I want my students to comprehend, am I teaching the wrong kind of strategies?

  • reading comprehension knowledge
  • 03 February, 2024
  • 16 Comments

I’m reading a book about Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford (one of Melville’s autobiographers). Last night, before sleep, I read about 20 pages. The author alternates chapters – one on Melville, then one on Mumford.

I didn’t get the organization immediately, but whatever is revealed about one author will be implicated in what will be divulged about the other, though the connection isn’t always explicit. Last night’s pair was about how these very despondent men each managed to find someone who would connect deeply with them emotionally and intellectually, despite the depths of their negativity.

That sounds like I was comprehending what I read… and, yet, that depends on how you define comprehension.

Each chapter addresses a span of years in these writers’ lives… but today, I could only provide a guestimate as to the spans of last night’s chapters (1850s and 1920s, perhaps). I remember that Melville’s emotional partner was Nathaniel Hawthorne – I’ve read a lot of Hawthorne over the years and even visited his home and the settings of some of his novels. But for the life of me, I can’t remember the name of Mumford’s long-suffering wife or how they found each other.

These chapters included a plethora of specifics and examples to support the points being made. I now remember only one for each man, though I remember appreciating how apt and effective it all was – even though now I can’t remember the specifics. I suspect that on a multiple-choice test, I’d do okay, while on an essay exam, the gaps in memory would be embarrassing.

I’m distinguishing here between reading comprehension and learning from text.

It’s an important distinction if we seek to teach reading effectively.

Historically, reading comprehension research tended to use text memory as a close-enough proxy for comprehension. This is because memory is a result of comprehension (Craik & Lockhart, 1972) and that the two phenomena can’t be separated (Harris, Cady, & Tran, 2006). Comprehension refers to grasping the meaning, and meaningfulness is an important factor in getting something into memory.

What got me thinking about all this was the late Ron Carver (rauding theory, studies of speed reading, creation of Society for the Scientific Study of Reading). We were at a professional conference in the 1980s. There was a debate over reading comprehension strategies.

One side argued for the importance of comprehension strategies because they engaged students’ metacognition – the students were intentionally trying to understand a text and trying to be aware of whether they were understanding it.

Carver’s side argued that these so-called comprehension strategies were not part comprehension. No, he believed that they belonged in a second category: study skills. According to Carver, that the strategies were less about understanding text (comprehension) and more about memorizing the information (learning from text), was an important distinction.

Historically, study skills and reading comprehension rarely have dined at the same table.

Reading comprehension was thought to be an issue for elementary schools and was about reading, while study skills aimed more at college students and the college-bound and had more to do with their overall academic success (e.g., Robyak, 1978; Raaheim, 1984).

Before the emphasis on strategies, comprehension instruction tended to be more about practicing reading and answering questions. Dolores Durkin famously criticized this as more of an assessment routine than an instructional one, but many educators believed that practice answering questions would improve students’ ability to answer such questions in the future. Strategies were meant to go beyond the comprehension practice idea, to transform kids into active readers, creating readers who would actively try to comprehend.

Study skills, by contrast, were more about developing routines for learning and remembering information. An example of this would be the emphasis it placed on highlighting text. Underlining important sentences wasn’t encouraged to improve understanding, but to make the key information available easily when students would be studying for an exam. Study skills tended to focus on what students could do to learn information – how to take notes, how to use the library, the development of study schedules for multiple classes, and the like. Comprehension was assumed to take place automatically, so study skills focused on the development of long-term memories.

This morning, I searched for peer-reviewed works on “study skills” in PsycInfo. It turned up 178,229 journal articles, though not all of those were on the right subject (many articles included the terms “study” and “skills”). Nevertheless, I perused the first 25 items, and many were in the right pew. I then searched among these tens of thousands of studies for any that addressed reading comprehension. That narrowed it down to 4,975 articles.

That illustrates that scholars have historically kept these constructs separate, and I think it is time that we respect that.

Arguments over comprehension strategies are a bit muddled these days. Some conflate the emphasis on metacognitive strategies with those aimed at fostering a knack for answering certain kinds of questions. That’s unfortunate because the former has a strong research record – strategy instruction improves comprehension – while the latter does not. That doesn’t mean we can’t have students reading and answering questions, we just shouldn’t assume that will improve the students’ ability to answer those kinds of questions. It usually doesn’t.

