Monday, 12 March 2018

Should We Teach Reading Strategies In Isolation Or In Combination?

I recently posted a thread on Twitter which attracted some opposition. The thread went like this:

If you are currently planning reading lessons that don't have a focus on developing just one strategy (i.e. retrieval or inference) then I suggest that you might revisit your plans, changing them so that only one strategy is focused on at a time. I would suggest that one lesson spent on one reading strategy followed by another lesson on a different strategy is not enough for teaching children the strategies they need to be able to comprehend well. A sequence of lessons focused on just one strategy is preferable. 

Within reading teaching sequences that focus solely on one strategy ensure that you model answering questions and give children chance to practise answering similar questions with similar answer structures. If you truly want children to improve their reading strategies make sure plenty of your lessons are focused solely on one main strategy rather than always asking a range of questions. 

Planning lessons that expect children to exercise a range of strategies will help them to understand the whole text BUT won't provide the best opportunities to focus on the development of a particular strategy, meaning they are less likely to improve in their use of it. For example, if you want children to become better at making inferences plan several lessons where ALL the questions you ask are inference questions EXCEPT where retrieval and vocabulary questions will help children to make better inferences. 

When teaching reading strategies it is my belief that whole sequences of lessons should focus on just ONE of those skills UNLESS using other strategies helps children to practice the focus strategy of the lesson.

Whilst replying to people who opposed my ideas I found it necessary to clarify some matters:
  • within such a lesson other strategies may be employed, but usually in support of the focus strategy
  • by using the word focus I mean that that strategy would be in the spotlight being the thing you intend children to improve at, but that this would not mean other strategies weren't used in support
  • such lessons should only be taught when wanting children to improve their use of a particular strategy and shouldn't be imposed on children who can already sufficiently use the strategies
  • in such a lesson, a teacher wouldn't attempt to suppress the use of already strong strategies that children wanted to use
  • this shouldn't be the only reading provision that a child receives - there should be plenty of additional opportunities for children to naturally employ a full range of reading strategies whilst reading
  • these lessons should be taught with a view to children eventually becoming independently responsible for using the strategy alongside a range of other strategies in their reading

The EEF guidance report 'Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2' says that 'the following strategies should be modelled and practised to ensure they become embedded and fluent: prediction, questioning, clarifying, summarising, inference, activating prior knowledge'. It goes on to suggest that for each strategy children should 'learn three things: what the strategy is, how the strategy is used, and why and when to use the strategy.' It goes on to state: 'Developing each of the strategies requires explicit instruction and extensive practice... These strategies can be introduced in isolation, but pupils should also be taught how to integrate combinations of strategies to develop effective comprehension of different texts'

And it is the aforementioned isolated introduction with which I am concerned. By singling strategies out for those not yet adept at using them, then explicitly modelling how they can be used and then giving children time to practise using them, children will improve their ability to use particular reading strategies in combination with others.

And, as already mentioned, I think it is difficult to develop such independence in the combining of strategies by only spending the odd lesson on each one. Sustained modelling and practise of the same strategy which follows the gradual release of responsibility model (an explicit description of the strategy and when and how it should be used; modelling of the strategy in action by teachers and/ or pupils; collaborative use of the strategy in action; guided practice using the strategy with gradual release of responsibility; and independent use of the strategy) is surely more likely to have an impact.

A few contributors to the thread provided some interesting additional reading:

Daniel Willingham's 'Infer this...' blog post discusses the findings from some research and how it supports his interpretation of the effect of comprehension instruction in that, in the case of teaching inference-making as a strategy, 'it alerts students to the importance of making inferences, and perhaps more broadly (for less skilled readers) that it is important to THINK while you read. But practising inferences does not lead to a general inferencing skill for two reasons. One, as noted, inferencing depends on the particular text, and two, whatever cognitive processes contribute to inferencing are already well practised from use in oral language---we continually draw inferences in conversation.' He summarises saying 'comprehension instruction is a great idea, because research consistently shows a large benefit of such instruction. But just as consistently, it shows that brief instruction leads to the same outcome as longer instruction'.
Tim Shanahan's 'Teaching Reading and Reading Comprehension Strategies' blog post summarises: 
'I would definitely teach comprehension strategies. The way I think of strategies most basically is that they give readers some tools they can use independently to make sense of what they read... Some programs [teach and gradually release responsibility] with multiple strategies, all at one time, and others teach the strategies one at a time, adding them together as you go (both approaches work—but I find the latter to be simpler and easier to teach). You can usually teach a strategy well in 3-4 weeks if you have students practising with lots of different texts... Summarising a newspaper article is different than summarising a story, and both are different than a science chapter. Make sure that the students are learning not only the strategy, but the content of the texts too. Finally, remind the kids from time to time to use their strategies or engage them in strategies discussions.'

