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No, Teachers Don't Have to Choose Between Knowledge and Strategies
The question isn't whether to teach comprehension strategies, but when and how.
Educators don’t need to choose between building students’ knowledge and teaching reading comprehension strategies. The question isn’t whether to teach strategies—it’s how to do it and when.
“Are we supposed to teach reading strategies or not?” an anonymous teacher recently asked reading researcher Timothy Shanahan. “I keep coming across contradictory information. Some writers say the research supports strategy teaching and some say that we should teach background information instead.”
In a blog post, Shanahan gave a response that has garnered lots of praise on social media—and one that I am largely in agreement with. Shanahan pointed out that strategies like monitoring your comprehension require you to pay more attention to the meaning of a text, helping you acquire knowledge from it. He also observed that “none of these strategies pays off unless the reader possesses sufficient topical knowledge to make them work.”
So, Shanahan is saying, it’s a reciprocal relationship: strategies require some knowledge in order to work, and strategies can also build and deepen knowledge. “It should not be a choice between the two,” he wrote.
I couldn’t agree more. I would just add that it’s not only sufficient knowledge of the topic that’s needed. If readers lack a threshold amount of general academic knowledge and vocabulary, and/or familiarity with the complex sentence structure of written language, strategies still might not help them.
The puzzling part of this exchange is that the teacher who submitted the question—along with many others, apparently—had gotten the idea that you do have to choose between strategies and knowledge. And although Shanahan himself doesn’t say this, commenters on his blog and on Twitter are implying that those who advocate for building knowledge—like myself—have been propagating this false dichotomy. “Unfortunate that some popular education pundits pit knowledge and comprehension strategies against each other,” one tweeted.
As I’ve argued before, it's not that there’s anything inherently wrong with teaching strategies. The problem is that American schools have gone way overboard on teaching them—plus a number of comprehension “skills” that Shanahan himself has said there’s little or no evidence for, like “finding the main idea.”
Strategy Instruction Has Gone Off the Rails
The standard approach to comprehension instruction has been to focus on a “skill of the week,” which the teacher first briefly models for children, using a text chosen not for its topic but for how well it lends itself to demonstrating the skill. Then students practice the skill, using texts on random topics that have been determined to be at their individual reading levels, which could be years below their grade level. In American elementary schools, the average amount of time spent on reading every day is two hours, and much of that time is spent practicing comprehension skills.
This approach ignores the reciprocal relationship between knowledge and strategies. Even if the texts are simple, students may not have the requisite background knowledge to use the strategies they’re supposedly practicing. Not to mention that in a very simple text, there may not be much content to, say, “make inferences” about.
And when students reach higher grade levels, the texts assume much more complex knowledge and vocabulary, Even if students have practiced a strategy like “making inferences” for years, it won’t help them if they haven’t been able to acquire enough of the knowledge assumed by the text to understand it at least at a superficial level.
Nevertheless, this kind of instruction goes on year after year, repeatedly covering the same round of skills and strategies. And schools have been relying on this approach for decades. During that time, reading test scores have been stagnant or declining and test-score gaps between low- and high-achievers have been growing ever larger.
You might think that would lead schools to conclude the approach isn’t working. But instead, in an effort to raise scores, many schools have spent more time on comprehension skill-and-strategy practice. That has meant reducing instructional time for an already marginalized subject like social studies, which is more likely to build the knowledge that enables reading comprehension.
This regime has left many students—and especially those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum—woefully unprepared to meet the expectations of the high school or even middle school curriculum.
Using Strategies to Build Knowledge
This approach to literacy is what I and other advocates of knowledge-building have been arguing against. And what we are arguing for is an approach to literacy that uses skills and strategies in the service of building and deepening students’ knowledge, rather than teaching them as ends in themselves.
That means that instead of choosing books or texts to teach a skill-of-the week—maybe “comparing and contrasting” or “determining author’s purpose”—teachers bring in whatever skills or strategies would help students think about a particular topic or text.
