Thoughts on readers as thinkers and strategy instruction. Part 1

Take a look at this quote:

“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.”

 

This quote brought me back to my reflecting on transfer and strategy instruction.  I am considering what I have learned from Sunday Cumins, Vicki Vinton and  Dorthy Barnhouse and reflecting on the works they have written. I am currently putting many of their ideas into practice with my students.

nurture         Unknown    What Readers Really Do

 

I believe like Barnhouse and Vinton say in their book “What Readers Really Do” reading happens within three modes or processes and those modes are recursive. Students flip back and forth continuously between these three modes.

Comprehension – – Understanding – – Evaluation 

We use different strategies while we read within these modes. Readers are constantly engaged in the process of drafting an understanding and revising it as they read.

Comprehension  is done line-by-line and paragraph-by-praragraph, page-by-page as readers try to comprehend the text literally and inferentially.  Readers consider and assign meaning  to the line-by-line details they. This is comprehending at the basic level. Next readers piece together those literal and inferential  ideas into interpretations of the text (Barnhouse/Vinton).  Reader assign more value to some details  without completely disregarding others.   Or they should. Striving readers often dismiss what they find confusing or initially understand. They do not carry details with them to consider as they read on.  This is often a missed component of the basic level of comprehension.

As readers connect details they make interpretations  that lead to some understandings about a text on a whole level or on multi-layered levels. You are building upon those literal and inferential thoughts and are considering and interpreting what the writer might be saying about a topic or life, which can lead to understanding an emerging theme or overarching idea. This is your first-draft understanding (Barnhouse/Vinton). Then you evaluate this understanding you have pieced together and re-examine the text on the page and in your mind. This re-examining of parts of the text is crucial to building a rough draft understanding. This is where you might go back into a text to reconsider some of your thinking, look closer at confusing parts, or simply try to understand what the writer might want readers to take away from a text. This close re-reading of different parts of a text are critical.  This is where you may reconsider those confusing details, you hopefully carried with you. You  weigh your interpretation and consider their worth. This is a recursive process through the whole text.

Sunday Cummins talks about reading a text closely in her book “Nurturing  Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking, and Writing Across Content-Area-Sources.” Vinton discusses reading closely instead of reading a text multiple times through different lenes. Reading closely requires readers to hold on to the confusing details, and the details that confront what they believe and consider them across a text. This is something we have to get better at in schools. When students do not notice and note inconsistencies, misunderstandings and confusing details as they read on, they never reach the understanding and evaluations stages with the depth they need.  We have to be wiling to hold onto what we do not understand as readers because we never know when a writer will expect us to refer back to them.

Teachers often expect students to quickly comprehend what they are reading and move them along, to make interpretations and build understandings, without doing the basic comprehension work. This is the invisible thinking of considering the text details and what they might mean literally and inferentially line by line before the considering whole text and its theme or the writers overall point on a topic.  I think we are trying to move students through the modes of comprehension and understanding much too quickly.

When most teachers model, they are modeling a strategy in isolation, and it ends up being more of a task added to the reading process.  Teachers are often asked to design a lesson that makes a strategy the teaching point, without considering the thinking and understanding a reader has to consider before using of the strategy. We often meet readers with the thinking we want them to achieve at the end, skipping over the thinking work that is not as easy to evaluate and grade.

I think that a teaching point can be more about the thinking readers do or something that readers speculate about as the they consider what the writer might want them to feel or think. It can be helping readers create the mindset they need to do this thinking work. A teaching point can help move readers between the modes of comprehension, understanding and evaluation.  Consider using a strategy as a tool to help readers meet the teaching point, not the teaching point itself. In her book Dynamic Teaching For Deeper Reading, Vinton, describes this as a teaching point in one lesson: “Sometimes writers don’t come right out and tell us exactly what’s happening, so readers need to be aware of what they don’t know and then try to figure out what hasn’t been said by paying close attention to the details the writer gives them.”   This is not what I see as a typical teaching point. It does not put a typical strategy front and center.  Vinton brings readers attention to the behind the scenes thinking a reader has to accomplish. This is what I feel is missing in reading instruction. When we try to make the abstract, concrete we often end up making the strategy something readers do outside of meaning making and a step that separates itself out from meaning making. We too often want to make a strategy something that we have to do to a text, or on a separate piece of paper, not the thinking itself that a reader must complete internally before anything can be shared as an understanding about a text.

