History in the Making Part Three: Reflections about What Research Really Says About Teaching Reading- and Why That Still Matters by Dr. Bommarito

This final installment advocates for the direct, explicit, systematic teaching of comprehension strategies

History in the Making Part Three: Reflections about What Research Really Says About Teaching Reading- and Why That Still Matters by Dr. Bommarito

For the past few weeks, I’ve talked about what Pearson, Duke, and the rest of the panel had to say in the historic session on reading research that was conducted at the ILA convention in New Orleans last month. We will now turn to what was said about comprehension. Once again, no slides to fall back on, but I still highly recommend that you review the thorough summary of the whole program found on the ILA website.


In the description that follows, I’ll be using these highlights, my personal notes from the session (I watched it as it was streamed live), and my review of the session from also watching the archive feed that was available for a time on the ILA website.

The ILA recap reports the following:

Tackling Reading Comprehension

There is a large body of research supporting the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies using a gradual release of responsibility model, said Duke. There’s no doubt about its importance.

“It’s as though because we think content knowledge building is so important, we’re just going to ignore three decades of research on comprehensive strategy instruction,” said Duke. “This isn’t a zero-sum game saying, ‘if you can’t attend to content, then you can’t teach comprehension strategies’ or ‘if you teach comprehension strategies, you must not be paying enough attention to vocabulary or morphology.’”

There is also concern that the literacy field is usurping content instruction in school districts. Meaning, literacy is dominating the day with some programs having curricula addressing social studies and science standards. This leaves districts feeling as if teaching both subjects are optional. This is deeply problematic, said Duke. Literacy practitioners should be advocating for science and social studies instruction.

“For too long, literacy has been a bully and pushed science and social studies off of the stage,” Pearson said in his final comments. “Literacy should be a buddy, not a bully, for science and social studies.”


MY REFLECTIONS: I want to address the issue of literacy pushing science and social studies off the stage.  From 1970 to 1977 I was a high school social studies teacher (minus the two years I spent in the Army- drafted, ended up a Sergeant E-5, but did not serve in a combat role). As a former social studies teacher, I am genuinely concerned that we spend enough time on the content areas. As a reading specialist/ reading staff developer I am equally concerned that we spend enough time in reading to assure, especially when students read in those content area readings, that they learn all the reading strategies needed to be successful. After my return from the service, I taught the Content Area Reading course for over a decade as an adjunct. The texts I used, various editions of Vacca and Vacca’s Content Area Reading, are a rich source of such strategies. There are others.

I think there is a have your cake and eat it too solution to the conundrum of having time enough for both reading strategies and work in the content area. I just did an in-service this summer for teachers in Houston, where I recommended that they implement a full guided reading program, not just the small group part of guided reading that many places call “guided reading.” Look at the chart in the F & P book and my post about that visit to see what I mean.


One of the things that should happen if one does a full guided reading program is that teachers always do read aloud/think alouds in advance of the small group work, laying the groundwork for having the students try out strategies. That idea was partly inspired by the thinking of Burkins & Yaris in their book, Who’s Doing the Work?  My addition to Burkins and Yaris’s idea is the thought that the read-alouds/think alouds should include a significant number of readings from the content areas. If we did it that way significant time would be spent concurrently on both things. Right now, my “go-to” person for think alouds is Molly Ness. She was mentioned by name as members of the panel talked about the worth of the sessions on think alouds she did at the convention. Overall, I think the path of including significant amounts of content-area readings as part of the reading program is much better than the advice being offered by some that we drop the reading strategies instruction and replace it with content-area instruction and vocabulary development.

Here are some highlights about Duke’s ideas around comprehension; these are taken from one of the resources she shared at the presentation.  It outlines what she feels is needed to get students reading by third grade




She then shares Box 1, which explains all the “range of knowledge, skills, and dispositions” a student needs to perform well on the state tests. Since the tests are designed to fully measure comprehension, it is also a list of the requirements for being a reader who can make meaning from what is read.


My reflections: There currently seems to be a movement afoot that holds comprehension concerns can be fully met by simply providing more background and vocabulary instruction/information to students. Please study Duke’s comments carefully. It takes much more than simply providing additional background and vocabulary instruction to give students what they need to perform well on state tests.  The tests are designed to assess whether or not students can read (not simply decode). Abandon teaching reading strategies, facilitating reading attitudes, comprehension monitoring, et al. at your own risk. I’ll reinforce this observation with an excerpt from another of Duke’s documents. During the presentation, Duke mentioned that significant numbers of students scoring low on state tests reading did so because of comprehension problems and said that their decoding was fine.



(Nell Duke is with the University of Michigan. The above screen capture is from the current online transcript of her video and it says Michigan State. See video for correct information)

There is a large body of evidence that spans a couple of decades demonstrating that the direct teaching of reading strategies is crucial. It is true that some teachers fail to heed the advice to “then give students lots of opportunities to practice specific reading strategies” and instead spend too much time teaching the strategy and not enough time on applying it.  That is an easily corrected problem and in no way justifies abandoning or ignoring the direct, explicit teaching of reading strategies. This is an element that is missing from many of the current approaches to comprehension being proposed by some proponents of the Science of Reading.

My advice to district administrators is to seek out programs that FULLY prepare students to do what they need to do to develop reading comprehension. Administrators should ask that before any program is adopted provides longitudinal data showing improvement in comprehension over more than one year. Improvement should be measured by FULL tests of comprehension, i.e. tests that include reading passages, questions, and writing performance. Lesser tests may do for pilots etc. But when the time comes to spend thousands (millions) on programs, I ask that administrators be sure that these programs use testing instruments that meet this gold standard. Programs that do not include the explicit systematic teaching of comprehension strategies are unlikely to provide students the array of abilities they need to comprehend what they read. At the end of the day, reading is and should be treated as a process of meaning-making.

That concludes my report on what was said at the historic session and my take on what the information reported means. In the next few weeks, I will begin reporting on what some teachers are doing vis a vis phonics instruction and fluency and look for possible points of agreement among the current views on reading. I’ll also be reporting on some very promising work my team and I are doing in the area of developing fluency using practices inspired by Dr. Tim Rasinski, a well-known expert in the area of fluency. Tim came to visit our site this week. Everyone was VERY excited. You can expect to hear all about it in future posts.

Happy Reading and Writing.

Dr. Sam Bommarito

Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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