In Support of Main Idea and Comprehension Strategy Instruction
This post is focused on making the case for explicit instruction of comprehension strategies, including teaching students to identify and state main ideas. The growing awareness of the role of background knowledge in supporting reading comprehension has led some literacy professionals and journalists to proclaim that building background knowledge is the main solution to addressing students’ difficulties with reading comprehension. They posit that once students have learned decoding skills, having solid knowledge on the subject of the text is the key to comprehension; therefore, schools should spend less time on teaching comprehension strategies and more on teaching subjects such as science and social studies. In particular, they often identify teaching of main ideas as an instructional practice that should be abandoned. I disagree; students benefit from a combination of comprehension strategy and background knowledge instruction.
I do not dispute that having background knowledge about the subject of text being read will support comprehension of that text. However, there is much more to comprehension than simply having background knowledge, and there is a large body of research over decades supporting comprehension strategy instruction, including teaching students how to identify and state main ideas. In fact, more recent research indicates that instruction focused on teaching comprehension strategies at the same time we build background knowledge is the best combination (see Peng et al., 2023 below).
Comprehension Strategies and Background Knowledge Combined
In my 2021 post The Science of Reading Comprehension, I summarized the research about effective comprehension instruction based on Duke, Ward and Pearson’s 2021 article The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction, including three main areas of instruction that develop students’ reading comprehension abilities: teaching text structures, comprehension strategy instruction, and vocabulary and knowledge building. The authors also identify other factors that affect comprehension such as the purpose for reading and difficulty of a text, level of engagement with text, opportunities for text discussion, instructional practices that kindle reading motivation, and opportunities to write about a text. Building knowledge is just one piece of evidence-based comprehension instruction. They make this point:
“Scientific research has revealed many individual instructional practices and combinations of practices that foster reading comprehension development. Some conversations about reading comprehension engage an either/or approach, such as these two statements, respectively: (1) Don’t teach strategies; build knowledge. (2) Don’t focus on comprehension; focus on word reading. This tendency does not reflect research findings and does not maximize the likelihood that we will meet the needs of all developing readers.” (p. 664)
In July 2023, Tim Shanahan addressed this topic in a blog post titled Knowledge or Comprehension Strategies – What Should We Teach? His post was in response to this question he was asked by a teacher: Are we supposed to teach reading strategies or not? I keep coming across contradictory information. Some writers say the research supports strategy teaching and some say that we should teach background information instead.
Shanahan’s overall response is that we need both comprehension strategy and background knowledge instruction. He begins his post with, “Many studies – hundreds actually – have shown that teaching comprehension strategies can improve reading comprehension (citing Filderman, Austin, Boucher, O’Donnell, & Swanson, 2022; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). That’s a pretty strong argument for teaching strategies.” After providing examples of effective comprehension strategies, Shanahan makes these points about how comprehension strategies can support activation and development of background knowledge:
“Further distinguishing knowledge and strategies in reading are those strategies that emphasize making connections between the text and the knowledge that we bring to the text. Prediction, for instance, is a strategy that leads readers to anticipate what the author will reveal. Predictions require that readers combine information from the text with the knowledge they bring to the text. Predicting is a tool readers can apply in certain reading situations, but it can only work if there is relevant knowledge available. Inferencing is another such strategy. Readers can be sensitized to the concept that texts won’t provide explicitly all the needed information so readers must draw inferences to fill in the blanks and make connections. But the inferencing strategy only works to the extent that there is background knowledge available from which to generate those inferences.”
Shanahan concludes the post by noting, “… the strategy gives the reader some insight about text and some action steps that if taken will improve memory for what is read. But none of these strategies pays off unless the reader possesses sufficient topical knowledge to make them work. As such, strategies are useful and knowledge is essential.” I suggested in a reply comment to the post that the evidence supporting comprehension strategy instruction is strong enough that we might also say, “knowledge is useful and strategies are essential.” Either way, the point is that students benefit from instruction for both comprehension strategies and building background knowledge.
The Role of Background Knowledge
Research has determined that one’s knowledge, including academic content knowledge and the cultural knowledge developed through day-to-day activities, affects one’s reading comprehension. A student with more expertise in a subject covered in a text will comprehend better than a student who has minimal or no knowledge of the subject. (Hwang & Duke, 2020; Willingham, 2017)
A longitudinal investigation by Hwang et al. (2022) is often cited as evidence of the role of background knowledge in supporting comprehension. The study found there is a positive relation between domain knowledge (knowledge related to a field of study) and reading in Kindergarten to Grade 5, and that they mutally enhance each other. The authors point out, “domain knowledge can boost comprehension by faciliating generation of inferences during reading, and conversely, reading can enhance domain knowledge because new information learned from reading can be incorporated into existing knowledge structures (p. 60).”
