Yes, reading strategies – and explicit teaching of them – make a considerable difference, as my previous four blog posts here, here, here, and here make clear. And there is much to like about the idea of the gradual release of (teacher) responsibility in the teaching of those strategies for reading – or anything else where we want skillfulness. The approach is interactive, empowering for kids, easy for most teachers to grasp and implement, and grounded in research.

Here is the original graphic of the Gradual Release idea from the 1983 paper by Pearson & Gallagher:

Original GRR graphic

Here is a more recent graphic version from Duke & Pearson (2002):

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 5.19.36 PM

Here is a more recent version still, in the 2011 article on comprehension strategies by Duke, Pearson, Strachan & Billman, their chapter in a newer edition of What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (IRA, 2011):

2002 GRR graphic

Here is the text description accompanying the most recent graphic:

The model we recommend for teaching any comprehension strategy is the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). In this model (see Figure 3.1), responsibility for the use of a strategy gradually transfers from the teacher to the student through five stages (Duke & Pearson, 2002, pp. 208–210):

  1. An explicit description of the strategy and when and how it should be used. “Predicting is making guesses about what will come next in the text you are reading. You should make predictions a lot when you read. For now, you should stop every two pages that you read and make some predictions.”
  1. Teacher and/or student modeling of the strategy in action. “I am going to make predictions while I read this book. I will start with just the cover here. Hmm…I see a picture of an owl. It looks like he—I think it is a he—is wearing pajamas, and he is carrying a candle. I predict that this is going to be a make-believe story because owls do not really wear pajamas and carry candles. I predict it is going to be about this owl, and it is going to take place at nighttime….”
  1. Collaborative use of the strategy in action. “I have made some good predictions so far in the book. From this part on I want you to make predictions with me. Each of us should stop and think about what might happen next…. Okay, now let’s hear what you think and why….”
  1. Guided practice using the strategy with gradual release of responsibility. Early on… “I have called the three of you together to work on making predictions while you read this and other books. After every few pages I will ask each of you to stop and make a prediction. We will talk about your predictions and then read on to see if they come true.” Later on… “Each of you has a chart that lists different pages in your book. When you finish reading a page on the list, stop and make a prediction. Write the prediction in the column that says ‘Prediction.’ When you get to the next page on the list, check off whether your prediction ‘Happened,’ ‘Will not happen,’ or ‘Still might happen.’ Then make another prediction and write it down.”…
  1. Independent use of the strategy. “It is time for silent reading. As you read today, remember what we have been working on—making predictions while we read. Be sure to make predictions every two or three pages. Ask yourself why you made the prediction you did—what made you think that. Check as you read to see whether your prediction came true. Jamal is passing out Predictions! bookmarks to remind you.”

Great: a proven guide to teaching each strategy! What’s not to like?

The real last step. Well, a key step towards the goal of the strategies is missing. In light of our discussion so far, do you see the critical mistake that users of this approach might easily make by relying only on these graphics and the explanatory text?

Look at the so-called last step: independent practice. That is surely not the last step in developing self-regulated meaning-making. The last step is arguably fluent, flexible, and self-regulated selection and use from a repertoire of strategies – namely, successful transfer of learning for comprehension.

The authors understood the issue, as made clear in another section of their chapter:

Effective teachers of reading comprehension help their students develop into strategic, active readers, in part, by teaching them why, how, and when to apply certain strategies shown to be used by effective readers (e.g., Duke & Pearson, 2002). Although many teachers teach comprehension strategies one at a time, spending several weeks focused on each strategy … this may not be the best way to organize strategy instruction (Reutzel, Smith, & Fawson, 2005)…. Studies and reviews of various integrated approaches to strategy instruction, such as reciprocal teaching (e.g., Palincsar & Brown, 1984), have suggested that teaching students comprehension routines that include developing facility with a repertoire of strategies from which to draw during independent reading tasks can lead to increased understanding (e.g., Brown, 2008; Guthrie, Wigfield, Barbosa, et al., 2004; Spörer, Brunstein, & Kieschke, 2009).

Alas, no practical guidance is offered here on how to accomplish such an integrated approach.

(Oddly, the authors dropped a paragraph from their earlier 2002 version of this article that offers some guidance:

Ongoing assessment. Finally, as with any good instruction, comprehension instruction should be accompanied by ongoing assessment. Teachers should monitor students’ use of comprehension strategies and their success at understanding what they read. Results of this monitoring should, in turn, inform the teacher’s instruction. When a particular strategy continues to be used ineffectively, or not at all, the teacher should respond with additional instruction or a modified instructional approach. At the same time, students should be monitoring their own use of comprehension strategies, aware of their strengths as well as their weaknesses as developing comprehenders.)

The unintended consequence. Because of the well-known graphic, it becomes ironically far too easy for a teacher to incorrectly think that gradual release on each strategy, in the way laid out in the graphics, should somehow culminate in a self-regulated repertoire that transfers. Alas, that cannot cause transfer – as common sense and the research reveal. Recall Pressley’s blunt comment from an earlier post:

Rather than teaching students how to become self regulated learners, teachers seem to expect behaviors would naturally develop through prompted questions. There is of course no evidence that such prompting leads to anything like active self-regulated use of comprehension strategies.

Yet, despite these warnings in the literature, I have seen this problem first-hand time after time in classrooms: teachers follow this graphic in organizing the teaching of all the strategies – and, worse, rarely assessing the extent to which students, unprompted, use the strategies when reading new text.

