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'The Reading Strategies Book': An Interview With Jennifer Serravallo

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It's that time of year again, and I will be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful to us educators.  New questions will begin in September.

This post in the second in my authors series, and I'm lucky to have been able to interview Jennifer Serravallo, author of The Reading Strategies Book.

Jennifer Serravallo (@jserravallo) is the author of over ten books on reading assessment and instruction including the new best-selling The Reading Strategies Book as well as the two-time award winning Independent Reading Assessment series. She was a a NYC elementary teacher and later a senior staff developer at Columbia University's Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She has also taught graduate and undergraduate courses at Vassar College and Teachers College. Learn more or follow her blog.

LF: First things first -- what is a "reading strategy" and why is it important? How is a "reading strategy" related to the kind of close reading encouraged by the Common Core State Standards?

Jennifer Serravallo:

You're wise to ask, because the term "strategies" is used differently. To me, strategies are "deliberate, effortful, intentional and purposeful actions a reader takes to accomplish a specific task or skill" (Serravallo 2010, 11-12). A reading strategy is step-by-step, a procedure or recipe. Strategies make the often invisible work of reading actionable and visible.

There are many strategies for any skill imaginable--from teaching readers to infer about character traits (yes, I consider inference a "skill"), to decoding challenging texts, to reading with fluency, to having more fruitful conversations with their peers. There are strategies one could teach a student for closely reading a text. For example: "Notice objects that tend to repeat across a text, then think about what abstract idea or concept the concrete object may represent." "Close reading" is not a strategy in and of itself, so for teachers who are trying to teach students to closely read, strategies are essential.

But here's another important point about strategies - just as we offer strategies to students as ways for them to become independent while practicing a skill, we want them to eventually outgrow those strategies, too. Once the reader becomes skilled, the process, the strategy, becomes automatic and something to which the reader no longer needs to give conscious attention. Once the need for conscious use of a strategy fades away it will likely only resurface during times of real difficulty. The objective, therefore, is not that readers can do the steps of the strategy, rather that the strategy helps them be more skilled-- to understand the text better, to decode with higher accuracy, to read with greater fluency. Put another way, strategies are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves (Duke 2014; Keene 2008). The strategy is a temporary scaffold, and like any scaffolding, there needs to be a plan for how it's removed.

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LF: You share three hundred strategies, all accompanied with very helpful visuals of student examples. Can you share a couple of your favorite examples of strategies for us with nonfiction text?

Jennifer Serravallo:

It's a somewhat hard question to answer because my favorites would change depending on the age level of the child and the text level the child is reading. This is why I've annotated each strategy with a recommended level range, to help teachers find the ones that will work best with students. But I'll go ahead and share a few that might help people think about the reading of nonfiction and the teaching of nonfiction a bit differently.

When a lot of kids read nonfiction, they're wowed by the cool, zinger facts. And often times, these random facts will not help children to create an overall understanding of the text. I believe it's crucial for kids to be able to understand how the text fits together, to synthesize all the information, and come up with a "main idea." On lower-level, "considerate" texts (to use an Alfreida Heibert term), the main idea is often obvious. The author often will state the main idea in a heading or topic sentence. However, as texts get harder, readers need to do thinking work to figure out the main idea. One my favorite strategies is to teach children to: "Read the text. Think about the what of the text (the topic). Then, to think so what about it to come with the author's angle, slant or idea about the topic."

Another favorite is to talk to kids and teachers about text features. Many teachers are in the practice of having children notice the features and name or label them ("That's a graph! That's a caption!") But there's so much important information in the features and students need to learn to really read the features and connect what the feature is teaching to the information in the rest of the text. Here's how I'd say it as a strategy that I'd share with kids: "Read the main text. Think about what you learned. Look closely at the text feature. Think about what it's teaching you. Think about what from the feature is repeated information (because it's also in the text) and what is new information (additional to what is in the text)."

LF: Same question, but now I'd like you to share your favorites for use with fiction...

Jennifer Serravallo:

Same answer about having a hard time choosing, because my favorite for one student may not be a favorite for another!

I love teaching children to think deeply about characters because I think it helps them to better understand the people in their world, too. Here's one I'd use with higher level 4th grade through middle school students: "Notice if the character's external actions are in or out of sync with the character's internal thinking. Consider what this says about the kind of person the character is, and what the character is really thinking or feeling. Ask yourself, "Who is this character, to others? Who does this character want to be?"