More recently, arguments about strategies have come from those who advocate for a knowledge emphasis over a reading comprehension one. These folks want less reading instruction and more content teaching.

Often, reading strategies advocates ignore the quality or value of the texts. They claim, “It doesn’t matter what they are reading as long as they are reading.” Since you can apply strategies to any text, the text just doesn’t matter that much.

The knowledge advocates seem to think that learning information is an automatic process – if students read about a topic they’ll learn it, especially if they read several texts on the same topic. Some learning does occur like that, with little intentional effort.

But, it occurs to me that Carver rightfully labeled many of those comprehension strategies as study skills. Summarizing the information in a text, perhaps multiple times, is not likely to improve understanding much, but I bet it increases learning. The same can be said for the recitation that occurs when you ask yourself questions about what you’ve read and then try to answer them. Those are surely useful tools when you need to gain a greater long-term claim on information you’ve read about. That doesn’t mean we should forget about comprehension strategies during reading, only that it’s time to consider whether a strategy improves understanding or recall and then to give each their appropriate due.

Certainly, the knowledge crew is right about the importance of books worth reading. This means reading science and social studies texts. But it also means reading worthwhile literature (cultural touchstones), and fiction that conveys important things about the human condition (our relationships, our motivations, and so on).  

The knowledge advocates tend to place a greater emphasis on the quality of the book and on kids grasping the information from the texts. Strategy advocates like these ideas, but strategy instruction can get pretty procedural, without much attention to the content.

But here’s the thing. Neither group pays sufficient attention to teaching kids to comprehend. The one group stresses study skills, while the other stresses knowledge as the key to comprehension.

Let’s say, I’m a student. I’m trying to read an assigned text. My problem is that I cannot read it with comprehension. The comprehension strategy group wants me to summarize what I’ve read, which may give me purchase on a few of the facts, but it probably won’t help me to grasp the meaning of the text. The knowledge advocates would have the teacher tell me what the text said or have me watch a video so that I would know what I was reading about before I tried to read about it (shifting the comprehension problem but not solving it, since I need to read this book now).

What does all this mean for reading instruction?

1.     Directed or guided reading lessons (lessons in which kids read text under teacher guidance and supervision) need to focus on the reading of valuable text, text from which we want students to gain content knowledge.

2.     It’s not enough that these texts are valuable. They also must be challenging. If kids can comprehend the text on their own, then it is not the right text for a reading lesson. The emphasis should be on how to negotiate the difficulties of a text.

3.     Building a depth of knowledge requires that students deeply process the information they are trying to learn. Just reading about something will rarely end up with a depth of learning (remember, here we want more than understanding, we seek learning). Teaching units of related texts can facilitate such learning. Having students write reports, critiques, comparisons, and analyses can be powerful, too, as can discussions, presentations, and debates. Those activities can get kids to review the content to the point that it is remembered. I’d add to this mix, teaching kids some strategies for learning information. That’s where many of those comprehension strategies make sense. They may not take a lot of time to learn (the knowledge advocates are right about that, we often overdo strategy teaching), but unlike some of those worthwhile teaching activities (e.g., units, writing assignments, culminating projects), these give kids power over their own learning.

4.     Comprehension strategy advocates should get serious about what constitutes a comprehension strategy. What helps students understand a text? Some of the strategies they’ve studied fall into this category. For instance, teaching kids to monitor comprehension – to be aware of when they are not getting it and to stop and do something about that. Surprisingly, many students, even college-age students, read with little understanding and do nothing about it. But what are students taught to do when they don’t understand a word meaning? Or when a sentence seems like gobbledygook? Or, when they are getting confused about which character or concept is now being talked about? Or, how to connect the ideas across a text? That’s where comprehension strategies should come in.

Of course, students who know how to monitor their comprehension can tell the teacher that they don’t get it and the teacher can explain it. But students also need to learn to solve those problems themselves and to develop the stick-to-it-iveness to do it.

When you’re teaching reading comprehension, create opportunities to teach students how to solve comprehension problems – guiding them to solve those problems so that they can comprehend the texts.

When the goal is to teach content, also provide students with some strategies that will help them to study and learn more effectively. Don’t allow the study strategies to distract from the content learning, however.

