Why Not Teach Reading Comprehension for a Change?

  • 14 September, 2019

Teacher question:

I saw you speak recently and in your definition of reading comprehension you used the term “affordance.” How would you define affordance as you use it concerning text?  

Shanahan responds:

Usually, I’d just shoot off a quick email explanation with a question like this.

However, in this case, the question affords me the opportunity to explain why so much “reading comprehension instruction” is wrongheaded and why it fails to accomplish its goals of improving reading achievement.

I believe that standardized reading comprehension testing has warped and distorted our conception of reading comprehension.

Instead of focusing on how to enable kids to make sense of the ideas expressed in text, we’ve tended to emphasize how to answer particular kinds of questions. That treats reading less as a process for gaining or constructing ideas based on information provided by an author through text and more about exploring Bloom’s taxonomy, Question-Answer-Relationships (QAR), or some supposed set of reading skills based upon state standards.

Let’s be clear: reading comprehension is not the ability to answer particular kinds of questions.

Reading comprehension is the ability to make sense of ideas expressed in text—the ability to negotiate the linguistic and conceptual barriers or affordances of a text.

In answer to your question, the term affordance, as used here, is drawn from the work of Eleanor Gibson, a great psychologist who studied perception during the 1950s-1970s. 

According to Gibson, an affordance is a resource or support that the environment offers an animal; the animal in turn must possess the capabilities to perceive it and use it. Thus, the availability of coconuts may be an environmental affordance because coconuts can be a valuable source of safe-to-drink water—but to take advantage of this affordance, animals must develop the skill of breaking or piercing the thick coconut shells.

In the environment created by a text, an affordance is any resource or support the text offers to readers that can help to facilitate communication or understanding. Thus, an author might: 

  • organize a list of points with bullets so they stand out as a series or so that their unity or parallelism may be more obvious;
  • choose to use “prolix” (instead of “wordy” or “verbose”) to emphasize specifically that the speech being described was not just long, but unnecessarily long; 
  • contrast two meanings of the word “dedicate” to convey a particular substantive point (as Lincoln does in his Gettysburg Address); or
  • invert the grammar of a sentence to highlight a particular portion of a message, such as with the following: So strange was the situation that I couldn't sleep. (Shifting emphasis from the loss of sleep to the peculiarity of the situation).

Basically, all the choices of diction, grammatical structure, cohesive linkage, organization, and other ways that the author chooses to present ideas are the “affordances” of a text.

But readers—as in the coconut metaphor—must have the capacity to recognize and exploit these affordances.   

Reading instruction has, for too long, ignored the need to teach kids how to make sense of texts—how to take advantage of the linguistic and conceptual affordances provided by the author and to get around and over the barriers that may prevent this sensemaking.

When teaching myself to read French, the most obvious initial barriers were the words themselves. Not so much their pronunciation, but what they meant. A simple declarative sentence like the following can convey valuable information, and yet, if a reader lacks an understanding of the words’ meanings, this sentence will be a barrier to comprehension rather than the affordance the author intended.

Je suis froide ce matin.

What did I do to negotiate these barriers? Initially, I depended heavily on the dictionary which helps to some extent given that I often already understood the underlying concepts. In this case, a straight translation of the words into English was pretty effective: I am cold this morning.

However, someone proficient in French would quickly recognize that my word-for-word translation misses a key idea: the fact that the speaker is female (in French, the spelling of adjectives reveals gender—if the writer had used froid, it would have been a boy). The dictionary helped me climb over some of those barriers to meaning – but, in this case, additional grammatical insight was needed.

We do try to help students use and negotiate some of these lexical affordances and barriers. We usually try to expand kids’ vocabularies so that authors’ word choices will facilitate communication rather than hindering it. And, we do teach kids how to use dictionaries, morphology, and context to figure out word meanings when there is a mismatch (though I think we could do a much better job of each).

We invest considerably less with sentence grammar in terms of comprehension, and the same can be said about several other linguistic and conceptual features (e.g., cohesion, discourse structure, tone, graphics).

