Why Your Students May Not Be Learning to Comprehend

  • 06 March, 2021

Teacher question:

"My district is trying to shift literacy instruction to be in line with the science of reading. We are wondering where comprehension strategies fit into Scarborough’s Reading Rope? Inferences and making connections are part of Verbal Reasoning, but what about other skills my students still need to be taught, like understanding and using text structure, summarizing, visualizing, questioning? There is much research to support explicit instruction in comprehension strategies, so where do they fit?  Also, even when our teachers do a good job of scaffolding students’ comprehension of complex text, our at-risk students struggle to independently process texts on tests and with grade-level classroom assignments. What else should we be doing?

Shanahan responds: 

Any model is a simplification and what gets emphasized may shift over time. Hollis Scarborough’s rope (2001) is no exception.

You’re correct that the rope does not include a strand for comprehension strategies though it does indicate that reading comprehension becomes increasingly strategic with development (just as word recognition becomes increasingly automatic).

However, don’t despair.

In her later writings, Scarborough (e.g., Cutting & Scarborough, 2012) explains that reading comprehension includes “executive functioning,” which would be an important strand in that reading rope. Executive function – according to Scarborough, and many other scientists— encompasses working memory, planning, organization, self-monitoring, and similar abilities. She explicitly says that executive functioning involves the ability to use those comprehension strategies studied by the National Reading Panel.

In other words, your school is using an outdated or incomplete version of Scarborough’s model; one that omits a strand that Scarborough – and the science of reading — have found to be fundamental and essential to proficient reading.

Unfortunately, that omission is consistent with the zeitgeist of our time. Many folks, these days, want to relegate comprehension strategies to the ash heap of history. An out-of-date or incomplete model that leaves them out may be reassuring to them.

What do I make of Executive Functioning?

Well, first it requires intentionality… it’s the part of our mind (not brain) that takes agency, that tries to accomplish things, that aims at goals. Too often we treat reading comprehension as if it operated mainly through automaticity – arising spontaneously from reading the words.

But to comprehend we must focus on the ideas. Research reveals that adults often “read” text without attention to meaning. Haven’t you ever found yourself on page 24, not knowing how you got there? This happens with young kids, too, who may get absorbed in reading a text fluently rather than trying to gain information. Reading with the aim of understanding the text is under the control of that little guy in your head wearing the EF (executive functioning) sweatshirt.

Of course, if a text is relatively easy and you’re not too distracted, Mr./Ms. EF doesn’t have much to do. Other times, EF has to get off his/her duff and expend more effort.

That’s where reading comprehension strategies are supposed to come in. Strategies are actions we take to try to solve a problem. Several strategies have been found to improve reading comprehension. For example, summarizing has been lauded in many studies. Students who stop occasionally to sum up what the text has said so far tend to end up with higher comprehension. That makes sense. Anyone who is summarizing along the way is going to spend more time thinking about the ideas in the text than those who just read it; and that repeated rehearsal of ideas can help move them into long term memory.

 That’s how strategies work. They guide the reader to pay attention or to manage memory in ways that increase learning.

That some strategies -- summarization, self-questioning, visualization, using text structure, and so on – have been researched can foster the mistaken impression that strategies are a rather static set of steps that automatically enhances reading comprehension.

That’s unfortunate because strategy use needs to be flexible, suitable to a reader’s goals, the demands of a specific text, and the actual problems being confronted.

Right now, I’m reading what for me is a particularly hard book, Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson. In each chapter, Empson provides a complex and subtle claim about a type of ambiguity he believes is evident in literature. He then provides quotations from poems that supposedly illustrate this form of ambiguity and takes the reader through a mind-numbingly intensive exploration of the vocabulary and syntax of the poem to reveal the role ambiguity plays in literary interpretation.

By the time I’ve read 2-3 pages, my head is spinning. Each part of his argument is so demanding that I lose sight of any connections among them. The four possible meanings of a word may be compelling but by the time I’ve come to terms with them, I’ve totally lost sense Empson’s overall argument. I find myself saying, “I understand that example, but what in the heck is this an example of?”

Picture walks, predictions, visualization and the like would be of no help – and I suspect that’s often how kids feel about their strategy lessons. The comprehension problems I face with this particular text are individual and specific, requiring individual and specific responses. A major barrier in this case is the need to connect ideas that are not obviously connected. This requires a series of strategic steps – rereading, ignoring, moving information into parallel, and so on. You can say that’s a “drawing connections” strategy, but it is certainly not generic.

Students should be taught reading strategies as part of their reading comprehension instruction. But those strategies need to be more purposeful and dynamic than is often envisaged. We need to promote a desire to understand.

