How do you teach how to learn?

learningstrategiesWhen I worked as a bilingual aide in a California public school, my small group of students would take turns reading a text, each pronouncing their sentences carefully and listening dutifully to the others, but when we came to the comprehension check questions, they were completely mystified. The answers were right there, I’d heard the words come out of their mouths, but it was like they had never read the text. It didn’t matter if the students were second graders or sixth graders, when it came time to extract meaning or work with the text in any way, they sat silently, completely adrift among the words.

If I could go back and take the place of my then-vastly inexperienced self, one of the main things I would change about the scenario would be to teach those kids to self-monitor for comprehension. I would stop them at every sentence and prod, Did that make sense? Do you understand? Tell me what you just read. Tell me what you just read in Spanish. Sentence-level prodding would naturally reveal gaps in vocabulary, provide object lessons about figures of speech, and supply many other strong foundations for instruction. But my goal would be for them to notice when the reading doesn’t make sense, and to take charge of their understanding until it does.

Working with small groups in such a hands-on way is a luxury most teachers with classes of 30 students are not afforded. But learning strategies have been proven among all kinds of students, ELs included. Some strategies, like taking notes, seem engrained in student culture, but students aren’t always sure of how or why they take notes. Sometimes, teachers advise reading the headers and sub-headers before diving into a text, but they don’t always model it to the class. Some strategies, like using cognates in language learning, seem so obvious, that students should “just get it” without instruction.

Learning strategies are meant to make the learning process more efficient and organized, but the immature mind is neither efficient nor organized (as I observe in my 11-month-old, who becomes overwhelmed by a pile of toys or raisins, and is relieved when I draw one or two—a more manageable number—toward him). Asking questions for clarification, or utilizing background knowledge, or drafting an outline may seem intuitive to an adult, but children are so frequently burdened by an information overload, they simply don’t have any extra mental energy to devote to processing. That’s why making learning strategies an explicit aspect of instruction is worthwhile – it ultimately makes your students better learners.

How do you work learning strategies into your instruction? Do you have any favorite, tried-and-true strategies?

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