In classrooms, we often try to prevent students’ lack of “prior knowledge” from being a barrier (by providing copious amounts of presumably relevant information before reading), but we do comparatively little to train students to recognize and take advantage of the affordances provided by authors who are rarely complete idiots about their readers’ probable awareness of the subject.

An easy example of this neglect is how science text is usually handled. In K-12 schools, science text tends to be heavily devoted to explaining concepts, which typically requires a good deal of definition. Instead of teaching kids how to recognize and use these explicit definitions and examples (and what to do with these when the content is unfamiliar), we define the terms for them before they confront these words in text.

In other words, instead of teaching kids how to scale these lexical barriers and to take advantage of these affordances, we try to remove the barriers themselves—which, ultimately, limits what kids can learn about reading comprehension.

The same can be said for much of the use of “leveled readers.” Teaching reading with texts that kids can already comprehend pretty well is more aimed at preventing possible miscomprehension in the short run, than in exposing kids to the complexities of text so that actual teaching can take place.

Instead of making sure that certain kinds of questions are asked about text, we should be teaching students how to read and interpret text—taking advantage of the affordances and negotiating the barriers. We’re getting it wrong because we’re teaching the wrong stuff!


See what others have to say about this topic.

Kelly Sep 14, 2019 05:54 PM

Your French example works even better if the reader knows that in French, one says “j’ai froid” (I have cold, translated literally). “Je suis froid” treats coldness as a character trait, making the meaning closer to “I am I sensitive.” I believe the meaning can also denote a sexual connotation of coldness!

Lyn Sep 14, 2019 05:58 PM

My cognitively intact students with learning disabilities still struggle with K-1st decoding in the 4th 5th grades. However I work with Achieve the Core 2nd 3rd Band informational fluency passages. I do provide background info. video clips, realia, etc. I teach the vocabulary while we read together with significant support to read. Then we do fluency drills with that passage. I teach phonics separately. It seems that the students struggle to construct meaning, even with so much support. I'm afraid that explicitly pointing out an affordance would fly right over their heads. Thoughts?

Marilyn Zecher Sep 14, 2019 06:01 PM

I agree that we need to spend more time on the subtitles that enable students to make sense of the actual text instead of teaching them to answer specific questions. Kudos. One thing you do mention is the impact of grammar which is all too absent from many classrooms. Students learn important aspects of prosody or phrasing by understanding the impact of groups of words within a sentence which form units of meaning. This helps them negotiate text within the boundaries of working memory. I also like Eileen Marzola's idea that we should reflect on text as we are reading it and not just at the end of a paragraph or essay. Stopping to note something, question, reflect, or predict allows the student to revisit sub-units of the text which also aids memory. We need to practice the larger syntactical units of text through writing which also supports comprehension when we read. Please address the link between written language and reading comprehension in a future posting.

Shannon Sep 14, 2019 08:19 PM

I do not disagree with what you've said about affordances. However, I think there is a missing piece in the reading comprehension discussion here. According to the wonderful new book The Knowledge Gap, cognitive science research has shown there are really only two major levers/predictors of students comprehending text: mastering "the code" (phonics/phonemic awareness/decoding) and background knowledge about the topic being written about. It's the knowledge gap that is preventing our students from being strong readers more than anything. You did mention that good reading teachers frontload the background knowledge, but this is a bandaid solution that secondary English teachers are forced to use, when the real need is "surgery" in the form of going back to teaching students (especially K - 5) about REAL THINGS (see: science, history NOT social studies, the arts, civics, etc.)-----in other words, reversing the terrible shift away from real content and towards horrendous 3.5 hour literacy blocks that emphasize strategies strategies strategies. Interested to hear your thoughts on this!

Tim Shanahan Sep 15, 2019 02:17 AM

Lyn- it’s interesting that you do so much outside the text (preteaching vocabulary, showing video clips, etc.). Try actually working with the text itself. Have kids read short portions and help them work on figuring it out. The attention needs to be on the Reading not on all of that side information.


Tim Shanahan Sep 15, 2019 02:23 AM

Background knowledge is important and yet it doesn’t operate in the trivial ways that many teachers and programs seem to assume. We definitely should do a lot to increase kids’ knowledge, but the idea that one cannot learn from information unless kids already know a bunch about it has been recognized as nonsensical in the intellectual community for thousands of years. If one needs background information before they can learn about a subject from a text, how is it that they are able to grasp the background information provided before the text is read? What do you do when reading a text about something you know little or nothing about? Go read something else instead?


Nicola Sep 15, 2019 03:42 AM

I absolutely agree about levelled readers. We restrict students access to real language when we use these. It’s a fixed mindset.

Delisa Alsup Sep 15, 2019 04:04 AM

I love your response regarding background knowledge. Perhaps you could write an entire post on this topic. I know that I have used my ability to read to learn about many topics I had no background knowledge of. Also, is it really appropriate to say students die poorly on reading assessments due to the lack of background knowledge they have about the text? Finally, it appears that the discussion on standardized assessments often does not bring up the fact that grammar, conventions, writing, foundational skills are all tested in these assessments. Students are not just asked to read a passage and answer text structure questions .

Donna Sep 15, 2019 12:36 PM

I don’t disagree with anything you wrote regarding comprehension. We spend time learning to pay attention to the authors’ choices and digging much deeper than the students are accustomed to. I am reminded that I need to bump up the complexity a bit without giving as much “support,” especially with my intensive reading class. I am probably robbing them of some valuable opportunities. Their performance level is so much lower than my honors classes, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of more. I have to get out of their way.

My most avid readers and top performing students in general (sixth grade) tend to have a history of struggling to get the highest scores on the end of year test from the state. In our state the highest score is a level 5, and only a handful of students in my honors classes have come to me with a 5. Most scored a level 3 or 4. My intensive class has all but four scoring a level 1, the lowest score possible.

We sadly devote time in our week to learn how to interpret and answer the test questions. I tell my students I’m teaching them how to game the test. I do the same with writing. I teach authentic writing, but spend some time teaching state test writing. (Which, incidentally, can be authentic, but sometimes the best writers lose points for their lack of conformity to the rubrics.) The test scorers look for very specific things according to a rubric, so it isn’t very difficult for students to score high by simply understanding the rubric. The test scores dictate which courses the students can take in the future AND my evaluation. The state limits teaching opportunities based on these scores. They are also tied to bonuses which are used as a distraction to how little we are paid.

One last point though- I make my students aware that testing continues throughout their academic careers. Placement tests, entrance exams, certification exams, etc. There is a place for teaching these test taking skills, but as educators we need to realize that is what we are doing and not allow it to absorb all or most of our instructional minutes.

Timothy E Shanahan Sep 15, 2019 02:00 PM


Good catch, and another example of how the grammar can carry the meaning--and why direct guidance on understanding the text is better than teaching main idea or supporting details or any of the other supposed "comprehension skills."



Aileen Sep 15, 2019 02:34 PM

When I hear negativity with 'teaching strategies, strategies, strategies', I am challenged and puzzled as to how to approach my reading intervention support as a reading specialist working with students who could be one grade level below to more than one (often are when I get them). I would love more information as to how best to teach struggling readers. Many struggle due to a variety of reasons, which we reading specialists are trying to tackle: lack of vocabulary, poor word knowledge/phonics, lack of background knowledge on many topics due to life circumstances and little/no reading at home. But many really struggle with what to do when they approach text and 'can't understand it'. My training included teaching some core strategies that aren't coming automatically to them as they often due to stronger readers.
Tim, how do you envision a good intervention program looking in terms of addressing comprehension? Wouldn't you at least teach some reading strategies such as making connections, using your schema, asking questions, making predictions and checking/revising, inferencing, visualizing, evaluating, summarizing, and synthesizing? I am really open to looking at how I approach teaching those struggling students. Please advise!! Thank you.

Mary Conner-Righter Sep 15, 2019 03:07 PM

Is there a book on the linguistic and conceptual affordances found in text and how to utilize these to develop readers' comprehension? I need to know how to look for these to be able to utilize them in instruction. If no book exists, who would like to write it?

Harriett Sep 15, 2019 10:27 PM

Tim, you ask some really interesting questions: "If one needs background information before they can learn about a subject from a text, how is it that they are able to grasp the background information provided before the text is read? What do you do when reading a text about something you know little or nothing about? Go read something else instead?"

I am almost finished reading The Knowledge Gap, and your questions are the ones that have occured to me while reading. On the one hand, I know that my second graders who knew a lot about soccer or sharks could easily read books at the fourth grade level about these topics. On the other hand, I also know that at some point we all need to be able to tackle text about subjects we are completely unfamiliar with. It's an important topic for discussion, and I hope you revisit it. As I recall, you've already written about background knowledge in the context of Daniel Willingham's recommnedaitons.

Tim Shanahan Sep 16, 2019 03:34 AM

Mary— please take a look at the publications and recommended books section of my website.



Tim Shanahan Sep 16, 2019 03:37 AM

Aileen—yes. There is a place for teaching comprehension strategies. But also consider teaching vocabulary, sentence comprehension, text structure, and cohesion. Look at past blogs on comprehension instruction.

Thanks. Tim

Diana Z Mihailovich, M.A. Sep 16, 2019 07:49 AM


I think reading is reading and most students being forced to annotate give a different reaction to answering questions than those who have pages of questions to complete. Correct, decoding is decoding, however, does the student truly recognize the purposefulness of reading material vs. the have to mindset. Students love to discuss and there is so much emphasis placed on literal meaning that when test time comes, they don't want the passages and have a struggle with use of grammar and phrases. The use of adverbs in today's sentences even " messed me up " !

William H Rupley Sep 16, 2019 02:45 PM

Rosenshine conducted research in early to mid seventies. He found after adjustening for attentuation, there was only one measure --comprehension--readers either comprehend or did not comprehend. If memory serves me accurately measure of comprehension did not contribute to the analsyses. Sounds as if Gough Simple Model of Reading is lacking background knowledge, unless language also serves as a construct for it. Both Chall's and Ehri's reading stages/development support what you are saying from my perspective. However, PBL's in STEM can become as overemphasized in learning as strategies are overemphasized in reading.

Mark Pennington Sep 16, 2019 03:23 PM

Next time I teach an explicit grammar lesson on adjective order during a mandated reading block, I'll reference a reading standard.

Natalie Wexler Sep 16, 2019 04:55 PM

I've seen The Knowledge Gap mentioned in this comment thread a couple of times and (as the author of the book) thought I would put in my two cents!

Tim: the argument isn't that people can ONLY read about topics on which they have background knowledge. Rather, it's that the less you know about a topic, the more difficult comprehension will be. Recent research (see here, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/08/190826092303.htm) has found that if students lack sufficient background knowledge--specifically, if they know fewer than 59% of the key vocabulary words involved--they're going to have difficulty understanding the text. At a certain point, of course, students will have acquired a critical mass of knowledge and vocabulary that will enable them to glean new information from pretty much any text that is put in front of them, as long is it's not too technical or abstruse. But many children, especially those whose families lack much education themselves, lack so much general knowledge of the kind required to understand complex text and nonfiction that it could take quite a while for them to reach that point.

Tim also seems to be asking how one acquires the background knowledge necessary to understand a text in the first place -- "If one needs background information before they can learn about a subject from a text, how is it that they are able to grasp the background information provided before the text is read? What do you do when reading a text about something you know little or nothing about? Go read something else instead?" I would answer that when children are still inexpert readers--either because of lack of decoding skills, fluency, or background knowledge--the most efficient way for them to acquire "background knowledge" (or just plain "knowledge") is through listening and discussion rather than their own independent reading. Children's listening comprehension exceeds their reading comprehension, on average through middle school. And written language is almost always more complex than spoken language. So reading ALOUD to kids from texts they can't yet access on their own is crucial, both to introduce them to sophisticated concepts/vocabulary and to acquaint them with the conventions and syntax of written language. Once they have that familiarity, they're better equipped to gain knowledge through their own reading.

