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Teacher question

One of my colleagues told us that we should not be teaching guided reading lessons or comprehension skills or strategies. We’re using a core reading program that includes those kinds of things. He says that the science of reading proves that we would get higher reading achievement by teaching more social studies and science (he’s our science teacher) and dropping the comprehension instruction that we are providing. He’s really vocal about this. Can you help us shut him up?

Shanahan’s response

Your colleague is partly right. Knowledge about the world is a valuable commodity in reading comprehension. Education should both nurture curiosity and provide the means to fulfilling it — increasing what kids know about science and social studies (and literature and the arts, too.

He goes wrong, however, when he suggests that doing that should take the place of reading instruction. Such instruction can provide your students with a lifetime ability to increase their knowledge independently. Research does not support the idea of simply increasing knowledge about the world results in some automatic improvements in reading ability. There are types of reading comprehension instruction that can provide those kinds of results. Basically, your colleague is very unscientifically going beyond the empirical evidence and overstating his case.

Comprehension instruction is complicated and multivariate — there isn’t a single type of skill or approach that is likely to be sufficient. I can’t possibly, in the space available here, provide a complete map to what can be included profitably in a reading program.

Research shows that explicit vocabulary and morphology teaching make a difference. We should commit some of the comprehension real estate to increasing what children know about word meanings and how words express those meanings.

Likewise, instruction in how to recognize and use the organizational structure of texts has been well researched, with lots of positive outcomes. Including that is a no brainer.

Strategy instruction — that is, teaching students to execute certain actions before, during, and after reading that can increase their understanding and recall — works too, though admittedly that can be overdone. Such teaching is beneficial, but the regimens of instruction that have been evaluated have tended to be brief and focused on a narrow range of behaviors. But they work.

Not long ago I devoted a blog to the idea of teaching students to read sentences because of the need to makes sense of syntax or sentence grammar. While the general teaching of formal grammar hasn’t been found to hold water when it comes to building comprehension, teaching students to make sense of sentences certainly has.

And, what about literature? I haven’t gotten into that but hope to soon. Too often those who are promoting knowledge leave that out of the equation, as if nothing of value is gained from commerce with fictional stories and novels, poetry, and drama.

Yeah, all those things deserve instructional time, attention not likely to be provided in social studies or your colleague’s science classes.

Let me give one more example of what we need to teach in reading comprehension. Its inclusion is advocated by many of the top researchers in the field — and they have the data to prove it. I haven’t written here about this topic before, but it is one that is well worth exploring: cohesion.  

Authors try to convey a coherent message through their writing. They do that with several linguistic devices and communications conventions. Readers then try to convert this information into a mental representation of that message. Readers don’t put the text itself into their memory (we’re not computers). No, we translate what we read, and that translation requires recognition and use of those devices the author put into the text.

For example, here is a brief passage used in a study of cohesion instruction (Baumann, 1986):

Michael got the chicken pox. Then Tom did too.

Michael said, “Wasn’t that a terrible sickness?”

“It sure was,” Tom said. “Were you as sick as I was?”

To comprehend this text the reader has to make a number of connections. It is necessary to recognize that “did too” refers to “got the chicken pox,” and that “sickness” and “It” stand for chicken pox, and that “you” is Michael, and “I” was Tom. Readers who fail to make those connections aren’t going to understand what this text is about.

Prior knowledge — the knowledge the reader started with — can help a bit; it is likely helpful to know when you start out that chicken pox is a form of sickness, though this text is simple enough I suspect someone could make the right connections in this case strictly based alone on the linguistic information the author has provided. That might be harder to do if the text was much longer and the distance between the links were greater or if there were more possible choices.

Not surprisingly, younger readers are more likely than older readers to have difficulty with those seemingly straightforward pronoun references — like you for Michael. Or, that older readers who can make those kinds of links might struggle to make causal connections in a science text such as in the following example (Best, Rowe, Ozuru, & McNamara, 2005):

“Plants lack a nervous system. They cannot make quick responses to stimuli.”

