The Skillification of Reading

According to NCTE’s 2014 Position Statement on Reading,

Reading is a complex act of constructing meaning from print. We read in order to better understand ourselves, and the world around us; we use the knowledge we gain from reading to change the world in which we live.

I love this definition for its conciseness and the way it echoes what writers like Ursula Le Guin has to say about the real purpose of reading. But I confess I have a quibble with what NCTE says teachers need to offer students in order to construct that meaning:

1. access to a wide range of texts that mirror the range of students’ abilities and interests;
2. ample time to read a wide range of materials, from the very simple to the very challenging;
3. teachers who help them develop an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies;
4. opportunities to learn how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support each other;
5. and access to the literacy skills needed in a technologically advanced society.

I’m all in with numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5, but number 3 gives me pause. This isn’t because I don’t think readers need skills. I recognize that reading involves a range of skills from decoding and using context clues to evaluating an author’s argument. But too often those skills are taught in ways that can actually undermine, rather than enhance, a reader’s ability to construct meaning.

Consider,for instance, this chart of reading skills (without getting side-tracked in the question of whether they’re actually skills or strategies). Then add to that list these other skills: Scanning, Skimming, Annotating, Note-Taking, Paraphrasing, Drawing Conclusions and Identifying Character Traits, Story Elements, Literary Devices, Point of View, Text Structures, Text Features, Key Details, and Themes.

These skills (along with individual standards) often wind up as the content of the lessons we teach. And whether we teach these in isolation, using worksheets and graphic organizers, or have students practice them in authentic texts, there’s much that’s problematic about skilled-based instruction.

First there’s the problem that Tim Shanahan shares on his blog: “Researchers have shown that, indeed, when you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.” This means that while students may be able to, say, distinguish between fact and opinion or recognize the sequence of a text, their ability to construct meaning may be hampered.

To make this more concrete, let’s imagine we’ve brought a small group of kids together to practice the skill of identifying character traits, using the opening paragraph of Peter Lerangis’s The Sword Thief, the third book in The 39 Clues series:

Asking the group to consider what kind of character Amy is, students might infer from her exchange with her brother that she’s bossy, a know-it-all or stuck-up—and based on these details, they wouldn’t be wrong. But in order to construct meaning of this passage, a reader would need to figure out when and where they are (at the airport in Venice) and what’s happening (they’re worried that a samurai sword they’ve packed in the duffle bag might be found and confiscated in a random luggage search). And all of that could conceivably be missed if they’re only looking for details that suggest a character trait.

And then there’s this problem with skill-based instruction that NCTE notes in another Position Statement: 

[U]tilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways . . . [and that] prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction mislocates the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.

I think it’s important to remember this whenever we’re tempted to wring our hands over students who still can’t identify a main idea, despite being taught how to do so for years. This doesn’t mean, however, we should never teach skills. But we need to be mindful of what students may lose when we do—and consider if there are other ways to help them become skillful readers. In my last post, for instance, I suggested that rather than teaching analysis as a discrete skill, we see it as a by-product of the complex act of constructing meaning by interpreting. And many other skills that we teach in isolation can be by-products not only of interpretation, but also of reading for pleasure. According to the educational researcher Stephen Krashen, for instance,

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.

Similarly, at CCIRA’s yearly conference in Denver, I had the privilege of hearing Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, speak about a study he and Gay Ivey had conducted, which showed that when teachers shifted their instruction from teaching skills to socially and emotionally engaging students with high-interest texts, the following can happen:

And as the students developed social imaginations, additional outcomes were found:

So here’s my question: If all of these outcomes are natural outgrowths of students reading to construct meaning, why do we spend so much time and energy on teaching individual skills? Of course, I’m aware that some teachers have no choice, because they’re required to teach packaged programs ‘with fidelity’. Many also are driven to teach skills in isolation because of the role high-stakes test scores play in how they’re evaluated. But I have to wonder if it’s also because it gives us something concrete to teach.

