Socks, Then Shoes: Texts Should Be Selected Before Strategies

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2013

One thing I’ve seen in too many schools is a willy-nilly approach to selecting texts for English language arts instruction. I’ve long suspected that it is a wide-spread problem, and now a new survey confirms my fear. In a Fordham Institute report by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett, over 1,000 teachers were asked whether texts or strategies came first. Strategies, hands down. (For more from this report, see my last post.)

Here are the options on the survey: do you “Teach particular books, short stories, essays, and poems that you think students should read and then organize instruction around them, teaching a variety of reading skills and strategies as tools for students to understand the texts”? Or, do you “Focus instruction on reading skills and strategies first, e.g., main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose, and then organize teaching around them, so that students will apply these skills and strategies to any book, short story, essay, or poem they read”?

Only 22% of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers start with the texts; 73% focus on the strategies. The remaining 5% focus on something else or both. Things improve a bit in later grades; 56% of middle-grades and 46% of ninth- and tenth-grade teachers focus on strategies.

This sounds like a shoes-then-socks approach to me. Strategies like “main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose” and others can be used with thousands of different texts. But essential knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts can only be taught with certain carefully selected and sequenced texts. Strategies are not learning objectives in and of themselves; they are tools for gaining access to the knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts in the texts.

This idea seems to have gotten lost. I can’t count how many times I’ve had teachers tell me it does not matter whether a student reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Hunger Games—all that matters is that they read. I’ve never agreed. One of these books is has earned canon status through literary brilliance. One of these books pulls students into some of the most difficult, painful, and important (yes, to this day) issues in our nation. The other dabbles with some important concepts, but is not extraordinary or even enlightening. School time is precious. Teachers’ knowledge is valuable. Children have serious questions. How can any book that is less than extraordinary be justified?

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Or, to ask the question more productively, what can happen when knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts come first; texts are selected that draw students into wrestling with the content; and strategies are rightly seen as mere tools? Diana Senechal answers:

Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.

So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.

All true. But strategies don’t have to interfere with teaching and learning; they don’t have to dominate Common Core implementation. They can be put in their rightful place as tools for exploring subject matter. Indeed, the standards themselves call for the content-rich curriculum to take center stage. Teachers that follow Senechal’s lead will exceed the standards—in their own “intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic” ways.



  1. In my experience, this usually has not been a choice teachers got to make. Texts were usually chosen in advance by some entity that never saw your students or your classroom — perhaps any students or classroom. I am not sure that makes it better for the teacher or the student. However, on the two occaisions that I was allowed to choose my texts,I did find it much easier and more effective to use the common strategies with material that met other needs in the learning plan of the students.

    I think your idea on this is ‘right on’. Thanks for sharing it.

    Comment by Lynda Coats — November 22, 2013 @ 9:01 am

  2. As a retired teacher of the deaf, who taught English Language Arts for many years, I agree completely with Diana Senechal. Unfortunately, from what I’ve read of the Common Core implementation and the assessments, the exact opposite is happening. English teachers are forced to use commercially prepared workbooks (a la Pearson)that only focus on strategies. They teach to short passages or excerpts that are decontextualized. I thought this was David Coleman’s point–students should read text cold rather than bring their own experiences and relate them to the text. Literature is downplayed. The rationale and goals of the Common Core may be commendable, but the reality is not.

    Comment by Sheila Resseger — November 22, 2013 @ 9:37 am

  3. When I was teaching in high school, the administration expected teachers to teach strategies. Whether thinking skills, group work, or other, strategies were the curriculum. This corresponds to what Reginald Archambault wrote in his introduction to “John Dewey on Education:” “It (Dewey’s conception of science as “a total and unique mode of thought”) defines the subject matter of instruction as a mode of thinking and doing.” (page xviii)

    The foreign language teachers in our school were convoked one afternoon to a session in which the supervisor carefully illustrated, with manipulables, how to teach strategies–”a mode of thinking and doing.” My colleagues were not happy because we all did teach strategies in this way. If the supervisor felt the need to give that instruction, it was perhaps because the teachers were not doing it right, or perhaps because the students were not capable, or perhaps because the approach is wrong.