Inference is essential to understanding text passages because authors do not always explicitly state information or explain concepts. Comprehending while reading is sometimes explained as the construction of a mental model that requires readers to integrate information from the text with their own experiences and background knowledge, also described as a situation model (Bower & Morrow, 1990; Kintsch, 1998; Zwaan, 2015). This model supposes that readers must draw on the context of the text and their prior knowledge to make full sense of what they read. This is especially the case when the text requires inference making.
However, not having sufficient background knowledge is only one contributor to comprehension difficulty. A critical review of twenty-three studies by Smith et al. (2021) was conducted to determine the influence background knowledge has on the reading comprehension of elementary students. The authors found that background knowledge plays a role in reading comprehension, but not the only role. They note:
“Therefore, although background knowledge is an important component of reading comprehension, it is not the only component and thus can only partially compensate for less skilled and strategic reading… It is important to note that background knowledge differences do not fully account for variation in reading comprehension abilities of accurate decoders. Although comprehension is sometimes conceptualized as a function of decoding ability and the presence of relevant knowledge, studies examining the comprehension of children using available knowledge show that there are a number of sources of comprehension failure, even when the underlying knowledge-base required for comprehension appears sound.” (p. 217)
What is comprehension strategy instruction?
There are decades of research on the positive effects of comprehension strategy instruction. There is sometimes disagreement about whether some of these should be labeled as skills or strategies – what we call them doesn’t matter as much as the fact that research supports instruction for them.
Based on the national Reading Panel (2000) and other research meta-analyses (Stevens et al., 2019), some of the most commonly used strategies include, but are not limited to, identifying and stating main ideas, making inferences, awareness of text structure, retelling, summarizing, self-monitoring strategies such as self-questioning, using graphic organizers, and question generation and answering after reading. Research also finds that reading strategies are helpful when used alone but are more effective when several are used together.
The goal of comprehension strategy instruction is to make strategies understandable to students so they can apply them when reading. Explicit strategy instruction includes explaining a strategy and the sub-skills involved, modeling how to apply the strategy, and providing many examples of the strategy applied to text. Explicit instruction also includes students engaging in guided practice as they apply the strategy to a variety of text types, and eventual independent use in combination with other comprehension strategies to support understanding of a wide variety of texts from different subjects.
Many of Keys to Literacy’s professional development courses provide suggestions for explicit instruction of vocabulary and comprehension strategies. The Key Comprehension Routine teaches a combination of the following strategies as a routine that can be used in all subject areas: main idea skills, text structure, topic web graphic organizer, two-column notes that separate main ideas from supporting details, summarizing, and question generation by students. The topic web graphic organizer can be used as a pre-reading strategy to help students activate prior knowledge and by teachers to provide background knowledge.
In Support of Main Idea Instruction
One of the reasons I chose to write this post is to clarify the confusion some teachers experience about main idea instruction. When I am working in schools or presenting keynotes and workshops at literacy conferences, I am sometimes asked a question that is similar to the one posed to Tim Shanahan: Are we supposed to teach main ideas? Some writers say the research supports teaching main ideas, but proponents of background knowledge say that main idea instruction is not needed. What should I do? I believe teachers raise this question because they are hearing from proponents of background knowledge that building this knowledge is the main solution to supporting comprehension, and that strategy instruction is not needed, especially main idea instruction.
After over 40 years of reading the research on literacy instruction, teaching students (in particular students with reading difficulties), and training and observing thousands of teachers, I strongly believe (supported by significant research) that teaching students the difference between main ideas and the relevant details that support them, and then being able to state those main ideas in the students’ own words, is a foundational comprehension strategy. Identifying main ideas, (sometimes referred to as getting the gist) is an essential first step to summarizing which has been identified as one of the most effective strategies to support comprehension and writing development. Identifying and stating main ideas and details is essential for retelling, a highly effective strategy for primary grades. Being able to pause and identify the main idea, or gist, of a paragraph or longer piece of text is essential for self-monitoring while reading, being able to take notes, and for generating higher-level questions about text. It is also an important part of recognizing text structure; i.e., to be able to grasp how sections of information text are organized into main topics and sub-topics, and how narrative text progresses as a series of main events.
Here is some of the research and voices in our field who support explicit instruction and guided practice for identifying and stating main ideas.
Scientific Advisory Committee (2023)
In the ASCD article Helping Students Access Complex, Knowledge-Rich Texts, the fourteen-member ASCD’s Scientific Advisory Committee distilled the body of literacy research into 10 practical recommendations for educators. Members of the committee include some of the most prominent researchers in the literacy field, including Marilyn Jager Adams, Sonia Cabell, Hugh Catts, Anne Cunningham, Nell Duke, Claude Goldenberg, Susan Neuman, and Daniel Willingham.