Transfer and what it demands. Let’s go back to two seminal papers from 1983 (Paris, Lipson & Wixon) and Palinscar & Brown (1983) on Reciprocal Teaching that foreshadow the problem of transfer of individual lessons in strategy:

Palinscar & Brown:

We turn now to the instructional mode, how to teach the activities. One main concern was to try to avoid a common problem with traditional training studies, the outcomes of which have been somewhat discouraging. Although improvement on a particular skill in isolation has been reported, this improvement is often slight and fleeting, and there is very little evidence of transfer. Maintenance over time, generalization across settings, and transfer within conceptual domains are rarely found.

Paris, Lipson & Wixon:

[D]eclarative 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. For example, skimming is a procedure that is only appropriate for some tasks and situations. The procedure needs to be applied selectively to particular goals in order to be a strategy.

Reading only some of the words and sentences in text is not a strategy by itself; such skimming could be the result of skipping difficult words, poor visual tracking or laziness. The systematic employment of skimming to accomplish goals of speeded reading or previewing, however, would be strategic reading.

Conditional knowledge describes the circumstances of application of procedures. An expert with full procedural knowledge could not adjust behavior to changing task demands without conditional knowledge…

Here are other relevant summaries of research on transfer in reading strategically for comprehension. Most come from the Handbook on Research in Reading Comprehension that I have cited in previous posts:

  • Explicit instruction generates the immediate use of comprehension strategies, but there is less evidence that students continue to use the strategies in the classroom and outside of school after instruction ends (Keeny, Cannizzo & Flavell, 1967; Ringel & Springer, 1980) or that they transfer the strategies to new situations.
  • The lack of evidence [about when and to what extent strategy instruction transfers] stems from the heavy reliance on smaller sample sizes and shorter-term intervention designs as well as limited attention to a “gold standard” of transfer of training to autonomous use.
  • Teaching students in grades 3–6 to identify and represent story structure improves their comprehension of the story they have read. In the case of this strategy, there was no evidence that the strategy transferred to the reading of new stories and improvement was more marked for low- achieving readers.
  • Skilled comprehenders use metacognitive strategies significantly more often than less skilled readers. Less skilled comprehenders were significantly less likely to make inferences from text even with equal background knowledge.
  • Spiro and colleagues suggested traditional educational techniques often oversimplify the presentation of knowledge in ways that hinder subsequent ability to use knowledge flexibly, and argued that instruction must present information in multiple ways to foster flexible thinking, a method they called “criss-crossing the landscape”(Spiro 2004.)
  • Work in cognitive development shows children must develop the ability to consider multiple aspects of stimuli. Children are predisposed to derive a single interpretation from a text. Even when faced with inconsistent text information, children’s inability to consider multiple features of texts leads them to select one interpretation over others – rather than considering and comparing alternative perspectives and then choosing the most appropriate one, resulting in poor text comprehension.
  • Oakhill, Youwill and Parking 1986 compared inference making abilities of skilled and less skilled 7 to 8-year-old comprehenders who did not differ on decoding skills or working memory, finding the less skilled comprehenders were significantly less likely to make inferences from text. Cain and Oakhill 1999 reported similar findings, even when skilled and less skilled comprehenders possessed the requisite prior knowledge to support inference generation.

From Beck Questioning the Author:

  • Building understanding… is what a reader needs to do to read successfully. Building understanding is not the same as extracting information from the page. Rather, building understanding involves actively figuring out what information we need to pay attention to and connecting that to other information.

Toward successful transfer of learning. How then is such flexible self-regulation in building meaning of text more likely to happen? How can teachers more likely facilitate transfer of learning vis a vis the comprehension and metacognitive strategies?

Here are a few key passages from How People Learn (2001) that summarize what we know about effective use of conditional knowledge in new situations – i.e. successful transfer of learning:

A major goal of schooling is to prepare students for flexible adaptation to new problems and settings. Students’ abilities to transfer what they have learned to new situations provides an important index of adaptive, flexible learning; seeing how well they do this can help educators evaluate and improve their instruction…

People’s ability to transfer what they have learned depends upon a number of factors:

  • Spending a lot of time (“time on task”) in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure effective learning…. [It is vital to] emphasize the importance of helping students monitor their learning so that they seek feedback and actively evaluate their strategies and current levels of understanding. Such activities are very different from simply reading and rereading a text.
  • Knowledge that is taught in a variety of contexts is more likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in a single context. Information can become “context-bound” when taught with context-specific examples…. One frequently used teaching technique is to get learners to elaborate on the examples used during learning in order to facilitate retrieval at a later time. The practice, however, has the potential of actually making it more difficult to retrieve the lesson material in other contexts, because knowledge tends to be especially context-bound when learners elaborate the new material with details of the context in which the material is learned (Eich, 1985).
  • When a subject is taught in multiple contexts, however, and includes examples that demonstrate wide application of what is being taught, people are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and to develop a flexible representation of knowledge (Gick and Holyoak, 1983).
  • Students develop flexible understanding of when, where, why, and how to use their knowledge to solve new problems if they learn how to extract underlying themes and principles from their learning exercises. Understanding how and when to put knowledge to use—known as conditions of applicability—is an important characteristic of expertise. Learning in multiple contexts most likely affects this aspect of transfer.

These are all helpful points, for sure, but probably not concrete enough or supported by relevant English/ELA examples enough for most teachers to apply directly. So, in my final posts I will offer a tentative set of practical implications of all this research for teachers in grades 6 – 12 who are trying to improve comprehension and achieve self-regulated transfer of learning in students.

I will also share some excerpts from books written for teachers of English that provide the most helpful tools and tactics reflective of this research. And I’ll return to a classic text that I have recommended before: its wisdom holds up 75 years later.