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Reading Comprehension Strategies

The International Literacy Association (ILA) was kind enough to post my article, “Should We Teach Reading Comprehension Strategies,” so I thought I would share on my own Pennington Publishing Blog. The take-away is that some minimal instruction and practice using the classic reading comprehension strategies: activation of prior knowledge, cause and effect, compare and contrast, fact and opinion, author’s purpose, classify and categorize, drawing conclusions, figurative language, elements of plot, story structure, theme, context clues, point of view, inferences, text structure, characterization, and others is helpful, but not to teach reading comprehension. Teaching these reading strategies has value only in that they serve to help developing readers self-monitor their own comprehension by closely examining the text and developing the author-reader dialog. However, the predominant reading instruction (what teachers should spend most of their time doing) should be teaching the skills that develop  improved reading comprehension. In my mind, the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies (See FREE download below) serve both purposes. The ILA article follows for those interested in the details and the relevant research:

Reading Comprehension Strategies?

Should We Teach Reading Comprehension Strategies?

Reading teachers like to teach. For most of us, that means that we need to have something to share with our students: some concept, some skill, some strategy. To teach content, teachers must be able to define what the content is and is not. Teachers also need to be able to determine how the content is to be taught, practiced, and ultimately mastered. The latter requirement necessitates some form of assessment.

However, teachers do recognize that reading involves things that we can’t teach: in other words, the process of reading. Thinking comes to mind; so does the reader’s self-monitoring of text; and the reader’s connection to personal prior knowledge.

But what about reading comprehension? Is it content or process? Can we teach it, practice it, and master it? Is reading comprehension the result or goal of reading?

Those who hope that comprehension is the result look to fill developing readers with the concepts needed to be learned, such as phonological (phonemic) awareness; the alphabetic principle; reading from left to right; understanding punctuation; and spacing. Teachers also introduce, practice, and assess student mastery of the requisite reading skills, including phonics, syllabication, analogizing, and recognizing whole words by sight. These concepts and skills have a solid research base and a positive correlation with proficient reading comprehension.

Furthermore, these concepts or skills can be clearly defined, taught as discrete components, and assessed to determine mastery.

The same cannot be said for reading comprehension strategies, such as activation of prior knowledge, cause and effect, compare and contrast, fact and opinion, author’s purpose, classify and categorize, drawing conclusions, figurative language, elements of plot, story structure, theme, context clues, point of view, inference categories, text structure, and characterization.

Note that the list does not include summarizing the main idea, making connections, rethinking, interpreting, and predicting. These seem more akin to reader response actions than strategies, per se.

None of the specific reading comprehension strategies has demonstrated statistically significant effects on reading comprehension on its own as a discrete skill. Although plenty of lessons, activities, bookmarks, and worksheets provide some means of how to learn practice, none of these strategies can be taught to mastery, nor accurately assessed.

So, if individual reading comprehension strategies fail to meet the criteria for research-based concepts and skills to improve reading comprehension, should we teach any of them and require our students to practice them?

Yes, but minimally—as process, not content. We need to teach these strategies as being what good readers do as they read. The think-aloud provides an effective means of modeling each reading comprehension strategy. Some practice, such as a read-think-pair-share, makes sense to reinforce what the strategy entails. A brief writing activity, requiring students to apply the strategy, could also be helpful. But minimal instructional  time is key.

Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, suggests that reading comprehension strategies are better thought of as tricks, rather than as skill-builders. They work because they make plain to readers that it’s a good idea to monitor whether they understand as they read.

In other words, teaching a reading comprehension strategy, such as cause and effect, is not a transferable reading skill, which once learned and practiced can be applied to another reading passage by a developing reader. However, when teachers model paying attention to the author’s use of cause and effect in a story or article and have students practice key cause and effect transition words in their own context clue sentences, it’s the analysis of the text and the author’s writing that’s valuable, not the strategy in and of itself.

In fact, a 2014 study by Gail Lovette and Daniel Willingham found three quantitative reviews of reading comprehension strategies instruction in typically developing children and five reviews of studies of at-risk children or those with reading disabilities. All eight reviews reported that reading comprehension strategies instruction boosted reading comprehension, but none reported that practice of such instruction yielded further benefit. The outcome of 10 sessions was the same as the outcome of 50.

So, should we teach reading comprehension strategies? Yes, but as part of the reading process, not as isolated skills with extensive practice. Reading comprehension strategies have their place in beginning reading, content reading, and reading intervention classes, but not as substitutes for reading concepts and skills.


Do teach the reading comprehension strategy “tricks,” but limit instructional time and practice. Focus practice more on the internal monitoring of text, such as with my five SCRIP reading comprehension strategies that teach readers how to independently interact with and understand both narrative and expository text to improve reading comprehension. The SCRIP acronym stands for Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

I just visited your website and, oh my, I actually felt my heart leap with joy! I am working with one class of ESL students and two classes of Read 180 students with behavior issues and have been struggling to find methods to address their specific areas of weakness. I am also teaching three senior level English classes and have found them to have serious deficits in many critical areas that may impact their success if they are attending college level courses in a year’s time. I have been trying to find a way to help all of them in specific and measurable ways – and I found you! I just wanted to thank you for creating these explicit and extensive resources for students in need. Thank you!

Cathy Ford

By the way, I got Sam and Friends a few weeks ago, and I love it. I teach ESL in S Korea. Phonics is poorly taught here, so teaching phonics means going back to square one. Fortunately, Sam and Friends does that and speeds up pretty quickly. I also like that I can send it home and not charge the parents – we all love that.  I like it a lot! It’s also not about something stupid, like cats and dogs. 

Joseph Curd

I work with a large ELL population at my school.Through my research in best practices, I know that spelling patterns and word study are so important. However, I just couldn’t find anything out there that combines the two. The grade level spelling program and remediation are perfect for my students. 


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