As the first phase of bringing closure to these blog posts on literacy at the secondary level, I want to offer a tentative list of recommendations that I believe follow from all the research cited in the previous posts. I will say more about each principle in follow-up posts, as well as offering brief bibliographic and graphic-organizer resources in support of each idea. (I offer some initial thoughts on Principle #1, below).

  1. Do students understand the real point of academic reading? Ensure, repeatedly over time, that students understand the bottom-line goal: successful self-regulated comprehension of challenging texts as a whole.
  1. Do students understand that the aim of instruction is transfer of learning? Make this yearlong goal crystal-clear all year. Design instruction backward from autonomous transfer of a repertoire of meta-cognition and comprehension strategies. Vary the tasks, contexts, and texts to ensure that students learn to self-prompt and transfer, regardless of prompt or task specifics; decrease prompts and reminders over time, sometimes suddenly, to see what learners do when unprompted.
  1. Am I using the right texts for making clear the value of strategies? Choose some challenging texts very carefully in which the key strategies are likely to be elicited and helpful. (Provide key background knowledge and/or anticipation guides and/or KWL exercises, as needed, so that the focus is on comprehension.)
  1. Do my students understand the difference between self-monitoring understanding and knowing what they might do when understanding does not occur? Distinguish metacognitive self-monitoring from comprehension strategies. Metacognition precedes use of reading strategy: I have to realize that I am not getting it first.
  1. Am I attending to the fewest, most powerful comprehension strategies for academic literacy? Focus on at most 3-4 comprehension strategies that underscore key aspects of text meaning-making (e.g. summarizing, main idea, questioning the text, author purpose).
  1. Am I helping them build a flexible repertoire instead of teaching strategies in isolation? Teach two strategies back to back in a gradual release way, but then ask students to compare the strengths and weaknesses of each (and as compared with others already taught and practiced) with different texts, to make clear that flexible self-prompted use is the aim.
  1. Do students have sufficient general understanding of the strategies (which is key to transfer)? Generalize from using each strategy to the strengths and weaknesses of all of them. (Re-visit such anchor charts and edit them as further insight emerges.)
  1. Am I doing enough ongoing formal assessment of student comprehension, strategy use, and tolerance of ambiguity? Constantly formatively assess student comprehension of new texts, with gradual lessening of prompts and reminders. Assess for comprehension; for a self-analysis and self-assessment by the student of what strategies were used, with what benefits; and degree of persistence in face of difficulties. Keep eliciting all lingering misconceptions: focusing only at the word level, rigid use of only one strategy, no strategy.

Some thoughts on Question #1: Do students understand the real point of academic reading?
As a number of quotes in this series suggest, many students do not understand either the point of reading deeply or how it actively occurs in their minds. This is a KEY issue: until and unless the performance goal is crystal-clear, we can predict that many students will in good faith yet unwittingly do the wrong things.
For instance, we learned in the research that non-expert readers tend to focus almost exclusively on word by word reading; and see comprehension, therefore as about the question: did you understand all the words? They need constant instruction, reminders, and (eventually) critical feedback that this is NOT the goal. (Hence, my Kant example in Post #1)
That’s why I wrote the first post in the series, more generally: we need to understand what readers actually do when we ask them to “read” (without prompting them to do specific things while reading).  Scary, true story: I taught in a fine academically-demanding HS. Back in the day, when the 11th and 12th grade courses were all electives, this boy said he wanted to drop my course after the first week (which was legal, if I gave permission). When I asked why, he said: well I just can’t memorize that many pages each night.
That’s what he thought reading was – in the 11th grade of a good academic school.
So, we have to combine Question #1 with Question #8 – ongoing formative assessment – not just of comprehension but process.
Some instructional advice. A great way into making clear the point of reading is to give older students Aesop’s Fables – with the Morals removed. Use this as a key model for the year: the point of the story is not about foxes, goats, or hares; the point is a general life lesson that we are to infer from the story. Model it once, do it as a group once, then ask students to take a new Fable and write out the moral. Then do a think, pair, share with friendly arguments about the pros and cons of each moral. Use this activity as needed throughout the year to remind students that drawing inferences about text is the “game” of reading for meaning.
Expand the activity by using allegories, satires, New Yorker cartoons, advertisements, etc. to keep reinforcing the view that our job is active inferencing that leads to defensible meaning. For instance, someone sent me this recently which can be used as a quick formative assessment:

