We Zigged When We Should Have Zagged

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 22 June, 2012

Blast from the Past: This blog first posted June 22, 2012 and was re-posted on May 24, 2016. Earlier this week I posted a blog distinguishing comprehension skills and comprehension strategies. More to be written on these issues this weekend. However, when the Common Core State Standards did not include comprehension strategies this blog entry provided my reaction to that omission. It is still timely and I'll have more to say about this as well. 

I’ve been fielding a lot of complaints recently about the lack of comprehension strategies in the common core state standards. And, in fact, no reading comprehension strategies are included in the common core.

I’m asked how that can be if comprehension strategies are research-based? If the common core is aimed at making students better readers, how can they leave out instructional approaches proven to advantage students?

  The fact is the National Reading Panel concluded that teaching reading comprehension strategies was beneficial. Later, the What Works Clearinghouse allowed a group that I chaired to recommend the teaching of reading comprehension strategies to K-3 readers—and they rated that recommendation as being based on strong research evidence. http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practice_guides/readingcomp_pg_092810.pdf

  Why would the common core neglect this evidence? The reason that these strategies were not included in the standards is because the standards are learning goals. That is, they are the learning outcomes that we are striving to for students to accomplish. Strategies are not an outcome. Neither the PARRC or Smarter

Balanced tests will test students’ knowledge of strategies; they will test ability to read and interpret text.

  That makes sense to me (though it is somewhat inconsistent with the common core stance on “close reading,” certainly a method for teaching students to read text in particular ways). But it is a peculiar situation:

For years, we have taught students to read with relatively easy texts and have taught reading comprehension strategies. This is puzzling since the purpose of strategies is to help you to make sense of a text that challenges your linguistic skills – in other words, strategies help you to read hard text, not easy text. 

  Now we are pivoting to teaching reading with challenging text, right at the point where strategies are being made optional (you can teach them if they help students to read better). We zigged when we should have zagged.

  I have no problem with strategies being omitted from the standards – they are not outcomes, but tools. But they are tools that I would definitely include in my teaching regimen, particularly when dealing with challenging text.  


See what others have to say about this topic.

Margo Criscuola Jul 01, 2017 08:54 PM


I strongly agree with your conclusion: The standards describe outcomes, not instruction. After working with so many state standards over the years that were a hodgepodge of content and method, I find it refreshing to have the outcomes spelled out clearly. Serious thought about how to achieve them will send teachers to the comprehension strategies, as well as to questioning strategies and inquiry learning.

Miss G. Jul 01, 2017 08:54 PM


Thank you so much for creating this blog and talk about CC ELA! I am a first year first grade teacher and I am actually in a lesson plan ELA CC writing training. You blog has been shared and it has helped us understand a lot of components. Thank you again and please keep posting!

Susan M. Ebbers Jul 01, 2017 08:55 PM


Tim, thanks for continuing the discussion about the Common Core. You make an important point, addressing the incongruous juxtaposition of increased text complexity and reduction of "teaching tips" or methods and instructional strategies. What is even more puzzling is that the Publisher's Criteria for the CCSS has a LOT to say about the methods used to achieve the objectives.


Anonymous Jul 01, 2017 08:55 PM


Dr. Shanahan, Do you have any recommendations for very recent (2011/2012) peer-reviewed research on using comprehension strategies and/or organizational structures to teach comprehension? Thank you!

Timothy Shanahan Jul 01, 2017 08:56 PM



The folks who issued Publisher's Criteria have made big changes to it -- you need to look at the most recent version. Much of the detailed
"here is how it should be taught" has disappeared (some of those changes precipitated by this blog, in fact). Remember that everybody -- me included -- can make recommendations for how to teach; ultimately, that responsibility falls on the teacher not the commentators (no matter what their connections and supposed authority).


Timothy Shanahan Jul 01, 2017 08:56 PM



You raise the question about new research on reading comprehension strategies. Typically, once a lot of studies have been completed on a topic, we will see fewer and fewer investigations. Back in the 1980s there was nothing hotter than comprehension strategy studies and by 2000 we had accumulated more than 200 such studies. That doesn't mean that no one continues with such research, only that there is less of it. Here are a couple of recent examples:

Vaughn, S., et al. (2011). Efficacy of collaborative strategic reading with middle school students. AERJ, 48, 938-964,

Adreassen, et al. (2011). Implementation and effects of explicit reading comprehension instruction in fifth-grade classrooms. Learning & Instruction, 21, 520-537.

There are also similar studies conducted with second-language students as well.

DAna Reisboard May 29, 2018 11:57 AM

Absolutely! I am currently launching a 2 year pd with k-8 teachers to introduce fiction and non fiction cognitive comprehension strategies in year 1. Year 2 works with teacher implementation . This work seemed to have died with Mike Presley. I am so happy to be resurrecting it in real time !

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We Zigged When We Should Have Zagged


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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