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Where's the "there there" for strategies in reading programs?

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 6 June 2006

The byword for comprehension research of the 1980s was “strategy.” The National Reading Panel’s comprehension review emphasized research on strategies. Michael Pressley’s legacy (and an important legacy it is) will be “strategies.” But where does content fit in with strategies?

Take the basal story that finished off the experiences for a group of second graders I visited recently here in Santa Cruz County. The final story of the their state-adopted basal was about a class painting a mural on a wall at their school. The author signals the steps of the mural painting with sub-headings (e.g., A Mural Idea, The Plan, Painting the Mural). The teachers’ guide cites three strategies as the focus of this unit: evaluate, summarize, and question, with evaluate the focus strategy. What’s to evaluate in this text? One student in the story has the idea for the mural. Then, as a class, the students plan it, make it, and share it. The illustrations of the text are beautiful—but the text itself is very straightforward (which is a good thing for second graders who are at the point of solidifying their fluency). There is absolutely no “there there” to evaluate.

Here are my wonderings….
If teachers cry “Wolf” early and often (with Wolf being “Remember to use a comprehension strategy such as predict/infer, summarize, monitor/clarify, question, evaluate before, during, and after reading”) but the texts that students read are straightforward and uncomplicated, do students become careless about or even resistant to using comprehension strategies? Annemarie Palincsar’s dissertation on Reciprocal Teaching used social studies and science texts. In social studies and science texts (even in primary levels), there are issues to evaluate and clarify. For example, in Owen and Mzee, what are the students’ hypotheses about Owen’s (a hippo) choice of Mzee (a giant tortoise) as a caretaker/friend?  

This isn’t to say that there aren’t narratives that have oomph and benefit from the application of comprehension strategies, including picture books for children (think of Zen Shorts, for one). But the kinds of narratives that dominate in grades 1-2 (and often extend into grade three) typically don’t need the existential discussions that called for in teacher’s guides or the need for application of strategies. 

Are we starting strategy instruction too early? Or should strategy instruction in the primary grades be limited to the texts of science and social studies?