Fostering Reading Comprehension ... and Dispelling a Few Myths at the Same Time

How can one explain the expression, transmit one’s comprehension? Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to the comprehension of a poem or of a theme? The answer to this tells us how meaning is explained here. Let’s simplify language to the declarative statement that has the capacity to convey unambiguously. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #533)

Reading is not reading if it does not lead to comprehension. Otherwise, it would be known as “word calling”. With that premise, I launch into a brief entry about reading comprehension. It is not comprehensive. Nor is it very technical. Instead, it is a few, common ideas that have been hanging around my head for some time. To help organise my thoughts, I have set out to dispel a few myths that I have heard expressed from time to time:


  • Myth #1: Once one solves issues of decoding and the reader is fluent, then comprehension should take care of itself.
  • Answer #1: Whilst automaticity and fluency does facilitate meaningful comprehension,  learners need ample practice and instruction in order to process, interpret, and respond to the information presented in a texts.  Developing readers also need to build a diverse portfolio of knowledge, interests, reading experiences and vocabulary to make sense of what is read.


  • Myth #2: You cannot teach comprehension, because you cannot teach thinking. Someone either understands something or he doesn’t.
  • Answer #2: Cannot teach someone to think? You have got to be kidding! We teach people to think all the time. We direct people’s attention to significant details. We encourage individuals to imagine. We ask people to draw connections between observations and concepts being learned. We present pictures to people so that we can persuade and inform. Of course we can teach comprehension. 


  • Myth #3: Comprehension is a singular skill that one completes by oneself.
  • Answer #3: To comprehend requires the orchestration of a wide range of skills, whether this involves visualisation, summation, interpretation, comparison, application, etc. Over time, learners are taught to deploy a range of techniques in order to focus on what they read and to make sense of what they read. All of these techniques may not have been made explicit, but this does not mean that they do not exist, that they should not be taught and that they do not become more complex over time.
  • Myth #4: Reading comprehension is a general skill. If one is a good reader, then one can read and understand just about everything.
  • Answer #4: No! It may appear that a good reader can read anything (as long as the reader can control his or her reading diet). Most of us can’t necessarily choose our reading diet. The ability to read a novel is different than the ability to read legislation or philosophy or a science textbook or a government policy or an electricity bill. Furthermore, our ability to comprehend a given text will be impacted by our background knowledge, our experiences, our context, our educational experiences, our language and our motivation. A physicist might devour Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman. For the novice, is it so easy? Perhaps not.

We become better readers by reading, discussing, re-reading and thinking reflectively and critically. In the context of books, we explore new words, new knowledge, new ideas, new perspectives and more. What we read and how we read are things that change across the lifespan. Please enjoy what you read and explore!

Teaching Practice Must Progress in Keeping with the Stages of Reading Development

Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic College Publishers.

Over the past couple months, we have made regular reference to Chall's six stages of reading development, which accounts for reading development from birth to adulthood. For that reason, we have added a specific section on the stages of literacy development to the Teaching Folder of the site. Therefore, it provides us with a platform to explore the way in which pedagogy changes as learners develop throughout the developmental sequence. 

If we borrow Wittgenstein’s concepts here, a developmental account of a language/literacy learning progression is sensitive to the way perception (aspect seeing) changes, practices form, attitudes develop, knowledge takes shape and (literate) forms of life take root (or fail to do so). We need to marvel at how learning transpires and how each new act of learning builds from that which came before. We need to be amazed at the small steps and giant leaps that occur. We need to be cautious of stagnation and entropy.

In time, we will address the following sequence of questions for each of the six levels.

1. What does instruction look like at this stage?

  • activities, routines, etc;
  • books and other texts;
  • writing tasks;
  • formal and informal activities; 
  • independent activity.

2. What should learners be able to accomplish/engage in?

  • independently;
  • with guidance;
  • jointly;
  • if/when modelled.

3. What would gradual release of control (or apprenticeship) look like at this stage?

4. At the end of the stage,  how is the learner prepared for the subsequent stage?

Chiu, M. M., McBride-Chang, C., & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, psychological, and cognitive components of reading difficulties: Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(5), 391–405.

5. What would be characteristic age range be for this stage? What support/intervention should be provided if a learner is failing behind? 

6. How does one coordinate learning/support if there is a substantial difference between the learner's age and developmental stage? How does one choose content that is both linguistically and age appropriate?

7 How can we use the component model of reading development (depicted to the right)  to (a) identify potential assets/deficits exhibited by the learners and (b) to strategise with a multi-dimensional approach to building capacity in each area?

The sequence of images below demonstrates how the balance of instruction and approach alters across a learner’s lifespan. I invite you to explore the Stages of Literacy page. Explore and enjoy!

p.s. Even though one may be tempted to see skills progressing in a purely sequential manner, I would like to emphasise that each skill domain should be practiced/experienced to some extent at each stage of a reader/writer's development. The following table illustrates a significant point: at any given stage there should be literacy elements that we expect the individual to be able to practice explicitly (e.g. spelling) as well as other elements that individual can participate in with guidance (e.g. prompting or scaffolding a story) or jointly with a peer or adult.



Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic College Publishers.

Chiu, M. M., McBride-Chang, C., & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, psychological, and cognitive components of reading difficulties: testing the component model of reading in fourth graders across 38 countries. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(5), 391–405. doi:10.1177/0022219411431241

A Teacher For All Seasons in All Places

I have recently finished a convincing argument that alleviates - if only temporarily - my attempts to seek to identify a singular literacy pedagogy. Visitors to this site will be well aware of my struggle to resolve two images of literacy pedagogy, a conflict which is also apparent in the tension between Wittgenstein's early and later conceptualisations of language. These two images are commonly represented by such dichotomies as practice in print-based skills vs (oral) language development (Aaron et al, 2008); word recognition vs (word) meaning (Chall, Jacobs & Baldwin, 1990); formal practices vs informal practices (Senechal, 2006); or constrained skills vs unconstrained skills (Paris, 2005; Stahl, 2011).

In short, fostering literacy requires that one is adept at systematically reinforcing the core, constrained skills of literacy (to the point of mastery) so that fluency is attained and higher order thinking can be facilitated, whilst providing rich opportunities for students to gain and express meaning in multiple knowledge domains and modes through scaffolded speaking, listening, reading and writing. In my earlier writing, I suggested that such a teacher must be both systematic and expansive, that the literacy pedagogy must be both intensive and extensive, that a teacher must be both precise and discursive, and that a teacher must keep a keen ear our for cognitive development whilst building sociocultural capacities and knowledge. To say the least, a teacher must be organised with an awareness of selecting suitable content, with a clear conception of learning intentions, and with the ability to determine if intentions are being met and whether such learning is fostering all the attributes that will equip the learner for future learning.

A literacy teacher must be "a teacher for all seasons" - so to speak - which is clearly on display in the chapter, "Classroom environments and literacy instruction" that appears in Chall, Jacobs and Baldwin's (1990) book The Reading Crisis: why poor children fall behind. Even though contemporary standards may take exception to the bluntness of the title, the author's observations about the challenges of coordinating a balanced pedagogy are pertinent today.

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A Framework for Considering Literacy Instruction

Across the six stages of reading development (Chall, 1996), I have identified three skill domains and six developmental areas to take into consideration. For the purposes of this outline, I present the three "frames" in the current journal entry.

It is essential that experienced adults “keep the finger on the pulse” to ensure that younger learners are developing the skills, practices, knowledge, habits and attitudes that are required presently and which will be required in subsequent stages.

Learners should have the opportunity to consolidate current skills (that they are expected to complete independently at the current stage) whilst experiencing more advanced skills (that they can complete through the assistance/scaffolding/modelling of an experienced adult).

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Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part Five

The teacher’s role is to arrange tasks and activities in such a way that students are developing (Verhoeven and Snow, 2001). The teacher - therefore - must be "aware of the learning intentions, [know] when a student is successful in attaining those intentions, [have] sufficient understanding of the students’ prior understanding as he or she comes to the task, and [know] enough about the content to provide meaningful and challenging experiences so that there is ... progressive development”  (Hattie, 2012, pp. 19). The classroom and the whole school should promote "a coherent curriculum [that] helps students ... acquire basic skills as well as the strategies needed to tackle challenging tasks (Newmann, Smith, Allensworth & Bryk, 2001) ... Success builds on success, because as students gain confidence, they are willing to work harder and can more readily learn.” (Au, 2005, pp 175). To work toward this aim "what ... [is] needed is ... a theory of social learning which would indicate what in the environment is available for learning, the conditions of learning, the constraints on subsequent learning, and the major reinforcing processes.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg. 55) 

To contribute toward this aim, Gambrell, Malloy & Mazzoni (2011) identified ten features that comprehensive literacy instruction should include. Seven of the features are summarised in this journal entry. Click Read More below for the full discussion.

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Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part Four

As raised in the previous journal entries, a balanced literacy pedagogy must

  • focus on building skills;
  • scaffold rich and diverse comprehension;
  • model and support composition as a cognitive and social practice;
  • anchor reading and writing in authentic, real world learning practices; and
  • motivate and inspire learners to become (embody) the role of readers and writers.

The goal is to foster learners with robust language systems who are equipped with the habits of mind for comprehension and composition with an awareness of how literacy serves as a mediating tool in real-world practices. Even though we have identified that literacy development requires explicit instruction on linguistic elements, progressive practice in comprehension and composition, and rich opportunities in authentic reading and writing practices, this does not mean that the instructional dilemma has been resolved.

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Book Tip: Showing and Doing: Wittgenstein as a Pedagogical Philosopher

By Nicholas C. Burbles, Paul Smeyers, and Michael A. Peters.