An interesting sidelight: Even though text highlighting was often emphasized in study skills regimes, research studies and teachers often found this approach ineffective. The reason? The students didn’t comprehend the text well enough to know what was important, so they highlighted everything. If they knew more about the topic, this would have been less of a problem. A point to the knowledge advocates. Similarly, if instruction had focused not on how to save the important information but on how to recognize what was important – shifting from study skills to comprehension skills (since it was comprehension the students were struggling with), then the highlighting might have paid off. Half-point to the strategies advocates; they recognized the need for an action plan for the students but recommended the wrong plan. Teaching students to recognize what’s important includes getting them to use the titles and other signals authors provide, the frequency with which some ideas are mentioned, or how that information connects to other information, as well as insights about what kinds of information disciplinary experts (e.g., psychologists, historians, chemists, literary critics) are likely to care about.

References

Craik, F. S., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.  https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(72)80001-X

Harris, R. J., Cady, E. T., & Tran, T. Q. (2006). Comprehension and memory. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Psychology of entertainment (pp. 71-84). Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203873694

Raaheim, A. (1984). Can students be taught to study? an evaluation of a study-skill programme directed at first year students at the University of Bergen. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 

28(1), 9-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/0031383840280102

Robyak, J. E. (1978). Study skills versus non-study skills students: A discriminant analysis. Journal of

Educational Research, 71(3), 161-166. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1978.10885061

 

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Comments

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Heather Bowman Feb 03, 2024 04:16 PM

Hi! I teach 4th grade in a Title 1 school in Reno, Nevada. This is my 24th year teaching and I am still struggling with reading instruction. Our district is in its first year of using iReady, an online program which creates a learning path according to individual students needs. It is evident there is a trend in our system. Students who are Tier 3, scoring 10% or less in major assessments, are always Tier 3, being passed along from Kindergarten to 1st, 1st to 2nd, 2nd to 3rd and so on. In my 4th grade class, I have 5 students I am teaching to read, 4 students who do not have number sense and 1 student who will not qualify for Special Ed services due to attendance. In addition, attendance is a huge issue at our school and families know how to "play the game" with attendance. Their child is "sick" or their leg hurts and so on ... These same students are 2 - 3 years below grade level. Any suggestions?

MaryEllen Vogt Feb 03, 2024 04:25 PM

Thanks, Tim, for this thoughtful and needed commentary on comprehension. The older kids I’m teaching, all of whom have comprehension problems, especially with expository texts, tend to revolt when I require that they read and reread a challenging text, mark, highlight, or underline key concepts, and use an appropriate graphic organizer (or create their own) to jot their thoughts prior to writing a paragraph about what they’ve read. They regard each of these steps as equivalent to torture. Really. I plan to use your blog, quoting the key points you make, to help explain why they need to do this work. Despite their protests, they are learning to monitor their comprehension, to reread when they’re confused, and their writing is improving, as well. I so appreciate your digging into the comprehension research so I can teach my students more effectively!

Angela Berner Feb 03, 2024 04:30 PM

While this post raises some important ideas related to comprehension and mentions a few strategies (summarizing and monitoring), it leaves us without a clear answer to the initial question. What strategies are best for improving comprehension? I would love to read a follow up that answers the question directly and pinpoints the most effective strategies that need to be taught in elementary classrooms. I believe Dr. Shanahan's extensive expertise can directly answer this question and in turn help teachers recognize if their instruction is aligned with the research.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 03, 2024 05:00 PM

Angela--

While I didn't give a lot of detail on any individual comprehension strategies, they include those things mentioned -- teaching students what to do with unknown words, teaching them how to break down a sentence into phrases and clauses or how to identify a verb, teaching them cohesive links, teaching text structure, getting them to focus on the information that would be considered important in a particular discipline... many of these have their own blog entries on my site -- including lots of details as to how to teach them.

tim

Timothy Shanahan Feb 03, 2024 05:06 PM

MaryEllen--
Many older students avoid strategies, not because they are so difficult, unpleasant, or unnecessary, but because they want to be done (this is especially true if they understand the text the first time through, which is often the case). Comprehension strategies are worth engaging in if you are having trouble understanding the text and study skills are worth it if there is some reason to know the info (interest or a test of some kind). I think distinguishing the two kinds of strategies, providing situations that require success with comprehension and/or learning, and candid discussions of why hurrying through gets it done, but doesn't support success all would be helpful.

tim

Timothy Shanahan Feb 03, 2024 05:13 PM

Heather--
Three things make a difference in academic learning: amount of teaching, focus of the teaching (what is taught), and quality of teaching. Since COVID, attendance, tardiness, homework completion, and general engagement has all fallen (and in many places some of those problems are affecting teachers too.

