Friday, November 20, 2015

Comprehending: Isolated Strategy Use or a System of Strategic Actions?

By Wendy Sheets
Intermediate & Middle Level Literacy Collaborative Trainer

Is it our goal to prepare students to name strategies or is the goal to create independent readers who strategically process text?

If our rationale for engaging students in using a network of strategic actions (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006) is creating independent readers with effective reading processes, then let's think about what we do as independent readers. Consider this. When you read a text, do you stop and say to yourself, "Now I need to stop and make an inference" before proceeding to infer? Of course not! Yet, this practice is being taught in many classrooms. As an independent reader, I construct meaning before, during, and after reading. I think about the text before starting to read. As I consider the author, the title, and the topic, I glance through the text noticing the structure, and I begin to develop some expectations for the text.  I think about the text as I'm reading, bringing all of my background experiences to the transaction, to make meaning. Everything I've ever read or experienced combines with everything presented by the author. As I integrate what I'm reading with what I already know, a transaction takes place. And if I have the benefit of building conversation with other people, my thinking is further clarified and lifted by their thinking. This might take place during my reading or afterward. As a reader, I construct meaning during that reader-text transaction, and when I engage in conversation with others, we further construct meaning together.

If you were to listen in on our conversation, you would most likely be able to identify and label the kind of thinking we were doing as readers. You might notice we were inferring what the author implied but didn't explicitly state. Perhaps we made connections with our personal lives, other texts, or events in the world in order to better understand the story. We may have made predictions as we considered what might happen next, and as we integrated new learning with our current understandings, we may have been synthesizing. As our conversation moved to "about the text" thinking, you may have heard us analyzing the decisions the author made to construct the text - perhaps regarding the structure, text features, the way a character was portrayed, or the decision to present the information the way he did. We may critique those decisions, deciding whether they were effective in conveying meaning. We might ponder the writer’s credibility, considering bias as well. We may distance ourselves from the text, pushing back against the textual ideology to probe cultural assumptions and the competing voices within it. “If we view a text as a historical and social construction, we may resist, at times, the pull of the story” (Lewis, 2001).

Throughout our discussion, we may or may not have ever mentioned any “strategies.” However, we were thinking strategically and our conversation would have been the evidence of that thinking. When we work with students, it is not always necessary to label the strategy at work, but rather to engage in the process of thinking deeply - of comprehending. “We cannot speak of comprehension as simply the ‘product’ or even the ‘goal’ of reading. Comprehension is the vital, central core of the broader and more complex ability to reason…Comprehending is actively making meaning using a kind of in-the-head problem solving. All the complex operations of the brain before, during, and after reading a text – cognitive, linguistic, sensory-motor, emotional, artistic, and creative – are operating as readers process texts” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006, p. 4).

Pearson and Gallagher (1983) said it well:  "We have serious reservations about the degree to which many of the studies assume the worth of explicit teaching of strategies. Teaching children our theories about how they think in order to get them to think better seems to us to be fraught with danger. It is true that we should be concerned with process, but to the extent that comprehension is like gardening, we must be more interested in the vegetables produced than the tools in the shed. Student understanding is more important than tacit or meta-understanding" (p. 634).

I love the gardening metaphor, as it creates a clear visual representation.  It's also a bit like the process of driving a car. We can't just try out one isolated move at a time and then be tested on it to demonstrate our understanding of the process. We need to integrate all of the systems in order to really engage in the process of driving. Modeling and prompting for strategic thinking through dialogic interactions is the way readers learn to think strategically. Strategic actions are a network of systems that work together as a part of the reading process. As readers think within, beyond, and about the text, they sustain and expand their thinking while comprehending. My language as a teacher may either model my strategic thinking or prompt students to think strategically. Rather than planning comprehension questions, I do this by opening the door widely to a productive and dynamic interchange. “What are you thinking?” is an effective, genuine question to pose that makes space for all kinds of comprehending: predicting, inferring, synthesizing, making connections, analyzing, or critiquing. Once students come to understand that we really desire to know their authentic thoughts, they push their thinking outside the edges of the obvious, or literal. They are empowered with agency as thinkers and as readers. And when active thinking about the full meaning of the text, rather than isolating and practicing skills takes place, it is then that we know the vegetables are growing in the garden!


Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2006). Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency:
       Thinking, Talking, and Writing About Reading, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lewis, C. (2006). Literary practices as social acts: Power, status, and cultural norms
       in the classroom. New York: Routledge.

Pearson, D. & Gallagher, M. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension.
       Contemporary Educational Psychology 8, 317-44.


  1. Wow. What great analogies of where our focus should lie as educators. This is exactly how we engage and grow thinkers that will make a difference in our world. Thank you for this post.

  2. Wow. What great analogies of where our focus should lie as educators. This is exactly how we engage and grow thinkers that will make a difference in our world. Thank you for this post.

  3. Thanks, Jamie! I believe that a deep understanding of strategic thinking is extremely foundational to the instructional decisions we make each day as we teach, prompt, and reinforce our readers. Ongoing professional development around this is so beneficial for all of us!