↑ Return to Teacher tips

Strategic reading

What is Strategic Reading?

Reading is a process of constructing meaning by interacting with text; as individuals read, they use their prior knowledge along with clues from the text to construct meaning. Research indicates that effective or expert readers are strategic (Baker & Brown, 1984a, 1984b). This means that they have purposes for their reading and adjust their reading to each purpose and for each reading task. Strategic readers use a variety of strategies and skills as they construct meaning (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991).

A strategy is a plan selected deliberately by the reader to accomplish a particular goal or to complete a given task (Paris, Lipson, & Wixson, 1983; Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991). When students are able to select and use a strategy automatically, they have achieved independence in using the strategy. Along with the strategies that expert readers use, they also use a number of comprehension and study skills. It is clear from research that readers develop the use of strategies and skills by reading and writing and being given the support they need to grow in these processes (Wells, 1990).

The goal of all reading instruction is to help students become expert readers so that they can achieve independence and can use literacy for lifelong learning and enjoyment. Learning to use strategies effectively is essential to constructing meaning. Readers who are not strategic often encounter difficulties in their reading (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991). These early difficulties in reading may influence the way readers learn throughout the rest of their lives (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985).

Phonics As an Aid to Constructing Meaning

Expert readers know how to identify words automatically (Adams, 1990; Perfetti, 1985). However, phonics and word-recognition knowledge do not develop before students learn to construct meaning. Children learn to read by reading (Pappas & Brown, 1987). Phonics and other word-identification knowledge serve as aids to the construction of meaning (Adams, 1990). Strategic readers decode printed words as a part of this process of constructing meaning. However, it is not necessary for readers to decode every word in a text in order to read it effectively (Nagy, 1988).

Strategies for Constructing Meaning

Strategic readers use a variety of strategies to construct meaning. Extensive research over the past two decades has shown that some of these strategies seem to be more significant than others (Dole, Duffy, Roehler, & Pearson, 1991).

Research indicates that the following strategies are important in helping readers construct meaning:


Inferencing, the process of judging, concluding, or reasoning from given information, has been described by some researchers as the heart of the reading process (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Researchers have found that readers improve their abilities to construct meaning when they are taught how to make inferences (Hansen, 1981; Hansen & Pearson, 1983; Raphael & Wonnacott, 1985). Inferencing is the process that is involved as students make predictions before and during reading.


Monitoring, the process of knowing when what you are reading is not making sense and having some means for overcoming the problem, is an important part of students’ metacognitive development (Baker & Brown, 1984a, 1984b; Brown, 1980). Expert constructors of meaning — strategic readers — are able to anticipate problems in their understanding and correct them as they occur (Paris, Lipson, & Wixson, 1983); these strategies for correcting problems are often referred to as fix-up strategies. Researchers have found that teaching students to monitor their reading improves their abilities to construct meaning (Palincsar & Brown, 1984a, 1984b, 1986). Strategies for monitoring include such things as asking oneself whether the reading is making sense, rereading, reading ahead, looking up words in the dictionary, or asking someone for assistance (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991).


Summarizing, pulling together the important information in longer texts, has been shown to be an important strategy in helping readers improve their abilities to construct meaning (Brown & Day, 1983; Bean & Steenwyk, 1984; Rinehart, Stahl, & Erickson, 1986; Taylor & Beach, 1984). This strategy must be developed with students over time and, because narrative text structure differs from expository text structure, should be taught differently for narrative texts and expository texts. In narrative texts, it involves focusing on the elements of story grammar (Mandler, 1984) or the story map. In expository texts it involves identification of main ideas (Baumann, 1986).

Question Generating

The support for these four strategies is significant. In addition, a fifth strategy, called question generating, is also supported by some researchers as being valuable for helping students construct meaning (Singer & Donlan, 1982; Davey & McBride, 1986). In using this strategy, students generate their own questions to be answered as they read. Brown and Palincsar (1985) demonstrated how effective student-generated questions can be in helping students improve their abilities to construct meaning. However, much research also shows that there may be difficulties in teaching the strategy (Pressley, Johnson, Symons, McGoldrick, & Kurita, 1989; Denner & Rickards, 1987). Therefore, question generating should be used cautiously.

Learning Strategies for Constructing Meaning

Students can be helped to learn strategies in a variety of ways. Some strategy learning takes place through reading and writing experiences (Dole et al., 1991). Thematic units with authentic literature provide students with opportunities to utilize the same strategies and skills across a theme. The experience of reading authentic literature and responding to it in authentic ways supports students in learning strategies.

Directed Strategy

Students can also be helped to learn strategies through Instruction/Modeling more directed instructional experiences (Pressley & Harris, 1990). Cooper (1993) presents guidelines for effective strategy instruction based on existing research in this area. He suggests that strategies should be taught only if the student demonstrates a need for the strategy. Only one or two strategies should be introduced at a time; these strategies should be modeled using authentic literature that has been read by the students. The modeling should take place at the point when it is most useful to the students and should not be done in isolation, away from the literature.

