Knowledge or Comprehension Strategies -- What Should We Teach?

  • 22 July, 2023

Teacher question:

Are we supposed to teach reading strategies or not? I keep coming across contradictory information. Some writers say the research supports strategy teaching and some say that we should teach background information instead. I respect your opinion. What do you think?

RELATED: Can we really teach prosody and why would we want to?

Shanahan response:

Many studies – hundreds actually – have shown that teaching comprehension strategies can improve reading comprehension (Filderman, Austin, Boucher, O’Donnell, & Swanson, 2022; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). That’s a pretty strong argument for teaching strategies.

That’s why I’ve taught them to students myself.

That’s why I sometimes use them when I’m reading.

The first question to ask ourselves, it seems to me, is why do strategies help? How do they make someone a better reader?

I remember Dick Venezky telling me that one of the big benefits of phonics instruction was that it got kids to look at the words, to look at all the letters in the words. At the time, I thought that was glib. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in that explanation.

My answer for why and how strategies work is as glib as that.

Strategies do two things for readers.

First, they require readers to think about a text more than they would if they just read it.

If readers think more about the ideas in a text, they are more likely to remember them later. Strategies slow you down. It takes more time to read a text and implement a strategy than to only read the text.

Too many readers are satisfied with comprehending a text. They may understand it as they read, but they don’t retain the information. We use the term “reading comprehension” too generally. When we use it, we usually intend more than just understanding.

No, it often includes the idea that readers should remember what they read so that they can successfully answer questions, participate in discussions, or use the information in some other way.

Strategies arm readers with purposeful actions they can take before, during, and after reading. Basically, they get readers to think about the ideas more than once. They facilitate learning from text. (That’s why Ron Carver used to argue that the term comprehension strategies was a misnomer; he thought a more apt label was study skills, skills one would use to study a text or learn from it.)

The idea of strategies is to provide readers with the tools that will allow them to accomplish purposeful learning – and the tools work by slowing us down and getting us to think more than once about the ideas in the text. A rather blunt tool admittedly, but, according to the empirical studies, an effective one.

As such, strategies play a very different role in the reading process than knowledge.   

It should not be a choice between the two.

Second, strategies may also play a useful role in guiding student attention to key information in a text. (I tend to think of most strategies as “paying attention strategies.”)

When I’m reading something that is very hard for me, I write down the most important idea from each paragraph or section. That ensures that I pay attention to all the key ideas, without the details distracting me.

Other strategies encourage readers to depend on the author’s organizational scheme. Doing so focuses attention on certain key information that they may neglect without that strategy.

Further distinguishing knowledge and strategies in reading are those strategies that emphasize making connections between the text and the knowledge that we bring to the text.

Prediction, for instance, is a strategy that leads readers to anticipate what the author will reveal. Predictions require that readers combine information from the text with the knowledge they bring to the text. Predicting is a tool readers can apply in certain reading situations, but it can only work if there is relevant knowledge available.

Inferencing is another such strategy. Readers can be sensitized to the concept that texts won’t provide explicitly all the needed information so readers must draw inferences to fill in the blanks and make connections. But the inferencing strategy only works to the extent that there is background knowledge available from which to generate those inferences.

A third strategy that depends on knowledge and encourages readers to connect knowledge to text is comprehension monitoring. With this one, students are taught to pay attention to whether they are understanding a text or if it is making sense. Determining whether something makes sense means that you can compare it with some standard and that standard for this is the knowledge that you bring to the text.

In all these examples, the strategy gives the reader some insights about text (e.g., it has a structure, the text should make sense, text sometimes implies rather than states information) and some action steps that if taken will improve understanding and memory for what is read.

But none of these strategies pays off unless the reader possesses sufficient topical knowledge to make them work.

As such strategies are useful and knowledge is essential.

That sounds like reading lessons would be better off emphasizing the learning of content, rather than developing insights about text and reading and developing actions students can use in a purposeful way to think more about the text.

But that is not necessarily the case. Our emphasis on knowledge should not be the central goal of reading instruction. It should be the central goal of schooling. Yes, kids should read texts worth knowing in their reading lessons and they should be held accountable for the content learning that can be gained from such texts. But learning also needs to come from social studies, science, and the arts, as well as from all the other sources of information that children confront in the media, in their play activities and social interactions, and so on.

Reading strategies are something students are likely to learn only in a reading lesson. As such, they deserve special attention in those lessons.

I don’t accept the premise of what you are hearing – that reading lessons should either teach strategies or knowledge. They need to accomplish the former and contribute to the latter.

