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There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Literacy Strategy

by Julie Scullen
 | Jul 15, 2015

shutterstock_153671990_x300If you are a literacy leader, you’ve invariably been part of a meeting in which a group of dedicated but exhausted educators and administrators gather around a table to discuss how to improve reading scores across a grade level, building, or district. The literacy leader is then asked to field the question, “What strategy should we teach kids in order to bring up our reading scores?” They’re looking for the perfect answer—preferably something with a clever acronym that fits nicely on a poster.

There is no one perfect answer. There never is.

I find myself in this meeting time and time again. My response? “It depends.”

A hand slaps the table. “For crying out loud! Stop beating around the bush and just tell us! What’s your favorite strategy?”

I smile politely, trying not to laugh, and think about how my answer must sound to exasperated administrators. The table-slapping principal is clearly frustrated by my lack of specifics. What she and the many administrators in the room want is something that I know requires work. Something much deeper and broader than what they are envisioning.

Administrators aren’t the only education professionals with misconceptions about the use of strategies. About three times a month I get an e-mail like this one: “My principal is coming to observe me, and he/she says we need to focus on literacy. What’s a reading strategy I can use for my observation?”

These conversations provide me with clear insight to the biggest misconception my colleagues have regarding reading instruction. They’re thinking that I will share with them The Strategy that will solve the problems our students face with comprehension of rigorous material. That once they use The Strategy, we will see great gains.

Unfortunately, The Strategy alone won’t raise our test scores, even if we put it on posters in every classroom.

Think about K-W-L. Well known. Effective. In some instances.

Let’s pretend I’m excited to bring a new topic to life with my seventh-grade students. My lesson might start like this:

“OK, fellow historians! Today we’re going to continue digging into America’s past by talking about the French and Indian War. Let’s use a strategy to help us—one you all know—K-W-L! Let’s start with K. What do you know about the French and Indian War?”

Crickets. Silence. Blank looks.

Finally, this: “There were French guys in it? And Indians, right?”

I shift gears.

“Maybe we’ll need to read a bit and gain more knowledge here. But we can still talk about the W. What do you want to know about the French and Indian War?”

Again, crickets.

After an appropriate amount of time has been spent engaging in learning about this pivotal event, I’ll end with this: “Let’s finish up our reading strategy. We talked about both the K and the W in K-W-L. It’s time for the L. What did you learn about the French and Indian War?”

At least one student will say “nothing” or “nothing new.” In reflecting on the lesson, I’ll wonder why I bothered to use a strategy at all. It took up valuable class time and achieved little. The students weren’t better readers when I finished, and they seemed unlikely to use this strategy on their own in the future.

It’s a shame, too, because K-W-L is a great strategy. It just was used in the wrong situation.

Generally, students need to learn strategies to help them engage with a text to gain deep comprehension, or to organize their thinking, or to prepare for class discussion, or to gather new vocabulary. They may need to read critically through a particular lens. Each purpose requires a different type of thinking and analysis. The strategy an adult reader might use in each instance is different. Strong readers perform these strategies without even realizing it, while others need modeling and practice to begin to see the benefit.

Back to the meeting with administrators: Now I answer their question with some of my own: “What are your students not yet able to do independently when approaching a particular type of text? Where and when do they struggle, become frustrated, and disengage with the reading?” The answer to these questions will lead teachers to the best instructional choices.

We’ve made quite a few changes in the way we approach reading since my first experience with that type of meeting. We’ve begun asking the right questions in these collaborative conversations. We’ve learned it’s not about the strategy, the acronym, or the poster—it’s about the thinking a person does while engaged with text. It’s about making sure we’re preparing students for the many different types of reading and thinking adults engage in every day.

How and what they will read as adults? It depends. On us.

Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

Scullen will present “Read Any Good Stuff Lately? Building a Culture of Literacy in Secondary Classrooms” Saturday, July 18, at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. The session will suggest how make meaningful reading and literacy activities palatable with humor and practical ideas. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.

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