Skills vs. Strategies

Obviously, on some level, a skill if properly mastered becomes a subconscious process.   So, what happens when skill use is very consciously and deliberately planned, either because the text is beyond the reader’s comprehension ability,  or because they want to prioritize the text and slow down the reading process in some way? In these cases, the reader uses a strategy.

Here is an essay on the difference between skills and strategies Skills vs. Strategies  (Afflerbach, Pearson & Paris.  The Reading Teacher, 2008) From that essay, here are the teacher reactions and the definitions which prompted a better understanding.

““Skills make up strategies.”

“Strategies lead to skills.”

“Skill is the destination, strategy is the journey.”

“We learn strategies to do a skill.”

“Skills are automatic, strategies are effortful and


“We use strategies as tools.”

“Strategies that work require a skill set.”

“We have to pay attention in learning skills, but

eventually we use them automatically.”

“You don’t think about skills, and you do think

about strategies.”


We followed our questioning of colleagues with

consultation of The Literacy Dictionary  (Harris &

Hodges, 1995), a commonly used reading reference,

and found the following definitions:

skill n. 1. an acquired ability to perform well; proficiency.

Note: The term often refers to finely coordinated,

complex motor acts that are the result of perceptualmotor

learning, such as handwriting, golf, or pottery.

However, skill is also used to refer to parts of acts that

are primarily intellectual, as those involved in comprehension

or thinking. (p. 235)

strategy n. in education, a systematic plan, consciously

adapted and monitored, to improve one’s performance

in learning. (p. 244)”


I would summarize the essay in the following way, a skill is an automatic reflex, while a strategy is deliberate action.Through repeated practical use of a strategy, a learner can gain a skill. Automaticity is one of the key aspects of skills, especially in reading, where prior knowledge must be accessed on a continuous basis. On the other hand, a strategy is employed by the reader after conscious analysis to solve a specific problem or problem area.



Scaffolding Clipboard

“Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.” – H.A. Simon

My professor made the following statement that gave me pause for thought. “Scaffolding is teaching. Teaching is scaffolding”.

I found it remarkable that she would find it conceptually useful enough to make such a de-facto statement, and it was my cue to researching scaffolding further.

Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article:

Instructional scaffolding is a learning process designed to promote a deeper level of learning. Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals (Sawyer, 2006)…The best and most effective use of instructional scaffolding helps the learner figure out the task at hand on their own. It is best to think of the use of instructional scaffolding in an effective learning environment as one would think of the importance of scaffolding in the support of the construction of a new building. Instructional scaffolding is most effective when it contributes to the learning environment. In an effective learning environment, scaffolding is gradually added, then modified, and finally removed according to the needs of the learner. Eventually, instructional scaffolding will fade away. This learning process should never be in place permanently. Eventually, the goal should be for the student to no longer need the instructional scaffolding.”

Here is a discussion of it copied entirely from a blog by Scott Thornbury. (Thornbury, 2010)

S is for Scaffolding

In An A-Z I include an entry for scaffolding, but don’t mention the fact that it has become such a buzz term that it’s starting to lose all significance. Teachers and trainers regularly talk about their role in ‘scaffolding’ learning, but if you unpick their examples, it’s difficult to distinguish these from simple question-and-answer sequences that have always characterised effective teaching. Here, for example, is an extract that Rod Ellis uses to exemplify scaffolding:

1 Teacher I want you to tell me what you can see in the picture or what’s wrong with the picture.

2 Learner A /paik/ (= bike)

3 Teacher A cycle, yes. But what’s wrong?

4 Learner /ret/ (= red)

5 Teacher It’s red yes. What’s wrong with it?

6 Learner Black

7 Teacher Black. Good. Black what?

8 Learner Black /taes/ (= tyres)

(Ellis, 2003, p. 181)

Ellis explains that “the teacher is able to draw on his experience of communicating with low-level proficiency learners to adjust the demands of the task and to scaffold the interaction so that a successful outcome is reached” (p. 182). But I’m not convinced. It seems that – far from being an instance of co-constructed learning – the teacher and the learner are talking at cross-purposes, and that all this is mapped on to the traditional IRF (initiate—respond–follow-up) model of classroom discourse. This does not seem to embody Bruner’s (1978) definition of scaffolding as “the steps taken to reduce the degree of freedom in carrying out some tasks so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring” (quoted in Gibbons, 2002).

What, then, are these ‘steps’? Looking at the literature on scaffolding, a number of key features have been identified. Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) in one of the first attempts to define the term, itemise six:

1 recruiting interest in the task

2 simplifying the task

3 maintaining pursuit of the goal

4 marking critical features and discrepancies between what has been produced and the ideal solution

5 controlling frustration during problem solving

6 demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.

(quoted in Ellis op. cit)

What they seem to leave out – and what is so attractive (to me) about the metaphor of scaffolding – is the relinquishing of the teacher’s role as the learner appropriates the targeted skill – what Applebee (1986) calls ‘transfer of control’: “As students internalize new procedures and routines, they should take a greater responsibility for controlling the progress of the task such that the amount of interaction may actually increase as the student becomes more competent” (quoted in Foley 1994). Also missing is what van Lier (1996) calls the “principle of continuity”, i.e. that “there are repeated occurrences, often over a protracted period of time, of a complex of actions, characterized by a mixture of ritual repetition and variations” (p. 195). That is to say, scaffolded learning is not a one-off event, but is embedded in repeated, semi-ritualised, co-authored language-mediated activities, typical of many classroom routines such as games and the opening class chat. Finally, any definition of scaffolding needs to highlight the fact that this kind of interaction is a site for learning opportunities, and is not simply a way of modelling, supporting, or practising interaction.

Does this tighter definition of scaffolding improve matters? Or is it now so tight that it deprives teachers of a useful metaphor for a whole range of classroom interactions?


Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching, OUP.

Foley, J. 1994. ‘Key concepts: Scaffolding’. ELT Journal 48/1.

Gibbons, P. 2002. Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning. Heinemann (USA)

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Longman,

Chunking = Bundling Information

“Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” – Jonathan Kozol

Chunking is a computer term that means “bundles of information.” It refers to breaking information or a task into smaller pieces to make them manageable.

1.reposted from helping students with learning disabilities:

Suppose a student is complaining about an assignment and makes a statement such as, “This chapter is way too long. It’s not worth reading.”

  • First, acknowledge their feelings with a statement such as, “You’re right. This is a long chapter. It may require a lot of energy, but think about how proud of yourself you’ll be when you finish it. Also, realize how it will help you get a better grade in your discussion or on your test.”
  • Then proceed to help the student divide the activity into manageable chunks. For example, determine how many days he has to complete the reading and divide the task into that many chunks.
  • If the chunks are still too large, divide each of those chunks into a smaller chunk or section to complete.
  • Have the student read only one chunk and then use a concrete strategy to summarize what he read.
  • Then have him read another chunk and summarize it.
  • After reading all of the chunks, have the student pull together each summary and use those to review the chapter.

Help your student appreciate these important aspects about the chunking process:

  • Students can store and organize information more efficiently in small chunks.
  • Everything begins with one small step.
  • It’s the small steps that add up to a bigger accomplishment.

2. Quoted from a book on memory called “Moonwalking with Einstein”:

Chunking is a way to decrease the numbers of items you have to remember by increasing the size of each item.  Chunking is the reason that phone numbers are broken into two parts plus an area code and that credit card numbers are split into groups of four.

And chunking is extremely relevant to the question of why experts so often have such exceptional memories.

The classic explanation of chunking involves language.  If you were asked to memorize the twenty two letters HEADSHOULDERSKNEESTOES, and you didn’t  notice what they spelled, you ‘d almost certainly have a tough time with it.  But break up those twent-two letters inot four chunks- HEAD, SHOULDERS, KNEES and TOES- and the task becomes a whole lot easier.  And if you happen to know the full nursery rhyme, the line “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” can effectively be treated like one single chunk.  The same can be done with numbers.  The twelve-digit numerical string 120741091101 is pretty hard to remember.  Break it up into four chunks 120, 741, 091, 101- and it becomes a little easier.  Turn it into two chunks, 12/07/41 and 09/11/01, and they’re almost impossible to forget.  You could even turn those dates into a single chunk of information by remembering it as “the two big suprise attacks on American soil.”

Micro & Macro Reading Skills

The CLB (Canadian Language Benchmarks) has determined four broad skills:  Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking.   To many people, myself included, these were the obvious categories in language skill, and up until I had started to study language,  the ones that I thought of the most.  However, I think that it can be agreed that in any one of these broad groups, there are also sub skills involved.

Although reading is a receptive skill like listening, it is not, as my language teachers have taken great pains to point out,passive. Experienced, and  effective readers are different from inexperienced readers because they vary their approach appropriately to the material they are reading and to their purpose.   In other words, experienced readers, at least on subconscious level are making decisions about what kind of reading they will do.   Depending on whether they are reading a poem, a set of instructions, an article, or a list, they will use different types of reading skills.

It is very important as a teacher to isolate these skills for the students in specific tasks designed to practice each of them.   I would draw the analogy of training in a gym and isolating muscle groups.  To get the best out of a workout, one day, you will work on a specific set of muscles, and in a given exercise only one.  Unfortunately, with language skills, unlike muscles, some of the skills are very difficult to recognize and isolate.

