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Section II: Strategies in action

Reading comprehension strategy instruction

Reading comprehension strategies: clarifications and challenges to effective instruction

Prior to our consideration of reading comprehension strategy instruction, we want to make several points related to the term strategies. First, strategies are not consistently defined or characterized in the professional literature, in theoretical models and in related reading instruction materials. In fact, the words strategies and skills are sometimes substituted for one another. Consider how strategies is used interchangeably with skills in the influential National Reading Panel Executive Summary Report (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000):

The rationale for the explicit teaching of comprehension skills is that comprehension can be improved by teaching students to use specific cognitive strategies or to reason strategically when they encounter barriers to understanding what they are reading.

(p. 14; italics added)

There are important differences between strategies and skills (although they are closely related) and consistency of use of these words should be a goal. This can contribute to clarity in theoretical constructs, models of reading comprehension and the instruction that derives from them. In this chapter, we use the following definitions of strategies and skills (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008):

Reading strategies are deliberate, goal-directed attempts to control and modify the reader’s efforts to decode text, understand words, and construct meanings of text. Reading skills are automatic actions that result in decoding and comprehension with speed, efficiency, and fluency and usually occur without awareness of the components or control involved.

(p. 368)

A further concern is the conflation of reading strategies, teaching strategies and classroom supports related to students’ reading comprehension strategy development. For example, the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) states:

The seven individual strategies that appear to be effective and most promising for classroom instruction are (in alphabetical order) comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, graphic and semantic organizers including story maps, question answering, question generation, and summarization.

(pp. 4-42)

Several notes are in order—the first being that not all of the above are strategies. For example, “graphic and semantic organizers including story maps” may be used in concert with students’ reading comprehension strategies (or teachers’ instructional strategies), but they are not strategies—they are tools. “Cooperative learning” is a means of constructing knowledge that typically involves classmates and that may involve reading activities, but it is not a strategy “Comprehension monitoring” is certainly comprised of strategies and actions (e.g., goal setting, calibration, progress tracking, using fix it strategies), as is “summarization.” “Question generation” is possibly a strategy. Question answering typically involves the demonstration that comprehension has occurred; how it qualifies as a strategy needs explication. Finally, there is a lack of distinction between reading comprehension instruction strategies (used by teachers) and reading comprehension strategies (used by student readers). When archival, research-related documents are unclear as to the nature of reading comprehension strategies, we may expect confusion in related realizations of instruction.

The Report of the National Reading Panel was a major influence on reading policy, including the No Child Left Behind and Reading First legislation. The fact that reading comprehension strategies were not clearly and consistently defined (nor suitably distinguished from other important aspects of reading instruction) has contributed to confusion in related reading comprehension strategy instruction. Consider information provided on the Reading Rockets website, which is frequented by many teachers seeking ideas for reading instruction, and which describes itself as:

Reading Rockets is a national multimedia project that offers a wealth of research-based strategies, lessons, and activities designed to help young children learn how to read and read better.

(Available from

Reading Rockets proposes “Seven Strategies to Teach Students Text Comprehension:” the strategies are monitoring comprehension, metacognition, graphic and semantic organizers, answering questions, generating questions, recognizing story structure and summarizing. This list of “Strategies to Teach” raises concerns similar to those of the National Reading Panel report—lack of clarity on what a strategy is (e.g., how is “answering questions” a strategy?), and conflation of reading strategies with teaching and learning tools (again, how are “graphic and semantic organizers” a strategy?). “Monitoring comprehension” is an integral aspect of “metacognition,” and it is not apparent why the two are listed separately. Further, teaching reading strategies divorced from specific purposes for reading, the disciplines in which reading occurs, and particular reading-related tasks, fuels criticism that generic reading comprehension strategy instruction is insufficient for students’ needs.

In the extreme, a “more is better” perspective informs recommendations for reading comprehension strategy instruction. Consider the following claim that it is possible to teach the following “25 reading strategies that work in every content area:”

Reread, activate prior knowledge, use context clues, infer, think aloud, summarize, locate key words, make predictions, use word attack strategies, visualize, use graphic organizers, evaluate understanding, question the text, stop!, monitor & repair understanding (while reading), paraphrase, annotate the text, adjust reading rate, prioritize information, use graphic notetaking, predict, set a reader purpose, text-connections (text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world), skim, and SSQ (Stop, Summarize, Question).

(Retrieved from 25-reading-strategies-that-work-in-every-content-area/)

While acknowledging that the effective use of reading comprehension strategies is context-dependent, the website also provides erroneous prescriptions of student readers’ strategy use for particular reading situations. If reading comprehension strategy instruction is to be based on research findings, what research suggests the following?

This all makes reading strategies somewhat content area specific. Stopping (maybe the most undervalued strategy ever) and Rereading might make more sense in science, while Visualization and Text Connections may make more sense reading literary works. Questioning the Text may make equal sense in both.

(Retrieved from 25-reading-strategies-that-work-in-every-content-area/)

In summary, while reading comprehension strategy instruction is present in most all elementary classrooms, there may be accompanying confusion. Reading strategies are variously defined, mischaracterized, used interchangeably with reading skills, and conflated with teaching strategies and teaching tools. Tying comprehension strategies to instruction, but leaving them untethered to specific reading contexts and tasks, limits the value of instruction. Going forward, clarity as to what strategies are, the role of particular strategies in acts of reading and how strategies are supported by readers’ knowledge is necessary to realize the promise of comprehension strategy instruction.

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