This is Part 1 of a 2-part response
In a recent Washington Post article (excerpted from his new book), Daniel Willingham proposed a provocative view of reading strategies. He refers to the comprehension reading strategies (CRS) as “tricks” not “skills” of reading. Let me offer a counter-argument: his conclusion, analogies, and the evidence from the research on CRS (not just the limited research he cites) do not support such a claim.
Here are the key paragraphs in the first part of his argument:

Can reading comprehension be taught? In this blog post, I’ll suggest that the most straightforward answer is “no.” Reading comprehension strategies (1) don’t boost comprehension per se; (2) do indirectly help comprehension but; (3) don’t need to be practiced…

Here’s why I say that using these strategies doesn’t really make the child a better reader. We’re tempted to think that teaching RCS is like coaching. A baseball coach tells a batter to mimic the sort of things that an excellent hitter does: make the stance relaxed but ready, step into the ball, and so forth. The idea is that by doing what good hitters do often enough, these practices become second nature, and so the amateur’s hitting skill improves. Likewise, if we prompt the beginning reader to do what more successful readers do, in time these techniques will become second nature.

But we can’t actually tell the reader exactly what to do because comprehension depends on the particulars of the text…. I can’t give a reader all-purpose instructions about how to connect sentences, other than to say “sentences must connect.”

So baseball coaching is a bad analogy for RCS.

This is a suspect analysis of the analogy – and I say that as both a former HS and Little League baseball coach and as someone who knows the RCS literature and practice pretty well.
First of all, batting practice is akin to learning and practicing the RCS. You learn about “hitting” by getting some advice and some feedback from where the ball goes and what the coach says about your mechanics. Such practice is equally context-less to practicing reading with strategies. You are not facing a real and unique pitcher in a real and unique game situation. You are learning to hit in general in batting practice.
A critical problem with hitters is not seeing the ball – though believing that they are! They tend to pull their head out, away from looking at the ball, as they swing. The challenge is to develop the skill to resist the natural physics of head movement with the swinging: you must learn to resist it by design.
So “learning to really see the ball” in batting practice is exactly like practicing “inferring moods and character” in a text. You practice the sub-skills and schema developments that are needed to better “see” texts and their meanings when you next read independently in context. Both skills have to be practiced – with deliberate effort – until they become automatic elements of a repertoire.
Another analogy. Willingham then proposes a “more apt” analogy than baseball coaching: putting IKEA furniture together.

Suppose you bought a desk at Ikea which you were to assemble yourself. The instructions, in their entirety read: “Think about desks you’ve seen before. And every now and then step back and see if what you’ve got so far looks like it makes sense.” This is good advice, but it doesn’t tell you how to build your desk. For that, you need to know whether flap A goes into slot B or slot C. You need the specifics of the connections you are to make. Likewise, RCS instruction doesn’t give the specific connections to make among the ideas of a text. It can’t, because how to connect ideas depends on the specifics of the ideas.

This is surely a straw man argument, a caricature of both strategy and the limited long-term value of specific instructions. How is any RCS as vague as “Think about desks you have seen before.”? Reading teachers working with RCS would never say anything so vague about drawing from prior experience. Rather, that strategy – as with any general approach – would mean something specific in varied contexts until it was generalized: “Draw upon your prior experience with menacing dogs and animal owners as you read – why might the old man with the dog treat the boy that way?” The “strategy” is the general form of the advice, not the entirety of the advice.
Similarly, only novice and ineffective coaches say “Watch the ball, you need to watch the ball, you’re not watching the ball!”
Transfer as the goal. Both hitting and reading in context involve unique and unpracticed elements – that’s the difficulty of coaching for transfer, whether in reading or sports. This pitcher is a leftie, and all our batting practice was with righties; this pitcher throws a good change-up but we don’t throw many in batting practice; this game is under the lights but we practice only during the day, etc. Similarly with texts: new texts demand adaptive transfer of our skills. You cannot “plug in” either generic batting or RCS.
What’s thus odd about Willingham’s negative portrayal of RCS as completely unspecific advice compared to specific instructions is that all the research on transfer points in the opposite direction: to learn to transfer and see possible transfer opportunities, you have to generalize from specific successes and failures from using your skills strategically. Indeed, you get negative transfer if the learner only learners something in one context. (This explains the essay item on the MCAS test that I often refer to in which students do not think a 17-paragraph piece of writing can be an essay because it doesn’t have 5 paragraphs.)
Thus, just looking only at the unique features of these single directions inhibits later transfer because each new situation will then look completely different. Indeed, I find it very odd that Willingham never once mentions transfer of learning in discussing either the rationale for strategies or what research reveals about transfer of the strategies – a hallmark of the gold standard studies. (More on the transfer issue in the 2nd post).
The analogy of furniture-building directions is thus completely off. The specific instructions for this desk will not transfer to assembling IKEA chairs or tables; and as you assemble you do, indeed, need to step back and consider whether the assembly is on target. True story: my wife was working with a young man to build some IKEA chairs recently. He believed he was following the directions. My wife looked over, laughed, and she told the young man to step back and see if the chair was correct. Unbeknownst to him, the back legs pointed up while the front legs pointed down. We have all made such mistakes. In fact, had the young man used the strategy of re-reading as he went, he might have caught the error sooner.
In Part 2 I address the most puzzling aspect of Willginham’s argument: that reading strategies are “tricks” not worth spending much time on, not core abilities. I also will question his citing only a slice of relevant research data to support his argument on that score.
Stay tuned.