This is something I think many teachers feel, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Even Nancie Atwell, one of the most respected reading teachers on the planet, succumbed to the allure of having something to teach when she first heard about comprehension strategies in the 1990’s. As she writes in The Reading Zone:

Despite everything I recognized and celebrated about the impact of frequent, voluminous, enjoyable experiences with books on my students’ abilities as readers, I still harbored a pocket of doubt about the rigor of reading workshop, especially about my role in it. . . I hadn’t yet defined, to my own satisfaction, exactly what I was supposed to do as the teacher in a reading workshop. So the comprehension strategies held immediate appeal: I could give myself a role by teaching these.”

Eventually, though, Atwell recognized that imposing any agenda on her students’ reading, beyond the construction of meaning, interfered with their ability to become the “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” she wanted them to be. So she went back to doing what she’d been doing: giving kids abundant time to read and talk about what they were reading, trusting that reading would teach them how to read, without her needing to skillifying the process. And perhaps, we should do that as well.

21 thoughts on “The Skillification of Reading

  1. So much food for thought, Vicki (as always). Your first picture was fabulous. Although the word was “Skills”, I loved how you had construction equipment! I wonder if everyone believes that we “construct meaning” as we read. Are there those that believe skills + skills + skills (or strategies) = reading?

    I’m also wondering about this . . .” However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.” Is this a result of “narrow” instruction or “narrow” formats of assessment? (or Both?) When a test asks for a theme in one word and students are used to a full statement, what would be the response of the person analyzing the test?

    If the whole purpose is constructing meaning, aren’t the “correct answers” the real obstacle? If students need to “muck around” in the meaning and construct, revise, add to, why aren’t tests asking “at what point did your thinking change”? Well they can’t because in our standardized formats, the answers would all be different and percentages would be way out of whack.

    Whether skills or strategies it is “alluring” to teach that list and check off the ones that students can provide evidence of use, I get that. GUILTY. Been there, done that. Yet, the real understanding is when students mimic that in their own writing or when the learning actually transfers to another situation/content area.

    And I am eagerly anticipating Ellin Keene’s book on Engagement after Peter Johnston’s CCIRA speech. I’m a believer in voice and choice and the power it gives me as a reader (and writer). I can’t wait to see where she takes us.

    So much to think about today . . .

    • Thanks, Fran. I’d been wanting to write this one for a while and am glad I finally put it out in the world, as it’s getting a fair amount of traction. Seems like there’s even more of us out there who want kids to be meaning makers, not test takers. And I’m hoping that, like Mosaic of Thought, Ellin’s new book will reach the widest audience and that pushes a return to sanity even further. P.L. Thomas at Radical Scholarship (who wrote a great post about the “skills plague”: talks about skill-based instruction as being part of an “efficiency” and “analytic” model of education vs. a holistic one. And just like the concept of the teaching to the whole child seems finally coming back, I’m hoping a whole approach to reading will do too!

  2. Great post, Vicki! I look forward to sharing it with participants at our Reading the World workshop next month.
    I’m thinking that the contrast you’re drawing attention to echoes Freire’s distinction between teaching for bureaucracy as opposed to creativity:
    I love Johnston and Ivey’s rejoinder at the end of their chapter in Teacher You Want To Be about that research:
    “Children live their lives in school. They do not merely come to school to learn academics. It is time we embraced the wholeness and complexity of human development as a goal of schooling and recognized that academics are not the only tools humanity has produced to pass on. When research is so consistent regarding the importance of student engagement as a hub of healthy human relationships and personal, social, and academic development, we have to ask what perversity allows us to persist with status quo schooling. Some will argue that pressures of academic achievement in the interests of subsequent employment (and current test scores) make it necessary to focus on academics rather than human development. However, the evidence makes it clear that there is no such trade off. When we attend to individual and collaborative engagement within a community of learners, particularly encouraging difference rather than standardization as central to learning, children (and teachers) find each other interesting and are successful socially, emotionally, personally, and also academically. In other words, we can have our cake and eat it.”
    It also reminds me of this conversation between Opal School fifth graders:
    Sophia – “At Opal School, we don’t learn through pages of books – we learn through questions of books. People might read a story that’s just a nighttime story, but when we read a book, we dig deep into it. We don’t have a schedule of what we’re going to do: we find lots of comments and make lots of connections that you wouldn’t normally make.”
    Daniel – “When we finished Crow and Weasel, Mary Gage said we’re done with the book but we’re not done with the thinking.”
    Lauren – “Could you make that more general? Whenever we finish “something,” there is always more thinking behind it than we realize at first?”
    Thanks for the provocation, Vicki!

