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

Feisty teachers 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 such as comparing two versions of a fable, or sequencing a narrative, or even determining fact versus opinion. These are all important skills for students to be able to demonstrate with proficiency, but they are truly comprehension skills.

Comprehension skills can be thought of as tasks 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 procedures 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 facts and opinions 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: Background Knowledge/Schema, Monitoring/Clarifying, Questioning, Summarizing, Determining Importance, Visualizing, Inferring, Making Connections, and Synthesizing.

Comprehension strategies are cognitive processes that readers use in conjunction with one another flexibly and adeptly in different contexts. They represent deliberate move 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. It is these deeper understandings that the authors of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) want to ensure students can generate with ease.

To achieve these complex and lofty goals our students will need our classrooms to provide safe environments for 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!