Content or Strategies?
It’s generally accepted these days that the best way to teach reading comprehension is to focus on the strategies good readers use to make sense of text. In fact, I call comprehension strategies the “superpowers of reading.”
But a 2009 study reported that a group of Grade 5 students who received instruction focusing on the content of the text actually had slightly better comprehension than comparable students who received strategy-based instruction. Content instruction used open-ended, meaning-based questions about the text to focus student attention on the material. In strategy instruction, students were taught specific procedures to guide their access to text during reading.
I know that strategy instruction can lose its effectiveness when it’s not linked to content; for example, even large-scale assessments sometimes ask questions that students can answer quite competently without understanding the text very deeply, such as “What would you do if you were the character?” or “What does this remind you of in your own life?”
On the other hand, I think it’s quite difficult to answer content-based questions without using the language of strategies; for example, “What can you infer about the character from his actions?”or “What’s this chapter all about?” or “How does what you read in previously connect with what you’re reading now?” (an actual example from the Beck and McKeown study).
It seems to me that to get the most bang from our pedagogical buck, we need to address the reading process (i.e., strategies) within the context of specific text. We shouldn’t invite students to draw conclusions without requiring them to provide specific support from the text. When we ask students to give the gist of what they’ve read, it’s also a good idea to teach them how and why readers summarize what they read. We can build the language of strategic reading into discussions of specific texts; for example, What can you infer about this character by his actions? What do you predict he is going to do next? Why do you think so?
When a text is easy to read or we have plenty of background knowledge, then we don’t need strategies; comprehension is pretty much automatic. But it’s when the reading is difficult that we need to have a repertoire of strategies to draw on in order to be able to tackle the tough texts.
If our goal is for our students to understand one particular reading passage, we need to hone in on what that passage means. But if our goal is for our students to build the capacity to understand other reading when we’re not around to guide them, we need to address reading strategies as well.