Why Teach Comprehension Strategies?

  • 24 June, 2009

There is no doubt research shows that reading comprehension strategy instruction works. The National Reading Panel said so. Although comprehension studies have been short-term, there are just so many of them (more than 200 such studies).

  That doesn’t mean everybody agrees with strategy teaching. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown have argued strenuously against such teaching. They claim teachers would be better off having kids read text and engaging in a deep discussion of the ideas.

  I respect Isabel and Moddy, but how can you ignore so much research? I think the disagreement lies in a basic misconception about the purpose of strategy instruction.

  There are three ways to think about strategies—but only one of them can be right.

  One view is that strategy teaching leads kids to actually use the strategies while they read. And that they'll then use them for the rest of their lives—reading better right into the grave. This simplistic notion is not held by any researchers I know, but some teachers buy it. This is part of what gets a negative response from Isabel and Moddy (let’s face it: good readers know they don’t usually use strategies).

  A more widely held view is the one most research big-shots accept. David Pearson, Scott Paris and Peter Afflerbach claim strategies are just a stage of learning. Their idea is that strategies eventually morph into skills. They are kind of phonics of ideas. You learn phonics, but decoding eventually gets so skilled that you read without thinking about decoding. So, the idea is that comprehension strategies do continue to be used by students, but without conscious awareness.

  I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to believe that I’m predicting, questioning, and visualizing away, and not even knowing it.

  And yet, unlike the strategy critics, I teach comprehension strategies.

  Strategy teaching works… but mainly with low readers. Consequently, I think of it as a kind of “pay-attention-and-think-about-the-text” instruction. It helps poor readers to do something with their minds during reading, which is incredibly important. Isabel and Moddy are right about teachers guiding kids to think deeply about text. Strategy teaching, when it is good, just provides a kind of scaffolding that allows kids who have trouble thinking while reading to do so, even when they read on their own. Strategies are temporary, but not because they become automatic skills, but because they are too cumbersome to sustain. The benefits of strategy teaching decline once reading is able to stimulate normal language processing responses.

  If the “Shanahan surmise” is correct (that strategy teaching is beneficial because it provides a temporary scaffold supporting independent thinking during reading for kids who can’t do such thinking automatically), there are implications for teaching reading comprehension. I’ll deal with that in my next column.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Drinda Williams Jul 02, 2017 01:20 AM

Thank you for pointing out these different points of view on the benefits of teaching reading strategies. It raises several of questions for me. 1. Are the gains made by students who benefit from learning strategies sustained once they stop using the strategies? 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)? 3. If these are of most benefit to low performing students, should they only be taught for small groups?

Anonymous Jul 02, 2017 01:21 AM


Teachers struggle with how to teach reading comprehension. The implicit-instruction teachers hope that reading a lot really will teach comprehension through some form of reading osmosis. The explicit-instruction teachers teach the skills that can be quantified, but ignore meaning-making as the true purpose of reading. Check out seven research-based reading comprehension strategies with multiple links at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-teach-reading-comprehension/ on Why Teach Comprehension Strategies?

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Why Teach Comprehension Strategies?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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