Burbles, Smeyers and Peters have collected an excellent series of essays which are directly applicable to an educational perspective of Wittgenstein's philosophy. The premise of the book "Showing and Doing" reflects the ways in which individuals are brought into knowledge and practices, including technical as well as ethical domains. The book's chapters probe cognitive aspects of learning (e.g. imagination and concept-constructing) as well as social factors (e.g. communities of practice and apprenticeships).

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Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part Two

In the previous entry, I suggested that different pedagogical approaches distinguished a skills-based perspective from a usage-based one. Both are required for teaching and learning. In the earlier entry, I alluded to the difference, but I didn't elaborate on this observation.

To recap, a skill-based approach emphasises the ongoing development of language skills, such as phonemic awareness, spelling, sentence construction, reading fluency, vocabulary development and basic comprehension. As a schema, this approach imagines a learner as progressing in a linear development of increasing sophistication. In such a perspective, a teacher is vigilant in monitoring the increasing competency of the learner and the teacher hopes to see his or her student acquire and demonstrate a robust knowledge of language.

On the other hand, a usage-based approach emphasises use, for want of better term. The teacher seeks to present the learner with regular, rich opportunities to read and write in a range of ways, each of which helps the learner to read and write meaningfully.  In such an approach, language knowledge is only one piece of the puzzle. The learner must also assess the situation or text, be guided in reading/writing to suit the situation or text, and develop certain intentions and expectations to guide purpose and comprehension. As a schema, this approach imagines a learner developing a repertoire of writing experiences and a library of his or her reading history. This approach is governed by the age-old saying, "we are what we read?" 

Why do I suggest that there is something of a paradigm shift? Dr Neil Anderson describes one (skill-based) as intensive instruction and the other (usage-based) as extensive instruction. A skill-based approach requires a teacher to be diligent, focused on detail, encouraging, exact and skilled at monitoring and assessing. A usage-based approach requires a teacher who understands the importance of authentic, meaningful literacy; knows how to model and monitor the processes of reading and writing; knows how to establish opportunities so that activities are transformed to memorable events; and can reflect on what students should be able to read and write and why.

usage-based approach would declare, "my students have learned to Tweet. They not only write Tweets, but they are aware of what can be achieved through the use of social media." Meanwhile, a skills-based approach might be skeptical and wonder whether the Twitter skills are contributing to the students language knowledge, which - then - can be tapped into for further development. The usage-based approach may place too great an emphasis on particular forms of communication (but not as aware of the needs for the students to develop general linguistic abilities). At the same time, the skills-based approach needs to be aware of the ways to foster linguistic development through authentic practices.

Similarly, I recently observed a series of writing workshops with fifteen enthusiastic Year 5/6 students. The facilitators of the workshops were definitely deploying a usage-based approach as they conjured a group environment in which students were announcing lines of poetry across the room for the creation of individual and group compositions. Amongst the energy, a student called for my attention and asked. "How do you spell 'splendid'?" I quickly assisted, but I was left to wonder,  'what if I was not called upon? Would that splendid line of poetry exist?' The above example reminds me of the reading experience. How many times have I witnessed exciting reading possibilities stopped in their tracks as the learner struggles to decode the text. 

"A script you can read fluently works on you differently from one that you can write; but not decipher easily. You lock up your thought up in this as though in a casket." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

Learners need both skills and opportunities. There is more yet to explore, but that must wait until another day.


More to come ... 


Managing a Balanced Approach to Literacy: Part One

There is a concept in physics known as the Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It holds that one can know the velocity of a particle and the position of a particle, but one cannot know both at the same time. In other words, one can know the exact velocity of a particle at a given time but not its exact position at that time. Similarly, one can know the exact position of a particle at a given time but not its exact velocity at that particular moment. 

I am proposing that there is a similar phenomenon - at least, metaphorically - that occurs in the circles of literacy pedagogy, which I will refer to as (drum roll, please) the Parallel Dimensions of Literacy. It holds that a teacher can foster a 'skills-based' literacy pedagogy and a teacher can establish a 'usage-based' literacy pedagogy, however, the teacher cannot use the same theoretical position to describe the two approaches to teaching. One must shift the paradigm as one moves between a focus on form to a focus on meaning. 

I am not suggesting that teachers must be one or the other. In truth, both approaches are required, and the best teachers at all levels are those who are equally equipped to develop and monitor core skills whilst providing rich opportunities for students to read, write, speak and learn in authentic, meaningful contexts. 

One can advocate for a skills approach which adheres to a deep knowledge of linguistic structures and focuses on structure development but which suffers from a decontextualised explanation of meaning that does not adequately address how conventional and cultural forms of meaning affect development. On the other hand, one can establish a rich environment in which learners explore (in reading) and express (in writing) knowledge and social activity, but the pedagogy can be seen to gloss over specific developments in phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax and grammar.

The diagram below (presented by Dr Neil Anderson) labels this contrast as Intensive versus Extensive Literacy Instruction.


A Model for Balanced Reading Instruction (Dr. Neil Anderson)