My New Year’s Resolutions for Teaching Reading Comprehension

  • 27 December, 2009

Blast from the Past: First posted December 27, 2009; reposted on January 11, 2018. Often on this type of blog entry, I later want to update it. However, I wouldn’t change a word in this one, though it is more than 8-years-old. These would be great resolutions for teachers in 2018.

Mrs. Jones knows the National Reading Panel (NRP) found that teaching comprehension strategies give kids a benefit, so she wants to teach reading comprehension strategies.

However, Mrs. Jones also knows that the NRP was controversial and, and not being a researcher herself, she isn’t entirely sure that she should follow it. She has professional doubts.

And, yet, Mrs. Jones goes to a lot of conferences. She knows who is respectable in the field of reading, and few gurus impress her more than P. David Pearson, Nell Duke, and the late Michael Pressley. None of these experts were on NRP and all support comprehension strategies.

But she also respects another expert, Isabel Beck, who decries the teaching of comprehension strategies. Beck thinks strategies are beside the point. She and her colleagues stress the teaching of the texts themselves. So maybe Mrs. Jones won’t teach strategies after all.

But the district that Mrs. Jones teaches in bought the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill program (the one Tim Shanahan is an author of), and it stresses the teaching of strategies.

Have you ever wanted to just cry in such a situation? You want to get it right, but it is so hard with so many different experts and so many different opinions. What’s the right answer?

I’ve been trying to teach kids to read for 40 years, and I have read much of the reading comprehension literature, and have done some research myself. I have worked with and talked with all of the gurus noted above and scores of others. I have designed and redesigned programs of instruction and oversaw reading instruction in a major school district. And I can tell you that the biggest problem in reading comprehension instruction is a lack of depth.

Children and teens often come away from a text not getting what it was about, or only understanding the texts at a very superficial level. The whole idea of teaching strategies is to give kids ways of thinking that will help them to independently think about a text. Unfortunately, when some teachers teach strategies they make it all about the strategies and not the text.

Kids come away knowing what summarization is or how to visualize, but they learn nothing about the story or article they were reading. Instead of questioning becoming a tool that helps them to get at the meat of the chapter, it is something that they do instead of making sense of a text. Kids are perfectly willing to read a story without understanding it.

The same thing can happen no matter how you teach reading (I’ve watched Russ Stauffer, Taffy Raphael, Isabel Beck and several others come up with surefire ways to ensure that kids get the meaning, but these surefire methods have all become clunkers in classrooms where the teachers think these methods are the point).

Ultimately, kids have to get used to thinking about the ideas in texts, no matter how comprehension is taught. If they get used to making sense of ideas, they will become good comprehenders.

So, make the following New Year’s reading comprehension resolution. Pledge to do the following when you have students read (or when you read to them or even when you have them watch a video).

  1. I will read the selections before the students do and will think about what the texts mean (what they say, but also the underlying ideas the author hopes I’ll get). I will note what is hard about these texts so I can help students confront those barriers.
  2. Prior to reading, I will help students to think about ideas that are relevant to what is important or challenging in a text. (For example, if we are reading Moby Dick, the preparation activities will not emphasize whales, but obsession. Prior knowledge matters, but it has to be the knowledge that is relevant to what is important, rather than background information that is only superficially connected to the ideas).
  3. During reading, I will focus attention on the ideas in the text. If some words are difficult—to decode or to know the meanings of—I’ll just tell them to students so we can stay focused on the ideas. I’ll minimize “strategy teaching” distractions by introducing new strategies with particularly easy or known texts (and applying them to harder texts when the students know how to use them).
  4. I will try not to tell the students what a text says. After reading, I’ll engage them in retelling, summarization, or paraphrasing, and I will, with my questions, lead them to think deeply about what an author had to say and how he or she said it.
  5. I will get students to continue to think about previously read texts, by rereading and by going back to earlier ideas as we read new texts. Considering how a character differs from an earlier one, or how a historic event is the same as one already read about are good approaches to this.

 Keeping these resolutions will bear dividends in children’s lives; a truly happy new year for all.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Mark Pennington Jul 02, 2017 12:48 AM


English-language arts teachers and reading experts certainly agree that "into" activities help facilitate reading comprehension. Additionally, teachers need to use "through" activities to assist students in reading “between the lines.” However, at the "beyond" stage many English-language arts teachers and reading experts will part ways. Check out why at
Into, Through, but Not Beyond.

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My New Year’s Resolutions for Teaching Reading Comprehension


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.