I also think it's exciting to challenge even the littlest kids to think about what the point of the story might be, to consider what lesson they can take away from the books they read. When teachers start doing this, I find it helps kids have better conversations about their books, and often will even affect the way kids write their own stories (not telling everything about their day, but instead selecting ideas for stories with a purpose!) Here's a fun strategy to teach little ones to talk back to the characters in their books, which ends up teaching them how to infer lessons: Notice how the characters treat each other, especially in spots where their behavior is surprising. What would you tell the character to do? Give advice by saying, "You should . . ." The advice you give can be a lesson you take away from the story.

LF:  Could you share a couple of strategies that you think would be particularly new to many of us teachers?

Jennifer Serravallo:

There are two chapters, each with about 25 strategies, that I think will be pretty new for most teachers. One chapter is on Emergent Reading - helping readers to "read" before they are doing any decoding or can recognize words. I shaped this chapter largely after the work of Elizabeth Sulzby and a brilliant new book, I Am Reading, by Kathy Collins and Matt Glover. Here's one example from that chapter, which I imagine can be used when children are reading a book that's been read to them several times before (and is therefore familiar) or even a story that has clear pictures that hasn't been read to them before (in which case they'd be creating the story with the pictures as a support and with their sense of story as a guide): "On every page, try to sound like a storyteller. You can look carefully at the picture to say what the character is doing and what the character is saying."

The other chapter that might be pique teachers' interest is a chapter on engagement. I am convinced by the research of Richard Allington and many others who have shown time and again that kids get to be better readers....by reading! It makes logical sense to me that teachers should keep an eye out for whether kids are engaged, and then teach specific strategies to support their stamina, volume, book choice, and ability to focus. Here's one from that chapter: "One way to increase the amount of time you read with focus is to set a time goal for yourself. Use a personal quiet timer and set it for a certain amount of time. When the timer goes off, have the break you need (get up, stretch, let your mind wander for a moment). Then, reset the timer and get back into your reading."

LF: There was a pretty high-profile debate between the late Grant Wiggins and Daniel Willingham about the importance of reading strategies, with Willingham questioning the value of spending much time teaching them explicitly. I tend to side with Wiggins, and also believe that the use of reading strategies has as much to do with encouraging student engagement as it does with comprehension. I'd be interested in hearing your "take" on this discussion.

Jennifer Serravallo:

It'll come as no surprise that I believe that strategies are critically important!

First, I think they may be using a different definition of strategy that I am, maybe considering terms like "inferring" and "synthesizing" and "visualizing" to be strategies, where I'd consider those skills. Also, I have a broader view of strategies with topics such as engagement, decoding, and fluency being broken down into steps. For example, I doubt even those critical of strategies would argue that a strategy such as this one, to support decoding, could be really helpful to many early first-grade readers: "Use your finger to cover up the common ending you see (for example, -ing, -ed, -er). Read the first part of the word that's not covered. Then, put the ending back on and read the whole word."

Reading strategies are the "how to" that mentor kids into skills they don't yet have automatic. In order to help them read a lot, to read widely, and to enjoy their reading, they have to be good at it!

One last point on this topic - I think we have to be careful not to just teach strategies for the sake of teaching strategies. (I'd re-cite Duke (2014) and Keane (2008) here: Strategies are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves.) My view is that teachers need to choose strategies that are appropriate for each reader, which means they have valuable formative assessment from which to make the decisions, they have discussed with the child a focused goal that the strategies connect to so children understand why and when the strategy would help, and teachers keep in mind the difficulty level of the text the child is reading so that the strategies can be immediately applied and repeatedly practiced.


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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked about that you'd like to share?

Jennifer Serravallo:

I'd like to mention that the strategies I've included in the book are really meant to help everyone and anyone - from teachers who are reading workshop-inclined like myself, to those who teach with a reading anthology, to those who use a whole-text novel approach. I see strategies as extremely flexible and portable, so they transcend the varieties of different reading block structures and materials. This is about equipping kids with clear ways to access the texts they read, which you can do any time reading instruction is happening.

LF: Thanks, Jennifer!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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