The Difference Between Learning Strategies And Skills


by Grant Wiggins, Ph.D.,

The Difference Between Learning Strategies And Skills


noun, plural strat·e·gies.

The science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations.

A plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result: a strategy for getting ahead in the world.

Origin: 1680–90;  < Greek stratēgía  generalship, equivalent to stratēg ( ós ) military commander, general ( strat ( ós ) army + -ēgos  noun derivative of ágein  to lead)


    1. In military usage, a distinction is made between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the utilization, during both peace and war, of all of a nation’s forces, through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. Tactics deals with the use and deployment of troops in actual combat.

People who know me and follow my work know that I care about clarity of language. Without it, there cannot be real understanding and progress in education. So, it constantly irks me that people misuse the word “strategy” especially in talking about literacy.

As the dictionary definition and comment, above, states, strategy differs from a tactic in that one develops an overall strategy to achieve a specific goal, within which appropriate tactics are used to achieve that success. A third element, skill, is needed to implement the strategy and tactics. In sum:

    • Goal
    • Strategy: overall approach to using all resources to achieve goal
    • Tactics: specific “moves” designed to execute the strategy and honor the goal
    • Skills: personal abilities needed to execute the tactics and strategy and to achieve the goal.

Some people find the military meaning unhelpful or unsuitable, so let’s move it to sports: a goal is the “Mission” of the program or sport. A strategy is an overall plan for achieving the mission. A tactic is one “move” of many we will make in the game that fit with and help accomplish that strategy; specific game skills are needed for the tactics.

Let’s make a brief chart, then, of the 4 elements, for soccer:

    • Goal: play winning soccer in a sportsmanlike way (long-term), and victory on the field in this game against this team on this field today (short-term)
    • Strategy: Play for a 1-0 win since good defense wins most soccer games, and the team we are playing is stronger than we are. So, constantly push all the offensive play by the other team to the outside, and don’t let them create “space” for dangerous offense behind us.
    • Tactics: Play a 4-4-2 alignment; double-team every player with the ball from the other team in our half of the field; use our backs to overlap our midfielders to make sneaky runs to try to generate offense, play on a diagonal on defense to avoid getting burned in a fast break, etc.
    • Skills: body control to avoid being faked by opponents on defense, ability to tackle and take the ball away, quick passing, etc.


How This Analysis Bears On Literacy

The so-called “reading strategies” are thus a hodge-podge of strategy, tactics, and skills, all unmoored from clear goals. It’s no wonder that they often don’t yield much in the way of achievement, even though they represent a common-sense approach.

Here’s a typical list of “strategies” (from the West Virginia Dept. of Education web site.) I italicized the two phrases that signal the trouble:

Comprehension Strategies

Reading comprehension refers to the students’ ability to read and understand information presented in written form.  Reading is not a passive activity.  Good readers interact with text, making and validating predictions, creating questions about the characters, main idea or plot, monitoring their own understanding of the text, clarifying the confusing parts, and connecting text events to their own prior knowledge and experiences.  All teachers must teach students thecomprehension skills necessary to help them understand text and be successful independent readers.

  • Think Aloud
  • Reciprocal Teaching
  • Teacher Read Aloud
  • Cloze Procedure
  • SQ3R
  • DR-TA (Directed Reading Thinking Activity)
  • Literature Circles
  • Keys to Comprehension: Questioning, Determining importance, Discussing the text, etc.

Never mind that strategy and skill are conflated – more on that, below – How is the Cloze procedure a reader strategy? It’s a teacher testing strategy! Jeesh…

Here’s a more subtly-confused list, in a handout from Scholastic used widely (as judged from a Google search):

Seven Key Reading Strategies

  1. Activate Prior Knowledge
  2. Decide what’s important in a text
  3. Synthesize information
  4. Draw inferences during and after reading
  5. Self-monitor comprehension
  6. Repair faulty comprehension
  7. Ask Questions

Then the following is offered:

Strategies for Before, During & After Reading:

    • Brainstorm/Categorize
    • Predict/Support
    • Fast-Write
    • Make Personal Connections
    • Use Prior Knowledge
    • Identify Confusing Parts
    • Visualize
    • Infer
    • Skim
    • Reread
    • Question

Huh? How come there is a second, different list? And why are some of these things evenhere (e.g. Fast-write and Brainstorm)? Most of these so-called strategies are tactics unmoored from specific goals and strategy.