Schools need to make attendance a priority -- contacting parents, public service announcements, talks with the students, etc. They also have to make sure that the school day is well used -- so much time is lost in schools that it undermines learning.

From the 1890s to the 2010s, American education increased greatly in amount -- longer school years, longer school days, greater numbers of people attending schools, declining dropout rates, etc. That accomplishment has been seriously undermined recently and we need to get back to that -- individual teachers can help, but it needs to be an entire system and community effort.

tim

Anne Folsom Feb 03, 2024 07:04 PM

We are grappling with comprehension instruction in our district as we've moved into using state required literacy resources. We are trying to "prioritize" standards to teach and working to internalize units and lessons as a way to understand what grade level standards look like in the context of our resource. The continuous struggle to define what "mastery" looks like - indeed what comprehension looks like - at a particular grade level is ongoing. It's too complex - we are judged by state assessments that measure comprehension, but don't really get at the head and heart work that we know matters as well (Beers and Probst, Disrupting Thinking). I love the distinction here of comprehension and learning from text; as well as the study skills vs. comprehension distinction. Mastery of reading standards doesn't exist outside of the context of a text - that's why standard #10 is the one that is always prioritized. But that does little to help guide teachers who are still looking to prioritize and teach standards to mastery. Thanks, as always, for the food for thought!

Gretchen Feb 03, 2024 07:18 PM

“ The students didn’t comprehend the text well enough to know what was important, so they highlighted everything.”

This year I asked one of my special education students why he highlighted the whole text, and he responded that he did it to save time because “the answer is in there somewhere.” Out of the mouths of babes!!!

Timothy Shanahan Feb 03, 2024 09:13 PM

Anne-

Stay tuned... next week's Blast from the Past addresses that important issue.

tim

Nicola Feb 04, 2024 05:48 AM

We’ve all taught students to answer different types of comprehension questions, for example literal, inferential and evaluative type questions. Teachers also tend to agree that identifying the main idea (and supporting details) to facilitate summaring/retelling is important.
What I see less often in classrooms is the teaching of critical thinking skills in relation to reading. Skills that teach students to go deeper when analysing texts.
Teaching students to compare and contrast two texts on the same subject, print and/or visual is valuable. The same goes for identifying cause and effect relationships within in texts and identifying and evidencing the different perspectives expressed in a text.
Activities that pair students to discuss prompts related to the target text greatly assist comprehension and support all students before they compose a written response.
There are several useful routines that can be applied to both fiction and nonfiction texts.
I’d like to see critical thinking skills become an important part of teaching comprehension. Not the only part, but a valued inclusion.

Irene A. Zingg Feb 04, 2024 01:35 PM

Introducing a purpose that goes beyond mere understanding is vital. All the skills you describe in your article do that.
As Miguel de Unamuno, a famous Spanish writer, used to say: "He who enjoys a good book is because he re-creates it in himself, and recreates himself with it." (Unamuno, M. 1920) Thank you for a great article!

Sandie Feb 04, 2024 04:31 PM

Thanks for taking us to the center of the reading galaxy!

Many years ago I spearheaded a PTA-sponsored implementation of Junior Great Books in our rural community's small public elementary school. Our program was run by a cadre of Great Books-trained parent volunteers and lasted about 12 years, eventually expanding to include high school students. The Junior Great Books "routine for learning" is called the Shared Inquiry™ method. Using this method over the years taught me so much about the core of comprehension, what students (including struggling readers) are capable of -- and how getting to this core can be fostered.

Our Junior Great Books program was finally discontinued due to "scheduling" difficulties and challenges related to the first step in the Shared Inquiry™ routine. i.e., "Participants must read the text carefully before the discussion." Students were expected to read each selection as "homework" and over the years, fewer and fewer did.

Twenty-five + years later, during a visit to my son's family, I was delighted when I was asked to read a Junior Great Books selection with my then 3rd-grade granddaughter. Her metro public school (or maybe just her teacher?) seemed to have made it a priority.

https://www.greatbooks.org/nonprofit-organization/what-is-shared-inquiry/

Thanks again for the excellent article!

Miriam Trehearne Feb 04, 2024 10:47 PM

Miriam P. Trehearne

Hi Tim,

I agree with Anne. I love the distinction between reading comprehension and learning from text and the study skills vs. comprehension distinction.
I wonder where one particular, well-known example falls?

