Part 1 of a reply to Willingham on reading strategies

This is Part 1 of a 2-part response

In a recent Washington Post article (excerpted from his new book), Daniel Willingham proposed a provocative view of reading strategies. He refers to the comprehension reading strategies (CRS) as “tricks” not “skills” of reading. Let me offer a counter-argument: his conclusion, analogies, and the evidence from the research on CRS (not just the limited research he cites) do not support such a claim.

Here are the key paragraphs in the first part of his argument:

Can reading comprehension be taught? In this blog post, I’ll suggest that the most straightforward answer is “no.” Reading comprehension strategies (1) don’t boost comprehension per se; (2) do indirectly help comprehension but; (3) don’t need to be practiced…

Here’s why I say that using these strategies doesn’t really make the child a better reader. We’re tempted to think that teaching RCS is like coaching. A baseball coach tells a batter to mimic the sort of things that an excellent hitter does: make the stance relaxed but ready, step into the ball, and so forth. The idea is that by doing what good hitters do often enough, these practices become second nature, and so the amateur’s hitting skill improves. Likewise, if we prompt the beginning reader to do what more successful readers do, in time these techniques will become second nature.

But we can’t actually tell the reader exactly what to do because comprehension depends on the particulars of the text…. I can’t give a reader all-purpose instructions about how to connect sentences, other than to say “sentences must connect.”

So baseball coaching is a bad analogy for RCS.

 

This is a suspect analysis of the analogy – and I say that as both a former HS and Little League baseball coach and as someone who knows the RCS literature and practice pretty well.

First of all, batting practice is akin to learning and practicing the RCS. You learn about “hitting” by getting some advice and some feedback from where the ball goes and what the coach says about your mechanics. Such practice is equally context-less to practicing reading with strategies. You are not facing a real and unique pitcher in a real and unique game situation. You are learning to hit in general in batting practice.

A critical problem with hitters is not seeing the ball – though believing that they are! They tend to pull their head out, away from looking at the ball, as they swing. The challenge is to develop the skill to resist the natural physics of head movement with the swinging: you must learn to resist it by design.

So “learning to really see the ball” in batting practice is exactly like practicing “inferring moods and character” in a text. You practice the sub-skills and schema developments that are needed to better “see” texts and their meanings when you next read independently in context. Both skills have to be practiced – with deliberate effort – until they become automatic elements of a repertoire.

Another analogy. Willingham then proposes a “more apt” analogy than baseball coaching: putting IKEA furniture together.

Suppose you bought a desk at Ikea which you were to assemble yourself. The instructions, in their entirety read: “Think about desks you’ve seen before. And every now and then step back and see if what you’ve got so far looks like it makes sense.” This is good advice, but it doesn’t tell you how to build your desk. For that, you need to know whether flap A goes into slot B or slot C. You need the specifics of the connections you are to make. Likewise, RCS instruction doesn’t give the specific connections to make among the ideas of a text. It can’t, because how to connect ideas depends on the specifics of the ideas.

This is surely a straw man argument, a caricature of both strategy and the limited long-term value of specific instructions. How is any RCS as vague as “Think about desks you have seen before.”? Reading teachers working with RCS would never say anything so vague about drawing from prior experience. Rather, that strategy – as with any general approach – would mean something specific in varied contexts until it was generalized: “Draw upon your prior experience with menacing dogs and animal owners as you read – why might the old man with the dog treat the boy that way?” The “strategy” is the general form of the advice, not the entirety of the advice.

Similarly, only novice and ineffective coaches say “Watch the ball, you need to watch the ball, you’re not watching the ball!”

Transfer as the goal. Both hitting and reading in context involve unique and unpracticed elements – that’s the difficulty of coaching for transfer, whether in reading or sports. This pitcher is a leftie, and all our batting practice was with righties; this pitcher throws a good change-up but we don’t throw many in batting practice; this game is under the lights but we practice only during the day, etc. Similarly with texts: new texts demand adaptive transfer of our skills. You cannot “plug in” either generic batting or RCS.

What’s thus odd about Willingham’s negative portrayal of RCS as completely unspecific advice compared to specific instructions is that all the research on transfer points in the opposite direction: to learn to transfer and see possible transfer opportunities, you have to generalize from specific successes and failures from using your skills strategically. Indeed, you get negative transfer if the learner only learners something in one context. (This explains the essay item on the MCAS test that I often refer to in which students do not think a 17-paragraph piece of writing can be an essay because it doesn’t have 5 paragraphs.)

Thus, just looking only at the unique features of these single directions inhibits later transfer because each new situation will then look completely different. Indeed, I find it very odd that Willingham never once mentions transfer of learning in discussing either the rationale for strategies or what research reveals about transfer of the strategies – a hallmark of the gold standard studies. (More on the transfer issue in the 2nd post).

The analogy of furniture-building directions is thus completely off. The specific instructions for this desk will not transfer to assembling IKEA chairs or tables; and as you assemble you do, indeed, need to step back and consider whether the assembly is on target. True story: my wife was working with a young man to build some IKEA chairs recently. He believed he was following the directions. My wife looked over, laughed, and she told the young man to step back and see if the chair was correct. Unbeknownst to him, the back legs pointed up while the front legs pointed down. We have all made such mistakes. In fact, had the young man used the strategy of re-reading as he went, he might have caught the error sooner.

In Part 2 I address the most puzzling aspect of Willginham’s argument: that reading strategies are “tricks” not worth spending much time on, not core abilities. I also will question his citing only a slice of relevant research data to support his argument on that score.

Stay tuned.

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