Clarifying The 4 Elements Of Reading

What’s the goal? Arguably, a key reading goal is to understand the meaning of a text that requires active understanding not mere inspection and immediate comprehension. (i.e. if comprehension were automatic, then none of these tactics would be needed.) An overall strategy for this goal is thus to draw targeted inferences about meaning while self-monitoring, since that’s the essence of what reading challenging text for understanding is and requires. Moves like “Ask questions” and “Decide what’s important” are tactics that support this strategy (and the goal of understanding challenging text). “Visualize” and “Question” are skills.  Finally, since the point of reading comprehension is to draw valid and meaningful inferences in order to comprehend challenging text, to list “Infer” as one “strategy” among many is just downright categorically confused.

Is it any wonder that students have trouble reading, if they think that reading is just applying a grab-bag of moves that differ categorically and are not prioritized by goals and situations?

The whole point of the military/athletic analogy is that there has to be a crystal-clear goal and an overall strategy for achieving it in a specific challenging situation. The athlete or student, in other words, has to not only play well but think like the coach, the general. Alas, students in reading (and most other subjects) are more or less treated as soldier-grunts who are just told what to do in each activity rather than helped to consider and understand the whole enterprise and how any single move supports it. Worse, students are typically prompted by specific sentence stems to use each “strategy” individually rather than being helped to make executive decisions about which tactic to use when which is what a truly strategic decision is.


Strategy vs. Skill: A Widely-Cited Paper

I am not the only person who feels the need to make some of these distinctions. Well-known scholars of literacy Peter Afflerbach, P. David Pearson, and Scott G. Paris wrote a widely-cited article on the difference between reading “skills” and reading “strategies” and the interesting history behind the use of the two terms in “The Reading Teacher” in 2008. After citing the confusion of terms and the interesting history behind their use, they propose to address the problem as follows:

“We want to reduce the confusion. To that end, we offer an analysis that highlights the commonalities and distinctiveness of each term. Reading strategies are deliberate, goal-directed attempts to control and modify the reader’s efforts to decode text, understand words, and construct meanings of text. Reading skills are automatic actions that result in decoding and comprehension with speed, efficiency, and fluency and usually occur without awareness of the components or control involved. The reader’s deliberate control, goal-directedness, and awareness define a strategic action. Control and working toward a goal characterize the strategic reader who selects a particular path to a reading goal (i.e., a specific means to a desired end). Awareness helps the reader select an intended path, the means to the goal, and the processes used to achieve the goal, including volitional control (Corno, 1989) that prevents distractions and preserves commitment to the goal. Being strategic allows the reader to examine the strategy, to monitor its effectiveness, and to revise goals or means if necessary. Indeed, a hallmark of strategic readers is the flexibility and adaptability of their actions as they read. In contrast, reading skills operate without the reader’s deliberate control or conscious awareness. They are used out of habit and automatically so they are usually faster than strategies because the reader’s conscious decision making is not required. This has important, positive consequences for each reader’s limited working memory system. Thus, as we consider a reader’s actions, we must also determine whether they are under automatic or deliberate control. This is a key difference between skill and strategy. It is important to note that reading strategies, like reading skills, are not always successful, and a definition of reading strategies does not entail only positive and useful actions. A young reader may choose an inappropriate goal, such as reading fast to finish before peers rather than reading carefully to understand the text. Some strategies are simply incorrect ideas about reading, such as guessing a word based on its initial letter. The actions are indeed strategic; they connect specific means to specific goals but they are inappropriate and ineffective for reading. Having good intentions and trying to be strategic are good starting points but neither alone ensures that readers will decode and understand text successfully. It is the appropriateness of the goal, the means, and the path to connect them that must be negotiated in every situation in order to be strategic and successful. This is fundamentally different than a skill that is well practiced and executed in the same manner across situations.”

