Don't Stop Teaching Comprehension--Just Embed It in Content
Weaving reading comprehension techniques into instruction in social studies or science could provide a big boost to learning.
Teaching comprehension “skills and strategies” divorced from content—the standard approach—doesn’t work. But teaching students to use those techniques in the context of history and other subjects can have powerful effects.
The supposed comprehension skills that schools spend many hours on every week range from “finding the main idea” to “comparing and contrasting” to “determining the author’s purpose.” But one study showed that students had no trouble applying these kinds of skills to texts that were easy. When a text was difficult, those students were suddenly unable to use them.
One authority on reading, Dr. Timothy Shanahan, has used that data to cast doubt on whether things like “finding the main idea” are really skills at all. “An odd kind of skill the performance of which is totally dependent on the contexts in which it is used,” Shanahan has written. He has a point. If you’re skilled at riding a bike, you don’t suddenly lose that skill when you switch to a different bike or road. Not to mention that the overwhelming focus on comprehension skills in the vast majority of American elementary schools—and often beyond—has failed to boost reading test scores.
At the same time, Shanahan argues that comprehension strategies—techniques that lead readers to monitor their understanding of a text—are fundamentally different, pointing to the body of research showing their effectiveness. But, as I explained in a previous post, there are basic similarities between skills and strategies—including the fact that they’ll only help students who have enough background knowledge and familiarity with the conventions of written language to understand a text at least at a superficial level. As with comprehension skills, then, a reader’s ability to apply a strategy will depend “on the contexts in which it is used.”
Does that mean we should ignore the evidence that teaching strategies can boost comprehension? No. Nor should we dismiss all skills instruction as useless. Rather than thinking of things like “finding the main idea” as “skills,” it would make more sense to view them as habits: they won’t work in all situations, but it’s not a bad idea to have students remember to give them a try.
The same goes for strategies. Both techniques ask students to engage in thought processes that can be extremely helpful. If a teacher in a world history class has students read a passage on, say, the Ming Dynasty and then asks them to summarize it (a strategy), or find the main idea (a skill), that activity can reveal students’ misunderstandings, prod them to analyze what they’ve read, and make it more likely they’ll absorb and retain the information.
But skills and strategies are almost always taught in isolation from content, in a “reading” class. The topics of the readings are disconnected—the solar system today, sea mammals tomorrow—because the goal is that students learn the skill or strategy rather than any particular content. While Shanahan urges that students should demonstrate they understand whatever content they’re using to practice the strategy, teachers have been trained to believe that’s unnecessary. In any event, most of the time students aren’t even reading the same books; they get a choice, from an assortment determined to be at their individual “reading levels.” That makes it difficult if not impossible for a teacher with a class of 25 to figure out who has absorbed what content.
Incorporate strategy instruction into content areas
Why not just incorporate skills and strategy instruction into substantive subjects like history, science, literature, and the arts? When I put that question to a reading authority who is also a college professor, he merely shrugged and said he doubted it would work. He explained that you would be asking students to learn two things at the same time—the content and the skill or strategy.
But I found one study suggesting students are perfectly capable of doing that. Seventh-graders who were taught the strategy of self-questioning in a social studies class—using their regular textbook—demonstrated better comprehension of the content than a control group and also seemed to learn the strategy. While the study didn’t look at whether students maintained their knowledge of the strategy over time, 88% of those who had been taught the strategy said it helped them remember what they read. All the students who felt that way remembered one or more steps of the strategy, 95% remembered two or more steps, and 73% remembered all the steps. Those results came after only twenty minutes of strategy instruction on each of three days.
A similar study that included English language learners and native English speakers also found positive effects for strategy instruction embedded in social studies content. Students in grades six and seven were given instruction in strategies such as generating text-based questions. Sixth-graders in both groups increased their comprehension of history texts—on topics they had not been taught—and their general reading comprehension. Among seventh-graders, students learning English increased their history reading comprehension.
Another argument for context-free strategy instruction, put forward by Shanahan, is that the objective is to enable students to understand texts for which they don’t have background knowledge. If you teach strategies in the context of, say, a history class, students will already have that knowledge. If they’re reading about Reconstruction, they’ll presumably already have at least learned about the Civil War.
But there’s evidence suggesting that kids learn strategies better in the context of a subject they already know something about. In one study, 4th and 5th-grade boys who were poor readers were divided into two groups. One group was taught the strategy of asking “why” questions in the context of stories about baseball—a subject in which all boys in the study were experts—while the other was taught the same strategy with non-baseball stories. The group given baseball stories learned the strategies more easily and were more likely to use them independently later on. The reason, researchers hypothesized, is that when kids are reading about a topic they’re familiar with, they have more cognitive capacity available to acquire the strategies—a conclusion that aligns well with general theories about cognitive load.
Use writing strategies to improve comprehension
Another effective approach is to teach writing strategies that are embedded in the content of the curriculum and begin at the sentence level. That instruction improves students’ writing, an area where proficiency levels have hovered at only about 25% on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But it can also help with reading. As with strategy instruction explicitly focused on reading, writing-strategy instruction that is linked to specific content can build the knowledge that is an essential component of comprehension. It’s also a powerful way of familiarizing students with the conventions of written language, another necessity. Not to mention that many writing strategies—summarizing, for example—parallel those directed at reading comprehension. (Disclosure: I’m the co-author of a book setting out that kind of method of writing instruction, The Writing Revolution.)
There may well be more studies supporting the idea of embedding skills-and-strategies instruction in the content of the curriculum—I did only a cursory search. In any event, there should be. It may be that the evidence appears to support teaching strategies in isolation from content merely because that’s the way most studies have been structured. Relying on those studies alone to say that’s the best way to do it—and to do it day after day, year after year, in a world where such instruction has virtually eliminated social studies and science in many schools—makes no sense. It’s as though doctors, relying on studies showing a daily glass of red wine is beneficial, advised all their patients to drink at least a bottle a day while ignoring everything else that contributes to longevity.
The abundance of data on teaching decontextualized strategies certainly isn’t the only reason American schools have adopted that approach. Teacher training and our system of testing bear a lot of the responsibility, along with curriculum publishers. But evidence demonstrating the benefits of weaving comprehension techniques into content could help steer the American education system away from its current disastrous course.
Especially during a global pandemic, I don’t mean to question the value of science—only to point out that the way scientific research is structured can lead us to overlook factors that are hugely important. Two or three centuries ago, the state of science was such that all illness was thought to stem from an imbalance in the body’s “humors.” Doctors treated yellow fever with remedies we now recognize as worse than the disease, while ignoring what to us is an obvious cause: the mosquitoes that transmit it. Perhaps someday, people will look back at the teaching of “skills and strategies” in isolation from content—a practice that condemns millions of children to academic failure—and shake their heads at all that we overlooked.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a slightly different form.