I was working on lessons plans for my 5th grade guided reading group and was thinking about a strategy to teach or review for the book I had chosen. A lesson I had taught earlier in the year came to mind where a student eagerly got started writing down some details, she felt were important from the text and changing a few words so that she followed the directions of putting them into her own words. Was this student doing what was asked? Yes, but she was not really thinking about what the writer wanted her to understand. She was writing down a few things here and there as she read. Actually she had filled up a whole page, but had read very little with an intent to understand. She could not talk about the book with any depth or deep understanding. She was not synthesizing information into new understanding.
I recalled a different student who eagerly underlined parts of a text he felt were important but could not put the underlined information together into an idea. These students were doing a strategy without putting a whole lot of thought into it.
When it came time to have a discussion and dig deeper into thinking about what the writer’s words on page 4 could mean when put together with the paragraph on page 6 the first student struggled. Students often repeat writers’ words, but do not use them to help them create their own thinking, opinions and feelings. Or try to figure out what the writer might be implying but not directly stating. Striving readers and even high performing readers can get stuck doing strategies without putting much thought into them and staying on the surface level with their thinking.
I know you have experienced this in your classrooms. So, what can we do about it? David Person the creator of the gradual release of responsibility model says, “We could begin a sequence by asking students to try it on their own, offering feedback and assistance as students demonstrate the need for it.” Modeling of strategies have their place, but it does not always need to be first. When students have not realized they need a strategy or that meaning has broken down then teaching a strategy is often a futile task.
After a student has had a chance to experience some struggle, they may be more prone to understand the value of a strategy. For transfer to happen students have to figure out some of the why, where, and when of strategy before internalizing and using it on their own. Students will be more willing to accept the feedback and support once they have experienced some struggle with the text. If they struggled making meaning they will view the strategy as something that is helping them make meaning, not as something to do to be compliant.
Why not begin by letting students read a piece of text that we have planned for or are familiar with and then jump in and offer feedback or model a strategy after they demonstrate a need for it. By observing students reading and asking the right questions, you can use the student’s own ideas to help them realize a way to help themselves. Making this shift could help you do more than just cover the curriculum and take the learning deeper.
A sequence like this is harder to show evidence for but needed to help readers get beyond only doing strategies. I am starting to question the effectiveness of strategies when we ask students to physically create a graphic organizer or write something down without an oral structure built into it when they have not struggled with the text and see a real need for the strategy. Especially striving readers. These readers often struggle with spelling, sentence structure and neatness. They often find it easier to copy down or underline the writer’s words without thinking. After observing and jumping in when a need is demonstrated by having a conversation and them maybe modeling is another option.
I want readers to be efficient and fluent readers. Are we teaching for that in reading? Or are we teaching students to break reading apart more than put it together in a fluent manner. If we only ask students to do a strategy before they know they experience the need for it, they are just going through the motions. Students need to practice thinking through what they know and believe in their heads. Put thinking on paper to support the students in visually seeing it is great when they need it, but it should not be the final expectation.
I want a reader to be able to read something the first time when possible and understand it. I do not think we are teaching for that. We mostly teach for readers to read a text multiple times and to break a text down into parts without thinking enough about the whole and how the pieces fit together. We are teaching them a time-consuming process. Students are often told to read fluently with the emphasize on speed when reading out loud, but then to take your time, and reread a text multiple times to dissect at other times. What a mixed message for striving readers.
I want readers engaged in reading. Not doing strategies. Strategies should be tools to use when meaning breaks down. If meaning is not breaking down for a student, then why do they need to use the strategy. If a student is understanding and thinking differently than another student or differently than you anticipated, they may not need the strategy you just modeled.
I must continue to think about my students needs along with the curriculum and reflect on how to meet both and show evidence of both. Teaching is a continuous cycle of planning, assessing, teaching, adjusting, reflecting, and decision making that can never stop. I continue to grow my practice and share it here. Let me know your thoughts. I want to thank Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse for influencing my thinking on this.