Got that? Me neither. (The preceding was all one paragraph in the article!)

Alas, the authors ignore the distinction between strategy and tactics here in ways that come back to haunt them, I think (see below). But that may all just be a clarity-of-prose issue. Fine, they basically meant “tactic” and they want to properly differentiate intentional choice from automatic foundational skill.

However, the argument becomes quite questionable in the next two paragraphs, in which they provide an example to show the difference between intentional meta-cognitive “strategy” and well-practiced (second-nature) “skill”:

“A concrete example may clarify the distinction. Suppose a student determines he or she has only a vague understanding of a paragraph as he or she reaches the end of it. The student wants to do something to clarify his or her comprehension so the student slows down and asks, “Does that make sense?” after every sentence. This is a reading strategy—a deliberate, conscious, metacognitive act. The strategy is prompted by the student’s vague feeling of poor comprehension, and it is characterized by a slower rate of reading and a deliberate act of self-questioning that serves the student’s goal of monitoring and building better comprehension. Now imagine that the strategy works and the student continues to use it throughout the school year. With months of practice, the strategy requires less deliberate attention, and the student uses it more quickly and more efficiently. When it becomes effortless and automatic (i.e., the student is in the habit of asking “Does that make sense?” automatically), the reading strategy has become a reading skill. In this developmental example, skill and strategy differ in their intentionality and their automatic and nonautomatic status. 

The progression from effortful and deliberate to automatic use of specific actions while reading occurs at many levels—decoding, fluency, comprehension, and critical reading. Beginning readers need to associate visual patterns of letters with their phonemic pronunciations. A hoped for consequence of instruction is that students’ decoding progresses from deliberate to fluent actions.Children in elementary school, especially when reading instruction focuses on constructing meaning, learn to find main ideas, to skim, and to reread first as deliberate actions and, with practice, later accomplish the same actions with less effort and awareness. In this view of learning, deliberate reading strategies often become fluent reading skills.”


Once the “strategy” is second nature, it is a skill? That’s like saying that soccer tactics and soccer skills in highly-talented players are the same thing. They are not the same thing at all. A tactic is a means for achieving a goal; a skill is a foundational ability needed for ‘playing’ and using any tactic. The fact that various tactical moves become second nature doesn’t make them skills (except in the casual way in which we may describe a player as “skillful”). No matter how fluent, there is still an implicit judgment to be made about what to do when – tactics – in the use of one’s skills. In fact, even highly-skilled players make poor decisions; sometimes less-than-skilled players make brilliant tactical moves and thereby compensate for their skill deficits.

And good players also may fail to execute the overall strategy in their pattern of tactical errors, suggesting that either the coach has not made the strategy clear or the player doesn’t understand it.


Teaching Tactics

The teaching of tactics unmoored from helping students become autonomous decision-makers is doomed to fail, even if a few good tactics become second nature. This is true not only in soccer, but reading (and math and professional development). What happens when a tactic doesn’t work? By what criteria do we choose another? This is unanswerable in the current “reading strategies” literature: the student just chooses another. What happens when the strategy isn’t appropriate for the goal, even though some tactics are working? What happens if there is no clear goal? The upshot: students need to learn to think both strategically and tactically, with reference to self-conscious goals, in any skilled performance arena. In essence, they have to learn to think not just like a good player but like a good coach.