Why?  I would suggest it is because we are talking about skill groups that connect to each other and are often used at the same time.   The skills work in synchronicity and it is not easy to differentiate one from another.  Obviously, reading at a beginner level uses certain fundamental skills that will be used in every application (letter recognition).  These fundamental skills will be used at the same time as ones on a more advanced level as the reader gains ability.  (main idea or identifying the main idea).  Furthermore,  the distinction between skill and strategy can become unclear.  There might for example, be both the skills and the strategies of inference, predicting or identifying the main idea.  What has become clear to me about the subject, is that the reader starts with skills identifying smaller units of language, like graphemes (letters) and phonemes (sounds), and works there way up the linguistic chain to morphemes (parts of words), to semantics (meanings) and  syntactics (grammatical constructions), until they finally arrive at understanding socio cultural (kinds of discourse).   If they cannot understand a text, they can slow down the reading and use a strategy.

This is the reading skill list according to D.H. Brown.  When reading this list, you will notice that they often overlap with each other slightly, especially when you think of the reading process.  At the same time, you will notice that each one, could be individually tested, or form the basis of distinct practice activities.  In Brown’s list, the first on the list is essentially recognizing the alphabet, and automatically understanding how it combines into words.   As he moves down the list, the skills build upon each other, becoming increasingly based on understanding larger meaning.

Micro-skills for Reading Comprehension

1. Discriminate among the distinctive graphemes and orthographic patterns of English.
2. Retain chunks of language of different lengths in short-term memory.
3. Process writing at an efficient rate of speed to suit the purpose.
4. Recognize a core of words, and interpret word order patterns and their significance.
5. Recognize grammatical word classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (e.g., tense, agreement, pluralization) patterns, rules, and elliptical forms.
6. Recognize that a particular meaning may be expressed in different grammatical forms.
7. Recognize cohesive devices in written discourse and their role in signaling the relationship between and among clauses.

Macro-Reading Skills for Comprehension

1. Recognize the rhetorical forms of written discourse and their significance for interpretation.
2. Recognize the communicative functions of written texts, according to form and purpose.
3. Infer context that is not explicit by using background knowledge.
4. From described events, ideas, etc., infer links and connections between events, deduce causes and effects, and detect such relations as main idea, supporting idea, new information, given information, generalization, and exemplification.
5. Distinguish between literal and implied meanings.
6. Detect culturally specific references and interpret them in a context of the appropriate cultural schemata.
7. Develop and use a battery of reading strategies, such as scanning and skimming, detecting discourse markers, guessing the meaning of words from context, and activating schemata for the interpretation of texts.


In the next post, we talk about chunking, which can help with close reading.  Close reading is the opposite of skimming and scanning.  It involves reading and rereading the text, and breaking the text into smaller more manageable bundles of information, so that the whole can be more easily analyzed.

Google and transactive memory

So, how does reading on the internet differ from reading a book?

According to a video and some readings I have just done, it has two consequences.

Firstly, It has been argued that,  searching on the internet activates a decision making part of our brain that is different than in reading.  I found this odd, since I know reading is not a passive process.  Nevertheless, in experiments it has been shown to be true, that we actively supress the flood of information on the internet to find exactly what we are looking for.  In many ways, this uses the reading skills known as skimming and scanning which we have just discussed.  However, in this case we are scanning for the first relevant site in our search query, skimming the contents of the opened article or link, and then repeating if the process if it turns up nothing.  Theoretically, this should make us better readers on some level, but it may also encourage a constant questioning of whether the information we are looking at is relevant, rather than simply being open to it.

Secondly,  we may forget the information that we have read because we expect to access it at a later time.  This is called transactive memory.  Here is how it is defined by Wikipedia:

“Transactive memory is a psychological hypothesis first proposed by Daniel Wegner in 1985 as a response to earlier theories of “group mind” such as groupthink.[1] A transactive memory system is a mechanism through which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge. ”

Just to prove the point even further, here is the link to a video and some resources explaining this:

One thing I liked about this video, is that it explains the type of processes that are occurring, so that we can become more aware of them, including whether we want something to be in our transactive memory, or make a conscious effort to retain it permanently.

Skimming and Scanning

There is  a clear distinction between skimming and scanning but what makes it more interesting is that, each reading strategy is only appropriate for certain types of information.  Here is an article on the topic that I found interesting, written by Abby Marks Beale:

skimming and scanning

Here are some excerpts from the article:

“Skimming is one of the tools you can use to read more in less time.Skimming refers to looking only for the general or main ideas, and works best with non-fiction (or factual) material. With skimming, your overall understanding is reduced because you don’t read everything. You read only what is important to your purpose. Skimming takes place while reading and allows you to look for details in addition to the main ideas.”