I can see drafting a teaching point around how readers need to hold on to details that are confusing, and misleading. Another teaching point might be pointing out that readers are often asked to reconsider current beliefs and consider news ones. These teaching points leaves it open for students to be decision makers. They set them up to be their own problem-solvers by focusing on the thinking work, without teachers answering text specific questions for students. This is a teaching point that could lead into using the strategy of  thinking about what we know versus what we don’t know as we read. Some students may need to see this thinking on a What We Know/What We Wonder Chart. (Barnhouse/Vinton). It could lead to using a coding strategy and then annotating some of what was coded with what we wonder or are interpreting. You could use the STP strategy of “Stop, think, Paraphrase with this teaching point, to help you consider what you understanding and what you don’t understand yet, that you will read to find out. If you keep the focus on text understanding and bring in strategies to enhance meaning, not lead it, then students are able to build up some agency to their reading.

We have to give students a chance to consider the many things that might be running through their heads. The what if’s, and might be’s our mind has to consider before making a claim at understanding and being able to evaluate that understanding.  When we skip these over this type of thinking, young readers might feel very frustrated because we are expecting them to do what more experienced readers sometimes struggle to do. Our students need more time to consider a text, and be shown how to do that.

Part 2 coming soon.

Troy

When Modeling Strategies can become Problematic?

strategy (1)

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.

struggle

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.

strategy

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.

Troy

 

What’s the difference? Skills vs Strategies?

adorable blur bookcase books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Timothy Shanahan wrote a blog post explaining the differences between these two often mixed terms.     Skills   vs   Strategies

Check out his blog post.

http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter#sthash.BWBhTyQ4.RvtuLH4W.dpbs

Then go back and read my post about teaching skills and strategies in isolation.

https://troyafredde.blog/2018/02/06/teaching-reading-skills-in-isolation/

I did not clarify how the two terms are different in my post, but stressed the need to make sure all skill and strategy instruction be directly linked to a text where the focus is on reading for meaning not use of a skill or strategy in itself which easily happens.

I read a comment from Shanahan’s post where a teacher said

“I found students comprehended with few strategies or skills articulated and taught in isolation. The one comprehension strategy I did teach repeatedly was the use article features such as titles, sub-titles, section titles, photo and photo captions. Acquisition of the skills used to comprehend was assessed through the content and the use of format in their completed written feature articles. ” 

This really shows shows what students are transferring into their own reading. Notice also that this teacher said the strategy she taught repeatedly is one the students used. That is not a coincidence. I would venture to say most skills are being taught in isolation with very little use of strategy instruction to support them. Some skills are useless without a strategic reason to use it. Students may know a skill but not when to use it or the thinking it requires to use it on their own. Noticing text features is a skill students need that becomes very effective when used strategically while reading for meaning.

As Shanahan points out strategy instruction is centered around the thinking a reader must do. He says,

“The basic premise of strategies is that readers need to actively think about the ideas in text if they are going to understand. And, since determining how to think about a text involves choices, strategies are tied up in meta-cognition (that is, thinking about thinking).”

I feel skills are the prerequisites that a reader must have in place to effectively apply strategies to comprehend. Shanahan talks about how comprehension instruction today has become skill based and it should be taught more as a strategic process. I whole heartedly agree. When taught as a skill which is implied to be something that becomes automatic without much thought, or only about recognition. Comprehension requires more than simple recognition of a metaphor or a text structure. Comprehension of a text requires you to get down and dirty and think. It is a process, more than a skill. It is an invisible process and not black and white. It is not easy and is harder to assess than a skill. As Shanahan implies it has been approached more like a skill to fit into standards that we so want to be able to easily assess.  It is certainly not done that way for the student. Comprehension instruction taught strategically with meaning in mind not isolated skills makes good sense.

That being said skills are more easily modeled than strategies. Strategies require students to do the thinking. If teachers only model strategies doing the thinking for students and limit their practice to using certain books where most of the thinking has already been done for students then transfer of the strategy will never happen. For that to happen students must be taught the language they must use to verbalize their thinking. Teachers must notice and name specifically what students are doing as readers in the act of reading, not rely solely on modeling and provide them opportunities to practice different strategies as they arise in their own texts.

Thank you Timothy for your post, it helped me reflect on my own post with more depth, meaning and understanding. I hope others do as well!