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Strategies Instruction

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

A strategy is a plan of action for achieving a purpose (Harvey & Goudvis, 2007). With respect to classroom learning, purposes for employing strategies include the need to comprehend, compose, problem solve, remember, reason, evaluate, and decode. Students who have been taught strategies for accomplishing these purposes have a distinct advantage over the uninstructed (Pressley, Graham, & Harris, 2006; Torgesen, 2004). Yet, researchers have found that most teachers do not teach the strategies students need to comprehend and learn (Durkin, 1978–1979; Pressley, Wharton-McDonald, Mistretta, & Echevarria, 1998). Neglecting to teach strategies for accomplishing classroom tasks is a serious oversight, especially when people realize that the learners who are most successful are also the ones who are able to, and do, employ many strategies (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Trabasso & Bouchard, 2002). Strategies put students in control of their mental processes (Duffy, 2002); thus, it would be in students' best interest if teachers in all areas of the curriculum taught strategies.

Appropriate strategies for accomplishing learning tasks vary depending on the desired outcomes and structure of the domain. In the domains of history, mathematics, and science, Donovan and Bransford (2005) note that students benefit from strategies which enable them to access and evaluate their preconceptions, develop a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. In conducting science investigations, strategies include generating a research question, designing a study, and explaining the results. In literature, strategies for detecting theme, analyzing character traits, and recognizing different genres are important (Gaskins, 2005; Harmon, Martinez, & Deckard, 2004). Common to the domains of history, mathematics, science, and literature are the basic skills of reading and writing. In these two areas researchers suggest that students be taught strategies for decoding and encoding words, as well as for comprehending and composing. Research-based comprehension strategies include accessing background knowledge, predicting, self-questioning, constructing mental images, and summarizing (Pressley, 2006). In writing, a meta-analysis suggests that students need to learn strategies for planning, drafting, reflecting, and revising (Graham, 2006). In all areas of the curriculum, researchers recommend that students be taught strategies for taking control of their thinking (Donovan & Bransford, 2005; Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997).

This entry on strategy instruction is divided into three sections: (1) major approaches to strategies instruction, (2) characteristics of explicit, teacher-led strategies instruction, and (3) effective instructional supports for strategies instruction.

MAJOR APPROACHES TO STRATEGIES INSTRUCTION

There is little debate in the 21st century about the benefits to be gained from teaching students strategies that will allow them to read, write, and learn independently (Deshler, Palincsar, Biancarosa, & Nair, 2007). The debate, with respect to strategies instruction, centers on which instructional approaches and contexts work best for which students and whose responsibility it is to teach strategies. This question is particularly relevant for students in grades 4 through 12, when the density of texts and concepts dramatically increase, and for students in all grades who have learning and reading difficulties (Alexander & Winne, 2006). There are at least three broad categories into which approaches to strategies instruction can be divided: (1) stand alone, in which strategies, heuristics, and/or study skills are taught as a separate course, usually with texts that are not part of the mainstream curriculum; (2) teachable moment, in which strategies are taught as students demonstrate a need for them; and (3) explicit, teacher-led instruction, in which teachers explain, model, scaffold, and guide practice regarding strategies that will be of immediate use in the completion of specific learning tasks that are part of the mainstream curriculum.

Different approaches may be beneficial for different people, depending on their backgrounds of knowledge in a domain, their learning strengths and challenges, and the context for learning. For students who read and write at levels significantly below their grade-level placement, particularly students who lack basic decoding and encoding strategies, stand-alone courses are sometimes needed as a supplement to the mainstream curriculum. For students with strong backgrounds in a domain, teachable-moment approaches may better meet their needs. Explicit, teacher-led instruction is the approach documented to be successful with students who demonstrate learning problems (Deshler, et al., 2007; Pressley & Harris, 2006; Swanson, 1999). There are also possible combinations and variations of the three main approaches described below.

Stand-alone Approach. In stand-alone approaches, strategies are taught outside the authentic situation in which they are expected to be applied. For example, students participating in a study skills course may be explicitly taught strategies for identifying main ideas, taking notes, and studying for tests, followed by teacher-directed, scaffolded practice in content-area materials. Often, however, the practice materials are not the same as those the students use in their content-area classes. For students who are motivated to learn these strategies and who also are aware of the appropriate occasions to apply them, a stand-alone course can be beneficial. The chances for application are increased if the students' regular classroom teachers are aware of the strategies that have been taught in the study skills course and can cue students when it is appropriate to use those strategies. The likelihood of transfer to authentic classroom situations is less likely, unfortunately, for struggling students who most need to apply these strategies (Pressley & Harris, 2006).

