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Teacher-to-Teacher: Balancing Act By Janice Ewing

In a recent grad class, we were attempting to synthesize knowledge from a variety of texts, including The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, along with two texts about the core standards and strategies to support and implement them. The use of multiple sources of information, with different viewpoints, is of course a component of the core standards, and is a practice that most of us commonly use to make decisions. So why were we struggling with reconciling the points we were taking from the various texts?


For example, we read and discussed several strategies for guiding students to monitor their comprehension. There were the usual suspects – post-it notes, bookmarks with strategic reminders, verbal check-ins, text-coding, and other types of annotation. A few of the elementary grade teachers, some of whom teach special education classes, responded that these were the types of check-ins that their students needed, and that they were always on the look-out for additions to their teacher toolboxes.


However, other teachers in the group had markedly different reactions. They argued that a plethora of strategies, however well-intended, would interrupt the flow of their students reading and decrease motivation. One of the secondary teachers claimed that, based on her experience, her students would balk at anything that seemed like ‘extra work.’ Another added that her students would resist putting effort into a practice that was not ‘for a grade.’


Was this an elementary versus secondary issue? On the surface, it appeared that way, but my hunch was that that explanation was too simplistic. In order to unpack this further, we began by looking at the reasons why we use comprehension strategies ourselves, and why we teach them to our students. We agreed that, in our own experience as readers, we frequently find ourselves rereading, questioning what we just read, deciding what was most important, or making connections, depending on the content and purpose of our text. Of course, this is done either subconsciously or by choice, rather than in response to a requirement.


We often hear and use the word ‘scaffold,’ but now we took a closer look at what that term actually means. We agreed on a working definition of scaffolds as temporary supports, to be used as needed. We also found ourselves reaching consensus around the idea that reading comprehension strategies should be used purposefully, which led us to the word ‘intention.’ From that perspective, we considered how we could most effectively introduce comprehension strategies at all levels through modeling and guided practice, and then encourage our students to use them when and how they’re most helpful, rather than as an extra requirement that only accompanies school-related reading.



Then we wondered, “What about choice?” Miller, Gallagher, and numerous other respected educational writers, researchers, and practitioners have reinforced the importance of choice as a source of motivation and a foundational element for developing lifelong literacy. We decided that once students have truly acquired a repertoire of relevant strategies, they have the agency to make informed choices as to which to use and when.


The challenge of balancing the use of reading comprehension strategies with the fostering of the joy of reading is complex. In our classroom conversations, we examined the concepts of scaffolds, intention, and choice to help us synthesize and crystallize our thinking. What do you think?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. April Lynn Melson #

    I very much enjoyed this article and thought it was very insightful. In my opinion, I believe that reading in content areas can become so boring for students when it is the continual reading of text book material. I think your point about student choice not only in what strategy to use, but also in reading what interests them. Unfortunately, I feel that the K-12 system can drain the love of reading in some circumstances. When a teacher finds they are just using the textbook and not engaging with interesting supplementary texts I think it can become very dry for students. That can be seen in the students not wanting to do work unless they are being rewarded with a grade. This is such a sad statement because it does not foster a genuine love of reading but a “need to do” basis of education. I think delving into relighting a students’ love of literacy will make them more likely to read for enjoyment and use comprehension strategies that are provided to them.


    November 22, 2017
    • janiceewing #

      Thanks, April! I was struck by the phrase “relighting students’ love of literacy.” It’s unfortunate that so many lose that love during there school years, but what a gift if we can restore it!


      November 22, 2017
  2. Janice, I think this post will make us all think about what kind of balance we can bring to reading experiences. Atwell talks about “the reading zone” and Gallagher talks about “flow.” Perhaps during independent reading, students can focus on flow and a subconscious/automatic use of fix-up and monitoring comprehension strategies. We can practice how to talk to the text with coding strategies, checklists, and sticky notes when we are mainly engaged in reading through an efferent stance – for example, to understand something to be able to teach it to others or perform on a test. Thinking about how to balance joyful reading with developing an expertise on how to best use comprehension strategies as well as when (choice) and why to use each strategy is truly an art.


    November 2, 2017
    • janiceewing #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lynne. I agree that this balancing act is an art. I hope that teachers continue to have these conversations in classes, with colleagues, and with their students.


      November 2, 2017
  3. Janice,
    Stepping back and examining reading comprehension strategies — the why, how, when — is so essential. What a great class discussion. I appreciate the emphasis on balancing using reading strategies while also retaining the joy of reading when we teach. My recent group of college freshman wrote literacy narratives this semester and many focused on why, how, and when they stopped enjoying reading — and the loss for many occurred when the sole purpose for reading became efferent in their school years. Few students could remember a balance of efferent and aesthetic reading experiences during their school years.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


    November 1, 2017
    • janiceewing #

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. It’s sad and disturbing that so many students lose the joy of reading, but so helpful to reflect on how and why that happened, and hopefully, what effect that will have on them as future teachers.


      November 2, 2017

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