Teaching Reading Comprehension and Comprehension Strategies

  • 19 January, 2016
Teacher question:  In terms of teaching comprehension to grade 3-5 students, what is the best way to help the readers transfer the strategies they are taught so they can be independent, self-regulated readers?
Shanahan's response:  
If you want to teach reading comprehension strategies to on-grade level students between the ages of 8-10, we have a pretty good idea of how to do that successfully. The teaching of strategies is a good focus as well, given the large amount of research showing that strategy instruction can be beneficial.
However, before we get to strategies, I’d like to take a couple of (what I hope will be useful) detours. For example, lots of times kids in the upper elementary grades are struggling readers. Research suggests that the vast majority of those kids will require additional phonics. I might only be willing to invest a small amount of instructional time in phonics with on-level readers during these grade levels, but if I don’t with the strugglers, they’re screwed. For those kids, a focus on reading strategies is okay, too, but only in the context of those kids getting the instructional support they need (obviously if they can’t read the words easily, they won’t have the cognitive space to focus on text meaning.
What else do we need to worry about with kids in this age range? I would invest in fluency instruction—having kids reading and rereading relatively difficult texts aloud to make them sound like English. Many schemes for doing this have students answer some questions at the end of each reading, and I think that’s a reasonably good idea. Either way, that kind of fluency practice can have a big impact on reading comprehension.
I would also invest a lot of time in vocabulary learning. The research is pretty clear that we can teach high value words effectively enough to improve comprehension and the same can be said for teaching morphology (the meanings of the roots and combining forms, suffixes, and prefixes). Build up kids’ knowledge of word meanings and you’ll usually improve their comprehension.
The same can be said for some other aspects of language. Teaching kids how sentences work; activities like sentence combining and sentence reducing can help kids work out sentence meaning. And, teaching kids how to recognize and make use of cohesive links is powerful, too (like getting kids to figure out what the pronouns refer to).
Anything else? Indeed. I would make sure kids are doing a lot of reading in the classroom. That can be in the reading books, but it can also be in social studies and science materials as well. The point is kids need to read a lot and there should be more to this than just “dumb practice.” It matters if the texts focus on valuable information, and that we make sure kids learn that information. The more they know about their world, the better they are likely to do in reading.
Finally, I would make sure that kids were writing about what they read. In the grade levels that you asked about, research suggests that having the kids write various kinds of summaries is a pretty powerful way to build reading comprehension.
Those lengthy detours aside, in that context, I would definitely teach comprehension strategies. The way I think of strategies most basically is that give readers some tools they can use independently to make sense of what they read. 
Several strategies confer an advantage: teaching kids to monitor their comprehension and if they are not understanding a text to take charge and try to fix it; teaching kids to read text and to stop occasionally to sum up for themselves what the text is telling them (and to go back if they aren’t getting it); teaching kids to ask themselves questions about what they are reading and to go back and reread if they can’t answer those questions (kind of a discussion in the head); teaching them to look for a text’s structure to figure out what the parts are and how they fit together (story mapping is the most common example of this support). There are some others but those are the ones with the most research support and the biggest payoff. (And, teaching kids more than one strategy makes a lot of sense too—apparently different strategies help students to solve different problems, so having multiple strategies is beneficial).
Research suggests that the best way to teach these strategies is through a gradual release of responsibility approach. That is, the teacher starts out explaining the strategy and what its purpose is, then demonstrating it or modeling it for the kids (show them how—explaining it as you go). 
After a demo or two, then have the kids try to use the strategy under your supervision. For example, tell the kids that you want them to practice summarization. Ask the what kinds of things you did in the demo—when you stopped, what kind of information you tried to include, what you did when you couldn’t remember something important. Initially, the teacher does much of the work, with the kids mainly following teacher directions. “Read the first two pages. That’s a good place to stop because on page 3 there is another section.” Then when they get there, perhaps asking some questions: “What was this about?” What was the most important thing the author told you? What other information is important?”
Once kids can answer those questions, it is a good idea to start to withdraw support (this is the real “we do it”). “We’re going to read this chapter. What would be a good place to stop and sum up? Why that point? When we get to this point, what do I usually ask you?”
As kids take over more of the process, you might have them work in smaller groups, with the teacher sporadically moving around the groups to monitor their success and to remind them of the steps. Perhaps you could give kids different responsibilities (one child might lead the discussion of stopping points, another might be responsible for asking the group members to remember the most important point, etc.).
Finally, have the kids try this out individually. They can take notes on the process and then engage with the teacher in a discussion of how well the process worked. Of course, if kids struggle with any part of it, you can go back to earlier steps to make it successful. Some programs do this with multiple strategies, all at one time, and others teach the strategies one at a time, adding them together as you go (both approaches work—but I find the latter to be simpler and easier to teach). You can usually teach a strategy well in 3-4 weeks if you have students practicing with lots of different texts.
Throughout that entire process it is important to vary the texts. Summarizing a newspaper article is different than summarizing a story, and both are different than a science chapter. Make sure that the students are learning not only the strategy, but the content of the texts too.
Finally, remind the kids from time to time to use their strategies or engage them in strategies discussions.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jason Powell Apr 09, 2017 07:29 PM