    • Thanks so much for the link to the Freire interview! And for the 5th graders’ exchange! I’ve actually been sharing a transcript you sent me of Hannah and her kids talking about reading before I came to Opal a few years ago because it’s so rare to see teachers offering kids these kind of opportunities to meaningfully reflect. Instead it’s all about reflecting on your goals, which I, IMHO, think is all about bureaucracy, too – or what P.L. Thomas calls an “efficiency” model of teaching: (If you don’t already know him, you should follow his blog, Radical Eyes for Equity. And yes to having our cake & eating it, too! Whole reading for the whole child!

  3. Wow… another powerful post, Vicki. As always, you have me thinking. In the past, the reading wars were about phonics versus whole language as the “best practice” for reading instruction. As we know, the answer came in the form of balanced literacy, a combination of both structures, supporting research that children “come to literacy” via many paths, and no two paths are the same.

    The latest reading wars exist on the use of leveled texts. Fountis and Pinnell took Marie Clay’s work with 1st graders and replicated it through middle school readers. Although they intended their findings to remain as a teacher’s tool, it hasn’t. Instead of students’ reading identities residing in genre, topic, interest, or author, kids are identifying themselves as “a level.” And, teachers are conflicted. If Allington says that volume matters, but only if the reading can be understood/comprehended, then how is that implemented? How do teachers find that balance between offering true, authentic choice, alongside the responsibility for the “teaching” of reading?

    I don’t know the answer, but I do believe that building a community of readers and writers begins with a teacher who is passionate and who supports a learning environment where empathy is honored, so that risk taking can occur. I always wanted to structure my 7th grade classroom like Atwell’s, where kids can read or write whatever they want, and community is built through poetry. Maybe that’s why her students win so many writing awards… Less structure + More choice = Abundant Learning! Thanks for stretching my thinking!

    • And another powerful comment, Laurie! Someone (Tom Marshall? You?) cc’d me on an email thread about a group that was looking at levels, with the full recognition that we’ve veered far away from what F&P and Marie Clay intended and create something damaging to kids. I’d love to hear about the group’s thinking because there is, indeed, no quick, easy answer. But for me, part of the answer lies in re-envisioning small group work so that it’s focused on meaning-making, with kids coming together to use talk to construct understanding, vs. coming together so the teacher can coach individual students around a teacher-centric U-shaped table. And I think it’s also time to move away from thinking about ‘just right’ books in terms of words to one about meaning, which you’re making me think I need to revisit again on the blog!

      • Principal extraordinaire, Tom Marshall, initiated the important conversation on the leveling wars. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get to Paramus at all this year; my district implemented a new coaching model, which has been my focus. I know Tom’s been blogging about it though. As a final thought, the research you shared from Johnston and Ivey intrigues me. I can’t wait to see how this unfolds – and I am looking forward to your next post!

  4. Hi Vicki. You post was so timely because we have been talking in school this week about just that. We have no required curriculum to meet so this is really on us. I have been trying to articulate what I have been feeling as I am watching our kiddos in intervention. Especially when they are focusing on comprehension strategies. This post hit the nail on the head. “But I have to wonder if it’s also because it gives us something concrete to teach” That line really made me think. Thanks for giving me something to share with teachers to stretch our thinking. We miss you in Sweet Home!

