Comprehension Skills vs. Strategies: What’s the Difference?

LitCentric Insiders know the vital role that reading comprehension plays in classroom literacy instruction. We’re used to working with students who struggle to understand what they read. There are a hundred+ reasons for the lack of comprehension they experience, everything from reading rate, to decoding problems, to limited background knowledge, to limited academic language, to a general misunderstanding of what reading is and why we read in the first place.

Reading comprehension is a challenge…to say the least!

We can teach students to understand what they read by being clear ourselves about the differences between comprehension strategies and comprehension skills.

When a teacher refers to teaching reading comprehension I notice many times they resort to instructing students to complete comprehension tasks. An example of such a task could be comparing two versions of a fable, or sequencing a narrative, or inferring meaning from a photograph. Tasks like these ask students to demonstrate a skill they’ve attained that helps them to comprehend.

Comprehension skills can be thought of as exercises that a reader is often asked or assigned to complete to reflect on or demonstrate understanding after a text has been read.

They are often straightforward and designed to address questions students are expected to answer about a text and manifest tangible results that are easy to assess or grade. Can the student compare the differences and similarities between two fables or not? Did the student sequence the story correctly or not? Can the student identify the author’s purpose or not?

Comprehension strategies, however, are at the heart of comprehension instruction. Reading experts vary a bit in the identification of comprehension strategies but they generally agree on some form of the following list: Monitoring, Clarifying, Questioning, Summarizing, Predicting, Determining Importance, Visualizing, Inferring, Making Connections, Synthesizing, Analyzing, and Critiquing.

Comprehension strategies are cognitive processes that readers use in conjunction with one another flexibly and adeptly in different contexts. They represent deliberate moves readers make when comprehension breaks down and another approach to meaning making is necessary. Think of strategies as purposeful metacognitive actions that readers employ that are unique to each reading situation.

Strategies help our students delve deeper into texts to unpack intricacies and nuances such as theme, author’s purpose, and a text’s application to our lives. They are different approaches for demonstrating a skill. For example, when a student compares two fables she might make connections between the two books. She might summarize the events and check for similarities. She might analyze the authors’ craft for differences. She might visualize the events so it’s easier to compare. There are a lot of strategies a reader can use to execute on a skill.

To achieve these complex and lofty goals our students will need our classrooms to provide safe environments for building background knowledge, taking risks, rich peer discussions, opportunities for text selection, genre study, critical literacy experiences, academic language instruction, writing across the curriculum, and the explicit teaching and modeling of comprehension strategies in concert with one another.

And we’ve got to use this approach starting day one in our kindergarten classrooms. Just think of how much a child can learn when they’ve experienced such focused, expert instruction year after year in elementary school. It’s an exciting time to be a literacy educator!