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That’s the approach taken by the several knowledge-building literacy curricula that have been developed in recent years. I don’t have first-hand familiarity with all of them, but the ones I am familiar with are constantly asking kids to do things like make inferences or compare-and-contrast—even if those activities aren’t necessarily identified as “strategy instruction.”
For example, in the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum—the one I’m most familiar with because it was being used in a second-grade classroom I followed through a school year—children were asked to predict who would win the Civil War, after they had studied that topic for a while. They were asked to infer whether the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe was helpful or harmful for the United States during the War of 1812. They were asked to compare Ancient Greek civilization to other ancient civilizations they had studied.
The difference between this approach and the standard one is that these second-graders actually had the knowledge that enabled them to use these strategies. For example, the curriculum, which these kids had been getting since kindergarten, had already covered ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. So after the teacher asked that compare-and-contrast question, several eager hands flew up.
When the teacher called on a student, he explained that one reason Ancient Greek civilizations were unique (he used that word) was that “they weren’t near a river and they didn’t have any fertile soil, so it was difficult for them to farm.” These students, by the way, were all from low-income families, and most—including the boy who provided the answer—came from non-English-speaking families.
Putting Content in the Foreground
I don’t know whether Shanahan would consider this to be strategy instruction, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. It’s putting the content in the foreground rather than the strategy, but there’s some evidence to indicate that approach actually works better.
One study compared strategy-focused comprehension instruction to an approach that just asked kids to answer questions orally about the content of a text. The students who got the content-focused questions scored better on most measures of comprehension and also had richer class discussions. One of the researchers, Margaret McKeown, suggested a reason: The kids who got strategy-focused instruction had to first think about how to engage in the strategy, and they might have been paying more attention to that than to what the text actually said.
There’s one point where I do depart from the recommendations in Shanahan’s post. “Reading strategies are something students are likely to learn only in a reading lesson,” he wrote. “As such, they deserve special attention in those lessons.”
Maybe that’s the case now, but it certainly doesn’t have to be—nor should it be, given the dearth of actual learning that goes on in most reading comprehension lessons. There’s evidence that comprehension strategies can be successfully taught in, for example, a social studies class.
And the National Reading Panel, of which Shanahan was a member, didn’t say strategies should only be taught in the context of a reading lesson. That’s the context in which most of the research had been done, but in its report, which came out over 20 years ago, the panel noted there was some evidence that strategy instruction in a social studies context could improve reading achievement. The panel called for further research in that area.
In fact, recent studies have shown that combining content-area instruction with literacy instruction—instruction that includes the use of skills and strategies—can provide a greater boost to reading comprehension than the standard approach.
A Little Explicit Strategy Instruction Is Enough
Shanahan and others might argue that it’s important to explicitly teach students a strategy like “making predictions” rather than simply asking questions about content that implicitly require them to do that. They might say that students need to understand that a strategy exists in order to be aware that they can apply it in a variety of situations.
I’m not sure there’s any evidence to support that contention, but let’s say they’re right. It shouldn’t take very long to help students understand a concept like “making predictions” or “summarizing.” The studies that support such instruction generally last no more than six weeks, and a prominent reading expert has concluded that students accrue all the benefits they’re going to get from it after just ten sessions, which is equivalent to two weeks.
So why have them “practice” these skills and strategies month after month, year after year? Why not have them start applying those strategies to content in subjects like social studies, science, and literature as soon as possible, so that they’re using them to acquire, deepen, and retain new knowledge?
It’s not just that there’s no need to choose between teaching strategies and building knowledge. More fundamentally, it’s impossible to help students acquire knowledge without bringing in strategies, even if they’re not identified by name. But if schools continue to put strategies in the foreground of instruction and confine that instruction to a reading class that lacks any specified content of its own, they’ll continue to deprive students of the very thing that enables any skill or strategy to work: knowledge.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.