Creating a coaching system and teaching a repertoire of strategies are the first two steps in creating an environment where students can move toward independence in applying comprehension strategies. These two components of strategy transfer in reading instruction were addressed here and here.
The third critical element in designing a system for strategy transfer is committing to an emphasis on application of conditional knowledge.
There are three types of knowledge that contribute to students being able to think strategically when they read; declarative, procedural and conditional. Declarative knowledge is the ability to know what a specific strategy is and its purpose or use. Procedural knowledge allows a reader to know how a strategy works; the steps, process or procedure required for implementing the strategy. Conditional knowledge empowers the reader to confidently know when and why to use a particular strategy in order to make meaning of challenging texts.
Last year I discovered an eight-part series on strategy transfer by Grant Wiggins on his blog, Granted. Wiggins quotes from a 1983 paper by Paris, Lipson and Wixon,
Declarative and procedural knowledge alone are not sufficient to ensure that children read strategically. They only emphasize the knowledge and skills required for performance and do not address the conditions under which one might wish to select or execute actions… We want to introduce a new term, conditional knowledge, to capture this dimension of learning to be strategic. Conditional knowledge includes knowing when and why to apply various actions.
In classrooms where I support teachers as an instructional coach, I see a fair amount of students who are compliant in applying strategies once the teacher has modeled and they have ample time to practice. What I do not see, however, are students working autonomously to choose strategies for specific problems during independent reading once they realize their comprehension has broken down.
That is precisely when conditional knowledge should be applied. We see students employ skills in isolation faithfully and their reading improvement is visible, but short-lived. It is imperative that students have opportunities in a variety of contexts to apply strategies from a repertoire that has been developed over time.
When we insist students apply strategies across genres and in a variety of instructional settings (read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading), we decrease the likelihood that students assume a strategy is “context bound”.
For example, a teacher models a specific strategy and then allows students to practice that strategy to aid in identifying themes in poetry, drama, realistic fiction, humorous fiction, historical fiction (and often times in literary nonfiction). This gives students an understanding that a specific strategy to identify theme does not apply to only one type of fiction text. And its application is not exclusively for guided reading instruction when the teacher directs students to identify theme, but is a strategy from their repertoire that can be employed any time they encounter literary texts.
So how do we make sure that students develop an understanding of when, where, why and how to apply strategies from their own repertoire of comprehension strategies?
I believe creating a protocol for making meaning of texts aids students in the process of strategy transfer. The consistent use of a predictable structure for thinking while reading leads students in becoming independent thinkers and problem solvers as they read.
When students practice monitoring and repairing their comprehension repeatedly over time with a predictable structure the process becomes second nature. The recurrent practice to employ preferred tools from their repertoire of comprehension strategies becomes innate.
Sixth grade teacher Aubrey Steinbrink created a tool for her students to use as they read. Last year when I was collaborating with Aubrey I saw firsthand how helpful her protocol was for all students regardless of their reading ability. (Each time Aubrey introduced new strategies or a different genre, she customized the protocol to fit the new learning.) Aubrey blogged about her close reading protocol here.
Students watch as Aubrey models the process readers engage in as they commit to close reading of a text. She shows them how a reader starts by skimming the text for important information that will allow the reader to get their brain ready to comprehend. The next step is to apply a specific strategy as they read and upon completion of that reading to share with a partner what they are thinking as a result of having applied a specific strategy to aid in deeper comprehension.
The final step in the protocol leads students to read again and apply a strategy for synthesizing, questioning the author, or inferring. This gives the students opportunity for organizing their thoughts in order to write informally or formally regarding their observations about the text and the author’s influence (both meaning and craft) on the reader.
It is imperative to emphasize throughout the year that the goal of a reader is to transfer the learning from instruction to independent use of comprehension strategies. In order for that to happen, teachers must change the tasks, vary the contexts and provide a variety of challenging texts to give students ample opportunity to prompt themselves in which strategies to use to make meaning.
We must make absolutely sure that students understand that the strategies used by readers to make meaning of the text are not the real reason for reading. The goal is not mastery of a handful of strategies. The absolute end goal of reading is self-regulated, deep understanding and comprehension of a text in its entirety.
The power here lies in teaching students about conditional knowledge. It is not enough to rely upon declarative knowledge (the what) and procedural knowledge (the how). There must be a commitment to teaching readers how to know when and why to apply strategies for comprehending text.
Be sure to return for Part 4 of this series on strategy transfer where I’ll share practical tips for guiding students to set personal reading goals.