22 Responses

  1. I had the same thoughts while reading Willingham’s article! I also thought it was strange that he talks about the difference between “skills”-that must be practiced and “tricks” that can be mastered easily–yet he never elaborates on that idea. Why is it that if “comprehension tricks” can be mastered easily do we still have high school students on a first grade level!?!
    I think that perhaps Mr. Willingham has seen a lot of bad comprehension strategy instruction—as an Instructional Specialist at the district level in one of the largest urban districts in the nation, I have seen some bad comprehension strategy instruction as well. My job is to coach the teachers on improving their literacy instruction so that they can do a better job coaching their students’ comprehension.
    I have also seen a lot of great reading comprehension instruction–where students begin to be more independent in their use of the strategies. In excellent reading comprehension instruction the strategy instruction is almost invisible—the reading material is at the heart of the discussion—the strategies are practices for the purpose of uncovering the meaning, not for their own sake.
    Just because they comprehension strategy instruction is nearly invisible, does not mean that they are not important—in fact they are critical, behind the scenes actions that make the production of independent reading of complex text possible!
    Looking forward to your next installments and your take on the “tricks” that Willingham refers to!

    • I’m in complete agreement with you on both points: there are plenty of bad examples of teaching strategies (which I addressed in some previous posts in my literacy series), and that calling them “tricks” does not make much sense. I puzzle over how he thinks comprehension of difficult text even occurs…

      • I just thought of this/noticed it. Marie used the word skills and you Dr. Wiggins used the word strategies. RCS as a set of skills would be great to teach. RCS as a bunch of strategies is just about useless – in my opinion. There is a huge difference between skills and strategies. What do you think? Could the author be thinking like that?

      • As you’ll see in my next post, Willingham cherry-picks the data. There is lots of support that even when you account for background knowledge, struggling readers fail to comprehend because of failed approaches.

        • I think that I have read you make this argument before in your post on reading comprehension strategies. You cite studies where background knowledge has been controlled which then show that reading comprehension strategies are important. I have no doubt that they are if you control for background knowledge. But a scientific test requires you to vary the thing in question. These studies can say nothing about the relative importance of background knowledge.
          Remember, Willingham is not arguing that these skills or “tricks” have no value, just that the value is limited and is not enhanced by continued repetition. I would also add that such repetition would likely be very demotivating. But that’s a different point.

          • As you will see when I cite all the evidence in the next post, the data that Willingham cites is a narrow slice of all available data. There are ‘gold standard’ controlled studies that show the long-term as well as short-term value of instruction in metacognitive moves and CRS. I don’t know why he uses such limited data. The National Reading Panel said long ago that there were sufficient scientific research studies to recommend their use. HOWEVER, few projects and teachers use them properly, to cause transfer, as I have been showing in prior posts. So, the data do indeed support my argument. And, as I shall show, they are not tricks but useful scaffold to ensure a closer attention to more active meaning-making which is surely central to comprehension.

  2. “My wife looked over, laughed, and she told the young man to step back and see if the chair was correct. Unbeknownst to him, the back legs pointed up while the front legs pointed down. We have all made such mistakes. In fact, had the young man used the strategy of re-reading as he went, he might have caught the error sooner.”
    When I was working in a Learning Support Teacher role, I noticed this a lot. However, I did not often see the students going back to correct the misinformation. In fact I often found they either did not know there was a problem, or didn’t notice a problem when they went back to reread. What I did see was those students take their own experiences and insert them/project them into problems with comprehension so that it would make sense even if it doesn’t to an outsider – hence the crazy chair.
    I think the rereading strategy works for good readers. but for struggling readers it totally doesn’t work. Here is my analogy. What if I were to build a desk, you look at it and decide it’s goofy looking (which it probably is if I built it). You tell me to look at it again and do it over. What makes you think I’m going to be able to 1. Notice the problem and 2. Be able to fix the problem? Sure if I’m a good/great builder I’ll fix it, but what if I’m not? If I can’t paint (another example), asking me to redo a painting is not going to make it better.
    I also think strategies are often just gimmicks. They are often taught in isolated situations where the material is cherry-picked for the specific purpose (and students know this). Now I’m totally okay with coaching reading where a teacher mentions something to watch out for and maybe provides some practice and plenty of feedback in that area. However, I’m not really enthusiastic about teaching rereading, and then teaching signal words, and then teaching skimming, and then teaching something else and expecting the students to make those connections while reading – the struggling readers don’t.
    If you don’t like to create music, would you do it over and over until you got it right? What about art, math, cooking, or whatever? If you don’t get it right, and you don’t like doing it, you’re probably not going to put much effort into a redo – or frankly care. Maybe the problem lies more with how students feel about reading…?

    • But you are describing bad teaching and use of the strategies, as I detailed in the other posts. And the research is very clear on your point: poor readers do not pick up failed comprehension problems – even to the point of not seeing deliberately nonsensical sentences when inserted in experimental texts. That’s why focused re-readin in which you read more slowly is useful – but will be resisted until and unless you see a comprehension failure.
      Look over the Reciprocal Instruction paper in its entirety – see how Palinscar & Brown set it up and embedded the teaching in the work. Nothing gimmicky about it. I’ll have more to say on this in Part 2.

    • You are incorrect. I have researched and written widely on transfer, and Willingham’s analysis is quite wrong. Cf. all the work by Schwartz and Bransford as well as the original work on literacy by Palinscar and Brown.

  3. Dr. Wiggins, can I ask you something? Is there any research that looks at testing reading comprehension, finding out what went wrong, and then asking the students what they were thinking each specific time? I’m thinking of trying to do some sort of study where I give a reading comp test, look at missed questions, and then ask the students 1. If they thought they knew the answer, just guessed, or really didn’t care. 2. If they knew they were unsure, did they reread and did it help. 3. What strategy they used to answer the question. I think the questions have to immediately follow the comp test. Maybe have the student read a short passage, answer a question or two, and then the researcher immediately asks about missed questions. What do you think?
    I just feel like we don’t know why they aren’t using reading skills. I find it very hard to believe that by 5th grade the students do not know these reading skills and strategies. I wonder how much it boils down to thinking they knew and/or they really don’t care.

    • Well, this is exactly where I began in Post #1 on literacy, as you may recall. We don’t know enough about what they were thinking; we too rarely de-brief their answers. And what you are findings is exactly what is in the research: the skills are not transferring much. That’s why I puzzled over this in the first place and dove into the research where the same findings occur. So, go for it! Let us know what you find. And/or, I would be happy to help you in developing a de-brief set of questions.
      If you’d like, I can set this up in SurveyMonkey and it can be done online which has the benefit of giving us the possibility to get lots of data from folks.

      • Sounds great. I just got admin approval for it to start in the Fall. We are a school of around 1,500 students in Cairo, Egypt. We also have MAP data that we can refer to as a secondary source. Our school website is
        I put my email in when I commented, but can give it to you again so we can coordinate. It’s ghewgley at
        I think a coordinated study would be very nice as maybe we can get to the bottom of transference. I would love your help with debriefing questions and all. How should I get in touch with you for additional info? I’m also on Twitter at @ghewgley

  4. Serious question: Who should I believe? Both you and Willingham have been writing for decades on teaching and learning. More so than many others I have read, you each hold nuanced and well reasoned views but you write from a more education background and he writes from a more psychology background.(Which is likely were part of the disagreement begins.) Both have tons of evidence, both have pedigree and credentials. This is not the standard false dichotomy in education, you two really disagree. He thinks you are reading the evidence wrong; you think he is reading the evidence wrong. If I were a humble elementary reading teacher, what the heck should I do? Who should I believe?

    • Indeed. No different than left vs. right in politics; or historians arguing about Vietnam.
      Though, as I hope to show in the next post, I don’t think he is reading the evidence wrong. i think I can show he is ignoring evidence to make a point. There are numerous independent groups and studies that have found evidence of the importance of reading strategies done right (NRP, Rand, and 4 major research-based programs). Secondly, though i won’t get into this in Part 2 in great detail, I have noticed an odd thing about the Willingham-Hirsch view of reading comprehension: they write like it just happens if you have the relevant background knowledge. There is little in their writing about how hard and difficult it is to comprehend the meaning of text on one’s own.
      And, so, that is one answer to your question: who presents the most credible and thorough picture of the reading experience? Who accounts for all the successes and failures in learning to read for meaning? In short, which position seems most thorough and credible, supported by all the relevant studies? There is no right or wrong here – as in all such scholarship – just degrees of credibility and usefulness.

  5. Could it be that those students who are struggling with reading comprehension never reach that triggering mechanism that makes them slow down or stop and go back? Could it be that some of those students are so used to the text not making sense that they just go on? Maybe they just ignore the trigger because they don’t know what should be there and what shouldn’t be there.

    • I think it is more basic, given all the research on their failure to see difficulties. They read word to word and think that they have read if they get all the words – there is lots of that in both the research on normal developing readers and struggling LD readers. It seems like a clear UbD case of the need for utter clarity of backward design from the goal of assertive searching for meaning on one’s own as goal, instruction accordingly. All the effective interventions force kids to pay greater attention to lurking issues of understanding the whole.

  6. I agree, I don’t think these strategies are necessarily “tricks”, I do however think that comprehension itself can be taught. In my experience as an educator, to increase comprehension students need to find various ways to moreso “relate” with the text in order to better understand it. It needs to put into context for them. And in order to do that they need to be solid readers, and not struggling with word meaning.

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