Reading Comprehension Instruction – and don’t forget the reading! (Part 1)

It has been a long time since I first went to a course with Drs Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver – 21 years to be exact!  I attended their week long literacy intensive in Minnesota in 2000 and I was overwhelmed and excited to meet people who were actually able to help me get better at literacy instruction with students with complex communication needs.

If you’ve ever attended a Literacy Intensive with these two, you’ll know that there is a lot of information presented in the course!  My brain got very full – and lots of what I thought I knew about literacy instruction was challenged by the course content. As a result, I made several mistakes when I returned to Australia and started implementing what I had learned.  I have now attended the course several times (and I still learn new things all the time) and that has meant I’ve been able to pick up where I went wrong and get my practice back on track.

One of the mistakes I made when I got back from attending that first course was around comprehension instruction.  I KNOW there was a slide that said “listening comprehension isn’t a substitute for reading comprehension” – I still have all the handouts and I can see that slide very clearly.  However, despite being explicitly told this, I still made the mistake of going home and implementing listening comprehension. 

So, here’s the difference:

Listening comprehension is where the teacher reads the book and the student(s) respond to the reading purpose.

Reading comprehension is where the students read the book AND respond to the purpose.

It took me a while to figure this out – and I still remember how terrible I felt when I realised how I had messed it up!  It really is very important that the students both read the book and respond to the questions – because this is the only way they get better at doing this.  When the student reads the book is when true reading comprehension instruction occurs. 

Recently I have seen other people make the same mistake, so I thought it was time for a blog post on this topic.  Although, before I go on to talk about reading comprehension instruction, I do want to acknowledge that working on listening comprehension is part of our toolkit – particularly when done in an interactive way with a focus on building vocabulary – but it’s important that we recognise that reading comprehension needs to be the focus of our literacy instruction.

Reading Comprehension Instruction is about teaching students to read with comprehension with increasing levels of complexity – both texts that are getting more complex and with an increasingly complex understanding of the information we get from texts.

I believe one of the reasons that many of us struggle with implementing this is because we are often working with students who are just beginning to learn to read – and the thought of asking them to juggle everything they are learning in reading, along with a comprehension task, seems too hard. However, over the years I have found that if we implement comprehension instruction explicitly, then we can definitely help students to learn to juggle all those skills.  And I’ll start talking about that shortly!

However, before I start talking about how we do explicit comprehension instruction, I wanted to address about the ultimate goal of instruction in this area – and the ways in which we read for comprehension in real life.

The ultimate goal of comprehension instruction is that an individual can read a piece of text and extract the information that they need from it.  Most of us do this daily, many times.  We get an email asking us to do a task by a certain date – and we add the job and the date to our to-do list.  We want to know what temperature we should use when cooking a chicken – and we read to find out, and then act on the information. 

Multiple times every day we:

  1. Have a question or purpose for reading;
  2. Read to get the information; and
  3. Act on it.

I know the people who read this blog are of varying ages – but those of you who are my age will have strong memories of comprehension instruction at school that involved reading a passage and then answering 10 questions about it.  The research into comprehension instruction points out many problems with this approach – but the biggest problem with this style of comprehension instruction, in my mind, is that we are asking students to practice a skill that they will never use again.  After all, none of us ever say “I might just read the Wikipedia entry on dinosaurs and ask myself 10 random questions about it”.  Instead we say, “I wonder when dinosaurs became extinct?”  and then we read the Wikipedia entry to find out.

So, this is the skill we want to teach.  We want to teach students that when they have a question or purpose, then they can read to answer it.  This is what we do every day – and this is what we want every student we work with to be able to do as well.

If you are interested in reading more about how to do this stay tuned for part 2 – where I’ll go through the how-tos of explicit comprehension instruction, including examples of planning.

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Comments (6)

  1. Olivia Mitchell


    Thanks Jane. This really does make sense when reading with our students. I’m slowly working on this with my little ones!

  2. Annmaree


    Hi Jane, so would we raise the questions that the book would reveal in Shared Reading?

    • jane


      Hi AnnMaree – I’m not sure that I completely understand your question. I’ll publish more of a “how-to” soon (I’m working on it now) so perhaps that will help. And if it doesn’t then please feel free to ask for more details. Jane

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