Teacher Response: As a middle grades ELA Resource teacher, I often wonder what best practices are out there to improve reading comprehension for the students that I teach, as well as encourage the use of those skills in other content area classrooms. A like the idea of engaging students in summarizing multiple text in order to teach the student that summarizing a text in social studies could result in different outcomes in a in a short story. One point that Shanahan makes that stood out to me is the need for teachers to scaffold students in the learning process. Some scholars suggest that explicit teaching or direct instruction works best when it is limited from the "teacher driven" approach. I guess what I'm trying to say is that many believe that our students are capable of guiding themselves through a process without the necessary tools to be successful. Shanahan, you mention in your article "Letting the Text Take Center Stage", that "It is not that students and text levels don't matter--they are certainly part of teh learning equation--but so is the amount of support or scaffolding that teachers provide (pg.6). Personally, this is the most important part of in the instructional process. 1/23/16

Kh03276 Apr 09, 2017 07:30 PM

As an ELA Co-teacher in Middle School I spend the majority of my time trying to figure out how I can help the struggling readers and writers to better understand or comprehend the text that we are discussing in class. I agree with what the author has said in this article that reading and comprehension play a "hand in hand" role with each other. I would try to help investigate if the students oral reading fluency was the issue or if the student struggled with vocabulary, or the pronunciation of unknown words. Another thing that we have tried this year in our classrooms at my school is an strategy called CSR (Collaborative Strategic Reading). So far, (based on lexile levels and comprehension probes) the incorporation of this strategy has helped our students in understand what they are reading as well as given the students specific strategies for them to use when reading any text. This strategy can be done with informational as well as narrative texts and allow students to work as a group to read and figure out the meaning of the text. I also agree with the author on the use of summarizing strategies to help students comprehension of text. I often have my students do a "quick write" of what we have just read or discussed in class.


Megan Davis Apr 09, 2017 07:30 PM

As a teacher of students with Intellectual Disabilities, I found this post very exciting. Nowadays is not often that we are told that it is ok to take a "detour" to make sure our students are receiving instruction and mastering the basic skills needed to build upon more complex skills. Thank you for pointing out to teachers that without proper phonics, fluency, and vocabulary skills- comprehension will not build, no matter how many strategies we try to teach our students. If they don't have the foundations of reading, the strategies have nothing to stand on.

Your reading strategy models, sounded a lot like the guided reading strategies that my current school has been promoting for use in our classrooms. My students really seem to benefit from my "modeling" how to read and how to monitor my reading. One thing my students know they have to do as part of their reading routine is to scan the text for any unfamiliar words. This practice alone has taught my students that if they do not understand the word they are reading, they cannot fully understand the text. I now have students asking me, unprompted, to define a word for them before they read (even when they are just reading for leisure). I have really enjoyed using these type strategies with my students, and find them very easy to implement within social studies and science lessons as well. This way students are receiving literacy instruction, while also learning important content needed for other areas.

Thank you for the many ideas you have included in the post.


