Reading Comprehension and Reading Strategy Instruction

This systematic review summarizes international research on the relationship between reading strategy instruction and usage versus reading comprehension. In this review, reading strategies are defined as deliberate, goal-directed attempts to control and modify the reader’s efforts to decode text, understand words, and construct meanings of text. The review focuses on pupils between the ages of 10 and 19, i.e. corresponding to the intermediary and higher stages of Swedish compulsory and upper secondary schools, and on the role of reading strategies in all school subjects, except those equivalent to modern languages in Swedish schools.

Reading strategies are thus, in general, a tool that pupils can use when they are having problems with their reading comprehension. The specific tools this may entail, how these tools can be combined, or which tools are useful in different situations and to what extent, are questions that teachers might have.

In this review, we therefore try to provide scientific knowledge about the above, We wish to contribute to increasing knowledge about what working with reading strategies may entail, as well as how and among whom the reading strategies help improve reading comprehension.

The review is based on the following general question:

What characterises effective reading strategy instruction and reading strategy usage among pupils between the ages of 10 and 19?

By effective, we mean that reading strategy instruction and reading strategy usage has a positive effect on pupils’ reading comprehension, based on reading comprehension tests, observations, or the pupils’ own reporting.

To answer the general question, we have asked the following more specific questions:

  1. Which reading strategies are taught and used in the studies covered in the review?
  2. Which type of reading strategy instruction helps to develop reading comprehension in pupils?
  3. How do pupils themselves describe their use of and the benefits of reading strategies?
  4. How do the use and benefits of reading strategies vary with factors such as gender, reading ability and linguistic background?

Results

The data examined in the review shows that reading strategy usage and teaching of reading strategies can help pupils understand texts that they otherwise would not understand. At the same time, it is important to emphasise that there is no scientific support for all forms of reading strategy instruction being effective in increasing pupils’ reading comprehension. By extension, this means that teachers who plan to teach about reading strategies should make informed choices and consider a variety of factors when planning the teaching of reading strategies.

In the studies covered by this review, reading strategies can mean many different things

The results of the review show that there is a broad range of reading strategies that are discussed in the research literature. What, at first glance, may seem like a defined and specific tool – reading strategies – is in fact a multitude of different tools for working with texts and improving reading comprehension.

This ambiguity is increased by the fact that different strategies can have different purposes and also intend to help readers with different aspects of the reading comprehension process. This can be seen, for example, in a series of studies that put together a number of reading strategies into strategy categories with specific purposes, without necessarily reporting which individual reading strategies are included in these strategy categories. The reading strategies can also be combined in strategy programmes in which a specific set of reading strategies is taught in a specific order and in a defined manner.

Only emphasising that teachers should work with reading strategies more generally thus provides little guidance for individual teachers in their actual practice. Teaching the use of reading strategies can mean a wide variety of things, so to bring some order and clarity to discussions on reading strategies, we have grouped the approximately 30 individual reading strategies found in the reviewed studies into three general groups of reading strategies. These three groups – memorisation strategies, elaboration strategies and control strategies – collectively capture central aspects of pupils’ reading comprehension. Memorisation strategies help pupils pick out information, elaboration strategies help pupils create a deeper understanding of the text, while control strategies help pupils control and repair lack of understanding. Teaching pupils to what extent different types of strategies are useful for different purposes is therefore an important pedagogical task for teachers.

Not all reading strategies are equally effective for users

The results from the included studies show/tell us that reading strategies can be more or less strongly linked to high reading comprehension. Generally speaking, it seems that reading strategies where the reader takes a holistic view of the text, as well as strategies that mean that the reader monitors his or her understanding of the text in a more comprehensive way, demonstrate a connection with good reading comprehension. These groups – elaboration strategies and control strategies – specifically mean that the reader creates, for example, a summary of his or her understanding of the text’s main idea or activates his or her existing background knowledge based on the text’s theme and main content, as well as that the reader monitors and evaluates his or her own reading process.

There are also reading strategies which, according to the collected data, are not shown to improve reading comprehension. These are reading strategies that keep the reader close to the text and do not encourage pupils to independently construct their own understanding of texts. More specifically, these are so-called memorisation strategies that allow the reader, for example, to pick out information from the text or underline parts of a text so as to be able to memorise or retell the content. One explanation of why these types of strategies do not promote understanding in the same way may be that they do not encourage the reader to construct their own meaning from the text.

However, this should not be interpreted as meaning that pupils should never work with memorisation strategies such as underlining. It is unlikely that underlining in itself is unfavourable to pupils’ reading comprehension. Rather, it is likely that a focus on textual detail can mean that the reader directs his or her concentration to a lesser extent towards understanding the texts as a whole. This conclusion is supported partly by studies that indicate that pupils who state that they use underlining together with elaboration strategies and control strategies also show higher levels of reading comprehension, and partly by studies that have shown that good readers also often use memorisation strategies such as underlining. The different strategy groups should not therefore be seen as mutually exclusive. Memorisation strategies can be a way into a text, to be able to retrieve information and thus lay the foundation for the use of other reading strategies and the creation of a deeper reading comprehension.

How and when a strategy is used is important

It is important to emphasise that the importance of reading strategies for improved reading comprehension is not just about which reading strategies are used, but also about how to use them.

That pupils can make conscious and appropriate choices between different reading strategies in a particular situation, and that they can use reading strategies in an appropriate way, is clearly linked to good reading comprehension. Among other things, the results of the survey studies demonstrate strong correlations between reading comprehension and metacognitive awareness, and the results of the observational studies demonstrate the ability of good readers to combine several of the reading strategies and to adapt their use of reading strategies according to the character of the text, the reading activity and the reading context.

Thus, instead of mechanically using a single reading strategy or a small repertoire of strategies on all comprehension problems, it is important that pupils have a somewhat broader repertoire of strategies from which they can choose deliberately and appropriately.

A number of effective reading strategy programmes for teaching strategies

In addition to a number of individual reading strategies and certain strategy categories being shown to have a positive connection to reading comprehension, several studies have also shown positive results when it comes to the opportunity to teach about reading strategies.

Although the individual studies are presenting varying results, some general traits or patterns can still be discerned from the studies. Overall studies concerning the effectiveness of different strategy programmes show, for example, that several computer or web-based reading strategy programmes have the potential to contribute to developing pupils’ reading comprehension. The studies also show that some of the well-established strategy programmes such as Reciprocal Teaching (RT) and Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI) are well placed to contribute to increased reading comprehension.

An interesting observation in relation to several of the successful reading strategy programmes is that the positive effect on pupils’ reading comprehension sometimes arose after relatively short periods of targeted teaching. Thus, it is not obvious from the results of the review that longer programmes have a greater effect on pupils’ reading comprehension; several fairly comprehensive reading strategy programmes demonstrate only modest effects or no effects at all.

The effect of reading strategies can be increased by specific teaching structures

The results of the review also show that reading strategy instruction and usage can be enhanced by being combined with other components which support what is known as self-regulated learning, as well as engagement and motivation in reading.

Some of the strategy programmes that have had the most significant effect on reading comprehension have complemented the strategy teaching itself with elements of self-regulated learning, i.e. that pupils are trained in planning, setting goals and monitoring and evaluating their learning and their use of reading strategies. This has had a systematically positive effect on pupils’ reading comprehension.

The importance of teaching students self-regulated learning is also reinforced by the survey studies. These show that there is a clear correlation between in-depth reading comprehension and so-called metacognitive strategies or control strategies, i.e. strategy types that encourage readers to reflect on their understanding of texts and on the appropriateness of their use of strategies. Similarly, teaching that takes into account pupils’ engagement and motivation has shown good results for reading comprehension. Reading strategy programmes that add a motivation-raising component have demonstrated high efficacy levels in intervention studies. The motivation component may for example include giving the pupils content objectives, freedom of choice and control, offering them concrete activities, allowing them to use interesting texts or to cooperate with each other.

