Does Your Comprehension Strategy Instruction Have this Key Element?

  • challenging text complex text text complexity comprehension strategies
  • 31 October, 2020

I was observing writing instruction in an 8th grade suburban classroom. The experienced teacher was quite skilled and he both managed his classroom well and was sophisticated in his ability to interpret literary text and to engage students in reading that penetrated deeply into the meaning of the text.

On this day his lesson focused providing students with tools that would overcome writing blocks. His students often struggled to figure out what to write about; they agonized when given a writing assignment. He demonstrated his strategy and directed the students to give it a try.

One especially bright young man towards the back of the room was being a pain and I was trying to get him engaged. He was refusing to do as the teacher asked and was being confrontational about it.  

But as I listened to his complaint, I came to see he was right. He knew what he was talking about. The day’s lesson plan wasn’t terrible, it had just missed the mark in an important way.

As I thought about it, it became clear to me that strategy lessons were often ruined by the same omission. Although this lesson was on writing, it could have easily been reading comprehension strategy instruction. No wonder so few kids actually use the strategies we teach.

What is a strategy?

According to the International Literacy Association, a strategy is a “systematic plan, consciously adopted, adapted, and monitored, to improve one’s performance in learning.” That’s pretty good. Their notion of metacognition, a related idea, also seems to be on point: “Awareness and knowledge of one’s mental processes that allow one to monitor, regulate, and direct self to a desired end.”

One key part of these definitions is the idea that strategies are always goal directed. That’s what the “improve one’s learning performance” or “desired end” are about. If we are trying to understand something or trying to communicate something and we want to succeed, we should take steps towards those goals. Strategies are goal directed efforts.

Sometimes that goal-directed bit is where strategy instruction goes bust – though that was not the problem raised by my obstreperous middle schooler.

Students may blow them off strategy use because they either aren’t goal directed or they simply have different goals. The student’s real goal might be something like, “I want to get this assignment done as fast as possible.” If higher comprehension isn’t their goal, then they won’t use strategies aimed at slowing them down and making them think.

Another key feature of strategies is their intentional quality (“consciously adopted,” “awareness and knowledge of one’s mental processes”). Strategies aren’t automatic. We have a goal we want to accomplish, so we come up a plan for accomplishing it. There is a plethora of strategies, so strategy use requires intentional choice.

In this middle school class, the teacher had the kids identify a couple of words (I came up with “hair” and “lake”). Then they were to brainstorm ideas that were connected to each word and to do this until they saw a connection between the two original words. I ended up remembering an event in my life where I had to shampoo my hair in Lake Michigan (brrrrr!). Another possibility that I often use when I’m stuck is not to write the piece I’m trying to write, but to write a letter to someone that explains what I’m trying to write. Hemingway was known to engage in non-stop writing, just doing a brain dump on paper until he found his way.

You want to write something, and you can’t get going, any those strategies can be quite successful… and yetl Mr. I’m Not Going to Do It wouldn’t play along.

Why not?

Because he didn’t need the strategy.

Remember, strategies are about intentionally trying to accomplish goals.

If you can accomplish your goal satisfactorily without a strategy, then why bother?

That was what that middle-schooler explained to me: “I think about what I want to write about. Then I make up two words. I brainstorm other words for a few minutes until I connect them so I can write about what I already decided to write about.”

Strategies help us to surmount barriers. He was a prolific youngster and had no problem coming up with a writing idea. Pretending to have a problem so he could practice solving it seemed dumb to him and he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to write.

You might think that is a rare circumstance, but it isn’t.

Most reading programs recommend placing students in texts that they can read with 75-89% comprehension – a level of success good enough for most circumstances (including for showing the teacher that you understood the text by answering her questions). The students – by design – are able to read these texts with comprehension. But these are what are used for strategy teaching.

Most kids won’t buck the order of the day by refusing to pretend to use the strategies.

They’ll go through the motions, doing the required activity, but it won’t be connected to accomplishing any goal – since the strategy wasn’t actually necessary.

Strategy use only makes sense when success isn’t certain.

Teaching students to use strategies with relatively easy texts neither lets them see how to use the strategy nor reveals to them the power that it can provide.

Many times, I’ve heard P. David Pearson talk about starting strategy off with an easy text that students can already read well… it allows the teacher to demonstrate the steps of the strategy clearly. I have no problem with that. At that point, strategy lessons should focus not on texts that students can read well, but on texts that they can’t.

Strategy instruction is one of those scaffolds that we teach to enable students to read complex text. Let’s stop pretending, and place students in reading situations in which strategies can really help.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Denise Holmes Oct 31, 2020 04:52 PM

The teaching and learning is ALWAYS in the conversation!

Travis Hinkley Oct 31, 2020 05:05 PM

Tim, many thoughts and situations come to mind.
1. How to Plan to write?
2. How to close read a complex text?
3. How to integrate reading with writing?

All important issues that should garner deep reflection and discussion. However, that one that never gets the attention it desires is having students read and engage with complex text(s) on a daily basis so the students can over time develop their own reading/writing strategies. Standard 10(Common Core) needs to supersede all of the other cognitive standards and writing "techniques" I fully support your drive and dedication on this singular issue because it impacts everything we do. Additionally, the teacher who provides the scaffolding for the students reading the complex text will be giving students invaluable strategies that will last a lifetime.

Joan Sedita Oct 31, 2020 05:17 PM

Thanks Tim for writing about the topic of comprehension strategy instruction. I want to pick up on a couple of your phrases: "Strategies are goal directed efforts" and "Strategies aren't automatic." So very true, which is why teachers of all subjects need to learn how to teach strategies in an explicit way that includes modeling how a strategy would be applied to real content reading material (the "I" stage of Pearson & Gallagher's gradual release of responsibility). This should be followed with opportunities for students to have guided practice with application of the strategy (the "We" stage), and I agree with you that this practice should take place with challenging text so students can see how the use of a strategy increases their comprehension. If the practice is with "leveled" text that students can already comprehend they won't see any value in applying a strategy. It is through this explicit instruction that students develop the understanding that strategies are goal directed efforts. Without this, many students for whom strategy use is not automatic don't get to the point of "intentional use" (the "You" stage). The final comment I want to make is that there is a difference between the handful of strategies that research has shown are helpful, across many grades, to support comprehension such as identifying main ideas to generate a summary, using a few consistent graphic organizers, generating questions, and activities that push students to be meta-cognitive and process what they are reading such as note taking. The example you gave of the teacher asking students to identify two words and write about a connection between them is more like what I refer to as a specific gimmick just to engage students rather than a more "serious" strategy such as summarizing that can be more broadly applied.

Noelle Converse Oct 31, 2020 05:29 PM

Appreciate this. Thanks for adding Pearson’s bit that teachers often need to introduce and practice the components of a comp strategy with simple text. Explicit strategy instruction followed by planful use in challenging text.

Dennis Kubala Oct 31, 2020 06:57 PM

I was struck by the statement that "Strategy use only makes sense when success isn't certain." This one statement made me contemplate how this applies to successful strategy implementation in different contexts. Your case here was in writing. I can see this goes beyond just writing into other subject areas.

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I am thinking about how to apply this information not only for student use in lessons I will observe and feedback I will provide, but in how to apply it in staff development, committee participation, and other areas where learning is required. As the first commentator said... "The teaching and learning is ALWAYS in the conversation." So true.

Sue Testerman Oct 31, 2020 09:21 PM

Your comments reminded me of my daughters and how much they utterly despised using graphic organizers. Now, they were not like the young man you wrote about, they were compliant and did what they were told to do, but they came home and complained to their mother. They thought graphic organizers were "stupid." Both were reading at college level in 4th grade. They did not need them, and forcing them to use them contributed to their dislike of school. One now has a law degree from a top law school and the other a master's in library science. They loved college because they felt challenged. But, exactly what is a teacher supposed to do? Most middle school teachers have 30 kids in a class. Some of those students are reading, sadly, many grade levels below where they should be while others are way ahead. I have read that most teachers end up teaching to the middle and that academically gifted children spend half of their day in school waiting for others to catch up.

Amy Smith Oct 31, 2020 10:02 PM


Thank you bringing this topic to the table. I think it is common for teachers to insist students use the strategies that have been taught without taking into consideration that the student might not need to use them. Once you teach the strategy (the what and why) is it wise then to shift to a more metacognitive approach (knowing when) in order to help kids become good at strategy selection that aligns with their goals?

