Comprehension Strategies - Still a Thing?
I recently wrote a post about my impressions of the English component of Version 9 of the Australian Curriculum. You can find that post here. There is much to be celebrated in the update including the removal of references to predictable texts and 3 cueing strategies. In reading through the content descriptors, however, I was a little disappointed to see that comprehension strategies,
“such as visualising, predicting, connecting, summarising and questioning to understand and discuss texts listened to, viewed or read independently”
remain almost exactly as they were in Version 8.4. It would be so great if there was a short guide provided as part of the curriculum to outline what research indicates to be the current understanding of the most effective practice!
Comprehension strategies in and of themselves, are not to be shunned, but it can be tricky to nail down exactly what they are and how we should be teaching our students to use them in the classroom. Many of us have heard that teaching ‘comprehension strategies’ is not great, but probably don’t really understand why or what we should be doing instead.
Firstly, it’s important to note that the words ‘strategies’ and ‘skills’ are often used interchangeably when referring to comprehension. The language around this teaching changed in about 2000 (the word skills switched to strategies), but the actual teaching did not (Shannahan, 2018). As a result, many of us have a skewed idea of what the term comprehension strategies means and are, perhaps, not teaching what we think we are teaching.
Let’s start by unpacking the terms strategies and skills to help us have a better idea of what we are talking about.
Strategies are intentional, metacognitive (involve thinking about thinking) and multistep (Hennessy 2021). We use strategies when we monitor our own comprehension while we read. Skills, on the other hand, develop to be automatic with extensive practice and can often be transferred, as with decoding.
The challenge with applying the idea of skills to reading comprehension is that there is no evidence that those generic ‘comprehension skills’ (even if they are called strategies) are transferrable at all (Such, 2021). Each text is unique. It requires a different level and type of background knowledge, has a different vocabulary and is structured slightly differently. All of this is heavily dependant on the context in which we are using the text and a child’s capacity to comprehend what they read will largely be determined by their background knowledge of the content. This adds up to the realisation that reading comprehension is not a skill (Shannahan, 2018). Teaching inference every Thursday or spending a term focused on summarising in stand-alone lessons using a series of short texts is not going to help our students better understand the texts we present for reading assessment or the novel we choose for text study.
So, what is the role of strategies? To answer that question, it is helpful to further define what comprehension strategies are. In short, they are cognitive processes that we can teach children to use to understand what they are reading. Good readers create a mental model of what the text means (Oakhill et al, 2015). We see this when a student can retell a story in their own words or can answer inferential questions by drawing on their background knowledge to fill in unstated information. The purpose of instruction that involves strategies is to help children create these mental models, think about what they are reading and connect with the text. They are plans for constructing meaning (NHCID, 2000).
In terms of which strategies are most valuable to focus on, research gives us some answers.
The National Reading Panel (NHCID) examined 16 comprehension strategies and reported that seven of them appeared to have a scientific basis for improving comprehension in non-struggling readers. These were (in alphabetical order)
- Comprehension monitoring – paying attention to when meaning breaks down
- Cooperative learning - Great for upper primary, it involves the scaffolded discussion or engagement with texts in small groups.
- Graphic and semantic organisers – illustrating concepts and relationships between concepts
- Question answering – including a range of questions, not just literal, ‘right there’ questions
- Question generation – having students come up with questions of their own about the text
- Summarising – determining what is important and expressing it in their own words
We don’t have scope in this post to unpack each of these here but you can find extra information about them in this post from Reading Rockets. It is worth noting that the research examined by the National Reading Panel was focused on the upper primary. Early primary teachers should remember that the major factor in early reading comprehension is decoding ability.
A couple of points about comprehension strategies instruction.
- There are alternatives to extensive comprehension strategies instruction. McKeown, Beck and Blake (2009) suggest that while strategies instruction has a place, it should not drive comprehension instruction. Their two-year study involving Year Five students found that students who had experienced a content model of instruction had higher levels of independent recall of a text than those who experienced a strategies instruction approach.
- When we do engage in direct teaching of comprehension strategies, keep it brief and once your students know how to use it, don’t feel compelled to allocate ‘comprehension strategies’ time in your teaching timetable.
- The point of the strategies is to help students engage better with text, so put them to work as part of your text based English lessons. Have another look at the curriculum content descriptor and you’ll see that it says ‘use comprehension strategies’. Our goal is to put strategies to work within our lessons that involve rich picture books, information texts and novels.
- The use of comprehension strategies isn’t improved by practice as is the case with decoding. We support students’ development in their use by engaging in a gradual release of responsibility (Shannahan, 2018), with increasingly complex texts as children make their way through the primary school years. This can be a point of differentiation in your classroom where some students are provided with a fully adult led comprehension monitoring task and others do more on their own.
- Background knowledge and vocabulary knowledge are critical for overall reading comprehension and students cannot infer without it. Prioritise instruction that builds both of these areas over spending large amounts of time on strategies.
To sum up, comprehension strategies remain part of the Australian Curriculum, but it doesn’t mean that we should spend large amounts of time teaching them in stand-alone lessons. A little bit of direct, explicit instruction of strategies can be useful, but the main use of them is to help students engage with texts in the context of our lessons involving rich text. When it comes to comprehension overall, decoding, background knowledge and vocabulary have a much larger part to play and should be prioritised in instruction.
If you would like to learn more about effective reading instruction, you might like to join me for my new, free program, “5 Things You Need to Know to Get Children Reading”. Beginning July 4th, each day for 5 days you will receive an email with a short video clip, links and downloads to help you on your reading instruction journey. Book your spot by clicking the link below.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) 2010 to present. This material was downloaded (www.australiancurriculum.edu.au) (accessed 21st May, 2022) and was modified. The material is licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0).
Hennessy, N.L. (2021) The Reading Comprehension Blueprint: Helping Students Make Meaning from Text. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.
McKeown, M., Beck, I., & Blake, R. (2009). Rethinking Reading Comprehension Instruction: A Comparison of Instruction for Strategies and Content Approaches. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(3), 218-253. Retrieved August 24, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25655454
(NICHD) Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Shannahan, T. (2018) Comprehension Skills or Strategies: Is there a difference and does it matter? https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter#sthash.tRggJ43u.dpbs
Such, C (2021) The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading. Sage Publications Ltd.