Do Comprehension Strategies Make Reading Boring?

This was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Originally published as a guest blog for Valerie Strauss’s column, The Answer Sheet: A School Survival Guide for Parents (And Everyone Else),, May 22, 2012. His newest book, When Can You Trust The Experts? How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, is available now.

Do Comprehension Strategies Make Reading Boring?

I was just at a reading conference and gave a talk on reading comprehension strategies.

I’ve written about them before (article here). The next paragraph provides just a brief summary of what I’ve written. The lists below demonstrate that the point of reading is communication. And that if they can successfully say written words aloud but cannot understand what they’ve read, that’s a problem. Evidence for this point of view include data that kids don’t benefit much from reading comprehension instruction after 7th grade, likely because they’ve all drawn this conclusion, and that increased practice with reading comprehension strategies doesn’t bring any improved benefit. It’s a one-time increment.


Comprehension monitoring: Readers are taught to become of when they do not understand, for example by formulating exactly what is causing them difficulty.

Listening actively: Students learn to think critically as they listen and to appreciate that listening involves understanding a message from the speaker.

Graphic organizer: Students learn how to make graphic representations of texts, for example, story maps.

Question answering: After students read a text, the teacher poses questions that emphasize the information that students should have obtained from the text.

Question generation: Students are taught to generate their own questions, to be posed during reading, that integrate large units of meaning.

Summarization: Students are taught techniques of summarization, e.g., deleting redundant information and choosing a topic sentence for the main idea.

Mental imagery: Students are instructed to create a mental visual image based on the test.

Cooperative learning: Students enact comprehension strategies — for example, prediction and summarization — in small groups, rather than with the teacher.

Story structure: Students are taught the typical structure of a story and how to create a story map.

Multiple strategy instruction: Multiple strategies are taught, often summarization, prediction, question generation, and clarification of confusing words or passages.

Prior knowledge: Students are encouraged to apply what they know from their own lives to the text, or to consider the themes of the text before reading it.

Vocabulary-comprehension relationship : Students are encouraged to use background knowledge (as well as textual clues) to make educated guesses about the meaning of unfamiliar words.

How much time is devoted to reading comprehension strategy instruction? I can’t find good (or poor) data on this question, and I doubt it exists. There is so much variation among districts (and probably even classrooms) on this issue, it’s hard to draw a conclusion with much confidence. Any time I talk about reading, a lot of teachers, coaches, and administrators tell me that enormous amounts of time go to reading comprehension strategy instruction in their district—but I’m sure the people who make sure to mention this to me are not a random sample.

Whatever the proportion of time, much of it is wasted, at least if educators think it’s improving comprehension, because the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each.

Some reading comprehension strategies might be useful for other reasons. For example, a teacher might want her class create a graphic organizer as a way of understanding how an author builds narrative arc

The wasted time obviously represents a significant opportunity cost. But has anyone ever considered that implementing these strategies make reading REALLY BORING? Everyone agrees that one of our long-term goals in reading instruction is to get kids to love reading. We hope that more kids will spend more time reading and less time playing video games, watching TV, etc.

How can you get lost in a narrative world if you think you’re supposed to be posing questions to yourself all the time? How can a child get really absorbed in a book about ants or meteorology if she thinks that reading means pausing every now and then to anticipate what will happen next, or to question the author’s purpose?

To me, reading comprehension strategies seem to take a process that could bring joy, and turn it into work.

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