The How and Why of Teaching the Reader and the Reading

May 27, 2015


As a teacher and teacher educator, understanding the intricacies of literacy and learning have been my primary focus. I can appreciate what the research reported in Grant Wiggin’s* comprehensive blog series, On Reading, underscores; when it comes to designing reading comprehension instruction that will result in metacognitive, self-guided, (oh well, I’ll use the term) deep readers, there are many unanswered questions and many barriers.

This blog looks at two of the questions raised in the research on teaching comprehension strategies. These are issues teachers frequently grapple with:

  • Is there a necessity for emphasizing specific strategies if the goal is reading as an active search for meaning?
  • How can teachers teach strategies without subordinating the content?

My conclusions and observations about what constitutes effective strategy instruction and the effect it has on reading comprehension, are based on my experience mediating the literacy learning of primary and intermediate at-risk students.   Working with many of my students over multiple years enabled me to observe the cumulative effect of embedding my literature-based program with procedural knowledge. Facilitating reading and writing workshops in classrooms and working with students of all levels of academic ability provided more grist for the mill.

I began teaching strategies by reading aloud and thinking aloud. That modeling translated into my fourth grade students’ tremendous increase in reading responses, enthusiasm and confidence. Encouraged, I was ready to launch my first explicit strategy lesson on making inferences. I was uneasy. I didn’t know if the students would get it and there was the issue of time but the kids did get it. I reminded them that they make inferences all the time and I showed them what they do – how they use available information to make educated guesses about what is not stated. The “It doesn’t say” era was over.

It’s important to remember, the behaviors that have been identified over the last 35 years as the essential work of reading (e.g. questioning, inferring, summarizing, synthesizing the message, and fixing up confusion) are naturally occurring mental processes. They are! (With the exception of summarizing – young children list events, they don’t categorize them.) Walk into a Kindergarten room. The students are asking questions about the stories, asking questions about things they do not understand, inferring and getting the story message. I’ve never met a Kindergartener who didn’t synthesize the message of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

I realized that teaching both the behaviors of learning and the content of the curriculum is a symbiotic not a dichotomous process. It is teaching with both the reading and the reader in mind (true for writing and problem solving too).  Content is the indispensable conduit for process instruction. Before, during and after reading, we are mining text for information, ideas, concepts, author’s craft and message. The reading (content) is the focus. While in pursuit of understanding, we learn where students’ understanding breaks down. Addressing those obstacles (teaching the reader) with on-going metacognitive dialogue and clarifying strategy lessons, supports the in depth teaching of the content.

Here is an example of how that works. If there are students who cannot recall what they read and you are confident that readability is not the issue, a little diagnostic teaching is in order. If the student’s problem is inadequate attention to text, strategies for improving engagement while reading can be taught explicitly. Students can be told, if you are reading with purpose, have a pencil in your hand. They can be shown a variety of ways to respond to text. If the recall problem is a result of perceiving the words on the page as just so many trees and they never see the forest, they can first be show how organizing things helps us understand, remember, and locate. Then the strategy for chunking information using a bubble map a.k.a. semantic map can be taught.

This is a snapshot of the sequence that takes us from teaching the reader and back to teaching the reading:

  • At a time set aside for explicit strategy instruction, tell the children, “I noticed you are having difficulty remembering what you read and isn’t that a bummer. Nobody wants to have to read everything 2 or 3 times. I can show you a way to fix that.” The students have a reason to tune in because the lesson will have an impact on them that they can appreciate.
  • Then model the strategy while thinking aloud using manipulatives and non-challenging text.
  • Practice the strategy together
  • The students practice with a buddy and receive coaching as needed
  • Apply the strategy to the reading and understanding of the content material.
  • The students evaluate how or if using the strategy was beneficial.

The discussion of the text becomes a dialectic process. We move back and forth between constructing meaning and checking in on the processes we use that are relevant to what we are doing.

How does the self-monitoring and initiation of comprehension strategies switch to auto-pilot?

  • Explicit intention: Don’t keep it a secret. You want students to know how to help themselves when they don’t know. You want them grow their intelligence. Let them know they are going to learn those things too.
  • Thinking aloud and clarifying demonstrations: Make the strategy lessons enjoyable, memorable and engaging. Using concrete objects increases attention and brain activity. Have a “tool box” of blocks, Play Doh, puzzle pieces, a bag of dry garbage, fake money for a treasure hunt. These lessons stick. They create the kind of clarity that leads to control and autonomy.
  • Frequent use and dialogue are big factors: The chunking strategy, for example, will resurface over and over, subject to subject. Keep the dialectic conversation going between process and product.
  • Non-directive prompts: You’ve taught your students with intentionality which you shared with them. You’ve supported them in their practice and application. It’s time to stop telling them what to do. Instead of directing students to organize the material they are reading, use an open prompt – “While you are searching your source material today to locate information for your project, what do you plan to do to help yourself understand and remember what you read?”
  • Reading response journals: These are journals where students exercise choice. They select the strategies, the modalities and the use of the color that works for them. The journals reflect their independent reading processes. They provide a lens into each child’s growing repertoire for processing text and meeting challenges that can be viewed by teachers, parents and very importantly, themselves.

Three more important points. First, it cannot be stated too strongly. Incorporating explicit strategy lessons for understanding the Habits of Mind used by people who are highly successful at what they do, are key to cultivating success in reading. More often than not deficits, particularly in flexibility, thoroughness, accuracy and persistence are the underlying reason for a wide array of difficulties students face. Children can demonstrate great comprehension when speaking spontaneously about their reading but fail miserably when responding to questions and other tasks because they are impulsive or unable to work through challenges.

Second, while the explicit teaching of strategies, in this paradigm, is a response to demonstrated need, strong readers should have the benefit of consciously knowing the steps of the strategies they usually use without conscious effort. That way they have a backup when they are challenged by text. They can know what to do when they don’t know.

Third, regardless of the capabilities of the students, the strategy mini-lessons and the weaving of process into content discussions does not in any way interfere with thorough and memorable explorations of books. You can read more in my book Learning For Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners

*I learned of Grant Wiggin’s passing on the day I posted this Blog.  The work he has given us and his recent comprehensive and thought provoking blog series on comprehension and reading has enriched our profession.  My deepest condolences to his family at this time….RK



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