Recommendation #5 in the article, Apply Strategies for Sense-Making, focuses on how quality texts can be accessed to support comprehension and build knowledge, and offers several sense-making strategies. In addition to text structure, before-reading strategies, and self-monitoring strategies, one of the recommendations is instruction in getting the gist, which includes teaching students to ascertain the key points an author intends to convey by paraphrasing, clarifying, explaining, or summarizing small portions of the text. The article points out that summarizing text after reading and “pulling together key points that the author has aimed to communicate across larger portions of the text” have been shown to improve comprehension.
The authors note that these sense-making strategies can be taught within instruction that is focused on knowledge-building. Teaching students how to use these tools to access text and building knowledge are not in conflict.
Peng et al. (2023)
Peng and colleagues conducted a research meta-analysis to investigate the intervention effectiveness of different reading comprehension strategy combinations on reading comprehension among students with reading difficulties in third through twelfth grade. They focused on commonly researched strategies. Results included that there was no single reading comprehension strategy that produced the strongest effect, and a combination of main idea, text structure, and retell taught together as the primary strategies seemed the most effective. They also found that, “There seemed to be more effective strategies and strategy combinations when interventions included background knowledge instruction.” The authors made these points:
- Reading comprehension strategies can help readers stay engaged and efficiently use the limited cognitive resources to organizing information during reading comprehension.
- Reading comprehension strategies are helpful when used alone but are considered to be more effective when used together.
- Reading comprehension strategies, although considerably independent, are conceptually related to one another as they all serve the purpose of schema construction during reading. For example, although main idea strategy is supported by all the other strategies, main idea strategy can facilitate the use of other strategies such as retell and prediction.
- Reading comprehension strategy instruction may be quite cognitively demanding and sometimes may not lead to desirable outcomes when readers have limited background knowledge or cognitive capacity (e.g., working memory).
Vaughn et al. (2022)
One of the four recommendations in the Institute of Education Sciences research guide Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9 is to routinely use a set of comprehension-building practices to help students make sense of the text. This recommendation has four parts, one of which is Teach students a routine for determining the gist of a short section of text. The report makes the following points:
- Generating the gist of a short portion of text is an essential component of building students’ comprehension. A gist statement is a synthesis of the most important information in a short one- or two-paragraph section of the text. Some refer to it as the main idea.
- Gist statements can help students understand what they read and remember the most important information.
- Generating the gist provides an opportunity for students to separate important information from irrelevant information and to integrate important ideas and connections in the text to determine what the author meant.
- Having several easy steps to follow in a routine will help students break the process of generating a gist into manageable tasks. Most routines will include a step for determining who or what the passage is about and the most important information.
- Model how to generate the gist using the routine for several different types of text.
Filderman et al. (2021)
Filderman and colleagues’ research article A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Reading Comprehension Interventions on the Reading Comprehension Outcomes of Struggling Readers in Third Through 12th Grades summarized the results of their investigation of interventions focused on either background knowledge, reading comprehension strategy, or both among struggling readers in grades 3 to 12. Findings demonstrated that these interventions were generally effective, and the combination of background knowledge and strategy instruction or strategy instruction alone produced larger effects than background knowledge only. Main idea instruction was one of the main comprehension strategies taught in most of the studies, with various other combinations of strategies taught across the studies, including text structure, retell, inference, prediction, self-monitoring, graphic organizers.
Stevens et al. (2019)
This systematic review examined the effects of summarizing and main idea interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in grades 3 through 12. In their research article A Review of Summarizing and Main Idea Interventions for Struggling Readers in Grades 3 Through 12: 1978–2016, the authors reported that main idea and summarizing instruction yielded a statistically significant effect. Group size, number of sessions, and grade level did not moderate the effect.
Boardman et al. (2015)
The research article The Efficacy of Collaborative Strategic Reading in Middle School Science and Social Studies Classes reported on a study investigating the efficacy of the multi-component reading comprehension routine Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR). CSR includes four strategies, one of which is teaching students to identify main ideas (Preview the Text, Clicks or Clunks, Get the Gist, Wrap Up). In the study, teachers taught the strategies to one group of middle school students, while the control group did not receive strategy instruction. Findings showed that students receiving CSR instruction scored higher on a standardized reading comprehension assessment compared to their peers in comparison classrooms, and CSR is an effective method to improve the reading comprehension of adolescents and to increase their access to complex informational text.