Teachable-moment Approach. Those who favor the teachable-moment approach assert that teachers should wait until a student encounters a problem in completing a task or asks for clarification, and then coach the student in his or her application of appropriate strategies. A classic debate regarding teachable-moment interventions has for decades surrounded the teaching of strategies for decoding. There are those who believe that decoding strategies should not be explicitly taught, but rather students should be taught to problem solve when they encounter an unknown word. For example, when a student encounters the unknown word “turtle,” the teacher might ask: “What would make sense in the sentence and begins with t-?” If this clue is not helpful, the teacher might continue, “Do the pictures give you any clues that you could combine with the sense of the sentence and the sound for the first letter?” The goal of the teacher's questioning is to model questions students might ask themselves when they encounter an unknown word.

Similarly, when students are stuck solving a math problem or understanding a science experiment, the teacher might mediate the application of the needed strategy by asking questions the students could ask themselves on another occasion when they are perplexed. Two possible concerns about using this approach are that it relies on teachers being skillful in asking mediating questions (rather than telling too much) and on teachers having a deep understanding of the developmental sequence of strategies that would be beneficial for students to employ in completing classroom learning tasks. Another consideration is that the teachable-moment approach can be labor intensive; thus it may work best in small classes and one-on-one tutoring.

Explicit Teacher-led Approach. The approach to strategies instruction most frequently supported by research, especially for children with learning problems, is the approach that features explicit teacher explanations of the what, why, when, and how of using strategies, accompanied by teacher modeling, scaffolding, and guided practice (Lipson, 2007; Gaskins, 2005). As noted earlier, explicit explanation of strategies is not practiced in most classrooms; however, two such programs that have received empirical support are Project CRISS (Santa, Havens, & Valdes, 2005) and Transactional Strategies Instruction (Pressley, El-Dinary, Gaskins, Schuder, Bergman, et al., 1992). These are examples of programs in which direct and explicit instruction in the reading, writing, and thinking strategies needed for success in content-area courses are taught as essential parts of the courses. Both programs emphasize professional development. In part, explicit teacher-led approaches are not commonplace in classrooms because they are dependent on excellent pre-service and in-service professional development. The explicit approach has also been found to be difficult for teachers to put into practice (Hilden & Pressley, 2007). Explicit teacher-led instruction is discussed in greater detail in the next section.

CHARACTERISTICS OF EXPLICIT, TEACHER-LED STRATEGIES INSTRUCTION

Research regarding reading comprehension in all areas of the curriculum strongly suggests that effective strategies instruction includes explicit explanations, modeling, scaffolding, and practice (Duffy, 2002; Pressley, 2006). Teachers of effective strategies instruction explicitly explain to students (1) what the strategy is that can be used to accomplish a specific task, (2) why and how the strategy facilitates learning, and (3) how and when to use the strategy (Gaskins, 2005). In addition, as recommended by Dimino (2007) and others, teachers use think-alouds (Meichenbaum & Biemiller, 1998) or mental modeling (Duffy, Roehler, & Herrmann, 1988) to share their thinking as they demonstrate using the strategy in authentic situations.

Thinking aloud, as described by Meichenbaum and Biemiller (1998), is verbally guiding oneself while carrying out a task. Teachers' think-alouds may be in the form of self-questioning or directive self-instructional statements sharing with students what they think before, during, and after completing a task. In contrast, the goal of mental modeling, as discussed by Duffy, Roehler, and Herrmann (1988), is to make reasoning visible. Mental modeling is differentiated from the “modeling of procedures which consist of telling students directions or steps to follow in completing a specific task” (Duffy, et al., p. 765). Instead, in mental modeling, the focus is on the thinking one does to complete the steps, not on the steps themselves. The intent is to convey the flexibility associated with reasoning as opposed to rigid following of steps. Mental modeling is implemented “in tandem with fluid teacher-student dialogues to ensure that students do not misinterpret the modeling and end up with misconceptions” (p. 766).

