What if the point of comprehension instruction isn’t really comprehension? Wait, hear us out. What if there is something more than simply working to understand a text? Like you, we spend a lot of time trying to ensure that students are able to understand what they read. We’re not saying that is unimportant. But our thinking has changed about the goals for comprehension instruction. To cut to the chase, the goal of comprehension instruction could be for students to do something that matters with the information they have gained. In other words, they should take action in the world and use their understanding to do something they care about. Of course, that requires that they understand the text. Therefore, it starts with skills but does not end there.
There are three aspects of comprehension instruction that we believe are necessary to impact students’ thinking. As Hattie and Donoghue (2016) noted, instructional strategies can be organized in terms of skill, will, and thrill. We believe that three-part model applies to comprehension as well.
- The skill of comprehending. There are a number of skills necessary for students to comprehend a text. Students have to decode the words, mapping sounds onto the letters they see. There is a science for doing so. As Paris (2005) noted, there are constrained and unconstrained skills. Some of the skills required in reading top out, meaning that once they are learned there is no additional room to grow. Phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency fall into this category. Think about it this way: at some point you are reading fast enough with good accuracy and prosody. Reading faster would not help you. There are other skills, including vocabulary and comprehension that continue to expand across our lives. These are the unconstrained skills of comprehension because there is not boundary.
- Unfortunately, too often this is where comprehension instruction falls off. Students are taught constrained skills as well as vocabulary and comprehension strategies. Teachers attempt to build and activate background knowledge, recognizing that what we already know impacts our ability to understand what we read. But then, when confronted with a new text, readers struggle. And often the solution is to return to skills. But what if that’s not the issue? What if there is more to reading comprehension than strategies that are supposed to work?
- The will of comprehending. Beyond skill, there is a need to attend to the will to read. And more of us are now paying attention to the role of motivation and engagement in reading. We recognize that interests, relevance, and choice impact comprehension. And we recognize that making reading relevant for students is an important dimension of our work. Thankfully, there are a lot of people studying the will to read who have noted that self-concept plays a role as does the value that the person places on reading. In other words, students’ beliefs, values, and goals are some of the primary “drivers” of their motivation to read. Interestingly, reading motivation declines over the school years.
- Unfortunately, this research has generated a number of reward programs that focus on stickers and points for reading, as well as some suggestions that students should just read whatever they want. Choice matters, but we recognize that we don’t always have the choice and sometimes we need to read and understand things that impact our lives. And sometimes we read things that we did not choose and end up learning a lot in the process. When another person helps us see the relevance of the reading, the will to read increases. Those other people can be teachers, family members, or peers. Skill coupled with will is important, but not sufficient.
- The thrill of reading comprehension. An often–neglected area of reading comprehension is the thrill that comes from reading and understanding a text. In fact, many classrooms have no structures in place to ensure that students experience this thrill. Richard Anderson (personal communication, June 30, 2018), a pioneer in reading research, argued that we needed new metaphors for the purpose, or thrill, of reading, such as storyteller, explainer, or arguer. What if students were able to select roles for their reading and then do things that they care about? Imagine having read a text and being asked, “What does the text inspire you to do?” and then being given choices about what you are able to do, such additional research, a presentation, writing, engaging in a debate, making a movie, or any other of a host of options. Imagine taking it even further and being encouraged to do something that matters based on your reading of the text. Taking action. Acting upon the world. Doing something you care about.
Skills are important, but not enough to ensure that students develop the ability to comprehend complex texts. They are not enough to create readers that use the knowledge they gain from reading. And they are not enough to ensure that our students are able to engage in civic discourse, using evidence and stories to convey their thinking. Yes, we need a new model of reading comprehension instruction that invites students to take action in the world based on what they have read and understood. And that allows us to come full circle, as young people realize that in doing so they can better to accomplish their dreams.
Hattie, J.A.C., & Donoghue, G.M. (2016). Learning strategies: A synthesis and conceptual model. NPJ Science of Learning, 1, article 16013. https://doi.org/10.1038/npjscilearn.2016.13
Paris, S.G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 184–202. https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.40.2.3