    Comment by Susan Toth — November 22, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  4. Thank you, Lisa, for this piece and for the quote!

    One big problem with the strategy emphasis is that it tends to shortchange the text. Take, for example, the “strategy” (or skill) of finding the main idea. Not only is this a different exercise from one text to the next (one work might have an explicit thesis; another, no overt thesis at all), but in many cases it isn’t the main idea that we want, but rather a joining and parting of streams.

    For example, in The Prince, Machiavelli continually qualifies one idea with another, and brings in colorful historical examples to illustrate his points. His main idea, or one of them–that a prince should have and seek those qualities that will help strengthen his rule–is bland compared to the arguments along the way. Each of these arguments can be (badly) misread by someone looking for the main idea. (Something similar can be said about many a philosophical text.)

    Two questions worth posing about a literary work (explicitly or implicitly) are “what’s going on here?” and “why does it matter?” To see what’s going on in a text, one has to take it in, grasp its rhythm and structure, and interpret it at least partly on its own terms. To see why a text matters, one should ensure that it matters to begin with. As you say, it should be an extraordinary work. (That’s only the beginning, of course; understanding why it matters is a very complex kind of insight that goes far beyond apprehension of so-called “relevance.”)

    Why so much emphasis on strategies (under different guises)? Strategies are safe (or so they seem). You don’t have to know a whole lot to acquire them in their generic form; they mean little; they offend no one (save those who find them offensive), and they lend themselves to cute graphics, which can adorn walls and textbooks. The word “strategies” clatters with false importance. like someone rapping on the table for attention. A PD devoted to strategies is much easier to “sell” than a PD on “Prufrock.” After all, strategies will help you succeed, right?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 22, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

  5. @Lynda, re: choice. That’s not what the responding teachers said, for the most part. See table 8, p. 41 of the report.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — November 22, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

  6. Very well said and the right examples quoted.

    Comment by Best headphones — November 22, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  7. Amen Diana. Your last two paragraphs should be the basis for your next book.

    Comment by Kevin — November 22, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  8. Excellent post Lisa, the strategies emphasis is prevalent throughout k-12 public education. I have had two recent encounters which illustrate how widespread this belief really is. At the beginning of the school year I wanted to purchase a class set of a the Iliad(a translation for seventh graders) to read as a class. My principal denied the request and stated that we need to teach the standards not the story, so I should stick with the short-stories in the text.

    Last week I was at a PD when a video was shown of a teacher discussing Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I commented on the excellence of the lesson, and our district PD presenter told the story of going into an eighth grade language arts class and observing students watching the Simpsons and discussing how to find the climax of a story. The presenter thought this was an excellent lesson, but totally missed the point about the content of each class.

    It seems many or most educators subscribe to the strategies/content-free viewpoint.

    Comment by Kevin — November 22, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

  9. We need to break the stranglehold that strategies have on teachers’ minds. One of us needs to put together a kick-butt, take-no-prisoners Power Point presentation that will demolish the credibility of the strategies approach. Something that deftly and lucidly, with very concrete examples, shows the superiority of the knowledge-building approach to education. Then, a cadre of us needs to make sure this Power Point gets presented at every major teacher venue in America –union conferences, NCTE conferences, etc. over the next three years. And shown to state, county and district bureaucrats. We need a team that’s like the Jesuits who were conceived during the Counter-Reformation as a crack team of super-priests tasked with winning over hearts and minds for Catholicism.

    Dan Willingham’s “Teaching Content Is Teaching Reading” is good, but not comprehensive enough (and to my mind, not pointed enough). Now is the time to craft our sharpest rhetoric.

    Comment by ponderosa — November 22, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

  10. To echo Kevin and Susan, the problem isn’t the standards per se but the administrative environment in which teachers must implement them. K-12 public schools at large aren’t run by content-area experts but rather by pedagogical experts (read: skills, process, strategy), and so teachers remain under pressure to stage lessons that please process-oriented evaluators. The kinds of lessons Diana so thoughtfully advocates and exemplifies are still anathema to your typical instructional specialist, associate superintendent, guru consultant, and others in positions of power over teachers. The Common Core will change nothing unless management changes first.