Reciprocal teaching (Palincsar and Brown 1984, 117–75) is a social process that engages students in reading appropriate fiction and nonfiction texts by using strategies that effective comprehenders use. Research shows that this instructional framework significantly improves comprehension and accelerates student learning (Spörer, Brunstein, & Kieschke, 2009).
It works particularly well with students who are strong decoders with limited comprehension. The half-hour procedure involves predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing
Many experienced teachers are aware of the fact that the ability to summarize is an important comprehension and study skills strategy, but it is often very difficult to master. Correct?

Also, using a Cloze can assess and support reading comprehension, when used as a study skill.

Thank you for stressing the importance of teaching kids to monitor comprehension – to be aware of when they are not getting it and to stop and do something about that. Many students, read with little understanding and do nothing about it! Many seem to believe that the goal of reading is speed. Yes, that is where teaching comprehension strategies come in.
And, perhaps most importantly in my mind, thank you for stressing that when doing guided reading, the importance of:
---students reading valuable text, text from which we want students to gain content knowledge.
---making sure that the text is challenging. If it is too easy, then it is of little use for a guided reading comprehension lesson.
I also recommend that educators take a good look at your blog (April 2023) to clarify the definitions of reading skills vs reading strategies.

Tim, it is so sad to me as an educator to see the great difference in the amount of discussion and seeming interest between comprehension and decoding. With so much attention presently paid to decoding, the students, many of whom can decode very well, but struggle with making meaning, are often neglected. This is not intentional. It is just much easier to know how effectively to teach decoding than to develop strong reading comprehenders.

Thanks again for a great article Tim. Miriam Trehearne

Karen Harris Feb 06, 2024 05:35 PM

We have successfully taught students in inclusive classrooms to highlight text from grades 1-6, with SRSD instruction for close reading that they are looking for the big ideas and details to support either writing to inform or writing to persuade. The problem with the studies sited is that how to highlight and why was not taught. Reading comprehension and knowledge, including discourse knowledge, have meaningfully improved, as has writing. Students highlighted appropriately, made notes from their highlights, and shown large gains in writing to learn. Refs: Harris, K.R., Ray, A., Houston, J., Barkel, A, Aitken, A., & Graham, S. Tier 2 SRSD for close reading and writing to persuade among 5th and 6th graders with high incidence disabilities: An RCT.
Harris, K. R., Kim, Y-S., Yim, S., Camping, A., & Graham, S. (2023). Yes, they can: Developing transcription skills and oral language in tandem with SRSD instruction on close reading of science text to write informative essays at grades 1 and 2. Contemporary Educational Psychology, (73), 1-14. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0361476X23000048?via%3Dihub

Jessica Gagne Feb 09, 2024 01:53 AM

While reading this article, I found myself very aware of what I was doing as a reader - maybe even too aware. As "young folks" say, it was a very "Meta" experience. The metacognition had taken me to a place of reading slowly, reflecting, highlighting, and tabbing over to dictionary.com, as well as reading and rereading different paragraphs. Some words were unfamiliar (like conflate), and the text complexity was challenging for my tired teacher brain. But it was that grit and desire to learn this stuff that helped the most. If this article featured a debate about how to level up in a Fortnite game, or the best quilting technique - I wouldn't have tried so hard to comprehend it. I appreciate that you mentioned the stick-to-it-iveness as a piece of the puzzle. I think we forget about this as teachers.

Pat Doran, M.Ed. Feb 11, 2024 02:46 PM

I teach that basic comprehension is like a 3-legged stool. The "legs" of the comprehension stool are (a) accurate reading of each word, (b) understanding the meaning of the words used, and (c) sufficient background knowledge, including grammar and punctuation. If any one of these legs is to short (lacking) or not sufficiently strong, then comprehension wobbles.
All too often, teachers will tell parents, "Your child has trouble with comprehension," without going into details as to why. Nonetheless, it is up to the teacher to identify the "weak leg(s)" and to work to correct the problem, soliciting the help of the parent, who must be given the correct tools to do so.
Sadly, when explicit, systematic, and direct instruction of phonics concepts is not taught, the chances that the learner will be a "wobbly" reader with poor comprehension at all grade levels and into adulthood are almost guaranteed.

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I want my students to comprehend, am I teaching the wrong kind of strategies?

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