(I like this example because even if you supply the background knowledge, the comprehension challenge remains. Which is why background knowledge is necessary but not sufficient, core knowledge folks!!)
QAR by Raphael is one of the earliest and long-lasting books/programs to help teachers and students understand the difference between literal and inferential reading. Given a question, where are the answers found – in the text or in my head? It can be a vital resource for teachers in helping the struggling secondary student understand what inferential reading is about. Here and here are some simple handouts for employing it. (I’ll have more to say about inferencing in later posts).
Socratic seminar and its variants offer another way to make clear that meaning-making is the students’ job – and that others will often come to very different meanings than we did. (Here is an edited version On Seminars 2012 – Wiggins from over 40 years ago in which I made clear the “game” and its roles and rules.) The critical understanding in seminar is that there is no one “correct” meaning – but some meanings are better than others, i.e. supported by evidence and a coherent and thorough account of that evidence. (I’ll have more to say about pedagogies that support genuine deeper comprehension in later posts).
Bottom line for Principle #1: Ensure that students know what the real desired performance is called “reading” and assume that they do not really understand what good reading is and requires.



19 Responses

  1. I am so glad you are trying to find the positives in the teaching of “how” to read, with an emphasis on “why.” This is important work you are doing! However, please don’t neglect the need for word knowledge for our struggling secondary readers, in you posts.

    • I appreciate your caution, and will remind people that it matters. But the point I am trying to make is that word knowledge (vocal.) work is necessary but not sufficient. Same with fluency, for the same reasons.
      In other words, as in soccer certain basic skills always have to be worked on but the basic skills are not sufficient – even a great vocabulary will not improve your inferencing abilities – and I think that this message has been lost. (I was the poster child for this as a kid: 95%ile vocal but weak comprehension skills because no one ever taught us to read.)

    • Thanks, Mary. The more I have gotten into it the more intrigued and psyched I have become to keep learning. it also takes me back to my roots as a HS teacher where we had this problem but didn’t know what to do about it.

  2. Grant,
    As you have posted on your blog, QAR and Reciprocal Teaching still remain two of the most effective reading strategies that have stood the test of time and, more importantly, the scrutiny of research.
    As far as deep reading goes, AVID and the ERWC (Expository Reading Writing Curriculum) model developed by the CSU system, which parallel each other nicely, offer practical and functional approaches to help guide students towards the self-regulation we want to see them use before, during, and after reading.
    And for vocabulary development that works, I like both Marzano’s work and the work of Beck, McKeown, and Kucan.
    Once again, thank you for your wonderful and insightful blog!

  3. Really fantastic! Truly! Wish we were talking more about this than about how to flunk students based on failure on 1 standardized reading comprehension test. That would be a much better discussion!

  4. Have you heard of Larry Bell’s reading strategy: UNRAAVEL? It’s a strategy that many schools in our district are expecting students to use on standardized testing. It stands for the following:
    1. Underline the title
    2. Now predict the passage
    3. Run through and number
    4. Are you reading the questions?
    5. Venture through the passage
    6. Eliminate
    7. Let the questions be answered
    I have some concerns about this strategy because it is viewed as a panacea by many but I don’t think it addresses the real issue which is truly comprehending the text, especially nonfiction. Many students are still struggling with summarizing paragraphs and making connections between sections to identify the main idea of a text. How can I convey this to my reading coaches and administrators who are adamant about teaching this technique? I don’t want to seem like I’m not a team player but I feel as if we are going in the wrong direction.

    • Nicole, this is a great question. My initial reaction: this is no different than any other technique that is just meant to game the tests and bypass reading. But it doesn’t strike me as deeply harmful IF – and that is a big if – IF it is meant to be used only on tests. It’s no different, really, than the technique of crossing out the clearly wrong answers and looking back to find which of the two left the answer must be. But it bespeaks a terrible cynicism and look for shortcuts, for sure…
      It is of course no surprise that kids struggle with summarizing and main idea – that’s why I am so interested in tackling that deeper issue in a more long-term thoughtful and evidence-based way.
      As with so much of American life, people are going for short-term moves instead of long-term growth. And given the pressures with test scores, it is inevitable that that is a consequence. All we can do is fight the good fight and aim long-term to produce competent thoughtful kids.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *