Why Comprehension Instruction Goes Bad

  • 30 June, 2009

Last week, I posted a blog that described how effective comprehension strategy instruction works. I said that students won’t use strategies forever and that I didn’t believe that strategies eventually morphed into skills (at least not skills that look anything like the strategy). I think strategies work more like true scaffolds; they operate as a temporary support that allows kids to read on their own more effectively, but not in the same way they will need to read on their own later. The problem is that strategies are cumbersome and no one will use them for long. Frankly, when a student is reading with a teacher, he or she does not need to use strategies because the teacher will do the scaffolding (by previewing the material, setting reading purposes, breaking the reading into pieces, and following up with questions and discussion). Strategies can play this role temporarily when kids are reading on their own, but eventually, they have to have enough experience in reading and understanding challenging texts so they can handle it without strategies.

  The problem with comprehension instruction is twofold: on the one hand, teachers do not teach strategies very well and so lower readers tend to find independent reading difficult, even when they are receiving strategy teaching. Furthermore, most comprehension instruction (whether aimed at strategies or not) is pretty weak gruel. Students can escape with a pretty shallow processing of text as they may be guided by weak questions, superficial discussions, and no real engagement with the difficult or subtle aspects of the text.

  Good comprehension instruction should push kids to think more deeply about a text than they would if they were reading on their own. In stories, kids struggle with character motivation and psychological elements; these aspects of a story may not be stated explicitly and they require an understanding of how human behavior works. Kids tend to focus on behavior itself rather than thinking about underlying reasons for the behavior (they struggle with this in life, too). Good comprehension instruction leads kids to think about those aspects of a text that they might normally neglect.

  Good strategy instruction is tougher. It both has to lead kids to a deep processing of text (so the discussion of character motives had better take place even when you are teaching kids to summarize), but this teaching also needs to guide kids to develop intentionality, so they will try to think about the text even when they are reading on their own. If a teacher pushes strategy teaching too hard, kids won’t get much guided reading practice with the teacher. However, if a teacher pushes the story too hard, and ignores strategy teaching, then low readers will find it nearly impossible to read independently, and they will not be likely to progress in reading.

  If teachers can run a good discussion that guides kids to think about the important ideas in a text and to come away with a real understanding of what the author said and how he said it, then the students will have a real chance of becoming good comprehenders. But this will often be insufficient for poorer readers because they usually need more of this than the teacher can provide.

  Strategy teaching is meant to be a lifeline for such students. If a strategy gets kids to interact with a text more than they would on their own, then this could help strengthen them in the same way that participating in a discussion group with the teacher does. If we can afford to provide substantial doses of teacher guidance to reading comprehension, then strategy instruction won’t be necessary. If we can’t afford this, then providing what we can and supplementing it with strategy teaching is the way to go.

  A couple of other things:

  Last week, Drinda raised some questions about my reading comprehension column, her questions and my answers are below:

 1. Are the gains made by students who benefit from learning strategies sustained once they stop using the strategies?

  If the students engage in a sufficient amount of reading on their own in which they use these strategies, then they should read better even when they are no longer using the strategies. (That’s the theory anyway. We have no long-term studies of this.) The difficulty is to know how much meaningful, engaged reading (under the teacher’s supervision and on their own) that they must do to accomplish this goal.

 2. When they are using the strategies, do the use them with all reading for a while--or only when they specifically choose to use them (or are prompted by a teacher)?

  Ideally, we would want kids to use strategies a lot, so I’d say all the time. But research indicates that kids don’t use strategies much. That is partly due to the low quality of much strategy teaching and partly because it is hard for poor reader to sustain a reading conversation in their heads when they are new to this. We’d like kids to use the strategies especially when they are reading without the teacher.

 3. If these are of most benefit to low-performing students, should they only be taught for small groups?

  The benefit of strategies is mainly for low readers. They don’t hurt the high readers, but they don’t help much either. Grouping for comprehension instruction tends to be a good idea (both because it allows you to vary text difficulty based on student needs). However, whether strategies are part of the mix or not, it is still important to engage kids in meaningful reading with interactions with others.

  Finally, I will be posting no new info here for the next two weeks. Cyndie and I are off on vacation. I'll put some new material up in mid-July when we return. Enjoy your summer.


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Why Comprehension Instruction Goes Bad


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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