” Of course there was. And if I brought it to mind for you now, I could describe that scene in great detail. As I read on from chapter to chapter was I wondering/questioning the information about Ander’s death? About the Lakashi tribe and their ability to get pregnant well into their seventies? About why no one taught the deaf boy to communicate better? I certainly did wonder those things. Could I make a connection to the Lakashi women constantly braiding Marina’s hair to the days when I sat braiding my two daughters’ long locks? Sure I could…now. But while I was reading, I did not make myself metacognitively aware of what I was doing because I didn’t need to. I was focused on meaning and just kept reading.
So why are we all “making our strategies visible” for the children in our classrooms? Why are we thinking aloud about what we do in our heads when we comprehend? We are doing it because some struggling readers (and others who comprehend on the literal level but no deeper) need us to slow down our reading process system and make it make sense to them.
Children who struggle don’t realize what is going on in the heads of their classmates who are fluent comprehenders. So when we slow it down and think aloud about our process it spells it out for those students. Then we do some shared demonstrations and guided practice so that they begin to see that those strategies can help them make sense of texts. Our goal is always to help students think like proficient readers, not just name a strategy, define a strategy, or complete a worksheet on a particular strategy. The goal is for them to take on these thinking strategies so that they too can begin to use them fast, flexibly, and not even realize they are using them.
In chapter 9 of Catching Readers Before They Fall, Katie and I talk about the strategy teaching that we see in schools and how to make it more effective particularly for struggling readers. But I wish there was more conversation about this topic. What is the difference between teaching a strategy for strategy sake and teaching a strategy so that it will actually help a student become a better reader? Shouldn’t we all be wondering about this? In her last post, Katie Keier asked us to be thinkers and reflect on our teaching? Are there more teachers out there who are reflecting on the strategy teaching that is being asked of them? Please comment and join the conversation.