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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

I Want My Students to Comprehend — Am I Teaching the Wrong Kind of Strategies?

Let’s explore the difference between reading comprehension and learning from text, and when to teach comprehension strategies vs study skills.

I’m reading a book about Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford (one of Melville’s autobiographers). Last night, before sleep, I read about 20 pages. The author alternates chapters — one on Melville, then one on Mumford.

I didn’t get the organization immediately, but whatever is revealed about one author will be implicated in what will be divulged about the other, though the connection isn’t always explicit. Last night’s pair was about how these very despondent men each managed to find someone who would connect deeply with them emotionally and intellectually, despite the depths of their negativity.

That sounds like I was comprehending what I read … and, yet, that depends on how you define comprehension.

Each chapter addresses a span of years in these writers’ lives … but today, I could only provide a guestimate as to the spans of last night’s chapters (1850s and 1920s, perhaps). I remember that Melville’s emotional partner was Nathaniel Hawthorne — I’ve read a lot of Hawthorne over the years and even visited his home and the settings of some of his novels. But for the life of me, I can’t remember the name of Mumford’s long-suffering wife or how they found each other.

These chapters included a plethora of specifics and examples to support the points being made. I now remember only one for each man, though I remember appreciating how apt and effective it all was — even though now I can’t remember the specifics. I suspect that on a multiple-choice test, I’d do okay, while on an essay exam, the gaps in memory would be embarrassing.

I’m distinguishing here between reading comprehension and learning from text.

It’s an important distinction if we seek to teach reading effectively.

Historically, reading comprehension research tended to use text memory as a close-enough proxy for comprehension. This is because memory is a result of comprehension (Craik & Lockhart, 1972) and that the two phenomena can’t be separated (Harris, Cady, & Tran, 2006). Comprehension refers to grasping the meaning, and meaningfulness is an important factor in getting something into memory.

What got me thinking about all this was the late Ron Carver (rauding theory (opens in a new window), studies of speed reading, creation of Society for the Scientific Study of Reading). We were at a professional conference in the 1980s. There was a debate over reading comprehension strategies.

One side argued for the importance of comprehension strategies because they engaged students’ metacognition — the students were intentionally trying to understand a text and trying to be aware of whether they were understanding it.

Carver’s side argued that these so-called comprehension strategies were not part of comprehension. No, he believed that they belonged in a second category: study skills. According to Carver, that the strategies were less about understanding text (comprehension) and more about memorizing the information (learning from text), was an important distinction.

Historically, study skills and reading comprehension rarely have dined at the same table.

Reading comprehension was thought to be an issue for elementary schools and was about reading, while study skills aimed more at college students and the college-bound and had more to do with their overall academic success (e.g., Robyak, 1978; Raaheim, 1984).

Before the emphasis on strategies, comprehension instruction tended to be more about practicing reading and answering questions. Dolores Durkin famously criticized this as more of an assessment routine than an instructional one, but many educators believed that practice answering questions would improve students’ ability to answer such questions in the future. Strategies were meant to go beyond the comprehension practice idea, to transform kids into active readers, creating readers who would actively try to comprehend.

Study skills, by contrast, were more about developing routines for learning and remembering information. An example of this would be the emphasis it placed on highlighting text. Underlining important sentences wasn’t encouraged to improve understanding, but to make the key information available easily when students would be studying for an exam. Study skills tended to focus on what students could do to learn information — how to take notes, how to use the library, the development of study schedules for multiple classes, and the like. Comprehension was assumed to take place automatically, so study skills focused on the development of long-term memories.

This morning, I searched for peer-reviewed works on “study skills” in PsycInfo. It turned up 178,229 journal articles, though not all of those were on the right subject (many articles included the terms “study” and “skills”). Nevertheless, I perused the first 25 items, and many were in the right pew. I then searched among these tens of thousands of studies for any that addressed reading comprehension. That narrowed it down to 4,975 articles.

That illustrates that scholars have historically kept these constructs separate, and I think it is time that we respect that.

Arguments over comprehension strategies are a bit muddled these days. Some conflate the emphasis on metacognitive strategies with those aimed at fostering a knack for answering certain kinds of questions. That’s unfortunate because the former has a strong research record – strategy instruction improves comprehension — while the latter does not. That doesn’t mean we can’t have students reading and answering questions, we just shouldn’t assume that will improve the students’ ability to answer those kinds of questions. It usually doesn’t.

More recently, arguments about strategies have come from those who advocate for a knowledge emphasis over a reading comprehension one. These folks want less reading instruction and more content teaching.

Often, reading strategies advocates ignore the quality or value of the texts. They claim, “It doesn’t matter what they are reading as long as they are reading.” Since you can apply strategies to any text, the text just doesn’t matter that much.

The knowledge advocates seem to think that learning information is an automatic process — if students read about a topic they’ll learn it, especially if they read several texts on the same topic. Some learning does occur like that, with little intentional effort.

But, it occurs to me that Carver rightfully labeled many of those comprehension strategies as study skills. Summarizing the information in a text, perhaps multiple times, is not likely to improve understanding much, but I bet it increases learning. The same can be said for the recitation that occurs when you ask yourself questions about what you’ve read and then try to answer them. Those are surely useful tools when you need to gain a greater long-term claim on information you’ve read about. That doesn’t mean we should forget about comprehension strategies during reading, only that it’s time to consider whether a strategy improves understanding or recall and then to give each their appropriate due.

Certainly, the knowledge crew is right about the importance of books worth reading. This means reading science and social studies texts. But it also means reading worthwhile literature (cultural touchstones), and fiction that conveys important things about the human condition (our relationships, our motivations, and so on).  

The knowledge advocates tend to place a greater emphasis on the quality of the book and on kids grasping the information from the texts. Strategy advocates like these ideas, but strategy instruction can get pretty procedural, without much attention to the content.

But here’s the thing. Neither group pays sufficient attention to teaching kids to comprehend. The one group stresses study skills, while the other stresses knowledge as the key to comprehension.

Let’s say, I’m a student. I’m trying to read an assigned text. My problem is that I cannot read it with comprehension. The comprehension strategy group wants me to summarize what I’ve read, which may give me purchase on a few of the facts, but it probably won’t help me to grasp the meaning of the text. The knowledge advocates would have the teacher tell me what the text said or have me watch a video so that I would know what I was reading about before I tried to read about it (shifting the comprehension problem but not solving it, since I need to read this book now).

What does all this mean for reading instruction?

1. Directed or guided reading lessons (lessons in which kids read text under teacher guidance and supervision) need to focus on the reading of valuable text, text from which we want students to gain content knowledge.

2. It’s not enough that these texts are valuable. They also must be challenging. If kids can comprehend the text on their own, then it is not the right text for a reading lesson. The emphasis should be on how to negotiate the difficulties of a text.

3. Building a depth of knowledge requires that students deeply process the information they are trying to learn. Just reading about something will rarely end up with a depth of learning (remember, here we want more than understanding, we seek learning). Teaching units of related texts can facilitate such learning. Having students write reports, critiques, comparisons, and analyses can be powerful, too, as can discussions, presentations, and debates. Those activities can get kids to review the content to the point that it is remembered. I’d add to this mix, teaching kids some strategies for learning information. That’s where many of those comprehension strategies make sense. They may not take a lot of time to learn (the knowledge advocates are right about that, we often overdo strategy teaching), but unlike some of those worthwhile teaching activities (e.g., units, writing assignments, culminating projects), these give kids power over their own learning.

4. Comprehension strategy advocates should get serious about what constitutes a comprehension strategy. What helps students understand a text? Some of the strategies they’ve studied fall into this category. For instance, teaching kids to monitor comprehension — to be aware of when they are not getting it and to stop and do something about that. Surprisingly, many students, even college-age students, read with little understanding and do nothing about it. But what are students taught to do when they don’t understand a word meaning? Or when a sentence seems like gobbledygook? Or, when they are getting confused about which character or concept is now being talked about? Or, how to connect the ideas across a text? That’s where comprehension strategies should come in.

Of course, students who know how to monitor their comprehension can tell the teacher that they don’t get it and the teacher can explain it. But students also need to learn to solve those problems themselves and to develop the stick-to-it-iveness to do it.

When you’re teaching reading comprehension, create opportunities to teach students how to solve comprehension problems — guiding them to solve those problems so that they can comprehend the texts.

When the goal is to teach content, also provide students with some strategies that will help them to study and learn more effectively. Don’t allow the study strategies to distract from the content learning, however.

An interesting sidelight

Even though text highlighting was often emphasized in study skills regimes, research studies and teachers often found this approach ineffective. The reason? The students didn’t comprehend the text well enough to know what was important, so they highlighted everything. If they knew more about the topic, this would have been less of a problem. A point to the knowledge advocates. 

Similarly, if instruction had focused not on how to save the important information but on how to recognize what was important — shifting from study skills to comprehension skills (since it was comprehension the students were struggling with), then the highlighting might have paid off. Half-point to the strategies advocates; they recognized the need for an action plan for the students but recommended the wrong plan. 

Teaching students to recognize what’s important includes getting them to use the titles and other signals authors provide, the frequency with which some ideas are mentioned, or how that information connects to other information, as well as insights about what kinds of information disciplinary experts (e.g., psychologists, historians, chemists, literary critics) are likely to care about.


Craik, F. S., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Harris, R. J., Cady, E. T., & Tran, T. Q. (2006). Comprehension and memory. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Psychology of entertainment (pp. 71-84). Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Raaheim, A. (1984). Can students be taught to study? an evaluation of a study-skill programme directed at first year students at the University of Bergen. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 28(1), 9-15.

Robyak, J. E. (1978). Study skills versus non-study skills students: A discriminant analysis. Journal of Educational Research, 71(3), 161-166.

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
February 7, 2024