To Teach Comprehension Strategies or Not to Teach Them

  • 25 August, 2014

Originally posted on August 25, 2014; re-posted on September 21, 2017. Recently, most questions that I have received have been about decoding and fluency. That often means that educators feel confident with what they are doing with reading comprehension. Perhaps this re-posting will encourage some thinking about comprehension instruction.

Teacher question:

I don’t hear anything about comprehension strategies anymore. Was that idea just another fad or are should we still teach those?

Shanahan response: 

Your question raises an interesting point about American reading instruction. We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.

  Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in teaching students how to think effectively about the ideas in texts. There was lots of research on how to engage prior knowledge, summarize information, ask questions, monitor understanding, and so on—and lots of interest in bringing these strategies into classrooms.

  Strategies engage readers in thinking intentionally—rather than just reading a text and hoping something sticks, the reader enters the enterprise aware the text is like a mountain to be scaled or a problem to be solved. In such situations, you take actions that help you to reach the goal.

  Thus, readers may preview texts ahead of time to increase anticipation and to ensure that relevant prior knowledge will be at the ready. Readers may set purposes too—like turning headings into questions to be answered. As they read, they may stop occasionally and sum up the information provided to that point—rereading if there are apparent gaps.

  In the strategy world, readers need to be “meta-cognitively” aware. That means, for instance, that they should notice when they are not understanding something and to do something about it (such as rereading the pages that you you phased out on, looking up a word in the dictionary, or asking someone for help).

  The whole language movement has been pilloried for nudging phonics out of the primary classroom, but—something not often noted—it booted comprehension strategy teaching, too. Strategy teaching tends to be direct instruction—the teacher explains what the strategy is, how to use it, and why it’s important. Then the teacher may demonstrate the use of a strategy and engage kids in a heavily scaffolded version in which the teacher does much of the work (“This would be a good place to ask a question about what we have read. If you ask and answer questions you’ll remember more of the information later.”). Over time, the teacher would fade the support with kids doing it more and more on their own.

  Strategies came back a bit during the 2000s, probably as a result of the National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies.

  As your question reveals, now strategies are on the retreat, yet again. The reason this time is almost surely due to the fact that the Common Core State Standards don’t include any comprehension strategies. They don’t prohibit the teaching of comprehension strategies, but they don’t require them either.

  I’ve long been a proponent of the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies, and yet, there is a part of me that says their omission is not that big a loss.

  The reason for my skepticism about strategies? I’m well aware of the fact that many students—perhaps the vast majority of students—don't actually use these strategies when they read. They use them when teachers guide the process, but they don’t do so on their own. I don’t believe, for instance, that “good readers” make predictions before they read a text, even though I have no doubt that good readers could be induced to make such hypotheses under controlled conditions.

  The problem is that comprehension strategies are only useful for helping readers to make sense of text that they can’t understand automatically. Many texts are easy for me to read; they are comfortably within my language and knowledge range. This morning I read USA Today and didn’t feel the need to look up a single word or to stop and summarize any of the information.

  But if you asked me to read a chapter on theoretical physics—and you were going to evaluate my understanding somehow—that would be a different story altogether. Now I’d have to suit up for heavy combat, which would mean doing various things that I don’t do in my daily reading (like taking notes or turning headers into questions).

  What I’m saying is that in the past we taught strategies—overtaught strategies???—but we then asked students to apply them to relatively easy texts (texts at the students' instructional levels). Now, the new standards are asking us to ignore strategies while assigning harder texts.

  Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

  I would encourage you to continue to teach comprehension strategies as a scaffold for dealing with challenging text. The point would be to make it possible for kids to make sense of truly challenging texts; the use of strategies could be enough to allow some kids to scaffold their own reading successfully--meaning they might be able to read frustration level texts as if they were written at their instructional level.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Susan Coleman Jul 13, 2017 12:38 PM

Interesting piece -- thank you! I'm wondering if you would revise your recommendations when considering students who struggle with reading comprehension -- i.e., students who perform below grade level peers and who may be taking part in targeted reading interventions?

David Ayer Sep 22, 2017 02:08 AM

So many appraoches to teaching reading that are standard in Adult ESL but get obfuscated for some reason when it comes to kids tackling demanding texts in their L1

Laura Slay Sep 24, 2017 12:52 AM

Well, I do agree that I don’t typically or intentionally consider what a strategy I will use to read a text. Rather, while reading, I recognize or realize that I need a strategy to help me understand what I am not intuitively grasping. This also means that I am compelled to dig deep enough to really understand what I am reading; compelled either by interest or for a specific purpose for reading. So, as for our students, teaching reading comprehension strategies is important so that they have the tools to draw from. But maybe first, they need to know themselves as readers; how to recognize that they don’t get it, that the text is or isn’t working for them, and what to do about it. Aren’t strategies purpose driven? If so, doesn’t that apply to reading as well? Or maybe knowing when to stop, question, reread, skip and return, is just that - a strategy in itself.

Sam Bommarito Sep 22, 2018 02:05 PM

Revisiting this post and thinking about what you've also said about being careful not to over teach strategies (i.e. not to devote more time than is needed to get the job done). Everything you're saying makes a lot of sense and I'm happy you pointed out that "....National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies." Still wrestling with how to teach strategy in a manner that they will actually be used, in authentic settings rather than contrived settings. That was actually something I'd given very little thought to until I started reading your posts around this topic. Thanks for the post and for giving us all important things to think about. Sam

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To Teach Comprehension Strategies or Not to Teach Them


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