Tim Shanahan Sep 17, 2019 04:52 AM

Natalie— listening comprehension is pretty highly correlated with reading comprehension. The idea that if kids lack the background knowledge to read a text with comprehension that teachers should read the texts to the students makes little sense unless the background knowledge that is lacking is decoding skills. Students who don’t know the meanings of words when they read, typically don’t know the meanings of those words when they hear them either.


Gordon Hultberg Sep 17, 2019 01:37 PM

I like to begin the year in high school English class asking students what reading is. Beginning to negotiate meaning in such ways is sometimes new to them. Coincidentally this morning I planned (before reading your post) a “quiz” inviting students to write on the hardest work they did to make meaning of or understand the assigned short story. I may even be able to use the term affordances afterward: but I mainly hope to get clean away from plot check, and involve them in discussing and describing what the author’s words do in them. Our author today, Bret Harte, strews the path with numerous affordances, such as singular punctuation (em dash, exclamation), repetitions, weather changes paralleling situational change, appropriate character names, and organization of paragraphs into a coherent timeline with a limited point of view. I am expecting that they will enjoy coming to the “table” with their own resources, having learned that authors expect readers to work a little and to enter into personal dialogue with a story’s ideas through its words. Reading is a transaction.

LD Sep 17, 2019 05:32 PM

Often times we see a reading comprehension goal on an IEP. The goal is around answering comprehension questions.
Just where do we start with understanding the true reading need?

Tim Shanahan Sep 18, 2019 02:28 AM

LD— always teach all the major parts of reading (don’t fall for the idea that phonics or comprehension etc are most important—they all are). Start supplementing decoding instruction with work on morphology... make sure kids learn the content of the texts they read for reading instruction... and focus on vocabulary, morphology, sentence reduction, cohesion, and organizational structure.

Good luck.


Liz Montalbano Sep 18, 2019 05:38 PM

Preach. Your article illuminates it perfectly.
I learned a new term “affordances” .
I love servicing 5-8 grades. I think those grades give you the opportunity to foster the meta-cognition and language skills that allow the students to maximize the affordances found in text.

Harriett Sep 18, 2019 07:51 PM

On a related topic, chapter 11 in The Knowledge Gap, "Don't Forget to Write", supports the wonderful research in your resources section--Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading. In the Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler writes:

"Writing may also be the best way to develop old-fashioned skills like finding the main idea, metacognitive skills like asking questions about one's own understanding, and the highly prized 'twenty-first-century' skills of analytical or critical thinking. Skills-focused teachers haven't been wrong to want students to acquire these abilities. They've just been mistaken in their assumption that they can be taught directly, isolated from content."

Natalie Wexler Sep 22, 2019 06:27 PM

Tim -- I'm puzzled by your saying that "listening comprehension is pretty highly correlated with reading comprehension." That may be true for educated adults -- or for kids when they're listening to or reading simple fiction -- but I don't think that's what the research says about reading in the content areas for kids. E.g., see this statement from a piece by Fisher and Frey: "Decades of research, not to mention personal experiences, confirm that listening comprehension outpaces reading comprehension from early childhood through at least middle school." (https://www.readingrockets.org/article/speaking-and-listening-content-area-learning)
In any event, I hope that you and others who are skeptical about the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension will take a look at my book, The Knowledge Gap, which reviews a lot of evidence on that topic -- as well as the work of Daniel Willingham, which I drew on for my book. Would love to hear your thoughts after you've read it.

Lise Sep 25, 2019 12:14 AM

LOL ! I did not know you were a frigid French woman, sir! ;-)
"J'ai froid" would be the right way to say it.
Littoral translations are not a good thing :-)

WW Sep 28, 2019 06:52 PM

My school has switched this year from using a Fountas & Pinnell focused curriculum, to using the American Reading Company. I teach 3rd grade students, and this post really touched on some of the frustrations I am having this year. Often students who were previously determined to be reading on grade level at end of second grade are "leveled" by the ARC program to be end of first grade or beginning of second grade students. It is purely based on phonics. There is no regard to comprehension at all until they reach the third grade level (which means have mastered ALL phonics). The lack of teaching ANY reading comprehension at the beginning of reading education seems completely wrong to me. I taught first grade for many years and exposed my students to text orally as well as with mentor texts to work on comprehension. Students can often comprehend text that is far above their phonetic/decoding ability. Vocabulary is also strengthened in this way. The idea that we should postpone addressing any comprehension until all phonics have been mastered seems completely ridiculous in my opinion. Reading is NOT decoding alone.

Jason Oct 05, 2019 03:29 PM

Tim you wrote: "Background knowledge is important and yet it doesn’t operate in the trivial ways that many teachers and programs seem to assume. We definitely should do a lot to increase kids’ knowledge, but the idea that one cannot learn from information unless kids already know a bunch about it has been recognized as nonsensical in the intellectual community for thousands of years. If one needs background information before they can learn about a subject from a text, how is it that they are able to grasp the background information provided before the text is read? What do you do when reading a text about something you know little or nothing about? Go read something else instead?"

This isn't substantiated by cognitive psychology/neuroscience. In content rich classrooms direct instruction is used. Videos, visuals, and verbal explanations accompany short text - particularly simple statements; all of which have low working-memory demands. We are talking about educating and helping the average to low-average learner improve reading comprehension. Your comparison to intellectuals is not helpful here.

If I gave you a text on astrophysics rife with syntax, phrases, vocabulary, and concepts foreign to you please help me understand what strategies you would use to make sense of the text? You'd have to watch videos, ask a colleague, etc. for context prior to reading. Secondary teachers cannot do this is as well as a k-8 education rich with content and vocabulary instruction. Instead we have Lucy Calkin zealots pushing balanced-literacy, a frontman for Whole Language, void of content.

Now we ask HS students to read primary sources written by Simon Boliver in 19th century vernacular - yet they're not taught the background knowledge before HS, are void of the necessary vocabulary to access the text, and also have not had enough practice k-8 with complex-compound sentences and their WM demands far outstrip their ability to make sense of a few senses - let alone a whole text. And what is the response from the powers that be in our districts? Teach - more - strategies. It's embarassing

Katelyn E Bucciaglia Nov 20, 2019 12:53 AM

It is unfortunate in our schools today that we spend the majority of our time preparing our students for the multitude of testing that is required of them throughout the course of the school year. By emphasizing our instructional time on how to answer particular kinds of questions, we are lacking the time that our students need to delve deeper into the text, learn new vocabulary and how to apply it, make sense of their ideas about the text, and create connections to the content in order to develop meaning. From year to year, we continually discuss the need to integrate more time into instruction to include valuable information that will enhance students’ comprehension. In an effort to eliminate barriers, I incorporate book clubs with all of my second-grade students rather than utilizing leveled readers. What are some successful resources that help students make sense of tasks while simultaneously increasing reading data?

Jerry Macon Feb 10, 2020 12:18 AM

Affordance (My definition is all that can be used and organize to help in the comprehension of text. Pictures, images, grammar, prefix, root, suffix patterns) etc.

Frank Nov 14, 2021 02:00 AM

Natalie - aren't those stats true for when a student is learning to decode though? The student literally can't read the word on the page so obviously won't understand it until their decoding is up to par. In this area, I am thinking of kids with oral language deficits. They literally can't understand spoken language, and it often clearly shows up in their reading comprehension as well. A teacher sitting up there talking all day about various topics is going to do little for a student like this unless they are somehow remediated. Think about the Charlie Brown mom. Curious what that does for your thesis and view points.

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Why Not Teach Reading Comprehension for a Change?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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