INKSHED XXIII May 5, 2006

Donna -- Cognitive text-processing strategies: Supporting active reading engagement

I wonder at the divide between "cognitive text -- processing strategy instruction" and activities that support learning in the content areas (or pedagogical skills). In other words, are these strategies just good teaching? -- Laura

I'm inclined to think they use need to be thinking about a literacy process which brings monitoring strategic reasoning, transfer together as a single literacy process that plays out in somewhat different reading and writing circumstances. Isn't the division of reading and writing really artificial? This issue of transfer is interesting. English departments at universities assume teaching students how to write about literature will teach them how to write everywhere. We know learning in reading and writing is more localized than that. We must learn to read in English, Engineering, Health, Science. We need to learn to write in English, Engineering, etc. -- Stan

The respondents to a survey like this may never have thought of matters like summarizing as separate skills at all. The attractions may not actually exist in these cognitively defined ways. Summarizing as an a-rhetorical activity -- with no actual audience and no purpose beyond a kind of occasion (?), is something that no one but a student ever does. When we summarize something we do it with a social motive -- an immediate one. My boss needs to know enough about this to inform his decision, or my reader needs to understand the parts of this that are relevant to what I'm going to be saying next, etc. These things can be learned, but need to be learned in contexts of use, not as expedited objects of instruction (that may well be what the content area teachers are responding to). -- Russ

Your discussion of how prospective educators can absorb strategies by name or category but have more difficulty enacting them in classrooms reminds me that "learning to teach" is heavily invested in learning discourses or languages of competency.

The list of text-processing strategies is certainly an eye-opener. Weird as this may sound, I found I was "judging" myself as I checked off the ones I use. I was asking myself questions like -- how well do I prepare students to read new material? Should I be laying more groundwork? Giving them more schema? How much do I take for granted that students can read well and productively -- because after all, they're university students? I feel a tad inadequate (!) realizing that I may indeed be taking too much for granted, but at the same time, I appreciate receiving information about such a wide variety of possible strategies. Is the argument here that we tend to veer too much into either traditional or social, without paying enough attention to the value of cognitive-based strategies? -- Amanda

Recently (very recently) completed the editing of a thesis for an EFL colleague on this topic for EFL students' use of learning strategies for ESL. The presentation is quite similar to her research except that some students who had been overtly taught "text-processing strategies" refused to use them (or ignored, etc.). Also, strategies that were negative (i.e. do not do this!) were none-the-less used by some students (i.e. an Eng-other-Eng dictionary).

I worry about following models and the ways that might interfere with individual or cultural processes. But students should, at the very least, be aware of what their own "natural" strategies are and how they can build on them.

For 5 or 6 years I taught the English Methods course for undergrads who were going to be high school English teachers. It was great to see that list of 17 strategies -- reminds me of some strategies I had forgotten and some I wasn't aware of. We covered some of this in class -- I even used a book called something like "100 ways to teach reading". It seemed almost like hand to hand combat skills for rookie teachers who were then going to be fed into the third worst school system in the U.S. (Chicago Public Schools). Were they going to be able to do these things? Some were, but some certainly were not. -- Roger

The same kind of problems exist at the university level. Few content instructors are offered the time to use the more critical in-depth strategies present on the list.

The senior secondary student-teachers I've taught (in "Language & Learning Across the Curriculum") are content-area specialists who have just finished their second and major practicum. They are very clear about using these cognitive text-processing strategies: while they express enthusiasm for these strategies and see the efficacy of using them to help their students acquire content-area knowledge, they are quite skeptical of actually using them in their classrooms because they can't sacrifice covering the curriculum (breadth) for depth of learning.

How does a teacher deal with students that are resistant to some strategies?

I think the problem/challenge is a little different for my first year students -- not so much comprehension as critical reading. They know what is being said, but need lots of strategies for assessing/weighing/applying/questioning what is said. They need to be encouraged to accept the notion that meaning is negotiated between the reader and the text, and that the context of the course and intertext also shapes meaning.

Who is having difficulty? Who says they are? What is being read? Whose text is it? Are these kids struggling readers or are they readers struggling with inappropriate reading materials? What are these kids reading? What strategies are already in place that allow them to read the texts they do read successfully?

The topic of reading hits home for me. As I work with teachers I am astounded at how little they know about the variety of strategies to teach reading and writing and even more how little they know about themselves as readers and writers.

The texts we read now are so varied I'm not sure that many teachers reflect on the connections between reading and understanding/learning - particularly teachers responsible for content.

Does every pre-service program have courses, mandatory courses -- specifically in reading instruction. No. Should they? In place of what other courses? And even if such courses are in place, how effective are they without genuine opportunities to try out the application of various strategies, ideally with a skilled mentor observing and guiding.

I'm not surprised that the grade 12 students couldn't summarize their Chem. Test. I don't think this is strictly a reading problem. It could be that they aren't able to think critically and synthesize complex ideas. Or . . . it could also be a reflection on the quality of the text. Many high school text books don't yet have the visual and verbal cues that we take for granted in the university -- headings, sub-headings, pre-reading prompts, etc. We need better text books that take into consideration the context of students in 2006! Perhaps we need alternatives to text books.