Tim Shanahan Nov 01, 2020 01:23 AM

Sue— that’s why it is so important for teachers to use grade level versus reading level texts



Jess Arthur Nov 01, 2020 01:25 AM

I do: simple text
We do: slightly more complex text
You do: a challenging text

Tim Shanahan Nov 01, 2020 01:09 PM

Jess— that makes no sense to me. You’re saying that when it is going to be easy you want an adult close by to help. When it’s going to be hard... the kids is on his own. That’s backwards.


Lois Letchford Nov 01, 2020 08:20 PM

This post has me searching for further writing advice from the experts. I love the strategy from Hemingway. We can use such strategies at any stages of life! Thank you!

LCB Nov 02, 2020 12:39 PM

I love this blog, it is helping my teaching so much. I am a bit unclear after reading the paragraph on this post referencing Pearson though. Is it okay to start a strategy off with easy text, meaning model with easy text? Or should the modeling be on complex text and continue with complex text with a gradual release to the students?

Amy Geary Nov 02, 2020 04:26 PM

Hi Tim,
I enjoyed reading this blog. I'm wondering, though, if you could expand upon the difference between grade level and reading level texts. Many people interchange them.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 02, 2020 11:31 PM


Grade level texts are those texts that match your state standards requirements for what children are supposed to be learning to read at particular grade levels. Reading level texts are those that are selected to supposedly match the child's instructional level. The instructional level texts are usually below grade level.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 02, 2020 11:33 PM

LCB-- It is okay to show it to students with a relatively easy text, but then you need to move to hard text immediately for the strategy to make any sense or to have any value.


Thomas Franklin Nov 07, 2020 06:04 AM

I'm not sure I agree, strategically placed discoveries can be interwoven if one first plans a route through a text for students. Even if they go off topic or follow a different line of thought, we can teach strategies of reading and thinking which don't have an intended goal other than wonder and further thoughts - personal to the reader?

Tenkasi Viswanathan Dec 01, 2020 06:03 AM

Greetings, Tim. I suppose that the teacher wanted to teach students that our thoughts tend to be connected in some manner that can be general or individualized. By general, I mean most people would have come up with the same or similar connection. Individualized means, the connection is peculiar to that person. For example, you came up with the words "hair" and "lake". That is a very unusual combination, but for you it is natural, because the words provoke a scene in your life.
I think the teacher might have tried to teach we connect because of our prior knowledge. And so when we are not able to answer a textual connection, it is because the prior knowledge or schematic marking was not there. He could have made a table of 3 columns , or 4 columns, and show in the 3rd column a general connection if it existed, or show in the 4th column an individualized connection that was peculiar to that student. By tabulating, the teacher could establish how real the connection is and why the students should expand the base (schema) of their prior knowledge. I hink the teacher did well in not sharing his objective at the beginning of the class.

I think I will call this strategy "words we think and prior knowledge". I wonder what will happen inmy class, if I put this into practice! YOu can also call it, "From hair t o lake, what is the connection?
Thanks for sharing a rare lesson!

Ms JJ Jan 23, 2021 08:53 AM

"Strategy use only makes sense when success isn't certain." Yes! Most often, my goal is to get students to just write! As a middle school teacher, I often teach multiple strategies per year and ultimately often refer to my "go-to" strategies for summarization and theme. What am I missing?

Mary Woods Feb 26, 2021 02:23 PM

With writing instruction, providing a strategy to achieve a goal is standard practice in my district, especially in terms of revision work, and I feel successful in this. I have been searching for (and failing to find) ideas on how to apply revision strategies to reading assessments. It seems like formative assessment for reading is always accompanied by trying the same skills on different texts (the drawbacks of which you wrote about in an earlier blog post). Have you seen anyone try having students apply formative reading feedback to the same text? In other words, is there any way to have students 'revise' their reading?

Lisa Mar 10, 2021 04:41 PM

Boy, do I understand how that kid felt. We were forced to make outlines in my high school English classes (way back in the 1980s). I would miss all of those "pre-writing" deadlines, write the paper, and then go back and create the outline based on what I had written. I turned the whole package in on the day it was officially due. I probably lost out on a lot of points causing my grade to be lower than it should have been, as the grades I received on the papers themselves clearly demonstrated my ability to write them well. I just didn't want to play the game and the outline strategy was too constricting for they way I conceptualized and wrote. If you teach a strategy, you shouldn't expect everyone to use it, because not everyone needs to. The strategy has no value to those students who need it and so it becomes nothing more than busy work.

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Does Your Comprehension Strategy Instruction Have this Key Element?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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