All modeling, practice, and application of the strategies should be as interactive and collaborative as possible. Practice and application of the strategies should take place within the context of real reading and writing. Gradually, the teacher should scaffold instruction by reducing the teacher modeling and increasing the student modeling and use of the strategy. This is the transfer of responsibility that researchers have identified as important to effective strategy learning (Pearson, 1985). Students should be encouraged to use the strategy in other curricular areas.

The Role of Vocabulary

Researchers have established that there is a strong relationship between vocabulary (word-meaning knowledge) and the ability of students to construct meaning (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Davis, 1971; Johnston, 1981). This relationship has often led educators to think that one improves the abilities of students to construct meaning primarily by teaching vocabulary before a text is read. However, more recent researchers have challenged this assumption (Nagy, 1988). This challenge has come about because we have learned that readers acquire vocabulary in a variety of ways — through wide reading (Nagy & Herman, 1987), from the use of context (Jenkins, Stein, & Wysocki, 1984; Sternberg, 1987), through use of the dictionary (Schatz & Baldwin, 1986), and from limited direct instruction (Beck, McKeown, & Omanson, 1987; Graves, 1986, 1987; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).

Direct Instruction and Strategy for Inferring Word Meaning

Direct instruction in vocabulary is only effective in helping students improve their abilities to construct meaning when a few words key to the selection are thoroughly and meaningfully taught (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; Nagy & Herman, 1987; Wixson, 1986), when the words are integrated with the activation and development of prior knowledge (Nagy & Herman, 1987), and when the teaching actively involves students in the learning (Beck, McKeown, & Omanson, 1987; Nagy & Herman, 1987). An important part of the instruction should be the teaching of a strategy to help students independently decode words and infer word meanings (Calfee & Drum, 1986; Graves, 1987). This strategy would help students achieve the overall goal of independence in constructing meaning.

Responding to Literature

When readers respond to a piece of literature, they relate their prior knowledge to the ideas presented in the text (Martinez & Roser, 1991). This process allows readers from diverse backgrounds to bring their own personal perspectives to their reading and actively construct meaning. In this way the construction of meaning becomes a transaction between the reader and the text (Rosenblatt, 1938/1976). In addition, as students respond to literature in a variety of ways, they develop critical thinking abilities.

Successful readers use their responses to help them understand what they read (Pappas & Brown, 1987; Wells, 1986). Thus, it is important for teachers to help students recognize and value their responses to the literature they read. Ultimately, this can help them become better readers.

Study Strategies and Skills

Study skills refer to those things that individuals do when they have to locate, organize, and remember information; they may include such things as using a table of contents, outlining, or using a strategy such as K-W-L or SQ3R to read a chapter and to remember what was in it. Strategic readers have strategies for dealing with many different learning tasks (Paris, Lipson, & Wixson, 1983; Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991). Therefore, learning to use study skills effectively is an important part of becoming a strategic reader. Helping students learn to use study skills is not the responsibility of only the reading or language arts teacher; it is something that needs to be done by all teachers in all classes or subject areas (Devine, 1991). The overall goal of literacy learning is to help students become independent in their learning. Learning to use a variety of study skills helps students to achieve this goal.

Study Strategies and Skills to Be Learned

Researchers have not found any one study strategy or skill that is best for all students in all learning tasks (Alvermann & Moore, 1991; Anderson & Armbruster,1984; Devine, 1991). There are many useful study strategies and skills, and the ones that a particular individual uses will depend on the individual and the learning situation (Alvermann & Moore, 1991; Anderson & Armbruster, 1984).

It is important to help students learn strategies that they can ultimately use independently. Some of the strategies that researchers have found particularly effective in helping students include K-W-L (Ogle, 1986), summarizing (Brown & Day, 1983; Hare & Borchardt, 1984; Winograd, 1984), outlining and the use of graphic organizers such as mapping (Devine, 1991), self-questioning (Anderson & Armbruster, 1984), and SQ3R (Robinson, 1961; Martin, 1985). SQ3R is enhanced when prediction is added to the strategy to incorporate what researchers have learned — that prediction is important in helping students improve their abilities to construct meaning (Palincsar & Brown, 1984b). This expanded strategy becomes SQP3R.

How Study Strategies and Skills Are Learned

Throughout this resource we have stressed that children and young adults learn to read and write by having authentic, meaningful reading and writing experiences and by getting support from more experienced individuals (Wells, 1990). Students learn to use study strategies and skills in the same way they learn other strategies and skills. Students must have authentic, meaningful problem-solving experiences that require the use of various study strategies and skills. If students require more directed support, the teacher should provide mini-lessons within the context of the learning experience. This is an example of the skills through application concept described by Walmsley and Walp (1990).