As part of explicit strategies instruction, teachers also guide, support, and cue students as they gradually release responsibility to students for putting a strategy, or a bundle of strategies, to work. The teacher scaffolds (supports) students in the application of strategies during guided practice, turning as much responsibility over to each student as that student can successfully handle, with the goal being that each student achieves independence in strategy use at his or her own pace.

EFFECTIVE INSTRUCTIONAL SUPPORTS FOR STRATEGIES INSTRUCTION

The success of strategies instruction depends on more than explicit explanations, modeling, scaffolding, and gradual release of responsibility. Other instructional supports need to be incorporated into strategies instruction, if the use of strategies is to become habitual for students. These supports include: emphasizing metacognition; making strategies use meaningful by sharing learning principles and brain-related rationale; teaching strategies school-wide and across the curriculum; and providing opportunities for professional development. Each of these instructional supports is discussed below.

Emphasizing Metacognition. Dimino (2007) postulates that one essential component of an instructional design for effective and explicit instruction of strategies is metacog-nition, a concept introduced in the 1970s but as of the early 2000s still not commonly discussed in classrooms. Metacognition is composed of two parts: (1) knowledge about thinking and (2) self-regulation of thinking. Knowledge of thinking includes knowledge of high-utility strategies that enhance thinking, as well as how and when to employ them. It is also the knowledge gained from self-evaluation regarding which strategies are personally effective and work well in which situations. As part of developing student awareness, teachers encourage students to share strategies that have led to successful learning and problem solving, and they praise students for their effort in applying appropriate strategies. They also engage students in self-assessing their work and in attributing satisfactory attainment of academic goals to strategy use. The second aspect of metacognition is executive function or volition, taking control of thinking by self-monitoring and putting into action a plan to successfully meet a goal. Awareness alone does not produce success.

As strategies are practiced, teachers gradually transfer control of implementing the strategies to students. Students assume responsibility for knowing where and when to use the strategies and for independently using them. Thus, they become self-regulated (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). This ownership is possible because students have gained awareness and control of their thinking. Students who have been engaged in a systematic strategies program have been taught how to monitor progress toward a goal (e.g., solving a math problem, composing a science report, decoding a word, or understanding a text) (Gaskins, 2005). They know how to manage accomplishing their goals by such tactics as adapting strategies to their purposes, engaging in an inner conversation so they can catch themselves when they need to mend understanding, and matching the appropriate strategy to the situation so they can make renewed progress toward their goals.

Making Strategies Use Meaningful. Explicitly teaching strategies and adding all the components outlined above may still not be enough to develop self-regulated students who independently employ strategies. Instructional experts and researchers recommend including a motivational component to strategies instruction that focuses on meaningfulness, including interest and value (Alexander, 2006; Anderman & Wolters, 2006; Gaskins, 2008). Because learning and applying strategies initially takes quite a lot of effort, students want to see some value in putting forth the extra work. They often need to be convinced of how what they are asked to do will benefit them. This calls for personal or situational interest.

Students are more likely to be interested in and take strategies instruction seriously if teachers provide a convincing rationale for each strategy they teach (Paris, Lip-son, & Wixson, 1983). For example, teaching students how strategies help the brain work more effectively has proved a convincing rationale (Gaskins, 1991, 2005, 2008). Perhaps this is the case because students enjoy hearing interesting stories and sophisticated information about learning theory and knowledge about how the brain functions that is usually reserved for college courses. Teachers share both why they are teaching a particular strategy and how the strategy helps the brain work more effectively.

For example, in teaching students to survey, the teacher's explanation of why might sound something like this: “We survey to hook our interest and to get a sense of what the text is about. In addition, the information you gain while surveying provides an outline that you can fill in with new information as you read” (Gaskins, 2005, p. 197). The teacher's explanation of how surveying helps the brain might sound like this: “Surveying helps your brain by telling it what background knowledge to get ready to assist you in understanding the new information” (p. 197). Similarly, in teaching students to access background knowledge, the teacher might say: “We access background knowledge to help us become actively involved by relating what we are reading to what we know” (p. 197). An explanation of how might include that accessing background knowledge helps the brain make sense of and remember what is read “because our brains don't remember things that don't make sense. We also want to hook new information to what we already know, because it is easier to get information back out of our brain if it is hooked to what we already know” (p. 197).

