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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Does Close Reading Reject the Science of Reading?

April 6, 2021

Teacher question: I recently read an article suggesting that the research findings on reading comprehension have been modified, distorted and ignored (Dewitz & Graves, 2021). What concerned me most is that close reading and the CCSS came under heavy fire. Although the article ends with suggestions for bridging the research to practice gap, it leaves practicing teachers using the CCSS wondering whether to modify their reading comprehension instruction and use of close reading. Since you have written about close reading and the CCSS in other blogs, what are your suggestions?

Shanahan's response:

This article claims that today’s reading comprehension instruction is not in close accord with the science of reading. The commentary presents no new evidence but cites a number of past publications that have showed gaps between what we know and what we do. Nothing for me to disagree with there. I’ve written several articles and blogs about the role of strategies, value of knowledge building, benefits of vocabulary teaching, and so on. Instruction is, indeed, often far afield from the research.

This article goes on to assign blame for the discrepancy: commercial reading programs, public testing, the emphasis on close reading, and educational research itself. This critique isn’t unreasonable — though I’d apportion things a bit differently.

A real plus of the Dewitz and Graves article is that it has the research community shouldering some of the blame. I’d go even further. Researchers have produced too many investigations based on fuzzy reasoning and without adequate concern for applicability.

A particular worry is researchers’ continued failure to distinguish comprehension from learning to comprehend. No small difference that.

One of Michael Grave’s early studies is an example of what I’m talking about (Graves, Cooke, & LaBerge, 1983). That studied examined the influence pre-reading preparation (reviewing background knowledge, previewing key concepts to be presented in the text, preteaching vocabulary) has on comprehension. Students given this support comprehend a text better than do students without preparation.

This tells us nothing about how to make students better readers. Would a daily regimen of reading with lead to better independent comprehension? Possibly, but this study didn’t address that, nor did anyone else. I find it hard to castigate anyone for not scrupulously following such science.

Even when researchers have looked at comprehension instruction, the studies have almost always been so brief (6-8 weeks) it would be malpractice to base 13 years of comprehension instruction on those alone (something Dewitz and Graves properly complain about). Just because two months of a particular approach to instruction improved learning in a study, one should not conclude that several years of such teaching would continue to be either efficient or effective. Again, hard to criticize anyone for not adhering slavishly to that research.

At times I thought these authors were looking back with rose-colored glasses. Like them, I like the idea of having instruction, at times, focus on sets of related texts. However, claims that the science of reading has proven that approach to be best has no real foundation. If you doubt that go back and read the hemming and hawing over it in the Rand Report or look at the texts used in the bulk of comprehension studies (a large part of the research community apparently missed that memo). My point isn’t that there is no benefit to multi-text approaches, just that instructional research hasn’t shown that to be the best way to go — so it’s not the science of reading.

So, what about close reading?

The article says, “At the practical level, the instructional routine of close reading ignored years of research on comprehension instruction.” I don’t believe that to be the case — though I’ve pointed out the lack of research on close reading and have cautioned against investing too much time on it. As last week’s blog entry pointed out, I’m especially bothered by the misinterpretation of the close reading concept. Close reading is not a synonym for reading comprehension.

Unlike Dewitz and Graves, I don’t see close reading as an “instructional routine.” It is, rather, an approach to understanding text. The New Critics never talked about as “reading comprehension” but as a particular form of interpretation or criticism. They were encouraging a particular social response to text — an analytical one that seeks unity between what a text expresses and how it goes about expressing it. Close reading promotes attention to particular content and text features.

Dewitz and Graves cast the disagreement as being pedagogical, with research championing the role of prior knowledge and close reading advocating a laser-like focus on text. There is something to that — hence, my cautions to not overdo the attention to close reading (there are times when external information may be essential and times when it should be eschewed).

But there are interpretive benefits to treating a text as being self-contained object, separate from historical or cultural contexts. It makes great sense to teach students to try to understand a text through consideration of the words and structures in the text, as opposed to doing so with the external information that teachers may provide.

Prior knowledge plays a necessary role in comprehension (research says), and some of the rhetoric used to promote close reading made it sound like that wasn’t the case. However, prior knowledge is a two-edged sword.

