ReThinking Reading Comprehension

The primary objective of reading is comprehending what is being read. Although reading instruction may focus on other aspects of reading, for example phonemic awareness, vocabulary acquisition, or decoding skills, the goal of with one’s engagement with a text is comprehension. Readers brings to the reading event their cognitive capabilities, purposes for reading, knowledge of language and the world, and prior experiences. Readers draw upon these resources to make sense of the texts they encounter.
In addition, other factors play a prominent role in reading comprehension; the text being read, the context of the reading event, both immediate and socio-cultural contexts, and the purpose or goals for reading. Reading does not take place in a vacuum. The author of a text, the context of the reading event and the reasons one reads all play a role in reading comprehension.
It was once assumed that reading comprehension was simply a combination of decoding and oral comprehension skills. That is, if readers could decode the words on the page, they would be able to listen, or monitor, what was being read to themselves, and understand what they were reading. However, contemporary research in reading comprehension has made clear that understanding what one reads involves more than decoding and oral language comprehension. Just because readers can decode the words does not mean that they have understood what they have read. In fact, as readers progress into more complex texts, their ability to decode becomes less and less an indicator of their ability to comprehend.
What Do Proficient Readers Do?
The research on reading comprehension and the comprehension strategies used by proficient readers conducted by Michael Pressley and P. David Pearson, among others, has shown that readers that comprehend:
·      are active processors of text
·      connect texts to their experiences and prior knowledge
·      set expectations or goals for their reading
·      attend to the elements and structures of literature
·      monitor their understandings
·      ask questions of the text as they read
·      preview or skim texts before reading
·      attend to vocabulary
·      are able to articulate and negotiate meaning
·      construct meaning as they read through texts
·      read selectively, choosing texts that serve their goals and purposes

What is the History of Research on Reading Comprehension Instruction?
In a classic study on comprehension instruction conducted by Dolores Durkin (1978-1979), Durkin demonstrated that classroom teachers were rarely, if ever, teaching comprehension strategies. Unfortunately, her research ascertained that classroom teachers spent a great deal of time assessing comprehension by asking questions at the end of each reading selection, rather than demonstrating comprehension strategies used by proficient readers. What was once considered instruction in reading comprehension, was exposed as assessment in reading comprehension.
Since Durkin’s study, research on explicit instruction in reading comprehension has increased dramatically. In the 1990s, Michael Pressley and colleagues conducted research that confirmed Durkin’s findings, namely that teachers were not offering explicit instruction in comprehension strategies. This realization was surprising given the overwhelming evidence gathered by numerous researchers investigating reading comprehension instruction. Research on reading comprehension, primarily focusing on cognitive aspects of the reading process, has demonstrated that teaching the reading comprehension strategies used by proficient readers to novice or less successful readers improves their reading comprehension abilities (Braunger & Lewis, 1997; Dole et al., 1991; Kucan & Beck, 1997; Pressley, 2000).
Since the 1990s, based on the research focusing on explicit reading comprehension instruction, there has been increased attention on reading strategy instruction, resulting in numerous publications designed to help classroom teachers teach reading comprehension strategies. The publication of Mosaic of Thought (Keene & Zimmerman, 1997) invited teachers to reflect on the nature of their reading comprehension instruction and launched the publication of numerous teacher professional development materials that focused on effective reading comprehension instruction (see references).
What is Reading Comprehension?
            As previously mentioned, reading comprehension is more than a combination of decoding and oral comprehension skills. Reading comprehension is the process of constructing meaning in transaction with texts in a social context. All four components, the text, the author, the reader, and the context play an important role in the reading event; the text presenting the written language of the author, the reader constructing meaning based on their knowledge of language and written texts, the author as constructor of the text, and the world, and the context providing the purpose for reading and expectations of or for the reader.
            Reading comprehension is affected by other factors, including, vocabulary knowledge, reading fluency, decoding abilities, and the readers’ previous experiences and knowledge of the world and written language. It is a complex process that involves the construction of meaning and the interactions of texts, readers, authors, contexts and purposes.
What are the Components of Effective Comprehension Instruction?
            Fielding and Pearson (1994) described four primary components of effective comprehension instruction: a) time to read and engage with texts, b) explicit instruction in comprehension strategies, c) opportunities for peers to collaborate while reading, and d) time to respond to and discuss what readers are reading. These four components, when combined with a supportive classroom environment, a model of effective comprehension instruction, access to quality reading materials, attention to students’ motivations to read, and assessment that supports teaching and learning, are the basis of effective literacy instruction (Duke & Pearson, 2002).
            Based on a Gradual Release of Responsibility Model of Instruction (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983), reading comprehension instruction involves the direct explanation and demonstration of comprehension strategies, the opportunities to apply these strategies with teacher guidance, the use of these strategies during independent reading and opportunities to reflect on how the strategies worked (Serafini, 2004).
What is Explicit about Explicit Comprehension Instruction?
            Most research and professional development materials that focus on comprehension instruction, refers to the most effective type of instruction as “explicit” instruction. Explicit instruction refers to instruction that is:
·      deliberate – unambiguous purposes and objectives for the instruction
·      responsive – instructional content is based on the needs, interests and abilities of the reader
·      clear- language of instruction is clear, not redundant, and makes sense to the learner
·      relevant – the purpose for the instruction relates to the lives and interests of the student
·      evidence-based – the instruction is based on sound evidence of its effectiveness