The IES Practice Guide 'Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade'  has as its first recommendation that we 'Teach students how to use reading comprehension strategies'. It states: "Good readers use many forms of thinking and analysing text as they read. It is therefore important to teach beginning readers strategies for constructing meaning from text. A strategy is the intentional application of a cognitive routine by a reader before, during, or after reading a text  Comprehension strategies help readers enhance their understanding, overcome difficulties in comprehending text, and compensate for weak or imperfect knowledge related to the text. The strategies may be taught one by one or in combination. Both approaches can improve reading comprehension, so the panel recommends that teachers choose the approach they are most comfortable with in the classroom. Teachers should also help students learn how to use comprehension strategies independently through the gradual release of responsibility. When releasing responsibility to students, however, be mindful that students differ in the extent of modelling or support they need from teachers in order to use strategies effectively."

Although all three resources go into more detail than the quotations I've included here, and I'd recommend that you read them for yourselves, there are some general things I'd like to pull out of what we've read:
  • It would seem that whilst Willingham agrees that comprehension strategies should be taught, he also thinks that research shows that the amount of practise time children get is not important. He points out that the main outcome we should be aiming for is that children remember to use strategies - in this view, the only benefit of repeated practice of particular strategies then is that children will have practised them so often that they never forget to employ them. But with inference-making for example, if children are not aware of the vast array of possible questions they might ask of a text in order to infer necessary information they might never know to ask those questions of a text, even when they do remember that they should ask questions of a text to ensure they have made necessary inferences. It is only possible to expose children to such a vast array of possible questions through a whole sequence of lessons, or, admittedly, a range of disconnected one-off lessons or questions within lessons over a longer period of time. A one-off lesson or question, with little time spent on it, is surely less likely to prompt a child to remember to use inference-making strategies than the recollection of a whole sequence of focused lessons.
  • Both Shanahan and the IES guide state that strategies can be taught in isolation (as does the EEF guidance report) but that strategies can also be taught in combination and that the choice is down to teachers. So perhaps, my belief in teaching strategies in isolation is just a personal preference - mine and Tim Shanahan's! To my mind though, that intentional application of a cognitive routine is a lot easier to approach as a teacher if I, and the children, are only having to think about one cognitive routine whilst we are teaching it and learning it. The potential benefit in doing this is that it limits the cognitive overload that might come with trying to learn and practise too many new strategies all at once when you aren't sufficient in using one, some or all of them.
  • The IES guide recognises that some students will need different amounts of modelling and practise before they can apply it independently and consistently. It will be the case that, if you teach strategies in isolation, some children will move beyond the need for this and therefore will not need to be involved in such activity as the explicit teaching of isolated strategies - this is common sense.
Whilst I know there are still many out there who would disagree with me, I think I would still advocate the teaching of reading strategies in isolation for readers who are not yet strong in the use of particular strategies. Certainly, for teachers who are hoping that, for example, children in their class get better at making inferences, I would recommend, instead of asking the odd, random inference question in a discussion or as part of a written reading comprehension, that lessons are more focused on the modelling and practise of particular kinds of inference questions about a range of texts. Without taking this approach teachers leave the learning of particular strategies to chance, hoping that children gain certain skills as a result of random exposure to infrequent opportunities to practise those strategies.

I've not fully thought through the implications of the following analogy but it's one a few have used in support of my position. We wouldn't teach children to solve a complex maths problem that required the use of several different maths facts and strategies until children were able to each one individually. Imagine a problem that required children to complete some multiplication, some division and to have a good idea about percentages and measures - we would first teach extensive learning sequences on each of the constituent parts before expecting a child to understand how to complete the question.

In reading, we are not afforded the luxury of being able to teach things in such isolation - a spiral curriculum approach is necessary, partly facilitated by increasing the complexity of the text. For example, decodable books used in the Early Years and KS1 require very little comprehension, for example, whereas whole novels used in KS2 require children to decode, recognise words, utilise background knowledge, retrieve and infer information, summarise and so on. Along a continuum in the middle of those two extremes children use age-appropriate books which allow them to exercise existing word recognition and language comprehension strategies and skills.

However, at any point along that continuum a child might struggle with any one of the strategies that they usually use. It might be that one child finds themselves in this position, it might be a group of children and it may be a whole class. At this point it might be useful to isolate the strategy they are particular struggling with and teach them accordingly, modelling and giving practise time across a range of age-appropriate texts whilst releasing the responsibility to them so that they can eventually use the strategy independently in the texts they are currently reading.

Whether or not we will all agree with my stance, I'm sure that more of us would agree that a great deal of thought needs to be put into how we go about teaching children to read. Over the years I have been guilty of expecting children, particularly those with limited reading experience, to just absorb the ability to comprehend well through the odd read aloud and the rare comprehension task - this didn't work. My reaction to this has been to seek structured approaches to teaching children the strategies they need to be able to read well, the focus of this blog post being one of them.

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