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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 Your Students May Not Be Learning to Comprehend

March 7, 2021

Teacher question: My district is trying to shift literacy instruction to be in line with the science of reading. We are wondering where comprehension strategies fit into Scarborough’s Reading Rope? Inferences and making connections are part of Verbal Reasoning, but what about other skills my students still need to be taught, like understanding and using text structure, summarizing, visualizing, questioning? There is much research to support explicit instruction in comprehension strategies, so where do they fit? Also, even when our teachers do a good job of scaffolding students’ comprehension of complex text, our at-risk students struggle to independently process texts on tests and with grade-level classroom assignments. What else should we be doing?

Shanahan's response:

Any model is a simplification and what gets emphasized may shift over time. Hollis Scarborough’s rope (2001) is no exception.

You’re correct that the rope does not include a strand for comprehension strategies though it does indicate that reading comprehension becomes increasingly strategic with development (just as word recognition becomes increasingly automatic).

However, don’t despair.

In her later writings, Scarborough (e.g., Cutting & Scarborough, 2012) explains that reading comprehension includes “executive functioning,” which would be an important strand in that reading rope. Executive function – according to Scarborough, and many other scientists — encompasses working memory, planning, organization, self-monitoring, and similar abilities. She explicitly says that executive functioning involves the ability to use those comprehension strategies studied by the National Reading Panel.

In other words, your school is using an outdated or incomplete version of Scarborough’s model; one that omits a strand that Scarborough — and the science of reading — have found to be fundamental and essential to proficient reading.

Unfortunately, that omission is consistent with the zeitgeist of our time. Many folks, these days, want to relegate comprehension strategies to the ash heap of history. An out-of-date or incomplete model that leaves them out may be reassuring to them.

What do I make of executive functioning?

Well, first it requires intentionality … it’s the part of our mind (not brain) that takes agency, that tries to accomplish things, that aims at goals. Too often we treat reading comprehension as if it operated mainly through automaticity — arising spontaneously from reading the words.

But to comprehend we must focus on the ideas. Research reveals that adults often “read” text without attention to meaning. Haven’t you ever found yourself on page 24, not knowing how you got there? This happens with young kids, too, who may get absorbed in reading a text fluently rather than trying to gain information. Reading with the aim of understanding the text is under the control of that little guy in your head wearing the EF (executive functioning) sweatshirt.

Of course, if a text is relatively easy and you’re not too distracted, Mr./Ms. EF doesn’t have much to do. Other times, EF has to get off his/her duff and expend more effort.

That’s where reading comprehension strategies are supposed to come in. Strategies are actions we take to try to solve a problem. Several strategies have been found to improve reading comprehension. For example, summarizing has been lauded in many studies. Students who stop occasionally to sum up what the text has said so far tend to end up with higher comprehension. That makes sense. Anyone who is summarizing along the way is going to spend more time thinking about the ideas in the text than those who just read it; and that repeated rehearsal of ideas can help move them into long term memory.

That’s how strategies work. They guide the reader to pay attention or to manage memory in ways that increase learning.

That some strategies — summarization, self-questioning, visualization, using text structure, and so on — have been researched can foster the mistaken impression that strategies are a rather static set of steps that automatically enhances reading comprehension.

That’s unfortunate because strategy use needs to be flexible, suitable to a reader’s goals, the demands of a specific text, and the actual problems being confronted.

Right now, I’m reading what for me is a particularly hard book, Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson. In each chapter, Empson provides a complex and subtle claim about a type of ambiguity he believes is evident in literature. He then provides quotations from poems that supposedly illustrate this form of ambiguity and takes the reader through a mind-numbingly intensive exploration of the vocabulary and syntax of the poem to reveal the role ambiguity plays in literary interpretation.

By the time I’ve read 2-3 pages, my head is spinning. Each part of his argument is so demanding that I lose sight of any connections among them. The four possible meanings of a word may be compelling but by the time I’ve come to terms with them, I’ve totally lost sense Empson’s overall argument. I find myself saying, “I understand that example, but what in the heck is this an example of?”

Picture walks, predictions, visualization and the like would be of no help — and I suspect that’s often how kids feel about their strategy lessons. The comprehension problems I face with this particular text are individual and specific, requiring individual and specific responses. A major barrier in this case is the need to connect ideas that are not obviously connected. This requires a series of strategic steps – rereading, ignoring, moving information into parallel, and so on. You can say that’s a “drawing connections” strategy, but it is certainly not generic.

Students should be taught reading strategies as part of their reading comprehension instruction. But those strategies need to be more purposeful and dynamic than is often envisaged. We need to promote a desire to understand.

The fundamental basis of successful strategy use needs to be an acceptance of the premise that we are trying to know the information in the texts that we read, and that such understanding will not always come easily. When that is the case, we need to make an effort to accomplish it.

With some texts, reading and thinking about the information may be all that is needed. In other cases, we have to try to solve the problems. Those problems may be linguistic (e.g., breaking down a sentence, looking up a definition), organizational (e.g., trying to use the author’s plan to connect ideas appropriate), or conceptual (e.g., connecting the ideas with prior knowledge)so we need to be flexible and responsive.

I said executive functioning is intentional. It is also self-conscious. Good readers are self-aware. They monitor their own understanding. That’s what allows them to make choices to solve the problems.

Too often we have kids practice reading comprehension with relatively easy texts. We guide them through the mindless application of some pre-packaged strategies (mindless in that the students aren’t making choices or responding to the actual demands of the text but are just doing an activity that the teacher is orchestrating).

Those guided reading lessons may appear to be beneficial, since even the low readers appear to understand the texts by the end of the lesson. That supposed success may be more the result of the teacher or other students exposing or revealing information from the text that the low readers weren’t gaining on their own. (That may be why the low readers do fine in your reading group, but not so much in more independent reading situations).

Of course, the texts that we use for such guided reading lessons have usually been selected with the idea of minimizing comprehension problems, rather than trying to expose students to them. To my way of thinking, it’s better to more planfully confront students with potential barriers so they can learn to surmount them.

If you think about it, much of what we do to teach comprehension appears more aimed at developing automaticity than making one’s executive function more flexible and strategic. Keeping difficulty levels low, doing lots of repetitive practice, minimizing conscious decisions, ignoring reflection, and so on can have value in teaching word recognition skills.

Those lesson features are the opposite of what is needed for teaching students how to gain meaning from complex text. Comprehension instruction needs to nurture (1) an intense desire to know, (2) an ability to flexibly take intentional actions towards that goal, and (3) a self-awareness of one’s degree of success in accomplishing it.

That means placing a heavy emphasis on the learning and use of ideas in text even during the reading comprehension lessons. That means creating situations that could lead to failed efforts to comprehend (through the texts and tasks we assign). If the reading is kept relatively easy, then there is neither any reason to develop a strategic repertoire, nor any purpose for reflection or rereading to evaluate the effectiveness of one’s choices or the nature of the difficulties that the text posed.


Cutting, L.E., & Scarborough, H.S. (2012). Multiple bases for comprehension difficulties: The potential of cognition and neurobiological profiling for validation of subtypes and development of assessments. In J.P. Sabatini, T. O’Reilly, & E.R. Albro (Eds.), Reaching an understanding: Innovations in how we view reading assessment. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Education.

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"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox