Views from the Center: There’s much more to comprehension instruction than just building background knowledge by Dr. Sam Bommarito
There is a growing movement of teachers who have come to believe that the main thing you need to do to help your students understand what they are reading is to provide the students with background knowledge before reading. They feel the time spent teaching comprehension should be drastically reduced. A few seem to think it should be eliminated altogether. That idea is simply not supported if you look at ALL the relevant research.
I’ll begin by saying background knowledge is critical for understanding. That is something folks in the reading field have known for decades. So having background knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for reading comprehension to occur. By the way, I can’t help but point out that one way to develop background knowledge is for teachers to include read alouds in their daily routines to encourage wide reading and encourage deep conversations LINK as students share ideas they have gleaned from new materials they have read. But that is a topic for a different blog.
Let’s turn next to the work of Willingham. In his widely read article about teaching comprehension LINK, he makes a case for using brief instruction in reading comprehension. Here is a screen capture from page 45 of that article; it summarizes his overall conclusions:
Please note that he did not say to abandon the teaching of reading strategies (though some folks on social media seem to be taking such a position). He called for teaching less of it. My chief criticism of his position is quite simple. It has to do with the research he left out of his analysis (ignored), especially the three decades of research by Pearson, Duke and Pressley that demonstrated that teaching reading strategies using a gradual release model consistently results in significantly higher reading scores. It is not at all transparent that representative sample articles from those bodies of research were included, nor is it transparent that strategy teaching from the articles cited used gradual release in the teaching of the strategies. Teaching a gradual release model means doing much more than naming or talking about strategies. Too often, that is what is passing for strategy instruction in some classrooms. What should be involved is students INTERNALIZING strategies and using them as they are reading. A strong clue to where things might be going off the track is the “strategy” of teacher preparation, which was found to be inconclusive based on six studies considered (see his chart from the NRP on page 43). First, I find it difficult to understand how this is a reading strategy (it would be best classified as teaching about reading strategies). Second, the fact that the results were inclusive should be a red flag. That means that during the era studied; teachers were not taught very well what reading strategies are and how to help students internalize and use them. The absence of any mention of teaching students about inferences and how to make inferences is also a major omission in this analysis.
My take on this now follows.
The key to teaching comprehension strategies is that the teaching must be done in a way that results in the students internalizing and using the strategies, so says the research by Pressley, Pearson, Duke and others.
I want first to remind readers of the observational studies done by Durkin in the 1980s. Overall, they showed that less than one percent of the instructional time spent on reading instruction in classrooms was spent on teaching comprehension during that era. Here is a screen capture of the first page of her 1982 article in Educational Leadership:
LINK to the article.
Durkin’s research sparked a great deal of interest in the area of teaching reading comprehension. This led to a renaissance of research around how to effectively teach reading. It provided the impetus for the subsequent work of Pressley, Pearson, Duke and others that clearly established that teaching selected reading strategies does have a significant positive impact on children’s reading scores. There are now over three decades of research to back up those claims.
Unfortunately, today we seem bound and determined to forget those important lessons learned during the 1980s and beyond. Today we now have some people saying not to teach comprehension strategies at all. In addition, too often, what happens in “strategy” instruction is that the instruction focuses on naming the strategy or describing the strategy or “practicing” the strategy rather than learning how to internalize and use the strategy. This is a step backward. My final important point is that teaching strategies using the gradual release model is not something that can be done in five or six lessons. It’s time to revisit the whole notion of what constitutes teaching students to internalize and use reading strategies when needed. A key to this is having an empirical measure of how students have internalized the strategies. Another key is to do some new research on what teachers today are actually doing with their instructional time.
A final thought on the Willingham article is this. He only considers the NRP data and definitions. He is using a sample of convenience to prove his point. He did not control for the existence of the definitions/data from Pressley, Pearson and Duke on the importance of teaching strategies through gradual release. Given the fact, that the NRP chart he references called Teacher preparation, a reading strategy, in terms of reading strategies we seem to be talking about apples and oranges. It is not transparent from the chart whether all the strategies taught were taught using the gradual release model. That is important because the research from all three of the previously mentioned researchers demonstrate that teaching reading strategies using the gradual release model produces the most dramatic effects on reading scores. HE IS SIMPLY NOT CONSIDERING ALL THE EVIDENCE. Yet we are making state and national policies based on this incomplete evidence.
I will be visiting the issue of how to best test comprehension from time to time in future blogs. In the meantime, I’ll be doing another in-service with teachers in the St. Louis region, showing them how to help students internalize the strategy of making inferences and, more importantly, how to evaluate whether the students have begun to apply that strategy. Also, I just attended a webinar given by Rachael Gabriel. She is another advocate for the Sciences of Reading LINK (that’s sciences with an s!). I am hoping to arrange an interview with her to discuss this issue (among others). In the meantime, I will continue to advocate for the direct explicit teaching of reading strategies using gradual release. As I said at the outset, building students’ background knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition for students to develop an in-depth and complete understanding of the things they read.
Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching
Copyright 2022 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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I appreciate your post and agree with your position on the importance of emphasizing comprehension, explicit teaching, and using the gradual release in all aspects of literacy teaching. I do think it goes beyond strategies. I think facilitating high quality, high level conversations can and should be done in all teaching contexts (1-1, small group, whole group). These conversations, I have learned in my 30 years of teaching, are the key to comprehension, critical thinking, community building, and social-emotional growth. Literacy instruction is about more than teaching children to read, it’s about building literate minds. I recommend the the work of Maria Nichols. Peter Johnston & Ian Wilkinson for those wanting to learn more. Right now I’m reading « Engaging Literate Minds » by Peter Johnston et al. Highly recommend!
Thanks for the article! Would be helpful if you defined what you mean and do not mean by reading strategies with specific examples. You do mention in your upcoming in-service for St. Louis teachers: “showing them how to help students internalize the strategy of making inferences and, more importantly, how to evaluate whether the students have begun to apply that strategy.”
I’ve emailed Dan Willingham to clarify his position of teaching reading strategies and asked him to define and identify the term as I’ve asked you above. I also provided him with the link to your article. Hopefully, we will have an opportunity to read his response here.
My take from reading Dr. Willingham’s articles is that he is making a similar distinction between teaching reading skills and reading strategies as Tim Shanahan does here: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter#sthash.Ul7juNyi.dpbs
However, I may be wrong.
I added additional remarks to the post based on your comment. They are now in the post. Here is what I said “A final thought on the Willingham article is this. He only considers the NRP data and definitions. He is using a sample of convenience to prove his point. He did not control for the existence of the definitions/data from Pressley, Pearson and Duke on the importance of teaching strategies through gradual release. Given the fact, that the NRP chart he references called Teacher preparation, a reading strategy, in terms of reading strategies we seem to be talking about apples and oranges. It is not transparent from the chart whether all the strategies taught were taught using the gradual release model. That is important because the research from all three of the previously mentioned researchers demonstrate that teaching reading strategies using the gradual release model produces the most dramatic effects on reading scores. HE IS SIMPLY NOT CONSIDERING ALL THE EVIDENCE. Yet we are making state and national policies based on this incomplete evidence.”
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I have found this definition helpful. “A strategy is a skill under conscious control; a skill is a strategy under automatic control.” (Pearson)
Strategies are effortful, deliberate. When we use the gradual release model, learners internalize strategies and use them in skilled ways. When meaning breaks down, readers surface what has been “underground” to support meaning making.
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