Readers must both learn to use knowledge, and to suppress its application. Critical thinking requires that we not allow our assumptions, beliefs, presuppositions, or biases dominate our reading — and studies have shown that in at least some situations an instructional emphasis on prior knowledge may derail the comprehension process by allowing readers’ biases to run amok.

To me the real argument here is over conceptions of reading comprehension not instructional methods. My friend Jan Hasbrouck recently pointed out an apt quotation on this: “there is consistent interpretation across studies of what it means to actually comprehend a text and what the outcomes of comprehension should and could look like..." (Smith, Snow, Serry, & Hammond, 2020).

Reading research has been a bit all over the map when it comes to what constitutes comprehension. Studies have usually ignored the types of outcomes mandated by Common Core; comprehension research hasn’t been much interested in critical reading outcomes, for instance.

Deciding what should be our desired educational outcomes is not an empirical research enterprise — those issues are bound up in our values (implicating philosophy, social class, religion, individual experience, and so on).

The role for science is to help us figure out how best to accomplish these goals.

Thanks for your letter, and Drs. Dewitz and Graves, thank you for your provocative article.

My take-aways: I’d oppose skipping close reading. I want kids to be close readers. I admire people who are close readers and I think teachers should strive to accomplish the standards their states have established.

But take a gimlet-eyed look at what it is that you are teaching. Is it really close reading? Or is it just a traditional questioning scheme that is now labeled that way?

I would also encourage you to make sure your instruction is consistent with what we have learned from instructional studies. Unfortunately, following the science of reading research in this area is fraught because it mainly shows possibilities without offering any research-based guidance as to dosage or how best to combine these elements.

Comprehension strategy instruction is effective — at least in rather small doses (Shanahan et al., 2010). There are several studies showing that this teaching can be successful in the context of science or social studies instruction (e.g, Duke et al., 2021; Kaldenberg, Watt, & Therrien, 2015; Swanson et al., 2014) — increasing knowledge and improving reading proficiency simultaneously.

Likewise, there are some studies (Murphy et al., 2009) showing that guiding students in deep conversations about the ideas in text may bear fruit (none specifically focusing on close reading, per se). Having students write about text seems to be similarly beneficial, perhaps for the same reasons. [One study has competed these deep discussions with explicit strategy teaching and found them to be equally beneficial — making it unclear whether we should teach both.]

Comprehension research has been supportive of teaching vocabulary and other aspects of written language (e.g., syntax, cohesion, discourse structure). I’d certainly find a place for that.

Finally, research has been accumulating showing the positive impacts of teaching students with texts that they cannot already read well. That is something required in most state standards but ignored in most classrooms. As with strategy instruction and the like — these studies don’t provide much direction as to the most productive pedagogical schedule of text complexity.


Dewitz, P., & Graves, M.F. (2021). The science of reading: Four forces that modified, distorted, or ignored the research finding on reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly. doi:10.1002/rrq.389

Duke, N.K., Halvorsen, A.-L., Strachan, S.L., Kim, J., & Konstantopoulos, S. (2021). Putting PjBL to the Test: The Impact of Project-Based Learning on Second Graders’ Social Studies and Literacy Learning and Motivation in Low-SES School Settings. American Educational Research Journal 58(1), 160–200.

Graves, M.F., Cooke, C.L., & Laberge, M. J. (1983). Effects of previewing difficult short stories on low ability junior high school students' comprehension, recall, and attitudes. Reading Research Quarterly 18(3), 262–276.

Kaldenberg, E.R., Watt, S.J., & Therrien, W.J. (2015). Reading instruction in science for students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Learning Disability Quarterly 38(3), 160–173.

Murphy, P. K., Wilkinson, I. A. G., Soter, A. O., Hennessey, M. N., & Alexander, J. F. (2009). Examining the effects of classroom discussion on students’ comprehension of text: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3), 740–764.

Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through third grade: A practice guide. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sci­ences, U.S. Department of Education.

Smith, R., Snow, P., Serry, T. & Hammond, L. (2021.) The role of background knowledge in reading comprehension: A critical review. Reading Psychology 42:3, 214-240, DOI: 10.1080/02702711.2021.1888348

Swanson, E., Hairrell, A., Kent, S., Ciullo, S., Wanzek, J.A., & Vaughn, S. (2014). A synthesis and meta-analysis of reading interventions using social studies content for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities 47(2), 178–195. doi: 10.1177/0022219412451131

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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo