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The Science of Reading Comprehension

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 1 Comment

The term Science of Reading has been the focus of attention for several years (see my January, 2020 post). The term refers to the research that reading experts, especially cognitive scientists, have conducted on how we learn to read. This body of knowledge, over twenty years in the making, has helped debunk older methods of reading instruction that were based on tradition and observation, not evidence. Much of the discourse around instruction based on the Science of Reading tends to focus on the importance of explicit instruction for phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency.

But what does the research tell us about effective instruction for comprehension? The title of a 2021 article by Duke, Ward, and Pearson caught my attention related to this question: The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction. The authors summarize what decades of research have told us about the nature of comprehension and how to develop students’ comprehension. We know that before students can comprehend what they read, they need to have foundational word-reading skills in order to read most or all of the words in a text. However, as important as fluent word reading is, this is not sufficient for strong comprehension.

Duke, Ward, and Pearson note that comprehension instruction should begin early, at the same time that early elementary students are developing oral language, phonemic awareness and phonics skills. They point out that, “The relationship between word-reading instruction and reading comprehension instruction is more synergistic than competitive.” For example, teaching comprehension monitoring provides a form of feedback to readers as to whether they have read a word accurately.

The authors identify three main areas of instruction that develop students’ reading comprehension abilities: teaching text structures, comprehension strategy instruction, and vocabulary and knowledge building. They also address 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.

Teaching Text Structure

Discerning the structure of a text aids comprehension — attention to the structure of the text during reading provides a scaffold for understanding. Duke, Ward, and Pearson note that, “A huge amount of research has examined the impact of text structure instruction. We have long known that students benefit from instruction in common structures and elements of narrative and informational text.”

Based on a meta-analysis of research related to the effects of teaching expository text structure on comprehension, Pyle et al. (2017) reported that this type of instruction is an effective reading comprehension strategy for a range of student abilities and grade levels. They explain, “It is likely that text structure instruction is effective because it presents students with an organizational framework for approaching expository text that is often complex and dense with academic vocabulary.” They suggest that teachers explicitly describe expository text structures and teach students the clue words associated with various text structures, model the use of text structures in reading (and writing) to draw students’ attention to the organization of the text to identify the key ideas and details to support their text recall, and consider introducing graphic organizers as a support to assist students with identifying and using the text structures to organize the critical information collaboratively with students.” Explicit instruction of text structure is a key component in several Keys to Literacy professional development programs: The Key Comprehension Routine, Module 8 in Keys to Beginning Reading, and two Keys to Literacy writing professional learning programs (Keys to Content Writing and Keys to Early Writing).

Comprehension Strategy Instruction

The National Reading Panel (2000) identified several comprehension strategies as effective for improving comprehension: comprehension monitoring strategies, use of graphic organizers and semantic maps (including story maps), question answering and generating by students, and summarization. In a May, 2018 blog post, Shanahan notes, “Strategies like monitoring, self-questioning, visualizing, comparing the text with prior knowledge, identifying text organization, and so on are all intentional, purposeful actions that are effective in improving comprehension or recall…. Comprehension strategies should be taught—and, according to research, should be taught using a gradual release of responsibility approach. That just means that the teacher models and explains when, how, and why to implement the strategies. Then the teacher guides students to use the strategies themselves, turning more and more of the responsibility for that over to them gradually.”

Duke, Ward, and Pearson point out that, “Research has long shown that proficient comprehenders engage in particular mental activities to support their understanding of what they are reading. Some students learn to use these processes seemingly naturally, but many benefit from explicit instruction in how to think before, during, and after reading; how to monitor their understanding; and how to help themselves when meaning breaks down.” They go on to say, “A relatively recent meta-analysis included multiple-strategy instructional approaches in examining the effectiveness of comprehension strategy instruction in regular classroom settings in grades 3–12. The researchers found positive effects on both standardized and researcher-developed tests of reading comprehension. Reviews of the impact of comprehension strategy instruction with younger students have also found positive effects.”

