What’s stopping us from teaching reading comprehension really well?

On a scale of 1-10, how good are you at comprehending what people say to you?

It’s a bit of a silly question, isn’t it? Whether or not we comprehend what we are told is dependent on our grasp of the individual words being used, the concepts to which they relate and how these interact to convey meaning. Talk to me about the first nine seasons of The Simpsons using familiar words and I’ll comprehend pretty well. Talk to me about your favourite “anguilliform” Pokemon character and I’ll probably stare at you blankly. Yes, there are some basic capacities that underpin our ability to understand what people say aloud, such as our hearing and our working memory capacity. But – on the assumption that these things aren’t an impediment – our ability to comprehend what we are told is dependent on what we know about the subject at hand and the words being used to describe it. In other words, there is no generic listening comprehension ability. There is instead a vast network of understanding that determines the extent to which we can construct meaning from the words we hear. Trying to determine – or, heaven forbid, quantify – a person’s ability to comprehend what they are told would rely on some way of measuring their grasp of all there is to know about the world and the language used to describe it. How do you measure a person’s entire understanding of their world and their language? How do you effectively sample a domain this extensive? Answer: you can’t.

And this brings me on to reading comprehension. Our ability to comprehend what we read is reliant on much the same network of understanding that is required for listening comprehension. Let’s assume that we can recognise the words on a page fluently enough to free up the cognitive resources necessary for comprehension. Under these circumstances, whether or not we comprehend what we read is dependent on our grasp of the individual words being used, the concepts to which they relate and how these interact to convey meaning. Just as with listening comprehension, this is a domain so vast as to rule out valid assessment. To be clear, what I’m suggesting is that – beyond the development of relatively fluent word recognition* – our ability to comprehend what we read is based on everything we know about our world and our language, alongside an additional layer of knowledge related to written text conventions (e.g. punctuation, sub-headings, italics, etc). How do you measure a person’s entire understanding of their world, their language and the conventions of written texts? Answer: you can’t.

So, we’ve established that trying to measure reading comprehension is a non-starter.** From this, we can assume that the results from reading comprehension assessments need to be interpreted very cautiously, especially on the level of the individual pupil.

And this is where this blogpost would end if reading comprehension assessment hadn’t warped the teaching of reading. But it has. A lot. For the sake of assessment, teachers have been incentivised to see reading comprehension as a generic skill, or, more precisely, a small set of generic skills. If this perspective were a canvas, it would look something like this:

Here is reading comprehension ability interpreted as a small collection of generic skills, things like retrieval, prediction and summarising. Reading comprehension assessments tend to divide the questions they use into a few categories such as these. Countless teachers and school leaders have thus made the understandable leap that teaching reading comprehension is the process of building up each of these generic comprehension skills. They attempt to add another broad-brushstroke layer to a pupil’s prediction skill as a means of filling up the canvas. This conveniently allows for the creation of medium-term plans that state that a given class is working on prediction or inference or some other generic skill. It also allows schools to make lists related to those skills that can be ticked off as children develop. If we’re going to gather evidence of a pupil’s reading comprehension development, then what we presumably need is a small set of statements that correspond to a relatively small set of generic skills. This interpretation of reading comprehension achieves that.

The problem, of course, is that this interpretation is completely bogus. It is based on a view of reading comprehension that is palpably false. Yes, when we comprehend what we read, we tend to be able to retrieve information, to make predictions, to summarise what we have read, etc, and doing this stuff while we read is a useful set of habits that keeps us awake to what we are doing.*** But this is an unhelpful way to visualise our ability to comprehend what we read. I’d argue that this is better:

Forget for a moment the exact scene being portrayed, and consider the means of portraying it. Here reading comprehension ability is interpreted as a vast interacting network of understanding. It is not built up through broad brushstrokes, but through the painstaking accumulation of knowledge about words, texts and the wider world to which they relate. The natural consequence of such an interpretation is that the teaching of reading comprehension must prioritise the guided exploration of text, involving lots of reading and lots of rich discussion. Retrieval, prediction, summarising, etc will naturally form a part of this, but developing these habits is not the central goal of reading comprehension lessons. The central goal of reading comprehension lessons is to understand the specific text being read and the world to which it relates through exploration of the text’s use of language. Everything else is secondary.

However, this interpretation leaves us with some problems. I’ve lost count of the number of school leaders and teachers who – despite their instinctive enthusiasm for this content-focused conception of reading comprehension – have asked the same two questions:

  1. “How would we evidence this?”
  2. “What would this look like in terms of our long-term planning?”

I will address these two questions in turn:

The answer to (1) is simple: Don’t bother.

I’m serious. Just don’t bother. Ofsted have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want teachers gathering evidence for its own sake. If your method of assessment requires you to pretend that reading comprehension is something that it clearly is not, then it’s time to dump that method of assessment. Think instead about how fluently your children read and how much they know about the English language and the wider world. The former can be assessed by hearing children read aloud and by undertaking quick fluency assessments; the latter, however, is not accessible via reference to simple rubrics. Standardised reading assessments may give a very rough idea, but they are not to be relied upon as precise measures of individual progress for all the reasons explained above. It’s time to accept that there are some things that we can measure and other things that we cannot and to change our assessment decisions accordingly.

The answer to (2) is a little more difficult. Think back to the canvas above. To build up a picture like that, many thousands of dots are added across the breadth of the canvas, each chosen partly based on its relationship to the other dots on the canvas. In a content-focused view of teaching reading comprehension, our planning must focus on the content being read – the characters, the themes, the text features, the aspects of the world being described, etc. And it must do so in relation to the rest of that which has been, and will be, added to the canvas. In short, stop focusing on how non-existent generic comprehension skills will be taught. Instead focus on the texts themselves – not least their variety and their relationship to the rest of the curriculum**** – and on how you will ensure that pupils learn lots about them.

