Teaching that Blocks the Path to Strategic Activity

When teaching our young students to read we strive to give them the tools they need to be a “problem-solver”.  If our students do not develop independence with problem-solving they can become dependent on us, unmotivated to read, and they are more likely to abandon books in frustration when they encounter difficulties.

In this post, “strategic activity” refers to students knowing how to work on words, sentences, and texts to understand the message relayed (Clay, 2001, p. 127).  Strategic activity in the sense of the “reading work” that students do which is also defined by Marie Clay (2001) as “in the head neural activity initiated by the learner and hidden from the teacher’s view” (p. 128).

Students need to be provided with many opportunities to experience successful problem-solving.  When students become problem-solvers in reading they build a “neural network for working on written language and that network learns to extend itself.” (Clay, 2017, p. 129) Unfortunately, we may unintentionally work in ways that undermine the goal of developing strategic readers.

Strategic Activity Roadblocks

Placing emphasis on accuracy

Emphasizing accuracy sends the message that reading is simply about remembering and recalling letters, sounds, and high-frequency words.  While item knowledge is an important piece of literacy learning it is not the heart of reading.  In my experience, just because a student can recall high-frequency words and decode words it does not always mean that they comprehend what they are reading.

Putting an emphasis on students “being right” when they read can cause students to become hesitant to take risks and be more likely to wait for their teacher to tell them unknown words.  If a student’s only strategy is to remember everything, reading will be an exhausting and frustrating activity.  Repeated feelings of frustration can lead to a learner who becomes passive and does not choose to read outside of school and may avoid reading activities in school.

The following are teaching moves we can make to decrease the emphasis we put on accuracy and increase the likelihood of problem-solving.

Instead of immediately correcting students’ errors

Try providing opportunities for students to monitor and self-correct their own errors

Instead of spending much of the lesson on isolated letter/word learning

Try spending the majority of the lesson reading and writing authentic text 

Instead of choosing books with the mindset, “can my student read all of the words in this book?”

Try choosing books with the mindset, “how can this book extend my students’ problem-solving repertoire?”

Instead of keeping students in lower levels despite running records that are consistently in the 99%-100% range

Try increasing the complexity of the text to ensure that students have ample opportunity to problem-solve

Spending too much time on isolated skills practice

When we work with students that know a handful of letters and a couple of words it might seem like it is necessary to spend much of our instructional time teaching letters, sounds, and words.

The problem with this theory is that our most struggling readers often have difficulty linking and applying items learned in isolation to real reading and writing work.  When students spend less time on isolated learning and more time engaging in authentic reading and writing activities they are able to reinforce all that is known, apply what is known in different ways, use what is known to figure out something new and be exposed to new words.

Keeping the time spent on isolated skills learning as the smaller portion of our lesson not only allows our students more time actually reading books which in itself is important but also emphasizes the importance of making meaning.

Here are some signs that might mean a student thinks reading is about remembering:

  • Eyes looking up as if trying to recall
  • Asking, “Am I right?”
  • Stating, “I can’t remember these words/this book.”
  • Appealing
  • Not attempting/Waiting for a told
  • Showing verbal/nonverbal signs of frustration

My intention is not to downplay the importance of learning letters, sounds, and words but I do want to stress the importance of giving value to meaning so that our students can “integrate what they know about print and meaning” to “keep them on track toward fast and efficient word recognition strategies”  (Schwartz, p.42).

Immediately correcting errors

Not allowing the child to notice and find their own mistake is a stolen opportunity for a child to further develop to a strategic system for reading that leads them on the path to reading with independence.  Students who monitor their own reading are more actively engaged.  Self-correcting provides readers with the opportunity to practice more problem-solving work that will extend their network of strategies.

Students are not always aware of their self-monitoring behaviors.  We can encourage these behaviors and bring them to our students’ awareness.