Explicit instruction is based on a relationship established between the teacher and learner, and does not require a script to be explicit. The role of explicit instruction is to provide demonstrations of the strategies proficient readers use, call readers’ attention to the aspects of text and reading comprehension, and make reading processes “visible” so that novice readers can acquire the requisite strategies.
What Strategies Should Be Taught?
            Most research on comprehension strategies refers to the following seven strategies: 1) summarizing, 2) predicting, 3) visualizing, 4) monitoring understanding, 5) asking questions, 6) determining importance, and 7) drawing inferences. Along with these cognitive strategies, various literary strategies, for example attending to the interplay between text and illustrations, understanding characters’ motives, and attending to the structures and elements of literature should be addressed. Critical literacy strategies, for example, addressing issues of social justice, uncovering stereotypes, questioning whom is marginalized by the text, and disrupting commonly held assumptions, are also important to be included in reading comprehension instruction.
Some Concluding Thoughts
            Reading comprehension instruction must focus on developing the strategies readers draw upon to comprehend what they read. Because of this, all reading instructional practices should be conducted “in service of meaning” (Serafini, 2006). In other words, whether teachers are working on decoding skills, developing readers’ vocabularies, teaching readers to visualize or predict, or how to choose an appropriate text for independent reading, the objective of these lessons should be constructing meaning in transaction with the texts students are reading. Teachers cannot sit back idly by and hope that readers are making sense of what they read. The research is overwhelmingly in favor of direct explanation and instruction in comprehension strategies. It is the role of the classroom teacher to demonstrate what proficient readers do when they read, provide opportunities for readers to acquire appropriate reading comprehension strategies, and listen and observe readers to determine how they are using these strategies to make sense of what they read.
Braunger, J., & Lewis, J. P. (1997). Building a knowledge base in reading. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
Dole, J., Duffy, G., Roehler, L., & Pearson, P. D. (1991). Moving form the old to the new: Research on reading comprehension instruction. Review of Educational Research, 61, 239-264.
Duke, N., & Pearson, D. P. (2002). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. In A. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (pp. 205-242). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Durkin, D. (1978-1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 14(4), 481-553.
Fielding, L., & Pearson, D. P. (1994). Reading comprehension: What works. Educational Leadership, 51(5), 62-67.
Keene, E. O., & Zimmerman, S. (1997). Mosaic of thought: Teaching comprehension in a reader's workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kucan, L., & Beck, I. (1997). Thinking aloud and reading comprehension research: Inquiry, instruction, and social interaction. Review of Educational Research, 67(3), 271-299.
Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.
Pressley, M. (2000). What should comprehension instruction be the instruction of? In M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. III, pp. 545-561). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Serafini, F. (2004). Lessons in comprehension: Explicit instruction in the reading workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Serafini, F. (2006). Around the reading workshop in 180 days: A month by month guide to quality instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


  1. English-language arts teachers and reading experts certainly agree that "into" activities help facilitate reading comprehension. Additionally, teachers need to use "through" activities to assist students in reading “between the lines.” However, at the "beyond" stage many English-language arts teachers and reading experts will part ways. Check out why at
    Into, Through, but Not Beyond.


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