Self-Programmable Readers–My Big Take-Away from #LRA14


The Literacy Research Association annual conference presents young scholars such as myself an opportunity to grow our thinking. You can challenge scholars, sit down with literary heroes and examine trends in the fields. It is home.

Each year the new president, who planned the program gets to host an integrative research review. The session, one of the most important o closes out the conference.

This year LRA focused in on  A Conversation about the Contributions of Content Knowledge and Strategic Processing to Reading Comprehension and it was hosted by Anne Marie Palinscar.

The panel included many of my heroes in literary research. First there was Palinscar, who helped to reshape the world of comprehension instruction with the work of Reciprocal Teaching. Anne Marie provided a wonderful literature review of comprehension strategy instruction.  Then Maureen Auckerman reminded us of how strategy instruction is transactional and reviewed the research on transactional strategy instruction. Rachel Brown described the current backlash against strategy instruction. Koider Mokthari, reminded us that background knowledge is just as, if not more important as a mediator during strategy instruction. Finally Shelia Valencia noted that what counts as comprehension is culturally defined.

Slide from Rachel Brown’s presentation


Why this Mattered to Me

Beyond the already stated that the four people on the stage have greatly influences my thinking as a literacy educator this session mattered because I can trace my academic lineage to the ideas of Reciprocal Teaching.

My doctoral work was completed under the guidance of Don Leu at the New Literacies Research Lab. I served as a part of a team who worked with a great cohort from Clemson under Dave Reinking. Together we developed and tested an instructional model of Internet Reciprocal Teaching that built off the early efforts in strategy instruction.  As a 6th grade teacher I often used reciprocal teaching in my classroom.

Background Knowledge Matters

I have also been thinking about strategy instruction in terms of the caveats shared by the presenters. Background knowledge does matter. Knowing more is always better than knowing less and when you read a text when you are familiar with you do better.

Culture Matters

Comprehension is also culturally defined. Knowing more isn’t just declarative knowledge. It is knowing the specialized language of discourse communities. Take Football for example. I enjoy American football and stay well read so I can be the smartest loser in my Fantasy league. My son is into the other soccer. For some reason he has fallen for Liverpool and wants to read up on games. I have tried to translate the articles from British but I struggle. I do not know the language of soccer fans nor do I speak British. Reading an article about a sport from another culture can be anyone’s Waterloo text.

This is true not is sports but in education as well. When Valencia was thinking I could not be helped to think back to David Kirklands work in A Search Past Silence where he documents the meaning making practices of black males. These practices are rarely recognized in school.

We live different literacies every day.

Strategy Instruction Under Attack

I also recognize strategy instruction is under attack. It was deliberately left out of the CCSS. Furthermore Dan Willingham,  just published a piece questioning the efficacy of strategy instruction. I have yet to read the article but Willingham, while brilliant and approachable, is the fertilizer for the well written astro-turf of conservative edreformers bent on privatizing urban education. So the issue matters.

Strategy instruction is also not without issues. Rosenshine and Meister (1994)  completed an in-depth meta-analysis and found effects sizes varying from .32 (using standardized tests) to .82 (using research created tests). Palinscar and Brown (1984) even noted the lack of transfer of these skills. I belive the wide variance in effect sizes is due to the small and meaningful bump strategy instruction has for our neediest readers, but for proficient readers we maybe wasting their time.

While the metaphor of mind as computer is not new I do not steal it from socio-cognitivists. I poach here more in line with the hacking and making communities that the educational psychologists. After all today’s Self-programmamble readers find themselves situated in contexts that constantly collapse across online and offline spaces and networked and unnetworked audiences (boyd, 2012).


Defining Self-Programmable Reading

The etyomology of self-programmable reader traces back to my dissertation. I tried to name a phenomenon building off a term I stole from Jenna McWilliams, “reading with mouse in hand.” As we moved to trackpads I remixed the term as “reading with cursor control.” I was trying to capture the comprehension monitoring and navigational skills I noticed in the most skilled online readers.

Rand Spiro challenged this construct during my dissertation defense. I had to go back and rename the construct, which of course meant reexamining my data to see if in the act of naming I messed up the “fit” on my evidence. I settled on strategic text assembly. This fit the comprehension monitoring I observed (speeding up and slowing down reading rate and more frequent scrolling) and my theoretical lens of cognitive flexibility theory.

Then came #ccourses (connected courses)  an online community started by giants in the field of #connectedlearning. The objectives of the course were to try out and encourage the values and principles of #connectedlearning into higher education. In order to build up background knowledge for one of the makes we were asked to read (Castellas et al…Fix this citation)

It was there I was introduced to the term self-programmable learner.

and a new type of personality, the values-rooted, flexible personality able to adapt to changing cultural models along the life cycle because of her/his ability to bend without breaking, to remain inner-directed while evolving with the surrounding society

Then we read a piece by Jon Udell on redefining education. Udell tells the story of a friend looking for an employee:

Another version of this same story comes from my friend and former BYTE colleague, Ray Cote, who runs his own software and consulting business. Over dinner a couple of weeks ago, Ray told me that he’s not looking for people who “know” one or another language or framework, but rather for those who can motivate themselves to rapidly acquire these and other contexts as needed.

These ideas  morphed  for me at #LRA14. I think we need strategic reading 2.0. It isn’t a set of practices good readers do in their head but the flexibility to make meaning in ever shifting contexts. A self-programmable reader can acquire and remix knowledge while traversing socially complex texts.

Self-Programmable Reading versus Strategic Reading

Self-Programmable Reading foregrounds knowledge building

While transactional strategy instruction accounted for the importance of background knowledge, in practice these strategies (deliberate goal setting actions) are often still taught out of context or with role sheets. The strategy and not the knowledge is brought to the foreground.

Background knowledge does matter. This is one of the the most stable findings in the history of reading research, but this maybe shifting. While those who know more about a topic will always comprehend more of a text a self-programmable reader maybe able to account for a lack of background knowledge. They can recognize holes in their knowledge and then know the right questions to ask and where to go to ask these questions.

Self-Programmable Reading is Production based

I am not the first, by any means, that comprehension needs to be production based. Peter Smagorinsky and Kristine Gutierrez have influenced my thinking here for a long time. More recently #connectedlearning and the focus on production centered learning has influenced my thinking of meaning making.

I agree with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey that text based talk and text based discussion are at the center of reading comprhenension. When you make reading a production based activities these two elements get intertwined. When students get involved in makes they have to discuss and analyze the text they read.

Self-Programmable Reading is Collaborative

If you are not familiar with the recent work of Jill Castek, Carita Killi, and Julie Coiro I implore you to seek it out. They have been investigating online internet inquiry activities in small groups and comparing this to individual readers. Suprise, surprise collaboration improves comprehension. This of course goes back to the original ideas of reciprocal teaching.

Collaboration though isn’t just about learning gains it is essential in digital spaces. Meaning making is not a singualr act. We do not mean strategy instruction. It is not about novice reader internalizing what good readers do. Instead it is more about strategy exchange. Self-programable readers use strategies like tools and fork them to meet their needs and the specific context in which they are reading.

It is Strategy Exchange Not Strategy Instruction

Self-Programmable Reading Agency and  Identity work

Agency matters in education and we do identity work when we read, write, and participate in the web. These values must be central for self-programmable readers to develop in their classroom. All the talk about lexile levels and text complexity in the #CCSS ignores this fact. The #CCSS only mention motivation once. To ignore motivation in reading is to ignore the sun in farming.

The debate around leveled texts is the same as well. Choice matters. Reading, writing, and participating give us the chance to try on multiple versions of “me.”…to be continued..and maybe actually edited someday.

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