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10 Things Every Teacher

Should Know About

Reading Comprehension
Timothy Shanahan
University of Illinois at Chicago
1. Reading comprehension
tests don’t tell much about
reading comprehension
• Do low “reading comprehension scores” mean
students struggle with “reading comprehension”?

• Because reading is a collection of linguistic and

cognitive skills that are embedded and
hierarchical, low comprehension scores do not
necessarily mean there is a need for more
comprehension instruction
Is it a reading
comprehension problem?

Or is it a decoding problem?
Is it a reading
comprehension problem?

Or is it a word meaning problem?

Is it a reading
comprehension problem?

Or is it a fluency problem?
Is it a reading
comprehension problem?

Or is it a comprehension problem?
• Don’t fall for the “comprehension
skills fallacy”
• You can’t simply teach students how
to answer particular question types
such as main idea, vocabulary,
inferencing, supporting details,
drawing conclusions, etc.
2. Basic skills teaching
improves reading comprehension
• “Enabling skills” can seem like ends in
• But the purpose of teaching “enabling
skills” is that they can improve reading
• Need to pay attention to student
performance and developmental level
• NRP reviewed 51
studies of phonemic
• And 38 studies of
phonics instruction
• NRP reviewed 45
studies on
• And NELP and NLP
looks at vocabulary
are revealing, too
• NRP reviewed 16
(or 52) studies on
oral reading
fluency instruction
• Don’t fail to teach these basic skills
• But teach them with a clear purpose
• Skills instruction should eventually
end up with “reading for meaning” as
the pay off
3. Reading comprehension
itself can be taught explicitly
• There is more to comprehension
teaching than just building enabling
• It is possible to provide instruction
that helps students to think more
effectively while they read (to
understand and remember more)
• NRP reviewed 205 studies that
showed that reading comprehension
could be taught directly throughout
the elementary and secondary
• These studies emphasized teaching
students how to think effectively
during reading
4. Reading comprehension
instruction is not listening
• Reading comprehension and listening
comprehension are both about thinking with
• Students low in reading comprehension are
often low in listening comprehension too
• Early listening comprehension is correlated
with later reading comprehension and for
English learners these relations are
stronger within English than across
• languages

• One reason the correlations aren’t
higher is because the demands of
decoding: Reading requires students
to think about text WHILE decoding
• Studies do not yet show that
improving listening comprehension is
an effective intervention for
improving reading comprehension
• Kindergarten teachers are correct to
focus on listening comprehension
• Unfortunately, teachers of older kids
often replace reading with listening
lessons because of the difficulty of
the books
• This gets you through the books, but
doesn’t teach reading
• Students need to read materials that
are challenging, but not TOO hard to
5. Reading comprehension
instruction requires more
than practice
• Early in 20th Century, reading
instruction focused mainly on oral
reading practice
• Silent reading and reading
comprehension instruction were
• Thorndike study: Kids who were
questioned about what they read
comprehended better than those who
just read
• Helped transform teaching of
• More recent studies have challenged
this standard of practice (strategies)
• Just reading and answering questions
is better than just reading
• But reading comprehension instruction
is more than an assignment
• We can teach kids how to think
effectively when reading (strategies)
6. Comprehension strategy
instruction is different than
comprehension skills instruction
• Historically, reading instruction has
emphasized comprehension skills
• Skills are meant to be carried out
quickly, easily and without conscious
• Strategies are intentional and complex
Reading Comprehension
• Cause and effect • Problem and solution
• Classify and categorize • Identify theme
• Compare and contrast • Literal recall
• Draw conclusions • Tone
• Fact and opinion • Mood
• Main idea • Etc., etc., etc.
• Important details
• Inferences
• Sequence
• Bias and propaganda
Reading Comprehension Strategies

• Summarizing (18)
• Questioning (27)
• Story mapping (17)
• Monitoring (22)
• Question answering (17)
• Graphic organizers (11)
• Mental imagery (7)
• Prior knowledge (14)
Strategies vs. Skills
Strategies: Skills:
Intentional Automatic
Metacognitive Over-learning
Reflective Immediate
Complex/multi-step Simple/single step
Probability of success Certainty of success
Approximation Accuracy
7. Combinations of
strategies are best
• NRP found that instruction in
combined sets of strategies (such as
reciprocal teaching) were generally
more effective than teaching single
8. Clear explanations matter

• Studies show that how well teachers

can explain mental processes makes a
difference in student progress
• Core programs and professional
development can give teachers
guidance in teaching strategies
Students need to learn the
of strategies.
9. Gradual release of control
approaches are effective
• Modeling and explanation
• Guided practice and explanation
• Independent practice
Gradual release of control:

I do it.

We do it.

You do it.
Gradual release of control:

I do it.

We do it.

You do it together.

• You do it.
10. We don’t have all the
• Strategies are about taking intentional mental
actions to understand a text
• Story maps versus character change charts
Story Map

Main Character:


Internal response:




Character Perspective Chart

Setting: Setting:
Main Character: Main character:
Problem: Problem:
Internal response: Internal response:
Attempt: Attempt:
Outcome: Outcome:
Reaction: Reaction:
Theme: Theme:
Character Change Chart
What is main character like at What is the main character like
the beginning of the story? at the end of the story? How
has he or she changed?


Given this character change, what do you think the author wanted you to learn? ________
Chemistry Note-taking

Substances Properties Processes Interactions Expression
History Events Chart




Main point:
We can improve the
reading lives of children
• By creating a classroom culture that emphasizes
• By ensuring that children have the enabling skills
that allow comprehension
• By teaching students the most effective,
research-proven ways to think effectively about
the ideas in text and guiding their practice with
these strategies across a wide range of text
Thank you very much!!!
10 Things Every Teacher
Should Know about
Reading Comprehension
Timothy Shanahan
University of Illinois at Chicago