Skills-based Learning: Stocking the Student Toolbox

Kulsoom Anwer Shaikh, Centre Table Education

When I first started teaching high school English, I quickly became less than enamored of the tunnel vision commitment to teaching literary devices and comprehension of specific short stories, specific poems, specific books.

It was while teaching a group of “Applied” grade 10 English students who would head into College bound courses in grade 11 that I really began questioning this approach. The Applied stream was for students who were not “Academic”–Academic students were heading toward University. But what did it mean to teach English is applied ways? Isn’t all applied? Should I be teaching less literary devices–were they too theoretical?

At the end of the year, I felt confident I had taught my students a solid understanding of the texts we had studied. But what was the point? Had I given them a toolbox of skills that would serve them whenever they read a new text? Or had I instead taught them only what those particular texts were saying? I suspected the latter.

I decided I wanted to stop teaching texts and start teaching skills to students. English is a skills based curriculum, rather than content based. In fact, the expectations in the Ontario curriculum document do not vary from kindergarten to grade 12. Only the level of proficiency changes. I started structuring my courses not in genre focused units like Short Stories and instead on Reading Strategies for varied texts.

I wanted my students to be good readers. I felt this was a key mission of the English curriculum. The way to make that happen was not to ensure they understood a particular text but instead to ensure they understood and employed good reading strategies.

Proficient readers are constantly thinking while reading, “monitoring understanding as they read” (Cris Tovani, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?, p. 5).  We do this unconsciously, after years of practice. Students struggling with comprehension are reading without engagement, only thinking about the text when they are confronted with “comprehension questions” after reading or when they are ‘interrupted’ by the questioning teacher as they read.

Reading Strategies make ‘what good readers do’ explicit for the struggling reader and demand that they think WHILE reading as well as after and before and that they do so unprompted.

These strategies give struggling with reading comprehension some concrete ways to achieve understanding. Standard and explicit use of these strategies will build strong readers from grade 9 to 12. 

It is important to teach not only the strategy but the language of these strategies (terminology) to promote metacognition, in accordance with the English curriculum’s expectations (and all understandings of how we learn).

7 Reading Strategies: Overview Resources