The fundamental basis of successful strategy use needs to be an acceptance of the premise that we are trying to know the information in the texts that we read, and that such understanding will not always come easily. When that is the case, we need to make an effort to accomplish it.

With some texts, reading and thinking about the information may be all that is needed. In other cases, we have to try to solve the problems. Those problems may be linguistic (e.g., breaking down a sentence, looking up a definition), organizational (e.g., trying to use the author’s plan to connect ideas appropriate), or conceptual (e.g., connecting the ideas with prior knowledge)so we need to be flexible and responsive.

I said executive functioning is intentional. It is also self-conscious. Good readers are self-aware. They monitor their own understanding. That’s what allows them to make choices to solve the problems.

Too often we have kids practice reading comprehension with relatively easy texts. We guide them through the mindless application of some pre-packaged strategies (mindless in that the students aren’t making choices or responding to the actual demands of the text but are just doing an activity that the teacher is orchestrating).

Those guided reading lessons may appear to be beneficial, since even the low readers appear to understand the texts by the end of the lesson. That supposed success may be more the result of the teacher or other students exposing or revealing information from the text that the low readers weren’t gaining on their own. (That may be why the low readers do fine in your reading group, but not so much in more independent reading situations).

Of course, the texts that we use for such guided reading lessons have usually been selected with the idea of minimizing comprehension problems, rather than trying to expose students to them. To my way of thinking, it’s better to more planfully confront students with potential barriers so they can learn to surmount them.

If you think about it, much of what we do to teach comprehension appears more aimed at developing automaticity than making one’s executive function more flexible and strategic. Keeping difficulty levels low, doing lots of repetitive practice, minimizing conscious decisions, ignoring reflection, and so on can have value in teaching word recognition skills.

Those lesson features are the opposite of what is needed for teaching students how to gain meaning from complex text. Comprehension instruction needs to nurture (1) an intense desire to know, (2) an ability to flexibly take intentional actions towards that goal, and (3) a self-awareness of one’s degree of success in accomplishing it.

That means placing a heavy emphasis on the learning and use of ideas in text even during the reading comprehension lessons. That means creating situations that could lead to failed efforts to comprehend (through the texts and tasks we assign). If the reading is kept relatively easy, then there is neither any reason to develop a strategic repertoire, nor any purpose for reflection or rereading to evaluate the effectiveness of one’s choices or the nature of the difficulties that the text posed.


Cutting, L.E., & Scarborough, H.S. (2012). Multiple bases for comprehension difficulties: The potential of cognition and neurobiological profiling for validation of subtypes and development of assessments. In J.P. Sabatini, T. O’Reilly, & E.R. Albro (Eds.), Reaching an understanding: Innovations in how we view reading assessment. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Education.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sierra Walker
Mar 25, 2021 12:37 AM

I like that you feel that brought to attention that reading comprehension assignments are often chosen because they are “keeping difficulty levels low, doing lots of repetitive practice, minimizing conscious decisions, ignoring reflection, and so on can have value in teaching word recognition skills.” It is alright to provide challenging texts with the knowledge that some students may struggle with the comprehension because that is how they will learn to re-read, question, reflect and evaluate. These are all comprehension strategies that students need to have in order to progress through to gain meaning from complex texts. I am currently learning various strategies to help with fluency and reading comprehension. Most of what I am studying points to using challenging texts with students that “need” to be challenged. Keeping in mind what you said about re-reading, questioning, reflecting and evaluating, I feel it will be important to integrate meaningful and challenging texts into my lessons and to use flexible strategies that are suitable to the reader’s goals and that work with the specific texts that are being read by the students.

Deborah Corvelo
Mar 28, 2021 06:36 PM

After reading these comments (I have not extensively read the research) was there an age difference in the research success of either the comprehension instruction or discussion based instruction? At what age would explicit strategy instruction make the most sense?

Mar 06, 2021 07:34 PM

There are many neurocognitive processes that go into reading comprehension and I love the way you discuss intentionality. Eileen Marzola breaks the executive function piece down for students in a "Think Before. Think Along. Think After" sequence that encourages components you mentioned. The reflection and questioning components that go on during the reading do support making connections a and moving the meaning toward long term memory. We may not realize though, how much of those elements must be supported by language. The student with language based learning deficits may not be able to re-verbalize, summarize or reimagine these components easily. We need to encourage pausing, reflecting and re-verbalizing so that the meaning can be discerned.

Jane Offutt
Mar 06, 2021 08:06 PM

Comprehension monitoring is an important neurocognitive process. It can be taught with immediate feedback and direct instruction (re-read the passage. To learn more about comprehension monitoring, go to www.accomplishonline.com.

Joan Sedita
Mar 06, 2021 08:07 PM

Thanks Tim for addressing this question, a topic I've focused on for over 40 years, initially through teaching struggling students and then by providing PD to teachers. I'm thanking you (1) for reminding everyone that comprehension strategies should be taught, despite the recent trend by some to as you put it "want to relegate comprehension strategies to the ash heap of history," (2) for emphasizing that strategies are not a simple set of static steps that automatically enhance reading comprehension, and (3) for emphasizing that comprehension strategies need to be taught using challenging text.

In addition to teaching the research supported strategies you mentioned (summarizing, generating questions, using text structure clues, etc.), teachers also need to be explicitly teaching, with modeling, close reading skills such as how the author used vocabulary, syntax and organization (see this blog post: https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/close-reading-elementary-grades-k-5/ ). This combination of strategy instruction and close reading modeling, using challenging text is what's needed to get beyond the static steps that you mentioned and for students to be more purposeful and dynamic in their use. And this instruction needs to be delivered by teachers of all subjects, using challenging content-based text for practice.

Also glad that you brought up the role that executive functions play in supporting critical thinking and reading for meaning. I've found that a big part of what makes the application of comprehension strategies useful for students is that they "push" them to be metacognitive, i.e., to stop and reflect on what they are reading and put that information into their own words. I have found that two-column note taking in particular fosters metacognition: Students pause at the end of every paragraph or two and identify stated and unstated big ideas in the text (left column) and relevant details (right column), and they must paraphrase this information in their own words (see this blog post: https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/explicit-instruction-of-note-taking-skills/ ). I also find the use of a top-down topic web helpful for supporting metacognition, but also to help students see the organization, or schema, for the text (see this blog post: https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/great-powerful-topic-web/ )

The last comment I'll make is related to the teacher's question about Scarborough's Reading Rope -- that comprehension strategies are not specifically listed. The rope is intended to identify the complexities involved in reading. Your point that executive functions is missing fits in with that. However, I don't believe it was intended to identify what should be taught, which is why it makes sense that instruction for comprehension strategies might not be included in the rope.

Jake Downs
Mar 06, 2021 09:11 PM

Home run! I like Scarborough's Rope, but it isn't necessarily comprehensive. Reading strategies are a fantastic way to support reading comprehension, and its unfortunate there is so much negativity the topic these days. Just because strategies are being used ineffectively in some situations does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water. We can tell when our strategy instruction works; it's when students are understanding the text.

Mar 06, 2021 09:59 PM

Tell me your thoughts on this. The biggest obstacle I see right now in public education from kinder up is the idea that SSR builds comprehension: the idea that the more you read, the more you build your comprehension.

My anecdotal evidence tells me that kids do learn knowledge from reading and love to read books they pick out. BUT I see a lot of kids get really frustrated when the reading is challenging. If a book or article is too difficult or requires thinking, they immediately throw their hands up in defeat.

Obviously, I work through this challenge as a teacher, but what are your thoughts on this?

Tim Shanahan
Mar 07, 2021 01:19 AM

I’ve often written about SSR. Bad idea if the goal is to improve reading achievement.


arona gvaryahu
Mar 07, 2021 02:08 AM

Thank you for reiterating these important points - i totally understand the idea that strategies may not work. Strategies support skills based knoweldge and sometimes, it is with the strategies that we manage to get our avoiders to approach a text and get to work. Often however, the strategies are worked through mechanically, thus some of the questions may be answered correctly, but rarely is there a sense of comprehension of a whole , or the ability to properly explain what was read, even in sections or in pieces. The combination and the recognition of the importance of working memory- and perhaps as teacher- guides for our struggling readers we can enhance those skills and lead our students into greater and more complete processing and comprehension of the texts they tangle with or prefer to avoid.

Maggie Oliver
Mar 07, 2021 08:13 PM

For those who teach students with ADHD, autism, and many other diagnoses, executive function challenges are common. Think of planning, organization, impulse control, initiation--our students with EF difficulties are going to need the support for reading comprehension and for life comprehension. It's a tall order. The more you understand EF, the more effective and focused you can be to support your students who have those challenges. Thank you, Dr. Shanahan, for today's insights.

Fiona Walker
Mar 08, 2021 01:01 AM

This is a super piece, Tim - very helpful! I love the idea of intentionality and have been promoting metacognition in reading with this in mind. The connection to executive function is excellent. From my work in neuroscience I came to the conclusion that an understanding of executive function and how it applies to attitudes and practice in education was going to be a big game changer. What you say here is a good example of how we can update our thinking about comprehension strategies. The notion of desirable difficulty is also a good one. As you say, there is no point teaching comprehension strategies with easy texts. Scopes and sequences of strategies or commercial programs make no sense either as appropriate strategies will vary text to text eg visualising may be extremely helpful when reading a poem or narrative but it may be that synthesising is the best go-to in texts of multiple sections. Strategy use is also likely to differ person to person according to the resources the reader brings to the text.

