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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.

Why Not Teach Reading Comprehension for a Change?

September 17, 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's response:

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!


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"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges