Should I Set Reading Purposes for My Students?

  • amount of reading
  • 24 April, 2016

            For nearly a century, leading educators and school textbooks have encouraged teachers to set a purpose for reading. Sometimes these purposes are called “motivation” or they might be stated as questions, “What is a population?” or “What is the major problem the main character faces?”

            It makes sense. We want our kids to be purposeful and such purpose-focused reading leads to higher comprehension, right?
            Not exactly. Researchers (e.g., Richard Mayer, John Guthrie) have shown that, indeed, if you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. So far so good.
            However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed. 
            How can that be? Well, when you focus so specifically on a particular idea you are likely to get it, but that leads you to ignore the rest of the text message—lowering overall comprehension. You learn what you focus your attention on, but focusing on only a part of the text distracts attention from the rest. 
            I was reminded of all of this while doing a French lesson this week (I’m finally taking a class). The assignment required me to listen to a series of audiotaped messages and to pay special attention to the numbers in the various messages (e.g., prices, addresses). 
            I’m struggling to understand French by ear, so what I found myself doing was focusing so heavily on recording the correct numbers, I wasn’t comprehending the messages at all. I’d know they were talking about 10 somethings, but I honestly had no idea what. Frankly, I didn’t need to know 10 whats, I just had to know 10, so I found myself losing track of everything else.
            I suspect that if this happened to me when I was in elementary school, I probably would have been fine with it. Ignoring the message is the fastest and most certain way to accomplish the assignment—though it isn’t great for learning language or reading.
            To truly be a successful comprehender, I needed a different mental set for this activity. I needed first to try to understand the messages, and then to try to remember or go back to figure out the numbers. When I took a breath, ignored the numbers for the moment, and just tried to understand what the French speakers were telling me, I did much better. (And, at my age, since I really do want to learn French, I did just that even though it took longer. I’ve learned a thing or two since I was 12).
            My successful, but foolish, initial approach to this comprehension assignment made me wonder how common such purpose setting is in reading lessons. I typed purpose setting and reading comprehension into Google. There were some irrelevant pieces that talked about different purposes for reading (entertainment, learning, etc.), but for the most part there was an extensive amount of guidance advising teachers of the importance of either setting specific purposes for reading or teaching kids to set their own specific purposes. Clearly, these experts haven’t read the research on this misguided instructional practice.
            If you want kids to skim a text to locate a particular answer and you don’t care whether they understand the story, article, or chapter, then, by all means, give them specific purposes for such searching. However, if you are giving a purpose to guide reading comprehension, then be as non-specific in your purpose setting as possible (e.g., read to find out what happens in this story, read to find out what this author has to say about global warming, read to see if you can retell this later). 

            Yes, it is a big mistake to give a reading assignment that includes completing the comprehension questions at the end of the chapter—unless you don’t care whether the students read the chapter or not. Kids tend to aim at efficiency—getting the assignment done as quickly and with as little effort as possible—not learning. Don’t be surprised if they accomplish what appears to be the teacher’s purpose: coming up with answers to those questions rather than reading the text to try to understand the author’s message.


See what others have to say about this topic.

enlb Apr 06, 2017 06:21 PM

Thank you for your intriguing article. I'm interested in reading the research on this. Can you cite some studies?


Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 06:22 PM

This reinforces my choice to have students respond to literature by writing: Question, Comment, Concern. This enables me to see exactly where they struggled with comprehension, how strong their prediction/inference/schema skills are, and where their thinking leads them. In my literature classes, testing factual recall seems like a wasted opportunity.


Sally Fox Apr 06, 2017 06:22 PM

Thank you for sharing your French learner insight! I work with teachers of many target language learners (TLL)--mainly English, Spanish, French, and Mandarin. Over the past years, some administrators and coaches have pushed TLL teachers to "state their objective" before every lesson and "set a purpose for reading" before every story/article or "show engagement" by taking notes during direct instruction, which I believed were not always constructive decisions. Your experience focusing on only the numbers and missing the message is exactly what can happen with TLL students when they are overly directed and micromanaged instead of encouraged and guided. I will share this blog entry with many teachers.

If you're ever in San Diego, I'd be happy to set up fun, comprehension-based French lessons for you using the Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) and Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) approaches! They focus on making meaning! ; )

Je vous remercie beaucoup! 4/25/16

Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 06:23 PM

I like that idea. I've used "what did you notice, what do you wonder"


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 06:23 PM

Bonjour Sally--


Merci beaucoup, Madame.



Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 06:24 PM


Here are a couple of useful papers worth reading on this:

Anderson, R.C., & Biddle, W.B. (1975). On asking people questions about what they are reading. In G. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (vol. 9). New York: Academic Press.

Lindner, R.W., & Rickards, J.P. (1985). Questions inserted in text: Issues and applications. In D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), The technology of text: Principles for structuring, designing, and displaying text (vol. 2, pp. 131-157). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

good luck.


Elizabeth Faherty Apr 06, 2017 06:24 PM

Does the concern with setting a purpose for reading extend to the reading workshop model where students practice making connections, asking questions, visualizing, etc? Or are those purposes broad enough?


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 06:25 PM


It just depends on how specific or narrow the prereading questions or tasks. If they narrow student attention--focusing them on a specific character or incident or set of facts, then they are problematic. Preparation for reading should be general and somewhat superficial; response to reading, after reading, can be thorough and analytical.

tim 4/25/16

textwoman Apr 06, 2017 06:25 PM

Great topic.
Question! Does this set a purpose for reading...relate to 'essential questions' (from Understanding by Design)? Framing a unit of study with an essential question seems to set a purpose for learning (reading, writing, etc). During CCSS implemention a few years ago, I had heard that essential questions didn't match up to the spirit of CCSS. At the time I didn't get much of an explanation, but your post might explain why it's more important for students (and their teachers) to set purposes for reading.
Thanks, Tim.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 06:25 PM


I haven't seen those "essential questions" so can't comment on them. Typically when someone complains that questions don't match standards, it tends to be a wording issue so not very important. In this case, I assume the concern was "front loading," the concern that the reading preparation tells too much about the texts. If that is the case, then I do indeed mean those. However, usually an overarching thematic pre-question that is used across several texts is not a big problem (since such questions tend to be pretty general)... but such questions also don't provide much help either).

sorry I can't be more specific.


Anonymous Apr 06, 2017 06:26 PM

This is very interesting post. I tend to provide a purpose for my students, but a lot of of the time I will have them do a cold read first. Hopefully during this time they are able to get that initial comprehension then read for another purpose next. But now you have me thinking...

Kristine H

Amy Barnes Apr 06, 2017 06:26 PM

Thanks Tim for a great article. In my district we are required to set a Learning Target for each reading mini lesson for Reader's Workshop and then have our students (mine are 2nd graders) go back to their seats and practice that learning target during their independent reading. They are to show evidence that they worked on it either by writing on a sticky note, reader's notebook, or conversation with their reading partner. Do you believe this is setting them up for failure with comprehension?

Thanks so much,

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 06:27 PM


I suspect that you may improve these students' ability to find specific information (and that is useful), but you are likely disadvantaging the development of a deep, close, or critical reader who would look a text more globally and thoroughly. You are placing the practice of a single skill over carrying out a more coherent and sophisticated read.

tim 4/30/16

Margaret Apr 06, 2017 06:28 PM

I'm trying to take this a little further and connect to other posts of yours I've read. So, in the case of close reading, the first cold read would be without a stated purpose, and the subsequent reads would be for specific purposes that would be broad enough not to be distracting? Or is it okay to be specific as long as you aren't targeting factual comprehension and it's not in the first read?

See June 18: Is it okay to set a purpose for student reading?
Yes, it is very reasonable to give students a purpose for reading (read to find out the differences between lions and tigers, or read to find out how this character deals with hard choices). But these purposes should not reveal a lot of information about the text that the students can find out by reading the text. Of course, if you are reading a text multiple times, each time for a different purpose, you might provide a lot more information on later readings. (This text used a lot of metaphorical language to describe how the characters felt, let's re-read those sections and discuss what the author was accomplishing by doing it that way.)


Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 06:31 PM


With purpose the trick is to be either non-specific (read this article about tigers to find out everything that you can or read this story to see what it's about), or to be specific but all encompassing: my example of reading for the differences in lions and tigers makes sense if the article is mainly about that, but it is not so terrific if this was a more encyclopedic consideration of big cats. Don't hesitate to tell kids what the topic is (if the text is informational) and what the genre is (this is from a newspaper, this is a science chapter, this is a mystery story or a poem), but if you get very specific with a purpose you typically start to get between the author and the reader--telling them stuff the author is going to. You also will have a tendency--if the purpose narrows the focus--to guide kids to pay attention to some info and to ignore the rest. If that is the pedagogical purpose, and sometimes it is, that's fine. In most reading comprehension situations I'm more interested in figuring everything out rather than just finding some specific information, but like all readers I do both.

thanks. 5/2/16

Nancy Scallon Apr 06, 2017 06:32 PM

I agree with being non-specific in your purpose setting. In working with elementary ELL intervention students, the purpose of reading informational texts and articles is often to build background knowledge. Allowing them to read for understanding and giving them the opportunity to discuss is more worthwhile than completing comprehension questions at the end of the text.


Maya Jan 09, 2024 05:37 AM

Does this also apply to "objective/learning intentions"?
Can we tell students which strategy they are working on?
I'm still making semse of what I'm learning from your blog. So far I understand that
we need to focus on the text itself and that each text is very different. However, I still
think there is a pattern in student's stregnths and weaknesses, and I'm wondering if I can
share that with them. e.g., Your fluency is great. Your next step is to visualize what you're reading."
Is that bad practice?

Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2024 01:51 PM


The key here is to not be too specific in what you want kids to get from a text (unless the point is to go in and find some specific points without paying much attention to everything else -- that kind of searching has some value). Indeed, if you are teaching students to use a particular strategy or to deal with some of the specific language demands of a text (like vocabulary or syntax), it is fine to be specific about that. However, when it comes to the content, if you are too specific, then your readers will concentrate on that information to the neglect of the rest.


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Should I Set Reading Purposes for My Students?


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