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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Knowledge or Comprehension Strategies — What Should We Teach?

Effective reading instruction includes strategies for strengthening comprehension while also helping to build background knowledge.

Teacher question

Are we supposed to teach reading strategies or not? I keep coming across contradictory information. Some writers say the research supports strategy teaching and some say that we should teach background information instead. I respect your opinion. What do you think?

Shanahan’s response

Many studies — hundreds actually — have shown that teaching comprehension strategies can improve reading comprehension (Filderman, Austin, Boucher, O’Donnell, & Swanson, 2022; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). That’s a pretty strong argument for teaching strategies.

That’s why I’ve taught them to students myself.

That’s why I sometimes use them when I’m reading.

The first question to ask ourselves, it seems to me, is why do strategies help? How do they make someone a better reader?

I remember Dick Venezky telling me that one of the big benefits of phonics instruction was that it got kids to look at the words, to look at all the letters in the words. At the time, I thought that was glib. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in that explanation.

My answer for why and how strategies work is as glib as that.

Strategies do two things for readers.

First, they require readers to think about a text more than they would if they just read it.

If readers think more about the ideas in a text, they are more likely to remember them later. Strategies slow you down. It takes more time to read a text and implement a strategy than to only read the text.

Too many readers are satisfied with comprehending a text. They may understand it as they read, but they don’t retain the information. We use the term “reading comprehension” too generally. When we use it, we usually intend more than just understanding.

No, it often includes the idea that readers should remember what they read so that they can successfully answer questions, participate in discussions, or use the information in some other way.

Strategies arm readers with purposeful actions they can take before, during, and after reading. Basically, they get readers to think about the ideas more than once. They facilitate learning from text. (That’s why Ron Carver used to argue that the term comprehension strategies was a misnomer; he thought a more apt label was study skills, skills one would use to study a text or learn from it.)

The idea of strategies is to provide readers with the tools that will allow them to accomplish purposeful learning — and the tools work by slowing us down and getting us to think more than once about the ideas in the text. A rather blunt tool admittedly, but, according to the empirical studies, an effective one.

As such, strategies play a very different role in the reading process than knowledge.  

It should not be a choice between the two.

Second, strategies may also play a useful role in guiding student attention to key information in a text. (I tend to think of most strategies as “paying attention strategies.”)

When I’m reading something that is very hard for me, I write down the most important idea from each paragraph or section. That ensures that I pay attention to all the key ideas, without the details distracting me.

Other strategies encourage readers to depend on the author’s organizational scheme. Doing so focuses attention on certain key information that they may neglect without that strategy.

Further distinguishing knowledge and strategies in reading are those strategies that emphasize making connections between the text and the knowledge that we bring to the text.

Prediction, for instance, is a strategy that leads readers to anticipate what the author will reveal. Predictions require that readers combine information from the text with the knowledge they bring to the text. Predicting is a tool readers can apply in certain reading situations, but it can only work if there is relevant knowledge available.

Inferencing is another such strategy. Readers can be sensitized to the concept that texts won’t provide explicitly all the needed information so readers must draw inferences to fill in the blanks and make connections. But the inferencing strategy only works to the extent that there is background knowledge available from which to generate those inferences.

A third strategy that depends on knowledge and encourages readers to connect knowledge to text is comprehension monitoring. With this one, students are taught to pay attention to whether they are understanding a text or if it is making sense. Determining whether something makes sense means that you can compare it with some standard and that standard for this is the knowledge that you bring to the text.

In all these examples, the strategy gives the reader some insights about text (e.g., it has a structure, the text should make sense, text sometimes implies rather than states information) and some action steps that if taken will improve understanding and memory for what is read.

But none of these strategies pays off unless the reader possesses sufficient topical knowledge to make them work.

As such, strategies are useful and knowledge is essential.

That sounds like reading lessons would be better off emphasizing the learning of content, rather than developing insights about text and reading and developing actions students can use in a purposeful way to think more about the text.

But that is not necessarily the case. Our emphasis on knowledge should not be the central goal of reading instruction. It should be the central goal of schooling. Yes, kids should read texts worth knowing in their reading lessons and they should be held accountable for the content learning that can be gained from such texts. But learning also needs to come from social studies, science, and the arts, as well as from all the other sources of information that children confront in the media, in their play activities and social interactions, and so on.

Reading strategies are something students are likely to learn only in a reading lesson. As such, they deserve special attention in those lessons.

I don’t accept the premise of what you are hearing — that reading lessons should either teach strategies or knowledge. They need to accomplish the former and contribute to the latter.

Although I didn’t cite many specific studies in this blog entry, it heavily benefited from the brilliant contributions of the late Ernst Z. Rothkopf, whose pioneering work on “mathemagenic activities” presaged all the strategy research in reading.


Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Rothkopf, E. Z. (1970). The concept of mathemagenic activities. Review of Educational Research, 40(3), 325-336.

Rothkopf, E. Z. (2008). Reflections on the field: Aspirations of learning science and the practical logic of instructional enterprises. Educational Psychology Review, 20(3), 351-368.

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
July 24, 2023