    • So wonderful to hear from you, Ann! I, too, miss you and all my Sweet Home friends – though I’m hoping to maybe see some in Houston for NCTE this November, especially if the session with Leigh Ann & Olivia, which I’m going to chair, gets accepted. I do regret that we never had time to delve into small group work & conferring, both of which I do in a meaning-making way that fostered the development of skills, but am always eager to hear how Sweet Home’s thinking is evolving!

      • Hi Vicki! Great to hear from you too. I am hoping to get to NCTE to see that session but I am retiring on 7/1/18. Bittersweet for sure but I am hoping to keep my hand in the work in some way.

      • Just wanted to belatedly say, that I, too, hope you find a way of keeping your hand in the work, as you’re such a strong voice for sanity, authenticity and children becoming meaning makers. As you probably know, the proposal I was hoping to chair with Olivia wasn’t accepted (nor was one I’d submitted, so at least I know I’m in good company). But I like to think that with any luck our paths will cross again at some point. At least I’m hoping so.

  5. Wow! This was so thought provoking! As an intermediate literacy coach, I believe wholeheartedly that kids need choice and TIME (lots of time!) to read, read, read. But I also realize that teachers feel the pressure of curriculum maps and testing, so they feel the need to have a more structured approach…Thank you for this post!

    • If you didn’t already catch it, Pam, you might want to take a look at the post I wrote about analyzing (which is the one right before this one), in particular what Tim Shanahan had to say about what best prepares kids for the tests. He’s one of the educators who really pushed the text-dependent question-driven approach to close reading when the CCS first came out, and now he’s suddenly recognized that that hasn’t really worked – and what kids really need is deeper comprehension work. And maybe, just as we all had to do in the wake of the CCS, it’s time to consider revising those curriculum maps.

  6. I can’t help but think of the hours wasted with complex mini-lessons that could have been given to students and books. Eyes on text matters. Trusting the reader will learn from the act of reading is scary for many teachers. If only teachers were given permission to sit beside a reader, observe and wonder about their interests or struggles at the moment, what powerful readers we might create. Thank you for this research-based, sensible, and thought-provoking piece.

    • So wish you had been sitting with me & Fran in Denver to hear Peter Johnston, Julieanne! It would have lifted your soul! I’m still trying to work out in my mind what makes this so truly terrifying for so many teachers. Maybe Tom Newkirk’s Embarrassment needs to be required reading K-12! Maybe we’d have more teachers asking themselves, “Am I asking the right questions, and are their being asked at the right times?,” as you wrote in that last great blog. But here’s another question: I’m going to be back in LA the early part of August. Will I get to see you there? And are you coming to NYC this summer? Hope so!

      • Oh I wish I was there! Thankfully I have your blog that keeps me centered. I believe You’re right about that required reading. Fear keeps us from our best selves and best practices.
        I am planning to go to NY this summer. Probably in July. Thinking about the UNH conference.

  7. When I first began student teaching in gr. 2 in 1969 my cooperating teacher handed me the basal teacher’s manual. I was horrified. I did not plan to teaching reading by a script. I was lucky to be enrolled in a visionary teacher-preparation program, a one-of-its-kind version of shaping future education teacher/leaders. I had no basis for comparison to other programs ie at traditional teacher colleges.At that time our “methods” courses were compressed into one year-long Foundations of Education 6 credit course taught by a team of our professors in a very small department and student teaching seminar while we were actually teaching. Later I would wonder if I had missed something in a more rigorous course on methods for teaching say reading or math, but in the end I realized I had been fortunate. We were taught that we were to be life long learners and to above all, do no harm! And to be creative and to think deeply about child development and philosphy. To question and to wonder.

    Then blessedly over time I learned to manage the 3 required reading groups in my 5th grade. I was in a system that valued creative teaching and honored teacher intelligence and decision-making. I always on the look out for new ideas, even though teachers were never sent to any conferences.(A huge error in PD in my opinion, especially today.) How did I start to make changes? I watched kids. I asked myself questions? I tried new approaches. I read a variety of journals like The Reading Teacher and ASCD. I went to a regional conference and heard a speaker talk about Brain Growth Stages. Well that sent me off learning as much as I could about what we would imagine if we looked at child development from the infant stage on and really used what we could tell from brain studies. Then there was the era of learning and teaching styles. All of these not a remedy nor perfection in and of themselves but eye-opening, provocative, encouraging. Ater reading about Nancie Atwell’s reading and writing workshop in 1987 in a Harvard Educ. Review article, I knew that I had the vehicle to realize the best teaching method I could. After though the pendulum swung. Too many took the idea of reading workshop and did not fully understand nor implement it to the best level. There was too much everyone reading the same novel round robin style. The teachers believed they should be on the stage and teach the bits ie the skills. But the sum of all these bits is NOT greater than the whole when it comes to creating readers. I know. I did it. I hear it all the time from grateful parents and kids who talk about books and what they learned. I heard it yesterday. Again. It pains me that there is such retrenchment. Miss use of levels, reading for quizzes and pizza, fidelity to progams and not to children. Here is a question I pose. How did we get amazing readers back in the day before all this stuff? Easy: access to books, time (and there was so much more of it because of fewer distractions) and reading widely and often. Perhaps a mentor like a parent, a teacher, a librarian, a friend. I had very little skillification as a young reader, thank goodness. My mother read and valued reading. I married an inveterate reader. I love books and want them around. I could gift all of that to my students and eventually did. For almost my entire career, thank goodness. I found ways to work around the restrictions and when my administrators would watch the lessons, they would know the kids were learning. Test scores were ok. I was allowed to teach and make a difference. We should all be able to do that. But it is hard work. Teachers have to invest time. But they get to read books of all kinds in the process and help kids.

    • Oh, Janet! First, I’m so sorry it took me so long to respond to this. Let’s just say I have my moments of despondency over the state of education as well. Like you, I came of age during a time when everyone was reading professional books and now I work in some schools where teachers don’t even know who Kylene Beers is, let alone Nancie Atwell. And it’s downright shocking to know how few know what NCTE is. As I’ve written before, I do feel the pendulum is finally starting to move in a better direction. There’s more talk and interest in students’ social and emotional learning and, at least in other disciplines, more interest in empowering kids as problem solvers. But it may take a generation or two before the damage done to this generation of children is wiped clean. I did, though, have the wonderful opportunity to hear George Couros speak at a conference recently. He’s the author of The Innovator’s Mindset, a principal and a leadership consultant, and while he doesn’t address ELA directly, he’s a powerful voice for the need to, as his book’s subtitle puts it, Empower Learning, Unleash Talent and Lead a Culture of Creativity, for students AND for teachers. To me he’s one of the strongest voices about change out there. And I can’t imagine anyone out there hearing him speak and being willing to continue the status quo. So I guess when I’m not despondent, I’m still hopeful. Hope you are as well.

  8. Hi, Vicki –
    Since your post went up, this research was released:
    If ai can take any text and read it aloud with the fluency of a native speaker today, it boggles the mind what is coming in a year – or five years – or in four+ decades, when the children I work with today will be my age.
    This has huge implications to what skills we’re making a priority in our work with young people – implications few are willing to entertain. It definitely shifts the skills elsewhere from decoding.
    Thanks for making these conversations happen!

    • The implications of robots doing read alouds is seriously scary in all sorts of ways, but even more so, I thought, was the post you put up recently about “Confronting the Disimagination Marchine–perhaps because this is happening right now. My hunch is that virtually everyone who reads both my and Opal’s blog posts sees worksheets as a blight to children’s intellectual capacities. But the sentence you bolded seemed even more insidious:
      “More than being guided by outcomes and standards, it’s about being dominated by a stance that standardizes experiences and thinking to the point where the leaf in front of you is replaced by an anonymous line drawing. It’s about interrupting the child’s own powers of observation with “accountability” to see the “right” things on the walk.” (
      I’d never thought of worksheets quite that way before, as tool of both disimagination and disempowerment. But will try to spread the word via twitter as soon as I hit the reply key on this!

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