One would hope that a reader, if asked “why can’t plants make a quick response to stimuli?” would answer, “Because they don’t have a nervous system” even though the text didn’t explicitly say this, but only implied this connection by arraying these sentences in this fashion.

Of course, nobody’s perfect. An author may provide a text that allows readers to easily recapture the intended coherence, while others may seemingly be more cavalier — perhaps they expected their readers to have knowledge that they didn’t.

One might assume that all readers would be best served by the authors who produce texts with the highest degree of coherence. That would appear to provide the best support for readers. Let’s face it, if the author is explicit about connections within a text, then more of us should be able to recognize and use those connections.

It turns out, according to research, that some readers earn more from relatively low coherence texts (e.g., McNamara, 2010; Ozuru, Dempsey, & McNamara, 2009). The more knowledgeable and better readers usually learn more when they are forced, by the text, to engage in more mental processing — generating more inferences and the like. Such readers may give high coherence texts a more superficial once over since it is so easy for them to understand, that they end up with lower comprehension and learning. Alternately, when reading more coherent texts the poorer and less knowledgeable readers tend to do better with comprehension. When reading less explicitly coherent texts, these readers may fail to make the necessary connections or fill the gaps that such texts require, so comprehension suffers. 

What that points out is that readers need to learn to negotiate a range of texts — texts that differ in coherence, and, consequently, in their challenge level. Increasing one’s knowledge can help with that — at least, if the knowledge and the subject of the text match — but research has found that it is possible to teach students to negotiate the cohesive ties and connections that the author’s build into their texts. It is this kind of negotiation that needs to be taught in our reading comprehension lessons.

One of the problems with the research on this topic is that it goes under a variety of titles. Some researchers focus on cohesion and cohesive ties — the linguistic repetitions and links themselves, while others categorize it as a kind of inferencing, the mental action that cohesive elements require. Still others might emphasize specific types of cohesion (e.g., referential, causal, temporal, anaphora, cataphora), or relegate this kind of thing to a superordinate category like Executive Function. I might recommend cohesion training, while a colleague may tout inferencing instruction — when we mean the same thing.

In any event, linguists have done a fine job of identifying and categorizing the many forms of cohesion (Halliday & Hasan, 1976), psychologists have developed innovative techniques for measuring the degree of unity or cohesiveness in texts (e.g., Graesser, McNamara, Cai, Conley, Li, & Pennebaker, 2014; Sheehan, 2013), and there are scads of studies showing the correlation of ability to interpret cohesion ties and reading comprehension (e.g., Duran, McCarthy, Graesser, & McNamara, 2007; Gasparinatou & Grigoriadou, 2013; Hall, et al., 2015; MacLean & Chapman, 1989; Schmitz, et al., 2017). Such studies have found these relations with a variety of text types (including science texts) and with students across a wide range of ages and abilities.

Most importantly, there are a number of studies showing that it is possible to raise reading comprehension by explicitly teaching such skills (e.g., Bauman, 1986; Best, Rowe, Ozuru, & McNamara, 2005). Elleman, 2017; Gallini, Spires, Terry, & Gleaton, 1993; Garcia-Madruga, et al., 2013). This kind of teaching has been effective with a wide range of ages and abilities — but has been especially powerful with low performing readers.

This kind of instruction should explain this aspect of language, providing many examples. Then teachers should provide direct instruction in how to deal with these kinds of connections through a text. This could include both modeling (showing students how to connect the ideas across sentences, paragraphs, and longer expanses of text), and guided reading (having students try to make these connections with explanations). This might be followed by exercises that give students more practice. These might take the form of worksheets, with the students trying to find the references for particular words or phrases or fill-in-the-blank pages. Or, another possibility, is to have students read a text and answer wh-questions about the passages. Teachers should also raise these kinds of questions during regular group or class shared or guided reading activities. These kinds of activities should take place with a variety of texts.

Along with those earlier mentioned areas of comprehension instruction, this kind of work can have a positive impact on students’ reading ability.

Tell that to your colleague — but then also make sure that your kids are learning plenty of content, both in his science classes and in your reading lessons. Every reading assignment is an opportunity to expose children to information about their world. With a little diligent attention and effort, that information can become knowledge available to support future reading. The lessons in vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, and text structure should increase students’ ability to gain that information in future reading.

Selected comments

Comment from Harriett

Thanks, Tim, for a complex blog about a complex topic. There’s a lot of confusion out here as well as a great deal of simplification: don’t teach strategies–establish background knowledge. The Elleman research you cite states:

“Many models consider the role of knowledge-based inferences in comprehension (Kintsch, 1988; Kendeou & O’Brien, 2014), whereas a few focus only on the impact of text-based inferences for maintaining coherence (e.g., Zwaan, Magliano, & Graesser, 1995). Despite these different perspectives, nearly all discourse comprehension models assume that readers establish coherence by generating text-based inferences to make sense of causal, temporal, and spatial relationships in discourse (McNamara & Magliano, 2009).”

Teaching a third grade class over the past four years has made it abundantly clear to me just how difficult it is for many students to “make sense of causal, temporal, and spatial relationships in discourse.” When we read a piece about biomimicry that explained how scientists look to nature to solve problems, my students had no problem learning this new term (thereby building background knowledge) and what it meant based on the clear explanation in the article. However, in reading the paragraph about the Japanese engineer who looked to the kingfisher bird’s beak to solve the noise of the bullet train, many students struggled to make connections between the bird and the bullet train–though they all had knowledge of both beaks and trains. So it’s not teach either background knowledge or contextualized strategies, it’s both/and.

I hope you continue to revisit this interplay between knowledge and text when it comes to comprehension.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Harriett —

Your illustration is a good one. People definitely can read successfully about things that they have no immediate prior knowledge of — and there are various reasons for that (including that whatever you already know you don’t need to relearn, thus reducing the amount of attention and effort required). However, knowledge is something like vocabulary — I can teach a ton of vocabulary with little impact on comprehension if I don’t manage to teach the vocabulary that appears in the texts that you are reading (and the vocabulary the meanings of which are central to understanding those texts). Building knowledge should be a lifetime pursuit and education should increase it at every turn (including reading). However, the purpose of reading instruction needs to be much more than increasing knowledge — if that isn’t the case, there is no point in reading instruction once decoding has been mastered to the point that it improves through practice alone. Teaching how language works, how to use your prior knowledge during reading, fundamentals of written language (as opposed to oral language), how to maintain attention and effort in what is a monologue (as opposed to dialogue) situation, etc. all should be part of reading instruction.


Comment from Joan Sedita

Thank you Tim, for a number of topics and points you include in this post. I have spent over 40 years addressing instructional practices that improve student comprehension, reviewing the research that has developed over this time, and shared what I have learned with teachers.

First, thank you for addressing head-on the unfortunate conclusion that many educators have drawn related to an emphasis (over-emphasis in my opinion) that some have placed on the role of background knowledge. You note, “He goes wrong, however, when he suggests that doing that should take the place of reading instruction.” Another misleading message that is given by some in our field who emphasize background knowledge is that comprehension strategy instruction should be avoided, often attacking in particular “main idea skills”. However, as the recent IES research guide “Providing Reading Interventions in Grades 4-9” notes (Vaughn and team), explicit instruction of comprehension strategies is very beneficial (see the report’s recommendation #3 that specifically suggests teaching question generation and answering, and determining the gist, i.e., main idea). The National Reading Panel identified comprehension strategies that include summarization (which requires students to identify essential main ideas), and the 2021 piece by Duke, Ward, and Pearson “The Science of Reading Comprehension” also summarized the findings that support comprehension strategy instruction. See this blog post I wrote last year about their article:

Thank you also for pointing that there are multiple components of comprehension instruction that should include vocabulary, text structure (at multiple levels), and sentence work. In particular, I thank you for bringing people’s attention to teaching cohesive devices, a topic I addressed in another blog post that your readers might find helpful: What are Cohesive Devices and How Do They Affect Comprehension? (opens in a new window) 

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Thanks, Joan. I guess we all just have to keep banging at i … someday people may get that following the science of reading means basing practice on scientific studies.


See all comments  (opens in a new window)


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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
November 7, 2022