Megan Apr 09, 2017 07:31 PM

Yes, unfortunately there’s a high number of upper elementary students who have a hard time reading. This is when it is so important to take the time to get to know your students and their academic needs. I agree, it doesn’t make sense to put a focus on teaching comprehension skills when a child is struggling just to sound out the words.
I think it is important to build up kids’ knowledge of word meanings to improve their comprehension. I had a teacher in high school who spent a lot of time teaching vocabulary instruction – exactly what is discussed in this blog – prefixes, suffixes, root words. We do a lot of reading in the classroom as well. We read across all subjects. It really feels like we read all day when I think about. It is so easy to incorporate reading into any topic. When it comes to teaching strategies – I absolutely believe the best approach is for the teacher to start out explaining the strategy and model. Then allow students to work through the strategy with assistance before they are on their own. Students also need lots of opportunities to practice a strategy. One model that I learned while working on my bachelor’s degree was the idea of “I do, WE do, You do” which is the gradual release of responsibility.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2017 07:31 PM

If you want kids to advance in reading, provide them with instruction in words (decoding and meaning, depending on the age levels), fluency, comprehension, and writing. Make sure there is a lot of reading and writing within that instruction--and, indeed, it doesn't matter if this teaching takes place during science, social studies, literature, etc. In fact, given the differences among those texts, the more diverse which parts of the curriculum it takes place within.

tim 3/29/16

Anonymous Apr 09, 2017 07:32 PM

I'm a bit bewildered by this blog post because the professional development that I have been receiving this year is contradictory to what you are proposing. We've been encouraged to align our instructional practices with common core shifts and the organization delivering this information has stated that "strategies" are on the "What's out?" list. We've been developing close reading lessons with text-dependent questions as our whole group instruction.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2017 07:33 PM


Whoever led that professional development either really doesn't understand reading strategies or doesn't understand close reading--probably both. You might want to read some of the other entries here on reading comprehension strategies and close reading. There are strategies that research has found to be effective in improving children's ability to comprehend (e.g., summarizing throughout a text, asking oneself questions about the text and answering these, formulating images or visualizing the information, noticing whether you are understanding what you are reading and doing something about it if you are not). It definitely makes sense to teach these. However, close reading suggests the value of some additional strategies that could/should be focused upon: paying attention to anomaly, repetition, juxtaposition, titles, looking for allusions and symbols, etc. If you watch the Engage NY video on close reading--the one that features a presentation by David Coleman explaining how he, the architect of the Common Core, would approach the teaching of "The Letter from Birmingham Jail" he points out that when reading an argument it is useful to think about what the counterargument might be (in other words, he is proposing teaching that strategy for close reading).

You definitely can overdo it and focus on strategies so much that the text is not particularly important within the lesson (and that would be a no-no), but the idea that close reading does not involve and depend on reading strategies shows a misunderstanding of what close reading is. Likewise, you can overdo close reading--which I'm seeing a lot of in classrooms these days.

Good luck.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 18, 2021 03:25 AM

I worked on that study and that isn’t my interpretation. But even if it were it would not be enough to out balance the more than 200 studies that support strategy teaching.


Michelle Nov 17, 2021 09:54 PM

I just finished a course led by Meredith and David Liben in which they cite a 2009 study by McKeown, Beck, and Blake that seems to suggest that strategy instruction actually harms readers (see https://achievethecore.org/content/upload/ Research%20Supporting%20Shift%202%20-%20Using%20Evidence%20from%20Text[1].pdf ), and that instead we should focus on teaching content and finding evidence within a text. I would love to know your thoughts on that. Is it time to move on from teaching comprehension strategies?

Parker Schramme Feb 14, 2022 08:50 PM

I'm in conversations with my administration about this at my school. What studies have supported the gradual release method for teaching reading strategies?

Timothy Shanahan Feb 14, 2022 08:54 PM

Look at recommendation #1 in this report. According to the scientists at the What Works Clearinghouse (Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education), both teaching comprehension strategies and teaching these strategies using gradual release have strong research support.



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Teaching Reading Comprehension and Comprehension Strategies


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