As noted earlier, Tim Shanahan’s July, 2023 blog post made the case for comprehension strategy instruction. He gave this main idea example: “Strategies may also play a useful role in guiding student attention to key information in a text… When I’m reading something that is very hard for me, I write down the most important idea from each paragraph or section. That ensures that I pay attention to all the key ideas, without the details distracting me.”
Another Shanahan blog post from December, 2023 specifically addresses main idea instruction (Why Main Idea is Not the Main Idea – Or, How Best to Teach Reading Comprehension). In this post, he explains that while everyone seems to agree on the importance of main idea in comprehension, just having students read texts and answer main idea questions does not consistently or significantly improve reading comprehension. Shanahan points out that there are instructional regimes that result in improvements in both main idea performance and reading comprehension, but these approaches provided considerably more thorough and extensive main idea instruction than simple posing main idea questions. This includes explicit instruction that took place daily for considerable amounts of time across several weeks, with main ideas as part of instruction for comprehensive understanding of texts, including summarizing, developing an understanding of text structure, and/or paraphrasing main ideas. He also notes, “main ideas unify the parts of a text (so summarizing and text structure make sense) and the successful restatement of a paragraph or text (paraphrasing) will necessarily capture the main idea, but along with other key information, as well.” He further notes that main idea instruction should be practiced with various kinds of text because text plays an influential role in determining how well readers can summarize.
Kamil et al. (2008)
One of the five recommendations in the Institute of Education Sciences research guide Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices is “Provide direct and explicit comprehension instruction.” In particular, the guide suggests, “Teachers should provide adolescents with direct and explicit instruction in comprehension strategies to improve students’ reading comprehension… These strategies include, but are not limited to, summarizing, asking and answering questions, and finding the main idea.”
- ASCD (2023). Helping students access complex, knowledge-rich texts. ASCD. Retrievied from: https://www.ascd.org/blogs/helping-students-access-complex-knowledge-rich-texts
- Boardman, A.G., Klingner, J. K., Buckley, P., Annamma, S., & Lasser, C. J. (2015). The efficacy of collaborative strategic reading in middle school science and social studies classes. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28 (9).
- Bower, G. H., & Morrow, D. G. (1990). Mental Models in Narrative Comprehension. Science, 247, 44–48.
- Duke, N. K., Ward, A.E., & Pearson, P.D. (2021). The science of reading comprehension instruction. The Reading Teacher, 74 (6) International Literacy Association.
- Filderman, M.J., Austin, C.R., Swanson, E.A. (2021). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88 (2).
- Hwang, H., & Duke, N.K. (2020). Content counts and motivation matters: Reading comprehension in third-grade students who are English learners. AERA Open, 6(1).
- Hwang, H., McMaster, L., & Kendeou, P. (2022). A longitudinal investigation of directional relations between domain knowledge and reading in the elementary years. Reading Research Quarterly 58 (1).
- Kamil, M.L., Borman, G.D., Dole, J., Kral, C.C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practical Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
- Kintsch, W. (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Kintsch, W. (2013). Revisiting the construction-integration model of text comprehension and its implications for instruction. In D. E. Alvermann, N. J. Unrau, & R. B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th ed., pp. 807–839). International Reading Association.
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Peng, P., Wang, W., Filderman, M.J., Zhang, W., Lin, L. (2023). The active ingredient in reading comprehension strategy intervention for struggling readers: a Bayesian Network meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research May 20, 2023.
- Smith,R., Snow, P., Serry, T., & Hammond, L. (2021) The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: A Critical Review, Reading Psychology, 42:3.
- Shanahan, T. (2023). Knowledge or comprehension strategies – What should we teach? Blog post, July 22, 2023. Retrieved from: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/knowledge-or-comprehension-strategies-what-should-we-teach
- Shanahan, T. (2023). Why Main Idea is Not the Main Idea – Or, How Best to Teach Reading Comprehension. Blog Post, December 2, 2023. Retrieved from: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/why-main-idea-is-not-the-main-idea-or-how-best-to-teach-reading-comprehension.
- Stevens, E., Park, S., Vaughn, S. (2018). A review of summarizing and main idea interventions for struggling readers in grades 3 through 12: 1978-2016. Remedial and Special Education 40 (3).
- Vaughn, S., Gersten, R., Dimino, J., Taylor, M. J., Newman-Gonchar, R., Krowka, S., Kieffer, M. J., McKeown, M., Reed, D., Sanchez, M., St. Martin, K., Wexler, J., Morgan, S., Yañez, A., & Jayanthi, M. (2022). Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9 (WWC 2022007). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
- Willingham, D.T. (2017). The reading mind: a cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.
- Zwaan, R.A. (2015) Situation models, mental simulations, and abstract concepts in discourse comprehension. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 23,1028–1034.