Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?

If time-squeezed teachers fret that the demands of testing have narrowed curriculum to little more than English language arts (ELA) and math, Daniel T. Willingham and Gail Lovette have a suggestion: Free up time by cutting back—way back—on instruction in reading comprehension strategies (RCS). This type of instruction dominates many—probably most—of our elementary schools’ reading curriculum. The basic idea is to arm emerging readers with a collection of tips and tricks—visualize the story in your mind, make predictions as you read, and so on—that mature readers tend to do reflexively, which encourages readers to monitor their comprehension as they read. But reading comprehension is not a “skill” like riding a bike or making free throws in basketball. It’s heavily dependent on the background knowledge readers bring to a text. Thus your ability to make a correct inference when reading about baseball, for example, does not mean you can make correct inferences when reading about a Japanese tea ceremony. There’s no abstract skill called “inferencing” that you can practice, master, and apply with equal effect on whatever you read. This places strict limits on reading strategies. That said, test score gains have long been associated with RCS. “The funny thing about reading comprehension strategy instruction is that it really shouldn’t work, but it does,” the pair note. But once kids get the big idea behind RCS—that a piece of text is trying to tell us something—there’s zero evidence that repeated practice has any beneficial effect. Ten lessons are as good as fifty. “The implication seems obvious,” they conclude. “RCS instruction should be explicit and brief.” Bad news for reading teachers? On the contrary. “To the extent that educators have been devoting time to RCS instruction, they can now focus on other, more fruitful activities, such as generative vocabulary instruction, deep content exploration, and opportunities for reading across genres and content areas.” The bottom line: Reading strategies have limited benefit, but the sky’s the limit for knowledge and vocabulary. “The more students know, the broader the range of texts they can comprehend,” they note. Teachers can’t add hours to the day, but they can enhance the value of instructional time by curtailing the ELA activities that offer the smallest payoff. “Reading comprehension strategy instruction appears to be a particularly good candidate,” they conclude.

SOURCE: Daniel T. Willingham and Gail Lovette, “Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?,” Teachers College Record (September 2014).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.