Although I didn’t cite many specific studies in this blog entry, it heavily benefited from the brilliant contributions of the late Ernst Z. Rothkopf, whose pioneering work on “mathemagenic activities” presaged all the strategy research in reading.

READ MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Blog


Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rothkopf, E. Z. (1970). The concept of mathemagenic activities. Review of Educational Research, 40(3), 325-336.

Rothkopf, E. Z. (2008). Reflections on the field: Aspirations of learning science and the practical logic of instructional enterprises. Educational Psychology Review, 20(3), 351-368.







See what others have to say about this topic.

Rob Jul 22, 2023 01:12 PM

The problem is most adults and kids forget the content they learn from books over time unless they revisit the material.

Gwen Pauloski Jul 22, 2023 01:18 PM

Dr. Shanahan, thank you so much for this post. I am writing a book for middle-grades teachers who want to help students deepen their info-text comprehension. I’m a veteran middle grades teacher, and did my dissertation research on these practices in my classroom.

The book centers on explicitly teaching the strategies needed to make sense of complex info-texts then providing scaffolded practice through shared study of interesting complex texts. This seems so countercultural now yet ironically these practices are supported by decades of research. I would love to cite this work with your permission.

Also, if you know of someone who might be interested in serving as a beta reader, I’m at the point where I’m starting to send out chapters for feedback.

Thank you sincerely for your dedication and ongoing contribution to this field.

Gwen Pauloski

Jo Anne Gross Jul 22, 2023 01:39 PM

I’m appreciative of this piece and will refer it to everyone I train and have trained.
Thank You Dr.Shanahan

You may not be fully aware of how much this clarifies for the Knowledge Gap competitors that are confusing the issues.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 22, 2023 02:53 PM


Feel free to use this entry. Unfortunately, I couldn't be helpful on the other matter.


Timothy Shanahan Jul 22, 2023 02:54 PM


Good point. I have long agitated for textbook programs to treat knowledge/content in the same way that vocabulary is treated (in the best of cases) -- making it part of the ongoing assessment and review.


Lauren Jul 22, 2023 03:24 PM

I still remember some stories from seventh grade (really, really long time ago). I remember the characters, the emotions, the scenes... If you connect with a story emotionally, you tend to remember it. There are different purposes for reading different types of texts, but in the category of reading for enjoyment, I think it is sad that we always see the purpose as taking some type of test to prove that we understood the story. ( Of course it is important for the teacher to know that students are comprehending, and assessments assist with this.) Stories provide enjoyment and entertainment, but they also provide deep learning experiences about different places, people, historical periods, relationships etc. I sometimes wonder if in this mass media era students have not lost some ability to visualize using their own imagination as they read. I have been teaching some visualization strategies at the sentence level. It involves starting with a very basic sentence, and then adding descriptive adjective, prepositional phrases, additional nouns etc. We do this as an auditory exercise first where the students adjust their visual picture for each added description. Next, the students read the text and try to visualize as they do so. Is there any research on visualization exercises as a comprehension strategy? Curriculums?

norm Jul 22, 2023 03:25 PM

Well said young scholar. Approaching text demands from a strategic mindset so as to apply appropriate text tactics is the sign of a successful metacognitive learner.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 22, 2023 03:37 PM


Visualization has been studied as a strategy and found to be effective in improving comprehension/recall of at least certain kinds of texts. It is not a strategy with one of the bigger effect sizes (it doesn't improve reading comprehension as much as some of the others), but it belongs in the collection of strategies that should be taught.


Jessica Jul 22, 2023 04:37 PM

Thank you for sharing your insights as this is becoming a more frequently discussed topic in my district!

Joan Sedita Jul 22, 2023 05:20 PM

Once again, thank you Tim for reminding everyone that there is a large body of research indicating that teaching comprehension strategies improves reading comprehension. I especially like the point you make that teaching students strategies gives them tools to be active as they read, resulting in longer term memory of what they are comprehending. I like your line "I write down the most important idea from each paragraph or section. That ensures that I pay attention to all the key ideas, without the details distracting me." This is what teaching main idea is all about. The ability to identify and state the main ideas from text is key to taking notes, but also to being able to summarize, which research identifies as one of the most beneficial reading comprehension strategies. (And summarizing also turns out to be a highly effective strategy for improving writing ability).

Just because we know that having background knowledge about the topic in text being read will make it easier to comprehend the text, this does not mean we should stop teaching and providing guided practice for comprehension strategies and replacing that time with building more generic knowledge. There are some rather vocal proponents in the field who suggest just that and knock strategy instruction, and in particular main idea instruction. This is probably why the teacher who contacted you says she/he heard contradictory information. So your point "it should not be a choice between the two" is important.

