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Shanahan on Literacy
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.
How Much Comprehension Strategy Instruction?
From a teacher:
I have read a few articles and books by Daniel Willingham in the past, and I wonder if you are familiar with his work. I recently read an article about reading comprehension strategies and am curious to know what you think of his ideas. He says that focusing heavily on reading strategies isn’t really necessary.
(I often question the need for so many reading strategies, particularly when they take away from reading being a pleasurable activity. I can understand the importance of visualizing, using prior knowledge, and maintaining focus, but teaching the other “strategies”, in my opinion, is confusing the issue. I realize there are many studies to say otherwise, but, I just can’t be convinced.)
Anyway, again, just wondering what you think of Willingham’s paper.
Thanks. This is the second time in two weeks I’ve been asked about Daniel Willingham’s writing on comprehension strategies. I don’t know Dr. Willingham, but I’ve read his vita.
Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist with a good research record — on topics other than reading education. Although I know of his book (it is written for lay audiences), the short excerpts or off-shoots that have come to my attention suggest to me that he hasn’t actually read much of the research that you are asking about. But he has read some appropriate summary pieces about the subject and/or talked to some respected experts).
In my opinion, he is kind of right.
What is Willingham right about? He is right that comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring) are effective. There are a number of research reviews of this work, both focused on individual strategies and strategy teaching overall, and they are consistently positive. Teaching comprehension strategies appears to improve students’ reading comprehension, and it doesn’t matter if the review is somewhat comprehensive (NICHD, 2000) or highly selective, only including in the highest quality studies (Shanahan, et al., 2010); the answer is the same.
And, he is especially right to raise the issue of, “How much of this kind of teaching is needed?”
But that’s where my answer would deviate from his, and where reading the actual studies instead of the reviews can make a big difference. He claims students learn everything they need after two weeks of strategy instruction, and that we should limit such teaching to that extremely limited duration.
I think that claim is on very thin ice and it ignores a lot of issues and a lot of studies (remember the National Reading Panel reviewed more than 200 studies on the topic).
I say three cheers for Willingham for questioning the amount of strategy instruction and I give him the raspberries for then answering his question that two weeks of strategy teaching is appropriate.
One thing that originally shocked me in reading the studies in that research literature was how brief the interventions were. Most studies focused on six weeks of instruction or less (though there were a few longer studies). That such brief interventions are potent enough to impact standardized reading tests is good. That we have no idea whether stronger doses have any added benefit is a serious problem. That’s why I agree with the notion that we are probably overdoing the strategy teaching. The only evidence we have on amount of strategy teaching is correlational and it is weak at best.
- Strategy instruction is effective when the instruction is concentrated. In all of the studies, students were given daily ongoing instruction of and practice with strategies. Programs that give occasional doses of instruction in various strategies may be effective, but there are no studies of that kind of practice.
- Strategy instruction can be effective at improving reading comprehension scores at a variety of grade levels, including the primary grades. This surprised me, too. I was pretty sure that comprehension strategies made sense with older students, but not so much with younger ones. That’s not what the research has found, however.
- Strategies are not all equal. There is a greater payoff to some strategies than to others, so I would definitely put my instructional nickel on the ones with the big learning outcomes. The most powerful strategies by far are summarization (stopping throughout a text to sum up) and questioning (asking and answering your own questions about the text). The weakest: teaching students to think about how to respond to different question types (effect sizes so small that I wouldn’t waste my time).
- Strategy instruction can be effective with about 6 weeks of teaching and practice. Here I’m going with the modal length of strategy studies. Perhaps the effects would have been apparent with fewer weeks of instruction, per Willingham’s contention, and, yet, this hasn’t been studied. Weaker dosages may work, too, but with so little evidence I’d avoid such strong claims.
- Even more strategy instruction than this may be effective, but, again, with so little research no one knows. We do have studies showing that three years of phonics instruction are more effective than two years of phonics instruction, but we don’t have such studies of reading comprehension teaching.
- You raise a question about the value of different strategies, Willingham does not. The research reviews show that the teaching of multiple strategies, either singly in sequence or altogether, is beneficial — with stronger results than from single strategies. Multiple strategy teaching may be better because of the possibility that different strategies provide students with different supports (one strategy might help readers to think about one aspect of the text, another might foster some additional insights or analysis). Teach multiple strategies.
- The Willingham claims fail to consider the outcome measures. Strategies are good or bad, but he doesn’t focus on what they may be good at. His focus is on motivating readers, but the studies of strategy teaching do not focus on this outcome. I think we overdo the strategy thing, and yet, I’d be surprised if an overemphasis on strategies is why kids don’t like reading. The whole point of strategy teaching is to make students purposeful and powerful, focused on figuring out what a text says. Those kinds of inputs usually have positive motivational outcomes.
- It is great that comprehension strategies improve performance on standardized reading tests, but their bigger impact has usually been on specially designed instruments made for the research. Thus, summarizing usually helps students to summarize a text more than it builds general reading comprehension. I think the best test of strategies would be to give two groups a really hard text — like a science textbook — and have them read it and see who would do the best with it (passing tests, writing papers, etc.). I suspect strategies would have a bigger impact on that kind of outcome than passing a test with fairly short easy passages, multiple-choice questions, in a brief amount of time. If I'm correct about that, then strategies would be worth a more extensive emphasis. Perhaps Willingham hasn't read the studies so he is considering only what they have found, not what they haven't considered.
- Most students don’t use strategies. Though we know strategies improve comprehension, they are not used much by students. I suspect the reason for this is our fixation on relatively easy texts in schools. The only reason to use a strategy is to get better purchase on a text than one would accomplish from just reading it. If texts are easy enough to allow 75-89% comprehension (the supposed instructional level that so many teachers aim at), there is simply no reason to use the strategies being taught. Teachers may be teaching kids to use strategies, but their text choices are telling the kids that the strategies have no value.
- Willingham is trying to reduce the amount of comprehension strategy instruction so that kids will like school better. I doubt that he spends much time in schools. He hasn’t been a teacher of principal or even a teacher educator and his own research hasn’t focused on practical educational applications. I’ve been conducting an observational study of nearly 1,000 classrooms for the past few years, and we aren’t seeing much strategy instruction at all. There definitely can be too much strategy teaching, but in most places any dosage — not overdosage — is the problem.