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Teacher question: I want to clarify the definitions of reading skills vs reading strategies. I know you have written about this, but I’m still confused. I’ve read your blogs, the National Reading Panel Report, Zimmerman’s Mosaic of Thought book, Oakhill et al.’s language skills, Chris Such’s book, Scarborough’s reading rope, etc. I tried to summarize what those sources had to say about each of more than a dozen strategies and I found several contradictions and lots of general confusion. Some of them label background knowledge as a strategy, while others say it is a language comprehension skill. Comprehension monitoring shows a similar pattern of disagreement, though the various authors might change sides about how to classify that one (and some treatments ignore it altogether). Scarborough shows language — which most classify as a skill — to become increasingly strategic with development. I could go on, but who is right here? 

Shanahan’s response:

That’s an easy question. I’m right!

Aren’t I always? I’m surprised that you didn’t know that. I thought you said you’ve read my blogs before.

Okay, maybe we’ve all been a tad sloppy with the old language, carefully delineating these concepts when addressing their distinctions explicitly, but not so much when we are just referring to skills and strategies in other treatments. Unfortunately, our carelessness is needlessly confusing and, perhaps, it is even a barrier to supporting the highest quality comprehension instruction.

Let’s see if I can cast light on this problem.

And, that, in fact, is a very good place to start…. with light.

Physicists during the 19th century and early part of the 20th, were all in a tizzy over the nature of light. Did light travel in waves or particles?

They argued back and forth over that. Scientists would conduct an experiment proving that light must be moving in waves. Which was convincing right up until some contradictory experiment showed that it must be transmitted as a series of discrete packets, particles, or photons.

That argument raged for quite a while before Erwin Schrödinger let the wind out of all their balloons with his equation that described the dual nature of light. He showed that light possesses both qualities under various conditions and put an end to the argument so they could get on with business. (Schrödinger was good at that kind of thing. You might remember he was the guy with the cat that was both dead and alive. I’m sure glad you didn’t ask me to explain that one!)

Much like Herr Schrödinger, I think this dead cat is amazingly lively.

That is, it’s possible for something to be both skill and strategy.

Sometimes we teach something as a strategy initially, and with development it gains skill status. The reverse can happen as well (à la, Hollis Scarborough’s rope, with language becoming increasingly strategic with development).

Background knowledge, for instance, plays a fundamental role in reading comprehension. This role, however, is often not intentional. Our minds seem to be designed to make connections. We almost can’t stop ourselves from making comparisons (“Mom liked you best”), recognizing similarities, and seeing contrasts.

That’s why Jimmy Kim’s latest work (Kim, Burkhauser, Relyea, Gilbert, Scherer, Fitzgerlad, Mosher, & McIntyre, 2023) is gaining so much attention these days. It seems to be showing that building children’s knowledge about a topic can generalize — automatically, without prompting — to other related or analogous topics. That would make background knowledge a skill.

That’s exciting because most of the people promoting background knowledge as the golden road to high reading comprehension have been viewing it as a skill — as something that can be used productively in reading without conscious intentions of the reader. If students know a lot of science and social studies, this would mean that they’ll often connect that body of information to whatever they read and as a result comprehension will rise.

However, other researchers have demonstrated that we can successfully teach people to use their background knowledge intentionally — that is, more strategically — to improve their understanding of what they read (Hattan & Alexander, 2021; Hattan, Alexander, & Lupo, 2023; Lupo, Tortorelli, Invernizzi, Ryoo, & Strong, 2019).


Well, for example, what if, prior to reading, I look over the material and see if any of it is familiar and ponder how I think it may connect up with what I already know? Maybe I’ll decide to pay more attention to some sections than to others.

Or, what if I identify the major topic and then brainstorm for a few minutes before reading that text — bringing what I already know to conscious attention? That seems to improve comprehension, too.

Or, what if, as I read, I intentionally stop whenever I see something familiar and try to connect that information explicitly with what I already know — maybe even trying to identify what’s new and where it may fit with what I already know? Again, a winning strategy.

Those kinds of intentional steps are strategic and that makes the use of background knowledge a strategy. Whereas just building up knowledge and hoping it will have relevance to what you read someday is betting on knowledge as a skill that can improve reading comprehension. 

The studies seem to say that knowledge can operate as both skill and strategy — it just depends how we try to apply it.

Vocabulary knowledge (knowing the meanings of lots of words) is certainly a skill. When I read, for the most part, recognizing the words triggers the meanings without much conscious attention. For example,

if I read the word green, I think of that color automatically, I don’t usually make decisions about it because I have that word firmly in my lexicon. I can’t say I don’t “think about it”, because my mind must be thinking about (as I know the term to mean). And, yet, the process seems to keep conscious Tim out of the equation altogether. I do it, but I’m not aware that I’m doing it.

On the other hand, had the author used prasine, smaragdine, greeny, viridescent, or verdant, that choice might change everything. I’d have various strategic decisions to make with those words. I kind of know what verdant means and the shade of green that may imply. I likely would do nothing with that one. The same would be true for greeny. I might be able to gain purchase on viridescent through a moment of morphological analysis (yeah, it does have something to do with iridescent). But prasine and smaragdine are not in my vocabulary. For those, I’d have to decide how much I cared. Whether it would be worth trying to ken those from context or by looking them up in the dictionary (my most likely strategy for solving those) would depend on my desire to fully comprehend the message.

Those schemes that we have for dealing with unfamiliar words — context, morphology, reference guides, ignoring — tend to be strategic, intentional choices the reader deploys to address a potential problem.

Lessons in which children memorize the definitions of vocabulary words are skills lessons.

Lessons in which children must identify unknown words in passages and figure out their meanings are strategies lessons.

That means vocabulary can be skill or strategy, just as light can be waves and packets. It just depends.

I think you should worry less about classifying them and more about how you think students need to apply them. Is the goal to teach students to respond automatically, without conscious direction, without intention, without being triggered by some conditional event? If so, automaticity is going to be important and you are going to want to work hard at memorization and repetition, to ensure that your students master these skills.

Or, are you preparing students to respond flexibly when confronted with a particular challenge or problem, that they are going to have to make decisions about?

Then, you want to teach it as a strategy. Here you teach them what it is, why it has value, when to use it, and you give them guided practice in applying it in various situations. 

We tend to think of those kinds of situations as belonging to the comprehension realm. How would you read a short story differently from a science text? That passage made no sense — now what are you going to do?

However, as much as we consider decoding to be a skill, there are situations when students must make choices and at least some of those will require conscious decisions. at least for a while…

“I know CVCe words tend to have long vowels, but that pattern doesn’t seem to be working when I try to read the word done.” The best strategy in that situation is to consider other possible pronunciations of the vowel.

That kind of word reading problem is interesting and complicated. Early on, I want students to see that CVCe pattern as a skill to be learned to the point of automaticity because of its high likelihood of working. But I also want them to know how to respond to it strategically because of the important exceptions that exist. Over time, as students gain familiarity with the exceptions (e.g., done, have, one, live, come) the need for a strategic response will become unnecessary as reading these kinds of words will move into the house of skills.

How we use it and how we learn it are what determines whether something is strategy or skill. I suspect those apparent contradictions that you are seeing may be more due to differences in what those experts were focused on rather than to real differences in our understanding of skills or strategies.

It also can help to think about whether what you are teaching can really be a skill or a strategy. For years, we’ve tried to teach the various question types as comprehension skills. Kids are supposed to to learn the appropriate way to answer main idea, supporting details, inference, and drawing conclusions questions. The problem with that is that there isn’t any systematic way to answer those kinds of questions. 

There are question types that could be learned. For example, teaching kids the various words that signal cause-and-effect relations can be helpful in guiding them to respond appropriately to many cause and effect questions. Likewise, how to connect cohesive links across a passage (such as connecting pronouns with the subjects they refer to) is teachable and should allow students to respond to a whole category of inferential questions (it isn’t too clear how to teach other kinds of inferencing). However, in both of those cases, the instruction would focus on how to read the text and think about it, rather than how to answer particular questions. That’s just not a skill or strategy that good readers use and it doesn’t prepare students to excel with future test performance (despite the certainty of many school administrators).

Teaching kids to be strategic in teasing out the author’s point of view in a social studies text, or the characters’ conflicting goals in literature, or to connect up the causes and effects in science all could be strategies that students could learn to wield in various kinds of texts. Over time, with lots of practice, they may take those actions on as habits of mind that they engage in without much conscious decision making. In other words, those strategies may become more skill like with acquisition. 

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
April 3, 2023