Skills Vs. Strategy

Throughout my teaching career, there was something that I always had trouble wrapping my head around: the difference between a skill and strategy.  Like many educational terms, the definition depends on who you ask, so it was always a bit murky to me.

During my time working on various curriculum writing committees, I started running with my own definition of the terms…

To me,

  • a skill is “content” necessary  for reading understanding
    • narrative elements
    • character traits
    • main idea and supporting details
    • text structures
    • text features
      •  Nonfiction (index, heading, caption, etc)
      • Fiction  (stanza, line, stage direction, cast of characters, etc)
    • Etc.

A reader would have to know that all of these exist and they would have to be able to name them out in any given text.

  • a strategy is, well, a reading strategy.  Based off the work of Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann in their groundbreaking Mosaic of Thought, as well as Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’ Strategies that Work.
    • monitor comprehension
    • make connections
    • visualize
    • determine importance
    • Etc.

And so, I, Lindsay Pish, classroom teacher also threw my definition out there– adding to the myriad of voices.

However, in my work as a literacy coach I’ve come across some other definitions that have gotten me thinking about how my working definition might fit into the mix. Here are three others that I recently came across:

1. When I took this position as a literacy coach, I gained the responsibility of working with middle school teachers.  Middle school literacy was a new territory for me so I did a lot of professional reading on the subject, including Teaching Reading in Middle School by Laura Robb.

Robb describes strategies as the internal reading processes used to make sense out of print, while skills are isolated and out of context drills.  “Strategic reading means that when the learner practices a strategy, he has a conscious, in-the-head plan for comprehending, whereas skills are used without conscious planning.”  For example, students are told to practice a skill on a worksheet, but decide to use a strategy during their independent reading.  Skills are basic practice and can only be elevated to the level of strategy by linking practice to the student’s personal reading life.  “As students use strategies, they become more and more aware of their reasoning process as they make sense out of print, skills seldom involve this kind of self-awareness.”

This could somewhat fit with my definition of each.  The skills are the isolated parts of reading content, identifying narrative elements or text features, that are used to complete the more complicated strategies, inferring or synthesizing.  So you would have to have knowledge of the skill to consciously use a strategy.

2. While doing research for a new strategy-based resource curriculum that I am writing, a fantastic teacher let me borrow the book, Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities by Robert Reid, Torri Ortiz Lienemann, and Jessica L. Hagaman.

In their book, the authors define a strategy as being facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful.  Meaning that strategies facilitate performance or help do a task better–easier, more quickly.  They liken a strategy to a tool.  Tools help us do a task “to a higher standard with much less effort” and strategies do the same.  Strategies are essential in that they are are necessary for success.  The highest achieving students use strategies.  In turn, these students make a conscious effort to use a strategy and commit to its use.

The authors go on to say that a strategy is a “cognitive process that occurs inside our head” and often one strategy is used in combination with another.  The point of strategy use in the classroom, according to this text, is to help structure the effort put into a task and to act as reminder for what the next step in the process is.  The conclusive definition of a strategy in this book then becomes, “a series of ordered steps that help a student perform a task.”

While I agree that strategies are facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful–a process that happens entirely in our head,I am not sure that I agree with strategies acting only as a series of ordered steps, likened to the the use of a mnemonic device to remember the steps in a math computation (“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”- parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction).  I would feel uneasy boiling down something as complicated as synthesizing two texts, into such a simplified process because I want to make sure that deeper understanding is present.

3. Finally, as a blogger I make sure that I keep up with other literacy-based blogs.  Recently blogger Annemarie, on Teacher2TeacherHelp did a series of posts on teaching strategically.

Annemarie would agree with the definition put forth by the authors of Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities.  She describes strategies as a mean to proficiently perform a skill.  Using Jennifer Serravello’s definition (from Teaching Reading Skills in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers) that “strategies are the step-by-step how-tos for internalizing skills,” Annemarie explains that strategies are scaffolds put in place to help with the development of skills, and left in place only long enough for the student to become independent with the skill.

When a student has trouble with a skill, Annemarie describes how she asks herself, “How can I break this down?” and then works to find ways the skill can be broken down into manageable steps.  She reminds teachers to focus on their process for doing things, by listing across their fingers, “First, I…Then…Next, I…” to make internal processes more apparent.

Again, it boils down to the use of a step-by-step process.  However, I feel a bit more comfortable with Annemarie’s explanation, since I can see how it would work with say, determining the main idea.  The student has trouble with this skill and I can break that task down into steps:

  1. First, ask yourself what this passage is all about.
  2. Then, decide what the author is trying to tell you about that topic.
  3. Next, ask yourself if this is something that the entire passage focuses on, or just a small part.
  4. Finally, ask yourself what details you can find to support that idea.

The thinking behind the skill is being broken down, rather than the rote use of something like a mnemonic device.  And through my work with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, I know that this definition would be their philosophy as well.  Their teaching points follow the form of, “Today I am going to teach you how to (a skill) by using ( a strategy).”  And that makes sense to me.

I also understand that skills can be leveled into a heirarchy, like Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  Identifying text features is a low level skill, where as using text features to determine the main idea is a higher leveled skill.

So, where do I go from here? Now that I’ve completely muddled my own thinking…

I think I need to adjust my idea of what a skill is.  What I previously thought of as a skill, may be more of a topic or umbrella term, rather than an actual skill that students must aquire.  For example, one can not “narrative element”, but one can identify narrative elements or summarize using narrative elements.  Those are skills that could be supplemented with strategies in order for students to be successful at them.

This idea does not exactly tie in the comprehension strategies set forth in Mosaic of Thought or Strategies that Work, but maybe that’s okay.  I can accept the two different “types” and move forward.  Maybe like so many of our students, these terms do not have to fit into perfectly labeled categories.

What have you thought about on this topic?  I would love to hear your ideas or musings.

Let’s keep the conversation going-