Charles ‘Skip’ MacArthur
There’s three kinds of questions. One question is about what strategies to teach and a second question is about how to teach them and then a third question is about how to get students to regulate, use those strategies independently, what we call self regulation. So beginning with what strategies to teach, the whole big idea of strategy instruction is that we take what we know about how proficient writers or proficient math problem solvers, or readers, or whatever, but in this case writers, what do proficient writers do when they write? How do they think about the task, how do they approach it? We all talk about planning, writing and revising, but what is it that proficient writers do when they plan and how do they go about evaluating and revising their work? So we have a lot of knowledge about how proficient writers do that, about their cognitive processes. So we take that information, those cognitive processes, and make them into somewhat simplified strategies that we can then teach to less sophisticated writers. If we know that proficient writers when they get a new writing task, they think about what the goals of the writing task are and they kind of think about their audience and what they’re trying to accomplish, and they break that task down into sub goals, so we can teach students to do that, teach students to analyze the writing task and think about the writings and topic and make some decisions about how to approach it. Or, a big thing that expert writers know is about different ways to organize text, what we call text structures. So persuasive writing is organized differently than a narrative or a procedural description. If you know that, know about those organizational structures, you could use that to plan what you’re going to say and also plan how to organize it. That’s all part of the planning. That’s where we get the strategies to teach, so we teach general strategies for planning and revising and we try to connect them to specific types of text, so different information about say persuasive writing or procedural writing or narrative writing. So that’s the source of the strategies. There’s lots of strategies out there. Every English curriculum has a selection of strategies and that’s pretty much where they come from. Any writing program is going to cover strategies, so they want students to learn strategies. But when we talk about strategy instruction, we mean something more specific than that.
That gets us to our second question about how do you teach the strategies. Particularly when working with struggling writers or even average writers, our understanding and what we found from the research is that it works best if you teach that in a very explicit way. So, there are certain kinds of practices that are effective in strategy instruction and that’s what we mean by strategy instruction. We would be begin by teaching students about the type of writing we want them to do, like what are the elements that go into persuasive writing, we’d show them a good example and a weak example, and then we show them the strategy and we model how to do it. We go through the whole process and because they’re are cognitive processes that we’re modeling, we do think aloud. We do the planning and writing and revising and while we’re doing it we verbalize our thoughts. We say okay, the first step in this strategy is to think about my goals and so let’s see how I would do that and then talk myself through the process of thinking about those goals. That’s what we mean by think aloud modeling. That’s an important piece of showing clearly how to do it. Then we have students practice it, first together and then by themselves with support and as they’re doing that we monitor and talk with them about whether they’re using the strategies and how it’s working for them. That’s the collaborative and guided practice stage. Then we gradually take away the supports until they can do it independently. Our goal at the end is that they will be able to explain the strategy, and to use it in a way that improves their writing. That’s two. That’s what strategies to teach and how to teach them.
The third issue is about how do we get students to do this independently, it’s what we call self regulation. It’s one thing to get students to use a strategy in your class when you’re there reminding them to do it and telling them to do it, it’s quite another thing for them to be in some other class or some other situation, at work or whatever, and to think oh, I know a strategy I can use to help me do that. That’s what our goal is. We want these to be self regulated strategies. On top of the other things we do in teaching, we teach students self regulation. We have an overall goal setting strategy we call it where we talk to students about setting goals for their tasks, choosing the strategies that they’re going to use and by the end of a course they will have learned a number of strategies, in choosing appropriate ones, strategies for task management, motivation and then also monitoring how well those strategies are working and reflecting on the whole process at the end. There’s a lot of things we do to try to support self regulation. Some of it also is talking to students quite directly about other places they can use the strategies. We ask them what kinds of assignments they have in other classes and then talk with them about whether they could use some of the strategies to help them complete those assignments or even think about things that they have to do at work. Some of our adult students have jobs in technology assistance or a lot of them work in health care and they have writing assignments. They have to write a patient report which is a procedural description of what happened in that experience and so we try to help them see how the strategies we’re teaching them can be applied to other class and work settings. Those are the three main points really, what strategies to teach and how to teach them, a lot of explicit instruction, and think aloud modeling and then how to support independent use by encouraging students to engage in self regulation.
Example of Strategy in Use
We might for example want to teach students how to write a persuasive paper. Persuasive writing is very common in real life and lots of opportunities to use it. It’s often used in school, so we develop a strategy, teach them what the elements are and how to write it and we use our think aloud model. We put some example of a good persuasive piece and then show them how to go through the strategy, how to plan and we also do a lot of evaluation work and then for the self regulation we would talk to them about how they might use this in other classes and have them bring in examples and actually have them try and reinforce them for bringing in examples where they actually used one of the strategies in another class.
As you’re planning to teach strategies, start by choosing a type of writing that you want to work on and then selecting a strategy that’s going to be appropriate for that type of writing, so that’s choosing what strategy to teach. Then figure out how you’re going to teach it. You have to work out a modeling example so that you can show students how to plan it and how to write it and you’re going to prepare to do that in front of them, and then the third thing is to think about how the self regulation support is going to work, so what are you going to do as part of that modeling and support afterwards to encourage students to use this in other settings; so what strategy to teach, how to teach it and how to support students self regulation so that they become independent.