There are "before" reading comprehension strategies that can help provide some background knowledge when students do not have any. For example, previewing unfamiliar vocabulary that includes having students make connections to word they already know about the topic. Another example is giving students a top-down topic web of the major topics covered in the text and having collaborative discussions where students talk about what they already know about the topics, posing questions about the topics, or making predictions about what they think they will learn. This builds background knowledge.

Finally, I'd like to suggest that your comment "as such strategies are useful and knowledge is essential" could also be turned around to say "as such strategies are essential and knowledge is useful." I say this because it is not possible to teach students about every topic they will encounter in text -- there will always be text we read for which we do not have prior knowledge. But students can be provided with some background knowledge (as described before) and then use their comprehension strategies to learn from the text. On the other hand, if a students have background knowledge about something they are reading, but they have minimal or no comprehensions strategies, their comprehension will be impaired.

Jennifer Jul 22, 2023 05:47 PM

Dr. Shanahan, thank you so much for this post.

I am a second language teacher (of French) whose students all speak the same first language (English) as well as several others. We are currently working on "decolonizing" many texts that have been foundational to programs, but this post explains why that process will benefit reading comprehension as well. Decolonizing has been interpreted in several ways, but in our context it's typically used to refer to the idea of removing white savior stories and inaccurate historical representations, as well as introducing more representative materials that students can connect with.

If I ask my students to read a text about a European monument that they may not have heard of before, they will have to spend more time and effort learning the historical background needed to understand the basic meaning of a text. Many don't have background knowledge of monuments in general in any language, and so the knowledge required to understand the meaning would require more cognitive processing that there is very little working memory left available to understand any other elements of the text. If I'm understanding correctly, it's better to build with more familiar topics first and then bridge to less familiar. It's not that things like European monuments should be left out of programs, but rather that they should not be the focus of it and should fit within a framework of background knowledge that students can use to understand text, allowing them to apply the range of other skills you mentioned that function with that knowledge.

Sam Bommarito Jul 23, 2023 08:42 AM

Dr. Shanahan thanks so much for this post. My take on all this has been background knowledge is necessary but not sufficient, The particulars of how the strategies instruction is carried out matters a lot. A while back I was influenced by you complaints (valid complaints) about how some teachers tell students to go in and use a particular strategy even though the students had no need to actually use that strategy at that time. When I talk to teachers about what their strategy instruction time should look like, I encourage them to first teach particular strategies using gradual release. That is the time that direct and explicit instruction about the strategy is appropriate. Once learned- the issue of when to use the strategy is up to the student. Providing students time to discuss what strategies they've used in the past week/month , and when/why they used them is, IMO, useful way to reinforce their use of strategies. Haveing practice days for main idea/inference et al (lets all practice finding main ideas) is problematical. The time spent in lessons like that would be better spent doing the aforementioned discussions. Again, thanks for your post. Sam from St. Louis.

Gaynor Jul 27, 2023 02:59 AM

I don't wish to be insulting but I think it is completely silly to think you would choose one or the other of knowledge or strategies.
NZ achieved highest internationally in reading comprehension in 1970 -now thanks to that bete noire of mine*****Clay, we have catastrophic failure in reading. Constructivism is now king and traditional teaching has all gone.
I have a large collection of the texts used in the years prior to 1970 and there was tremendous emphasis on knowledge building and all sort of strategies were used in the comprehension questions. I think it is worth while revisiting what was done in the past concerning comprehension exercises and questions. The texts may be dated but the nuance of the questions are , to my thinking is exceptional in many cases. Many but not all ,of the texts came from the US.
Beyond just fact questions there is critical thinking of eg adverts., thought questions, cause and effect , conflict and resolution, comparing and contrasting, what would you have done instead and so on. Question writing for comprehension is an art in itself.
Summaries and note taking was done regularly but comprehension exercises were done everyday with fiction and nonfiction topics . Vocabulary was built up through not only reading but also in spelling lists. There were maps and charts, diagrams and summaries all over the class room walls.

Sarah Rotich Sep 07, 2023 11:04 AM

Dr. Shanahan, thank you so much for this post! I am curious whether you think there is a developmental component to this topic? I work with K-2 students, and I've noticed that most comprehension strategy research starts with third graders. Is strategy instruction equally important for younger students, or does it make more sense to focus on things like building background knowledge in early elementary? Thanks!

Timothy Shanahan Sep 07, 2023 01:56 PM

Actually there is excellent evidence supporting the teaching of comprehension strategies to students in Grades K-2, This What Works Clearinghouse guide should be of interest to you.


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Knowledge or Comprehension Strategies -- What Should We Teach?


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