5 Ways to Encourage Monitoring5 Ways to Encourage Monitoring

adapted from Finding Versus Fixing:  Self-monitoring for Readers Who Struggle by Nancy Anderson & Elizabeth Kaye

Relying solely on mastery assessments

Mastery assessments often test students on known letters, letter-sound relationships, high-frequency words, and phonological tasks outside of authentic literacy tasks.  Students who have not mastered enough item knowledge are held back from new learning and become stuck in a cycle of testing and reteaching.

Many students learn how to “play the mastery assessment game” which leads to good test scores.  This in itself does not ensure that students will have success with reading.  Students have to know how to “use this knowledge to read and write new messages” and “how to expand the literacy processing system while doing this.” (Clay, 2001, p. 219).

Equal value should be also placed on examining our students’ progress using:

  • lesson record notes
  • running records
  • writing samples
  • reading/writing workshop conference notes

All of this information together can be used to assist us in making daily moment by moment decisions to help students apply their literacy learning.

Teaching only one strategy or too many strategies

While we do not want to limit our students to only one way to get “unstuck”, we also do not want to bombard them with too many reading strategies.  When students are able to use a few well-chosen strategies for successful processing new links to efficient problem-solving will be made (Clay, 2001, p. 204).  This problem-solving work can then be applied to novel tasks and more difficult text.

“When you teach and prompt for effective reading behaviors, your goal is to help the reader learn to do something strategic that he/she can do whenever he/she reads.  We want readers to be flexible in the way they engage in problem-solving while maintaining a focus on the meaning of the text” (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 345).

Strategic Reading Behaviors to teach for:

Search for and use information:  When students encounter something that does not fit they need to use different sources of information (meaning, structure, visual) in a “smoothly orchestrated way” (Fountas & Pinnell, p.329).  Students need to be able to search actively using both visible (pictures, print, punctuation, spacing, layout, font size, graphics, symbols) and invisible (background experiences, knowledge of the world, recognition of items, emotions, and language) information (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 329).

Monitoring and self-correcting behaviors:  As mentioned above monitoring and self-correcting behaviors are very important for struggling readers to take on.

Word Solving:  Students need to be “word solvers” not just “word rememberers”.   We need to teach students a variety of way to solve words, to use what they know, to always work in a left to right manner, and to work with larger parts of words (not always letter by letter).

Confirming:  “Students need to learn how to verify their decisions, which includes both confirming and rejecting attempts in text” (Fitzgerald, p. 17).  The first step is to teach children what they can do to check if they are wrong or right.  Then we should allow the child to confirm for themselves by being careful with the way we respond to their reading.  We should try to avoid the following responses:

Correct Response Incorrect Response
“You’re right” “Oops!”
“Yes!’ “So close”
“Mmmm-hmmm” “Almost”

(Fitzgerald, p. 19)

As teachers, we are always trying to make the best decisions we can for our students.  We work hard to provide our students with the tools they need to become independent problem-solvers. We can avoid teaching moves that discourage our students from becoming efficient problem-solvers that always take action.  Emphasizing accuracy, long periods of time spent on isolated skills practice, stealing opportunities to monitor and self-correct, depending on mastery assessments, over-relying on any one strategy or confusing students with too many strategies can impede the growth of our students as strategic readers.



Anderson, Nancy L. and Kaye, Eizabeth L.  “Finding Versus Fixing:  Self-Monitoring for Readers Who Struggle.”  The Reading Teacher.  Vol. 70, No. 5: 543-550. Print.

Clay, Marie.  Change Over Time In Children’s Literacy Development.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2001. Print.

Clay, Marie.  Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals, 2nd edition.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2016. Print

Fitzgerald, Lorianne.  “Teaching Students to Confirm Using Sound and Letter Knowledge.” Journal of Reading Recovery.  Fall (2013): 17-23. Print.

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su. When Readers Struggle:  Teaching That Works.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2009. Print.

Schwartz, Robert M.  “Why Not Sound It Out?” Journal of Reading Recovery.  Spring (2015): 39-46. Print.

One thought on “Teaching that Blocks the Path to Strategic Activity

  1. Pingback: Don’t Teach Strategies: Self-monitoring & Cross-checking (part 1) – Literacy Pages

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s