There’s More to Teaching Comprehension Than Building Background Knowledge- Excerpt from my Upcoming LitCon Presentation by Dr. Sam Bommarito

There’s More to Teaching Comprehension Than Building Background Knowledge- Excerpt from my Upcoming LitCon Presentation by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Next weekend I’ll be at LitCon talking about various literacy issues. One of them will be about TEACHING comprehension strategies (as opposed to naming them or describing them). Here’s a little of what I’ll be saying. For starters, I will be pushing back on those who champion the notion that providing background knowledge is more important than providing instruction in reading strategies.

In the presentation, I point out that Shanahan found Willingham’s claims that strategy instruction should be of “extremely limited duration” and that “students learn everything they need after two weeks of strategy instruction” to be on “extremely thin ice.” Link to Shanahan’s blog LINK, Link to my blog talking about Shanahan’s blog LINK.

I then talk about Duke’s idea that reading is much more than decoding words LINK. I also talk about her idea that it is clear that “if we explicitly teach and then give students lots of opportunity to practice specific comprehension strategies, their reading comprehension will improve….” This even includes students in the very early years of schooling LINK.  I also talk about what Duke had to say at the What Research says about Reading Instruction session at the 2019 ILA convention.  She said “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.’”  LINK

I also talk about the importance of the Science of Reading Model that Duke helped to create LINK.

I then discuss a few highlights about what P.D. Pearson has to say about the Science of Reading comprehension. When talking to SOR advocates on Twitter, I found many of them liked the Layered Model of Effective Comprehension Instruction that Pearson includes in his YouTube presentation LINK. Perhaps that chart could become an area of common ground.

Pearson also points to studies that demonstrate that reading comprehension is not automatic, even when fluency is strong. I want to point out that Koon, Foorman & Galloway’s 2020 study found that about 1/3 of the students who did not pass the third-grade test were fluent. This indicates that factors other than fluency play a role in students’ comprehension difficulties and that it takes more than just decoding instruction in order to help those students in reading. LINK

Here is a slide about my advice for teaching comprehension strategies.

The bottom line is that just teaching students to name or describe reading strategies is not enough. It is critical that they also learn to internalize and apply comprehension strategies.  Effective comprehension strategy instruction must include the use of a gradual release model. That model must be carried out in a way that results in students internalizing and using the strategies. It is important to check that studies that claim to measure the effect of the teaching of comprehension strategies are transparent about whether the strategies were taught using gradual release. It is also important that the student use of the strategy is authentic. Once they know how to use it, it is far more effective to let them decide when to use it, and to reinforce its use by having students discuss how and when they used the strategy. As critics have pointed out, asking students to use strategies at times when they really don’t need them is a waste of instructional time.


I will have a busy time in the next month or so. I’ll be interviewing Dr. David Andrews from the School of Education, Durham University and Eric Litwin, well-known children’s author and co-author of the book The Power of Joyful Reading LINK. I also have next week’s presentation at LitCon LINK. In addition, I also have upcoming presentations at  Write to Learn LINK, Missouri Early Childhood Conference LINK, and I’ll be doing a webinar for Pioneer Books LINK. Busy times!

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 author’s view and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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