Skills vs. Strategies


If you missed my last post, before reading this one, take a moment to watch this 30-second clip.

Did you notice a difference between the way the father taught Max to catch a baseball and the way Drew taught him? Did you notice that he did a lot of “telling” and very little “teaching”? Did you notice how Drew broke the skill of catching the ball down into a step-by-step strategy?

As teachers we toss around the words “skills” and “strategies” all the time.  I must say, however, that it was many years into my teaching career before I truly understood the difference between these words.  As teachers, it is our goal to teach our students many skills—reading skills, math skills, communication skills, self-discipline skills, and the list goes on and on.  Skilled performance is the goal.  But when a learner is new to a skill, they may not be proficient at it.  That’s where strategies come into play.  

As Jennifer Serravallo explains in her book Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers “strategies are the step-by-step how-tos for internalizing skills.”  Serravallo tells the story of her own experience learning to draw people in a high school art class.  She was struggling to draw people’s bodies in correct proportion.  Her art teacher taught her to lightly draw a series of ovals for each body segment and then go back to draw the body’s outline and clothing. Eventually this strategy gave way to the skill of drawing people with correct proportions!  It is important to remember that strategies are scaffolds that we put in place to help students develop skills.  They are meant to be temporary, left in place only long enough for the learner to become independent with the skill. 

Understanding the meaning of the words “skill” and “strategy” has profoundly changed the way I teach—whether it is with my students, my own children, or teachers in my seminars.  When I look at a learner who is struggling to become proficient or skilled at something, anything, I ask myself, “How can I break this down into a series of meaningful steps or strategies that will give way toward more skilled performance?”

When my son was about 5 or 6, he was learning how to get himself ready for bed independently.  It seemed that every night he would come downstairs having forgotten one or more of the getting-ready-for-bed tasks. His teeth weren’t brushed, he had forgotten to use the bathroom, his face wasn’t washed.  Each night it seemed to be something different.  I wish I had a dollar for every time my husband said, “Richard, what does ‘get ready for bed’ mean to you?!” Richard obviously hadn’t internalized the skill of getting ready for bed.  When my teacher brain kicked in and I finally stopped to realize this, I created some illustrated sticky notes for him with each step of the getting-ready-for-bed protocol and stuck them to the bathroom mirror.  Then instead of nagging and reminding him each night, we simply directed him to the mirror where he could follow the step-by-step how-tos. Eventually he became skilled at getting ready for bed by himself and no longer needed the strategy.

I have found that this process works for EVERYTHING!  Look around your classroom.  What are your students struggling to learn?  How are you helping them become more independent?  Do you find yourself saying some version of “just use two hands, Max” or “what does get ready for bed mean to you, Richard?”  If so, you may need to take that skill and break it down into a series of steps or strategies.  Try it—you will be amazed at how this can transform your teaching!

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