In the same vein, teachers explain how learning works by sharing principles of learning with students (Gaskins, 2008). Examples of principles that might be shared with students include: organized knowledge is easier to recall than random information; information that is thoughtfully and deeply processed is likely to be understood and used; and concepts and strategies that are repeatedly practiced and applied are not easily forgotten (Gaskins, 2008). To make these principles even more convincing, teachers can conduct mini-experiments with students to illustrate the principles (Gaskins, 1991).

Teaching Strategies School-wide and Across the Curriculum. Strategies instruction and application must take place in authentic settings across the entire school (Alling-ton, 2006). Effective teachers make strategies instruction an integral part of all classroom instruction all year long in all areas of the curriculum. Each year they teach a small repertoire of strategies, bundling a newly taught strategy with those that have been previously learned. For example, a teacher might initially teach beginning readers to survey a pre-primer story. After students have practiced surveying until they are comfortable with the strategy, the teacher then bundles surveying with accessing background knowledge by explicitly explaining and modeling how to access background knowledge related to the information gained from surveying. This lesson is ideally followed by teaching students to make predictions based on information gained from surveying and accessing background knowledge. For each strategy taught and bundled with other strategies, teachers explicitly explain, model, scaffold, and guide practice, and they guide students to apply or adapt strategies to all areas of the curriculum.

The goal of strategies instruction is that the application of strategies to comprehend, compose, problem solve, remember, reason, evaluate, and decode is self-regulated by students. This occurs when students receive explicit strategies instruction as described above throughout at least their elementary and middle school years, and they are guided in their application of high-utility strategies to authentic situations until strategies use is each student's chosen way of addressing learning, thinking, and problem-solving tasks in all areas of the curriculum.

Ideally, there is a school-wide or district-wide plan for strategies instruction in order to provide continuity and consistency of strategy instruction across the curriculum and across grades. With such a plan, each teacher knows what his or her responsibility is for introducing and reinforcing specific strategies, and students are much more likely to be strategic in their learning, thinking, and problem solving because strategies introduced during one school year are reinforced, expanded, and bundled with other strategies in each consecutive year of schooling (Pressley, 2006).

Providing Opportunities for Professional Development. Given that what is known about strategies teaching is underused in the late 2000s, it is imperative that there be ongoing professional development so that students have the benefit of instruction from teachers who know what works and how to implement instruction based on evidence from scientific investigations (Pressley, Graham, & Harris, 2006). In addition, because experience and research have indicated that teaching strategies has initially proved difficult for teachers to implement (Hilden & Pressley, 2006), there must be frequent professional-development support, especially for teachers new to strategies instruction. Ideally, this support would include both workshops and in-class coaching by supervisors, principals, or instructional coaches, who support staff in employing approaches for teaching and reinforcing strategies with their students.

IMPLICATIONS FOR EDUCATORS

Despite ample research evidence upon which to base decisions about strategies instruction and despite the many college textbooks published since 1995 that introduce pre-service teachers to strategies instruction, strategies instruction is not commonplace in K-12 classrooms in the United States. It is particularly absent in content-area classes such as mathematics, social studies, and science. That the need for strategies instruction is being recognized is evidenced by the burgeoning number of commercial programs to teach general and specific strategies. The drawback to these commercial programs is that, although many attempt to address strategies instruction, they do so outside the context of the core curriculum where these strategies need to be applied. For example, only 12 of the 48 programs reviewed by Desh-ler and colleagues (2007) were identified as core curricula, whereas 36 were designated supplemental or remedial intervention programs. An alternative to these commercial programs is for teachers to provide strategy instruction as an integrated part of all mainstream language arts and content-area instruction with the goal of enabling all levels of learners to participate in courses with more challenging content.

In order for the United States to produce young people who are well prepared to succeed in whatever they undertake, every teacher at every grade level in every domain must become a strategies teacher. Strategies instruction needs to be adopted across the curriculum and throughout schools and school districts. It needs to begin when children enter school and continue through 12th grade. Because the need for strategies is often specific to each discipline and transfer between disciplines is not automatic, students should receive instruction in strategies for reading, writing, and learning that is differentiated for each content area (Deshler, et al., 2007). Ongoing professional development and support for strategies teachers are keys to the success of a school-wide effort to make every teacher a strategies teacher and every student a self-regulated strategy user.

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