In the end, soccer reveals what better reading instruction needs to be: The coaching should, long term, help readers perform autonomously with a repertoire on the field. No coach aiming for such a goal will incessantly bark commands as to which tactics to use at each moment. That doesn’t work in soccer and it doesn’t work in reading, though poor coaches in both arenas do it all the time.  Rather, practice must include lots of “scrimmages” where the “players” practice making decisions on their own (and de-brief which worked and which didn’t and why); and, over time, to so internalize the coach’s perspective as to make executive decisions wisely and well.

Long-term that should result in creative decisions! That’s why John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach at UCLA, once said that his aim as a coach was to be surprised by what his players did on the court – despite the fact that they were drilled incessantly in basic skills and tactics. That’s the deeper meaning of “gradual release of teacher responsibility” because there are judgments to be made by the performer – creative vs uncreative choices; effective vs ineffective choices; efficient vs. inefficient choices. Meta-cognition is essential, not optional, because the choices and reasons for them have to be grasped and critiqued.

By contrast, in too many instructional situations, there is no need for reflection. The demand to use this or that “strategy” has already been made by the teacher in advance, goals are never discussed, and an overall strategy is never discussed or de-briefed. “Today we will do a worksheet on ‘predict’ and tomorrow we’ll do one on ‘infer character trait’ and after that we’ll learn all the other strategies…” But then the student is developing neither strategy nor autonomous transfer of the tactics. Thus, the student rarely gets enough practice in decision-making about which skills and tactics to use in support of a strategy; and too little opportunity to set a reading goal, develop a strategy for it, and use tactics consistent with it.

If everyone truly got the idea that, like soccer, the reader has to make decisions with increasing regularity, from a greater and greater repertoire, we would see far more “scrimmages” of students confronting texts cold, with no prompts from the teacher. “Play the game, early and often.”  Then, we would de-brief the result.

The Question Of Strategy

Thus, the key strategy question – in reading and soccer – has nothing to do with the tactics currently found on all these lists and taught under the name of strategy. The key strategy question is a general overarching one: how should I best marshal all my current resources to achieve this goal in this setting?

If, for example, time is limited and the text is very difficult, what should my overall approach be? If, on the other hand, the text is easy and I have plenty of time, what should my plan be? Then (and only then) do we speak of the specific tactics to be used. (Otherwise, my choice of tactics is arbitrary).

For example, if the text is difficult, my overall strategy might be to find, by whatever means, the gist of the article. I want to be able to summarize, at least, what the author is trying to say – even if I am a bit over my head on the technical details and the intricacies of the logic. If that’s my strategy, then, I will choose tactics accordingly: Decide what’s important and Ask Questions of the text would seem to be key tactics for achieving my strategy and goal.

Far too often, however, students merely learn “moves” unmoored from such decisions and then are at a complete loss when there is no teacher, no teacher scaffold, and no simplifying prompts as to which approach to take and which tactics to use. YIKES! That’s what happens when they are being tested on standardized tests!! That’s why so much test prep in reading is an error: it teaches “moves” in isolation unmoored from strategy. Bad coaching:  I’ll teach you a bunch of moves in practice, one after another, but you are on your own for how to decide which to use when in the “game” called the test. No wonder kids do surprisingly poorly on reading tests (which, let me remind you, always involve texts new to the student, not familiar: these lessons must be learned as transfer abilities.)


Note that this entire argument can be easily transferred to teaching mathematics and used to explain why most math teaching is doomed to failure if it treats strategy and tactics as mere plug and chug unmoored from long-term problem solving goals (which in almost always does). Similarly, with professional development: we teach pedagogical tactics utterly divorced from organizational or personal Mission statements, course goals, and strategic plans for choosing the proper pedagogy accordingly. Is it any wonder that PD is seen as – and is in fact often – arbitrary and unjustified?

So, please: commit to using the word “strategy” more, well, strategically – whether we’re talking reading, math, or teaching itself. I promise you that you will more likely clarify your goals and develop better long-range strategic plans and tactical actions if you do.

This article first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; image attribution flickr user alexproimos and flickeringbrad; The Difference Between Learning Strategies And Skills