A content-focused approach to the teaching of reading comprehension aligns with a more accurate view of reading comprehension. It allows teachers to do away with pointless, time-consuming forms of assessment. It encourages school leaders to re-imagine their reading curriculum primarily in terms of the texts to be shared. Most of all, it offers our pupils a more authentic, enriching and effective experience of reading.

So, what’s stopping us from teaching reading comprehension really well? Absolutely nothing.

If you’d like to find out more about teaching reading, please consider my book, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading: link

All royalties will be going to the Malaria Consortium, a Give-Well-recommended charity.

* Fluent word recognition is also dependent on our broader language comprehension alongside our knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships, phonemic skills, etc.

** The Teachwell blog has an excellent series on this idea: http://www.teach-well.com/reforming-the-key-stage-2-reading-sat-why-its-needed-and-possible/

*** There is lots of research into comprehension strategies. This blog is a good place to start if you want to know more: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter#sthash.ZC5WlzWX.dpbs

**** This does not mean that every text has to directly relate to something else in your wider curriculum. It might even be the case that texts are chosen precisely because of how they supplement the curriculum. (E.g. If a primary history curriculum doesn’t include a study of a South American civilisation, a non-fiction text relating to the Maya civilisation might be an apt choice to add breadth to the pupils’ understanding of the challenging – and often controversial – concept of civilisation.)

7 thoughts on “What’s stopping us from teaching reading comprehension really well?

  1. So, what’s stopping us from teaching reading comprehension really well?

    A fear that test scores will plummet in the short term because students haven’t rehearsed the types of comprehension questions that are tested as often. We need to change standardized tests to incentivize a content-focused approach.

    Great blog.


    1. Having taught reading comprehension in upper key stage two without a constant focus on answering particular question types, I think that fear is unfounded. A few weeks of test prep before the SATs is all that’s required if we wish to ensure that children are prepared for them. Beyond that, I am convinced that authentic teaching of reading comprehension is just as positive for reading outcomes as it is for the experiences of pupils and their teachers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Something that is preventing that decoding fluency for so many (consistently at least 1 in 4) is how the DfE currently mandates the teaching of phonics, using a ‘print to speech’ approach, and as if phonics is separate to comprehension. The recently validated synthetic phonics programmes didn’t even need to outline how decoding fluency, vocab knowledge and comprehension were catered for by developers. So phonics is isolated – and yet only one element. It could confuse teachers who are already missing out on training in phonology, morphology, etymology etc.

    A great way forward – especially as 27% in 2019 /20 failed to meet expected levels for reading after going through synthetic phonics – would be to widen the view of WHY we’re teaching kids to map phonemes to graphemes (or graphemes to phonemes!) and how to do this in the way that makes sense to kids (builds on speech) and more easily leads them into the ‘self-teaching’ phase and orthographic mapping. Especially with such an opaque orthography. We want that decoding fluency to be able to focus on reading comprehension!

    I’ll be delivering a lecture for PATOSS (potential-issues-for-dyslexic-students-being-taught-using-a-validated-ssp-programme-in-ks1) as my passion is ‘inclusion’ – teaching as if being a neurodivergent learner is not a ‘separate’ challenge for teachers. It’s part of embracing the neurodiverse classroom! And one size fits all type ‘front of class’ teaching doesn’t facilitate that.

    Would you be ok if I included some quotes from you eg from your blog and new book? Maybe even chat to you about this? The other lectures I’m delivering relate to reading comprehension but that lecture related to validated DfE synthetic phonics programmes leads in …

    Would love to connect. Your work is so refreshing and ‘just makes sense’. Thank you.


  3. Fantastic blog.. Love the painting analogy. I totally agree about content-focused approach to reading instruction. One thing I struggle with though: Some of the tasks student readers are expected to do are skills that require knowledge outside of the content. So, for example, Shanahan, while a fervent advocate for text-centric instruction, also admits that something like finding a theme needs to be taught explicitly, since that is a skill that is separate from the content in a text. So when it comes to teaching a skill like finding the theme, when would you recommend to teach that skill? After students have read a text with a text-centric approach (gist questions, discussion, etc..)? Or before reading the text so that it can become a purpose of reading a text? (So, I realize that one very valid answer might just be “don’t teach theme, since it’s not always an extremely valuable and useful skill outside of of an ELA classroom – buuuuut, just for the sake of it, assume we HAVE to ask students to find a theme and assess them on that skill)


    1. Pupils come to understand what a theme is by teachers discussing with them the themes of various texts. Finding a theme is based on pupils’ knowledge relating to the text in front of them and their experience of seeing themes previously (i.e. the depth of their understanding of what a theme is). There isn’t a generic ‘theme-finding’ skill. What there is, in contrast, is a shared, abstract definition of the word ‘theme’ that pupils begin to understand by generalising from their experience of this idea in relation to various texts. Separating the teaching of theme from experience with texts would.be to miss the point entirely (as is the case with all supposed skills relating to comprehension).

      It would be possible to argue that this is mere semantics were it not for the fact that people end up trying to teach things like ‘theme-finding’ as if they are a skill to be practised that isn’t directly related to experience with texts.

      In short, a pupil who has a good understanding of what the word ‘theme’ means (through generalising from varied text experiences) and has a good understanding of the text in front of them will be perfectly capable of finding the theme of the text.


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