Yesterday I argued that the knowledge readers bring to a text is essential to reading comprehension. But does even a knowledgeable reader comprehend automatically? Mustn’t the reader apply comprehension strategies to extract meaning from the text? The short answer is that teaching students comprehension strategies does help, but too much time is currently devoted to them.
Reading comprehension strategies include things like question generation (students are taught to generate questions about a text and then answer them) comprehension monitoring (students are taught to become aware of when they do not understand), and summarization (students are taught techniques to summarize meaning). Often, multiple strategies are taught.
The National Reading Panel reviewed 205 studies examining the effectiveness of teaching students reading strategies, and there is little doubt that they help, and that the effect is sizable.
There are two aspects of the data which deserve special attention because they hold implications for classroom application. First, the effects of teaching students reading strategies are weak or absent before the third grade. This finding is readily understandable—students are still learning to decode, and simply can’t juggle in mind the tasks of decoding, comprehending, and trying to implement a strategy. It’s only when decoding has become fluid so that the reader doesn’t need to think about it much that enough mental space is free to accommodate a strategy.
Second, when it comes to teaching students to use reading strategies, shorter programs seem just as effective as longer programs. This finding is crucial, because it ought to make us think differently about what reading strategies actually do. It’s natural to think that strategies improve the reader’s skill in extracting meaning from a text. But if that were true then more practice ought to make you better at it. Instead, comprehension strategies feel less like a skill and more like a trick—something like “check your work” in mathematics. It’s a very smart thing to do, and students should be explicitly taught to do it, but it doesn’t require extensive practice.
What might the trick of comprehension strategies be? A good guess is that they encourage students to think differently about reading. There is so much emphasis on decoding in early reading instruction (as there must be) that it is understandable that a student might think “If I’ve decoded, then I’ve read it.” But an adult knows that if you get to the bottom of a page and don’t know what you’ve read, you haven’t really read it, even if you’ve decoded everything. That conception of reading—that the point is communication—must click for students, and comprehension strategies may have most of their impact in getting students to think about reading as something they do to understand. Once they understand that, most of what comprehension strategies advise is something that students will do naturally: try to find the main idea, check your own comprehension, and so on.
The bottom line is that teaching comprehension strategies is a good idea, but it appears to be a one-time boost. There is no evidence that more practice yields more benefit. More information on this subject can be found here: http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/winter06-07/CogSci.pdf