I think it’s about to happen again. Education is famous for wide swings of the pendulum. From code emphasis to meaning emphasis, from whole class to small group . . . and then back again. The “experts” find “the true answer” or begin to express doubt about or criticism of a widely accepted practice. Before you know it, everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. It’s the lead article in all of the professional journals. It’s the keynote address at conferences. Publishers rush to get out new materials. School districts scramble to write new curricula. Educational consultants offer new workshops. Teachers struggle to change their instructional practices.
This time, it’s strategy instruction that is at risk. I first heard public criticism of strategy instruction in 2006. I was attending my state reading conference, sitting in the largest room in the facility, listening to Nancie Atwell. She said that she was initially excited about strategy instruction. She ran right out and purchased boxes of sticky notes. She encouraged her students to jot down their questions, predictions, and connections while they were reading. She couldn’t wait to get a peek into their thinking.
Instead of insights, Atwell got mutiny. Her students hated the sticky notes. They complained that stopping to write things down was ruining the reading experience for them. One student discovered that he hadn’t written anything in 50 pages and had to go back to find places to write questions and to make predictions and connections. They demanded to know why she was spoiling their reading time. Atwell told them that she wanted to learn about their thoughts and insights about their books. The students retorted that she could find out their thoughts and insights during conferences. So Atwell relented, collected the sticky note pads, and let her students get back to their reading.
We all left the session grumbling about how nice it must be to have a classroom full of students who complained about having their reading interrupted. A year later, Nancie had a new book out called The Reading Zone. While the book did not overtly criticize strategy instruction, it promoted creating the conditions conducive to having students get lost in a book, or as she called it, entering “the reading zone.”
Soon I couldn’t help noticing examples of “strategy instruction misuse.” Perhaps they were always there, but now I just couldn’t look away. There was the time that I watched a third grader stare at a half-filled page in his reading response journal for most of a reading workshop session. When I finally asked what he was trying to write, he said he had to find text-to-self and text-to-world connections for the book he had just read. He could only think of a text-to-text connection. I asked him if he had to write about all three kinds of connections. He reported that his teacher required the students in his class to find all three kinds of connections for every book that they read.
Then there was the first-grade teacher who spent 45 minutes reading a picture book aloud to her class. After every page, she’d stop reading and solicit questions from the children. By the middle of the book, she had filled the entire white board with questions and was struggling to keep the children’s attention. I also recall a group of fifth-grade teachers at a grade level meeting deciding that they could not teach summarizing because they didn’t have any “summarizing books.”
In Language Arts, Patricia Cooper takes direct aim at strategy instruction. She expresses concern about read aloud time in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade classrooms. She has observed that picture books are being used primarily for strategy instruction and seldom for the joy of sharing a good story with children. Cooper believes that the “untaught story” plays an important role in the literacy development of children. It supports the development of their imagination, increases their vocabulary, helps them develop a sense of story, builds the foundation for critical thinking, and teaches children to love books. These benefits can be jeopardized if every read aloud is attached to a comprehension lesson. Cooper also believes that strategy instruction is inappropriate in kindergarten. She finds it an unnecessary burden for children with immature small motor control to write their thoughts on the small space provided by a sticky note, and she questions the value of “requiring young children to have metacognitive reflections on their own thinking.”
Walk the Walk
The National Writing Project’s model for teaching teachers how to teach writing is to engage them in actual writing. In Mosaic of Thought, Keene and Zimmerman used that principle to help teachers do a better job with comprehension instruction. They read books with teachers and asked them to reflect upon their own comprehension process. This would make a wonderful project for a teacher study group. Select a book that is fairly challenging to read: a book like Reading Lolita in Tehran (Nafisi, 2003) or Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez, 1988). Study group participants can read a predetermined portion of the book prior to the group meeting and keep track of their interactions with the text while adhering to the following instructions and focusing on the following questions:
- Highlight the passages that you have to work through to understand.
- Jot a note in the margin (or on a sticky note?) that describes what transpired when you encountered the challenging passage.
- Identify what the text was like when it was easy to understand.
- Which processes did you use to read the text?
- How did you use it?
When the study group gets together, everyone shares their insights, struggles, and triumphs. They have conversations about how they can translate their lives through experience into support for students who struggle to comprehend text. They compare what they did as readers struggling to understand text to what we ask students to do.
This kind of study group experience can be valuable. It is a good idea to have at least one such study group every school year. Try having the experience with an informational book, too. Even if you can’t sell the idea to other faculty members, it is still a worthwhile experience as an individual effort. I have made an agreement with myself that I will read at least one challenging book a year. Of course, the downside is that you don’t get to share what you’ve learned with others and hear what they’ve learned. It is also more likely that you will just put the book aside.
Long-Term Professional Development
When a teacher asks students to make all three connections with every book that they read, it shows that the teacher has only awareness-level knowledge of strategy instruction. S/he has the best intentions but lacks the level of knowledge needed. The teachers in a given school will have a range of knowledge and experience in teaching comprehension. There is a range of experience on every staff, from those new teachers who have had only one reading survey course, to the experienced and conscientious teachers who have taken graduate courses in reading, attend conferences, and do a lot of professional reading. Chances are that only a few have had the 60 hours required to have deep understanding of the topic (Cooter, 2003). Deep understanding of comprehension instrution will require at least a year of focused professional development. Multiple years would be even better.
Get copies of the recommended books on the topic to read, discuss, and try out in classrooms. I often use Mosaic of Thought, Strategies That Work, Reading with Meaning, and I Read It, but I Don’t Get It. Examine and discuss the seminal research. Videos and DVDs are helpful in giving teachers a peek at what the ideal instruction looks like. Encourage teachers to open their classroom doors to each other to share what they are trying and to talk about it. Comprehension of written text is the most important thing that we teach students to do. Give it the time that is needed for teachers to really understand how to do well.
Careful Use of Children’s Literature
The first and best use of children’s literature is for students to read and enjoy it. I once witnessed a teacher shooing an eager child away from a basket of books that she used for instructional purposes. Books of course are essential teaching tools, but we can be more careful about how we use them. If possible, teach using books that your students have already read (or heard) and enjoyed. Listening to a teacher read a paragraph from a wonderful book for a teaching point and not reading the rest of the book is like having only a single bite of a scrumptious dessert.
Limit the amount of teaching that you do with a single book. I cringe when I see 50-page teaching guides for 32-page picture books. I shudder when I hear that a class has been reading a 60-page chapter book for six weeks. Talented authors pack their books with lots of goodies. Leave some for the students to discover and savor on their own, instead of spoonfeeding all of them. If we pull out each and every one of them and have our students dissect them, the students will remember the tedium — not the book.
Stop the Pendulum
Everyone has an opinion about what should happen in schools. But good teachers know best. It is up to us to demonstrate what works for our students. We must safeguard our successful practices. The pendulum cannot swing too hard if we all hold on tight.