A Current Look at Comprehension Strategy Instruction: Implications for Practice

By Dan Rocchio, Ed. D.

Director of the Graduate Literacy Program, Maryville University

A recent presentation by Pearson (2010) along with the second edition of Reciprocal Teaching at Work (Oczkus, 2010) has sparked some recent reflections regarding the teaching of reading comprehension strategies, specifically the strategy of reciprocal teaching (RT). In our work (2005-2006) on RT at Bowles Elementary School in the Rockwood District, Mary Jo Barker, Heather Stratman, and myself confirmed what the research (Klinger & Vaughan, 1996; Lederer 2000; Rosenshine & Meister, 1994) claimed about the benefits of RT. Our action research was based upon work with reciprocal teaching in regular fourth grade classrooms and in pull-out classes that used RT with struggling readers. We found that the use of reciprocal teaching three to four times a weeks significantly improved the comprehension ability of average and struggling readers on both norm-referenced tests and on end-of-unit comprehension tests.

As rewarding as this work was for me as a teacher, there are two major questions that have resurfaced as a result of a current review of the research and further reflection upon my work in schools.

1.  How do we help teachers and students reach the ultimate goal of reciprocal teaching: engagement in authentic conversations about big ideas in narrative and expository text?

Several researchers (Murphy et al. 2009; Pearson, 2010; Wilkinson & Son, 2010) have argued that many teachers and researchers have over-emphasized the teaching of comprehension strategies and have lost sight of the key content within texts that should fuel these authentic conversations. They suggest that the direct teaching of comprehension strategies be embedded within our conversations with children about texts.

2.  How can we help teachers and children ask better questions about these texts?

Many of the student questions I have observed in my work with elementary schools do in fact improve a child's engagement with the text, but often these questions are focused on the details within the text. Teachers need to model questions that good readers use when reading and preparing for conversations about thought-provoking texts. These questions should focus on the "big ideas" from the text and the structure of the text.

One of the prerequisites of authentic conversations is the use of fully developed works of fiction and nonfiction–not excerpts that are shortened for inclusions in basal readers. Many teachers have found a good balance by using award winning picture books along with chapter books to provide rich texts suitable for conversations.

A second prerequisite for authentic conversations is a comprehension strategy framework that promotes conversational strategies, the direct teaching of comprehension strategies, along with development of big ideas related to key content areas. One promising framework outlined by Goldenberg (1992/1993) and researched by Saunders & Goldenberg (1999) is titled "Instructional Conversations." Goldenberg ( 1992/93) presents a detailed outline of key components for this framework.

Although questioning is only one of several key strategies that teachers and students must have in their reading toolkit, it is the one strategy that seem to be the most problematic. I have considered several schemas (e.g., QAR, Raphael 1986; QTA, Beck et al. 1966; Beck & McKeown, 2006) that could be used to improve the use of questioning by children as RT is implemented. Neither of these schemas reflects the text structure of fiction and nonfiction texts, nor do they promote the development of a child's schema for reading text and preparing for authentic conversations.

Included below is a schema for helping teachers model questions for children as they seek to comprehend both fiction and non-fiction texts. These questions are synthesized from several sources: Dorn (2005), Fountas & Pinnell (2001), Beck & McKeown (2006) and Pearson (2010). Pearson (2010) suggests that teachers begin the conversations with children using the questions listed under "theme" and "big ideas." Please note that some of these questions are designed to be used after one completes the reading of a story or nonfiction text and some are meant to be used as one reads designated chunks of a narrative or expository piece with children. The length of the chunk of text that a teacher decides to use for a discussion is dependent upon the ability of the children and cannot be prescribed or scripted. Please keep in mind that although these recommended questions can provide some guidance as teachers experiment with the modeling of good questions, the questions must meet the needs of the children, the teacher and the curriculum.

The ability to ask appropriate follow-up questions during the teacher-student interactions depends a great deal on the teacher's understanding of each child's ongoing ability to process the content and use various strategies. It is very beneficial for literacy coaches to work with teachers in planning during-reading and post-reading conversations, and then evaluate the teacher's conversational prompts and students' responses used during the discussion.

The ultimate goal of our work is to help children read and write critically so that they can take part in civil discourse related to key issues (e.g., the development of mental and physical health, a peaceful school, the sustainability of our environment, friendship, equity, preparing oneself for work). Along with parents is it also our responsibility to help children develop the skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary to act as responsible citizens in our democracy. I welcome your responses to these ideas on the St. Louis Suburban Council Website: www.stlsuburbanreading.org.


Questions That Lead to Deep Comprehension & Improved Student Questioning for Fiction



1. How important is the place and time to the story? Could the story take place in another time and place?

2. What words does the author use to develop images of the setting.

3. Could this story happen to you? Explain


1. What are the key traits of the main character?

2. What techniques did the author use to tell us about the main character?

3. Are the characters believable? Why or why not?

Plot (including conflict/problem and attempts to resolve the problem)

1. What is the key problem/conflict so far in the story

2. What is a major turning point in the story?

3. How does the main character try to solve the major problem in the story?

4. What surprised you or intrigued about the story?


1. How do you like this story so far? Is this a story or book you would recommend to a friend? Explain your answer.

2. What is the author's message?

3. How do your experiences relate to the message in this story?

4. What techniques does the author use to give us the message of the story?


1. Whose point of view is used to tell the story?

2. Why do you think the author picked this character to tell the story?

3. How would the story be different if told through another character's eyes?


1. What is the main feeling you get from the story? (happy, sad, scared).

2. What words are used to help communicate the major mood in the story?

Strategy Focus

1. Which comprehension strategy would help you the most as you begin reading this text? How do you know?

2. Which strategies were most helpful as you moved through the text?

Questions That Lead to Deep Comprehension & Improved Student Questioning of Nonfiction



1. How does the information in this reading, so far, fit with what you already know?

2. Does this information provide you with information that you can use in your life?

3. How is this reading important to the unit we are studying?

4. How does this reading relate to issues in our classroom, the school, and the world?


1. How does this information compare with the facts and opinions from other sources on this topic?

2. Has the author presented the information without stereotypes or bias?

3. What experiences does the author have that makes you think the information is accurate?

Text Features

1. What has the author done to present the ideas clearly? Examples?

2. How do headings and subheadings help you understand the reading?

3. How do the graphs, captions, and pictures help you understand the reading?

Big Ideas

1. What are the main ideas that the author wants us to get from this text or this part of the text? How do you know?

2. What experiences have you had that relate to these main ideas?

3. Do you agree or disagree with the author's big ideas? Explain.

Strategy Focus

1. Which comprehension strategy might help you the most as you begin reading this text? How do you know?

2. Which strategies were most helpful as you moved through the text?




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