    A few years ago, in my hometown of El Paso, our local chamber of commerce held an education roundtable in which reading was a main subject of discussion. A reporter approached one of our esteemed then-superintendents and asked him how he felt about Kurt Vonnegut’s recent death. The superintendent, who held an educational doctorate, replied, “I’m new to El Paso. I’m afraid I don’t know him.”

    ‘Nuff said?

    Comment by James OKeeffe — November 22, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

  11. I do not teach ELA. I am a Math-Physics person. It seems to me that the main reason to choose a high quality book is to make the reader fall in love with a good book. To show them how to analyze and persist with a good book so that it is worth the effort to read it. All the strategies may be part of the analysis, but the main point of ELA would be served if it made children of all ages fall in love with good books.

    Comment by Sujata krishna — November 22, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

  12. The irony of Diana’s example overwhelms my dismay at how academics worry incessantly about their own ideas while ignoring their students. A “strategy” can be content, and “content” – ala Machievelli – can be strategic. To distinguish is to ignore the situation and context, and ignoring that context guarantees that both content and strategy (in this case more tactic than strategy) get dismissed by kids when kids dismiss the kids themselves.

    About two years ago, when going through a bookstore with a former student (who had/has some substantial learning disabilities in reading), he mentioned he wanted to know about Machiavelli so he could manipulate his role in searching for a job as a barber. So I bought him a copy of The Prince, not concerned that his “reading level” was most surely not “in grade.” He could use it as a door stop as far as I was concerned.

    He mentioned last week that he’d gotten a raise as a barber because he did something from Machiavelli.

    To develop some perspective before dictating content or strategic priorities, pay attention to the kid. If the kid wants to learn something to do something with it, content BECOMES strategic. For that matter, don’t forget that you’re not teaching “Great books,” you’re teaching great kids!

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — November 22, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

  13. Joe,

    The splendor of Machiavelli (or part of the splendor) is that there’s something in his ideas and arguments for MANY kids and adults.

    In fact, I am grading my students’ Machiavelli tests and marveling at their insights and enthusiasm.

    Yes, Machiavelli offers strategies and tactics galore, but they are not the dreary strategies that get touted again and again in PDs, textbooks, etc. His strategies and tactics involve imagination, reasoning, discernment, and historical knowledge.

    “Reading strategies” (as commonly touted) have the disadvantage of vacuity.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 22, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

  14. Yes, Diana, but the heart of my point is that it was the kid’s CHOICE that drove his interest, transcended his disabling condition, and was the decisive strategy. Ironically, that’s probably all it takes, and thereby illustrates the vacuity of most pedagese, as my old educator mentors used to term such folderol. (

    Words are so much more fun than “reading strategies,” so why can’t teachers just teach kids that fun! And the tech stuff offers a wonderful tool with ( which I use every time they think they’re smart!

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — November 22, 2013 @ 11:13 pm

  15. [...] via Socks, Then Shoes: Texts Should Be Selected Before Strategies « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Socks, Then Shoes: Texts Should Be Selected Before Strategies « The Core Knowledge Blog | The Echo Chamber — November 23, 2013 @ 8:20 am

  16. I agree that it is texts before strategies, or the ‘what’ before the ‘how’, but we mustn’t forget that “curriculum is pedagogy” (quote from Dylan Wiliam). The intended curriculum of core texts will always become mediated by the teacher and become the real, enacted curriculum.

    I have written a post on building on English curriculum (in England) for KS3 students – aged 11-14. See here: Without a focus on the ‘how’ then the ‘what’ will be diluted and compromised anyway. When planned a core knowledge curriculum you need ‘and/both’ thinking rather than ‘either/or’ in this debate.

    Comment by Alex Quigley — November 23, 2013 @ 8:38 am

  17. [...]… [...]

    Pingback by Top Stories -- 11/21--26/2013 | CUNY Institute for Education Policy — November 27, 2013 @ 11:09 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.