“Scanning is another useful tool for speeding up your reading. Unlike skimming, when scanning, you look only for a specific fact or piece of information without reading everything. You scan when you look for your favorite show listed in the cable guide, for your friend’s phone number in a telephone book, and for the sports scores in the newspaper. For scanning to be successful, you need to understand how your material is structured as well as comprehend what you read so you can locate the specific information you need. Scanning also allows you to find details and other information in a hurry.”

That is not to say that you should always skim and scan material, however, it is important to consider that the reading rate is changeable, and moreover, it does change on a constant basis as you read, even on the more microscopic level of sentence comprehension.

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading is meant to contrast distinctively with intensive reading which is close reading for a discrete purpose.

This is drawn from a textbook on teaching methodology (Wertheim M.,2013, Methodology Reading Package) :

Brown and Kumaradivelu “proposed a set of principles to which any good language pedgaogy should conform.  Examples of these principles include providing a rich linguistic environment, respecting and capitlizing on leaner’s contribution to the learning process, and emphasizing fluency over, but not at the expense of , accuracy”

(Renandya, W. A, &  Jacobs, G.M.,2002, Language Teaching)

The text that I am referring to goes on to define and promote extensive reading as a means to achieve fluency.

The benefits of extensive reading as explained by this article are:

“1. Enhanced language learning in areas such as spelling, vocabulary,grammar and text structure

2. Increased knowledge of the world

3. Improved reading and writing skills

4. greater enjoyment of reading

5. higher possibility of developping the reading habit.”

Of course, I am guilty of not reading extensively, and always feeling guilty considering my post secondary background that I am not doing so.  One quote that I felt summarized the idea, is the following one on goal setting:

“If you would hit the mark, you must aim a little above it:   Every arrow that flies feels the pull of the earth.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Meaning that, to encourage yourself and others to read effectively, you have to set expectations high, in other words ask them to read prodigiously.

MOOC and English for Academic Purposes

MOOCs may be a solution to computer assisted attention deficit disorder.  Where is deep knowledge on the internet?  Twitter and other such newstickers promise to take us to knowledge in depth, which we may never get to.  MOOC is an acronym that stands for “massive open online course”.  Some of the courseware I have been looking at in the last week has included:  the Khan Academy, Coursera, and most recently Academic Earth.  One university site that made big news is MIT .  I have found listening to the courses offered entertaining and informative.  In adult learning, one purpose for looking into this material is to re-acquaint yourself with broad ideas in topic areas that you are interested in.

Many universities are offering free course material and I would not be surprised if we will encounter stellar students in the future from unexpected locations and socio economic backgrounds.  If we imagine that people are driven by Pink’s motivations (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) rather than by purely financial considerations,  the MOOC generation is about to produce some incredible thinkers.  There are many detractors and supporters to computer assisted learning, but in the end, such offerings can only help people to learn.  True, being involved in a real classroom has many advantages, but it is not always possible to learn in this way.  I would argue that the internet lacked depth in the early years of development, and that the proliferation of MOOCs in the last ten years, and the involvement by the big players in education (colleges and universities)  is a meaningful indicator that things have changed.

My goal is to get through some of these programs myself, to increase my own learning, but I am also hoping that I can use some MOOC materials in the classroom, to inspire students to use vocabulary in their given areas of expertise.

In the EAP or ESP context MOOCs may provide a path way for students to prepare for the the university experience, by test driving their comprehension skills before they get there.

Motivation according to Dan Pink

When I looked at the TED talk I was very interested in Pink’s concepts and how they would apply to teaching.  I think Pink’s ideas are instructive to anyone trying to inspire a group.
The argument is that creative problem solving does not necessarily improve when the incentive is simply based on a cash reward.
He bases his argument mainly on data collected from M.I.T economists, but also real life practices of top tier tech innovation companies.  The test findings were that motivation comes from giving problem solvers Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose rather than traditional carrot and stick or reward / punishment incentive models.  In explaining the theory, he points to a psychological experiment called “The candle problem” which requires creative thinking to solve.
On, Pink’s lecture is adapted for use in a business english classroom:

A supporting PDF can be found here:



Teaching Philosophy

My teaching philosophy involves two parts:

1.Intelligence is problem solving with limits and resources.

2.To develop language skill requires communicative risk taking.

The implications of these ideas about language teaching are:

1. That to  create meaningful tasks we must find problems that students are motivated  to solve because they are puposeful, that challenge their level, and are possible for them to complete.

2.The classroom must be an encouraging and welcoming environment to allow students to risk communicating in a language they are learning.