Approaches to comprehension strategy instruction that involve teaching several strategies that can be used in concert have also been found to be effective (National Reading Panel, 2000; Pressley, 2000; Duke et al., 2004). The Key Comprehension Routine and Module 9 of Keys to Beginning Reading offer instructional suggestions for teaching comprehension strategies as single activities and in combination as a reading comprehension routine.

Vocabulary and Knowledge Building

What role does background knowledge play in supporting comprehension? Duke, Ward, and Pearson note that research has established that one’s knowledge, including one’s academic content knowledge and the cultural knowledge developed through day-to-day activities, affects one’s reading comprehension. While there is general consensus that background knowledge supports comprehension, it is not possible for students to know everything there is to know about every topic that might come up in the text they read. Duke, Ward, and Pearson point out, “Surprisingly little research has focused on the impact of content instruction on reading comprehension.” Given the differences in background knowledge that students may have related to what they are reading, it is important for teachers to use an activity before reading that helps students activate their prior knowledge, or to provide some background knowledge. One example is the use of a Top-Down Topic Web graphic organizer, a comprehension strategy that is integrated in several Keys to Literacy professional development programs. This graphic organizer lists the topics and sub-topics from a text in a hierarchical format, with the broadest topics at the top. Prior to reading, the teacher asks students to identify and share with peers something they already know that is in the topic web. Based on the responses, the teacher can add to students’ existing knowledge by providing additional information about the topic.

What role does vocabulary play in supporting comprehension? One of the oldest findings in educational research is the strong relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. Comprehension is significantly affected if a student does not know the meanings of a sufficient proportion of the words in the text (Stahl, 1999; Samuels, 2002). Previewing unfamiliar words prior to reading helps students gain enough information about words so they won’t “stumble” over them while reading (Graves, 2006). Previewing is one of the 5 instructional components of The Key Vocabulary Routine. See my December, 2019 blog post about previewing vocabulary that includes instructional suggestions.


There are many factors that contribute to a student’s ability to comprehend text. Teachers across all grades and subjects need to combine numerous instructional practices to help students build the comprehension strategies, knowledge of text structure, vocabulary, and connections to background knowledge needed to learn from text. Unfortunately, most teachers do not learn these instructional practices prior to entering the classroom. A big part of Keys to Literacy’s mission is to provide practical, research-based professional development to help teachers grow their ability to help students become proficient readers. To learn more, visit the large collection of free resources at the Keys to Literacy website, including videos, archived webinars, articles and book chapters, templates and printables.


  • Duke, N. K., Ward, A.E., & Pearson, P.D. (2021). The science of reading comprehension instruction. International Literacy Association. Retrieved from:
  • Duke, N. K., Pressley, M., and Hilden, K. (2004). Difficulties with reading comprehension.  In C.A. Stone, E.R. Silliman, B.J. Ehren, and K. Apel (eds.). Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders, 501-520. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Graves, M.F. 2006. The vocabulary book. New York: Teachers College Press
  • National Reading Panel (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. NICHH National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Pressley, M. (2000).  “What should comprehension instruction be the instruction of?”  In M. Kamil, Mosenthal,P., Pearson, P.D., and Barr, R. (Eds.) Handbook of reading research. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.
  • Pyle, N., Vasques, A.C., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Gillam, S.L., Reutzel, D.R., Olszewski, A., Segura, H. Hartzheim, D., Laing, W., Pyle, D. (2017). Effects of Expository Text Structure Interventions on Comprehension: A Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 0 (0).
  • Samuels, S.J. (2002). Reading fluency: Its development and assessment. In Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (Ed.), Reading on fluency for “A focus on fluency forum.” Honolulu, HI: PREL.
  • Shanahan,  (2018). Where questioning fits in comprehension instruction: Skills and strategies part II. Blog post, May 28, 2018. Retrieved from:

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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1 Comment

  1. jpmanjarris

    Good information!!



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