Thursday, October 28, 2010

Verbalizing Our Strategies

In our elementary building we have quite a few students who are in the 2nd or 3rd Tier of RTI instruction, and we usually pull the students needing the most individualized attention during the morning breakfast period, when students are arriving for the day. Several of us work with these students attempting to fill the gaps they have in their reading knowledge, and the other day one of these teachers asked me for specific advice about her work with a student. Her question was a good one: is it important that he be able to discuss the strategies he’s using, or are we just striving for him to use them, regardless of whether he can name what he does?

It’s a question that’s been discussed in the comprehension instruction texts, such as “Catching Readers Before They Fall” and by Harvey and Goudvis in “Strategies That Work”. When I think back over my own reading, I realized that even though I was a proficient reader as a child, I had no idea about the comprehension strategies themselves. I was not consciously aware of how I inferred details or when or with what evidence I synthesized textual implications, and I didn’t even pay close attention to my inner questions, though I must have had them. I do remember being aware of visualizing, however, and realizing that my inner movies were merely compilations of my memories of places I’d actually been.

The same goes for grammar rules, as far as that goes. I still don’t know what a gerund is, and as a child I wasn’t aware of compound complex sentences or dangling participles when I wrote. I just knew it didn’t sound right. However, once I did learn the names of these parts of speech during high school and college, it allowed me to more clearly analyze the errors I was making. By having this explicit knowledge of grammar I was able to name what was wrong with my writing and more easily correct it. Once I knew a dependent clause was supposed to have commas at either end, it was easy to make my writing more understandable to others.

Perhaps the same is true for comprehension strategies. Proficient readers aren’t aware of their use of these strategies, but they feel their absence when they encounter difficult text. Explicit knowledge of these strategies comes in handy once a comprehension problem rears its ugly head.

Even proficient readers will deal with difficult text at some point in their lives, and they can clarify their misunderstandings of the text if they have an understanding of what to do. They may realize the need for more background knowledge when reading a confusing college chemistry text, or they might realize that the technical manual they’re reading for work isn’t making sense because they are reading too quickly and without internal questioning. Being able to name what they are not doing will enable them to change their behavior.

The students we’re working with in the mornings have been struggling for quite some time with decoding and/or comprehending texts. It may be that they struggle because no one has taken the time to explicitly show and name for them the strategies that proficient readers use. The least we can do for them is name them, and give them the tools they need for when the inevitable reading problems arise.