Similarly, the survey studies and observational studies also demonstrate clear links between reading comprehension and motivation. The observational studies show that the pupils use reading strategies if they feel that they need them and if they feel that it helps their understanding. A pupil’s perceptions of whether or not their independent use of reading strategies contributes to their reading comprehension is critical when they consciously decide to use – or not use – reading strategies. Making students see the value of using strategies is thus a key challenge for teachers.

The importance of reading strategies for different groups of readers

The results show that there are differences between pupil groups when it comes to reading strategy use and the effects of reading strategy teaching.

For example, boys use reading strategies less often than girls and use different reading strategies from girls. Given that reading strategy instruction and reading strategy usage are generally shown to be linked to reading comprehension, it is crucial that teachers ensure that both girls and boys are given the opportunity to develop their strategy use and are trained in having a reflective approach to their use of strategies. Although girls use strategies to a greater extent than boys, the material also shows that girls tend to use strategies less deliberately and reflectively than boys.

The results also show that weak readers generally use reading strategies to a lesser extent than strong readers. They also use different reading strategies; for example, they more frequently use memorisation strategies or strategies that keep the reader close to the text and do not encourage the reader to independently construct meaning from the content of the text. These are reading strategies that have not been shown to be linked to reading comprehension, which could indicate that weak readers should be encouraged to use the same kind of strategies that stronger readers use, i.e. elaboration strategies and control strategies. But it may also indicate that the weak readers have a need for a different type of strategy from stronger readers, or that they do not have the capacity to use the same kind of strategies as stronger readers. The scientific data in the review does not provide a clear answer to which of these explanations is correct.

However, a result that recurs in several studies is that the teaching of reading strategies has a greater effect on the weak readers’ reading comprehension than on that of the strong readers. This might be explained by weak readers encountering comprehension problems in their reading more frequently and therefore deriving greater benefit from a working method that is specifically focused on repairing deficiencies in comprehension.

It is therefore an important challenge for teachers to provide all pupils with texts that are sufficiently demanding. Reading strategies are a tool that pupils can use when they encounter problems or are having difficulties with their reading comprehension. If the texts are too easy, there is no reason for pupils who are strong readers to use reading strategies at all as their reading comprehension is still adequate. As a result, they are not getting any practice in using strategies which they may require later when encountering more difficult texts.

It is currently unclear how reading strategies can help pupils studying a second language. The question of the extent to which second-language pupils use and benefit from reading strategies is only examined in three studies, and the results of these studies are also somewhat contradictory.

Research Selection and Choice of Method

The studies on which the review is based have been selected after extensive searches in international reference databases and after predetermined selection and review processes. Initially, the searches resulted in 11,241 studies that were examined internally, in relation to a number of inclusion criteria. In the same way, 1,493 studies were examined as a second stage by two external researchers, who also looked at the academic quality of the studies. This approach reduces the arbitrariness of the process and helps readers understand and follow how we selected the studies on which the review is based. The final review is a synthesis of 34 empirical research studies on teachers’ instruction of reading strategies and pupils’ use of reading strategies.

To be able to answer the review’s questions about how both teaching and use of reading strategies affects pupils’ reading comprehension, we have found it useful to combine results from studies that examine the area using different methods, and we have therefore tried to include studies with different study designs. This review is therefore a mixed methods review. The studies included belong to one of these three groups:

  • studies in which researchers investigated the effects of some kind of intervention by means of pre and post testing of pupils’ reading comprehension
  • studies in which researchers observed teaching and interviewed pupils in order to analyse what strategy teaching and which strategy uses appear to be useful for pupils’ reading comprehension
  • studies in which pupils have responded to questionnaires about their strategy use.

By using these different types of research studies, we also capture the entire process from teachers’ explicit strategy teaching, via guided and common use of strategies, to pupils’ independent use of reading strategies, within and outside of teaching situations. We regard this as a strength as we also wish to know to what extent and with what success pupils use reading strategies outside the classroom. The purpose of reading strategies is for pupils to independently use them when they need help in understanding texts, even if these are not in a teaching context.

The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).