Mar 08, 2021 12:37 PM

Hi Tim,

1) First, do you recommend strategy instruction to be introduced to students with examples using short texts?

2) Second, In the book Robust Comprehension Instruction with Questioning the Author, it says that some researchers have questioned the necessity of employing specific strategies if the goal of reading as an active search for meaning could be kept in mind. The research that supports this is listed as: Carver, 1987; Dole, Dufy, Roehler, & Pearson, 1991; Pearson & Fielding, 1991 and McKeown, Beck, & Blake, 2009. Is this research part of the zeitgeist of our time that you mention?

This list of research includes a 2 year study (2009) by two of the authors of the QtA book, Beck & McKeown. The study's findings suggested that getting students to actively build meaning while reading does not necessiate knowledge of and focus on specific strategies, but rather it may simply require attention to text content in ways that promote selecting important ideas and establishing connections between them.

I'm confused by this. I know that close reading has some similarities with QtA because students also need to figure things out by reading and discussing the text, but I don't know if students engaging in close reading are building meaning without strategies as suggested by the findings of the 2 year study above. Can you help to clarify?

Timothy Shanahan
Mar 08, 2021 10:01 PM

1. Introducing a strategy with a short text is fine -- as long as the students then get to try its application with a variety of texts (including texts that vary in length).
2. Beck and McKeown have long rejected the idea of strategies, but I must admit that, though I love them dearly, I think that strategies are a way of promoting the idea of paying attention to certain kinds of information when reading. In any event, their opposition to strategies goes back decades (and those quotes are of arguments between those who championed the idea of strategies and those who wanted to treat reading comprehension as more automatic than that. For example, Carver resented the idea of referring to strategies as part of reading comprehension -- he thought they were more like study skills techniques one could use to increase memory for information). These days the rejection of strategies is in favor of just building up kids knowledge of the world (don't teach strategies, teach history and science and the kids will read better).
3. Everybody supports the idea that students should practice reading comprehension, but there is disagreement over what they should be practicing. Many just want guided reading (kids reading as a class or group and discussing the information) -- the complaint about this is that kids often don't improve; others want kids practicing the application of particular strategies -- which can become an end in itself; and others would drop reading lessons altogether to allow more teaching of content (which has never been found to improve general reading comprehension).
4. I like the idea of focusing heavily on the learning of information from text; placing students in text that they cannot easily understand; guiding them to understand by operating on the text in various ways (including those attentional moves that Beck & McKeown talk about)... finally, make sure the kids are learning the content while they are becoming more able to handle texts independently.


Mar 09, 2021 01:47 AM

Many thanks Tim for you reply. I know you remind us often that we need to follow the data rather than our own logic. Is there sufficient evidence in both camps (strategy instruction camp and discussion based approaches camp) for us to choose which camp to be in? I know for example the NRP found sufficient evidence to endorse the explicit teaching of reading strategies, but McKeown and Beck put forward research in support of discussion-based approaches. Could they both be right if we think about comprehension at different depths?

Is it possible for both approaches to work but for different depths of reading comprehension ie. building an overal mental representation of a text vs digging more deeply? For example, the techniques in Questioning the Author are designed for building comprehension on a first read. When we do an initial read, could it be that we do not need strategies since it's possible to build understanding through a focus on the text content and selecting important ideas and establishing connections between them? Then as we re-read the text and start digging into it, are we relying increasingly on a range of reading strategies?

I guess I'm trying to determine whether there are additional benefits to Questioning the Author above and beyond what it already shares with close reading ie. they are both discussion based approaches that focus on content of complex texts. Does it make sense that we may not need reading strategies for an initial read, but that we do as we go deeper?

Many thanks,

Timothy Shanahan
Mar 09, 2021 08:46 PM


There is evidence supporting both approaches... stronger research on the strategy front (but that doesn't mean one is more effective than the other necessarily, just clearer research support).


Mar 10, 2021 07:35 PM

"If the reading is kept relatively easy, then there is neither any reason to develop a strategic repertoire, nor any purpose for reflection or rereading to evaluate the effectiveness of one’s choices or the nature of the difficulties that the text posed."

This is why when discussing Scarborough's Rope with colleagues, I prefer to use the term 'strategic thinking' rather than 'verbal reasoning'. Or do you think 'verbal reasoning' captures something that 'strategic thinking' doesn't?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Why Your Students May Not Be Learning to Comprehend


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.