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What's Better for Reading Comprehension: Strategy or Content Knowledge Instruction?

Over the last year, I have noticed a new area of debate within the Reading Wars discourse, specifically relating to comprehension instruction. While constructivist or balanced literacy teachers have typically endorsed strategy based instruction. Many structured literacy advocates have argued for instead focusing on background knowledge and vocabulary instruction. Unfortunately, I don’t think either argument has been previously well proven within the scientific literature. Silverman, et al. 2022 and Elleman, et al. 2009 conducted meta-analyses that looked at vocabulary and background knowledge instruction. They found large effect sizes overall suggesting a strong efficacy. However, they also both conducted sub-analyses that only included the results for standardized tests. Both meta-analyses showed no significant effect for vocabulary or background knowledge instruction on standardized assessments. This would seem to suggest that vocabulary and background knowledge instruction only benefits comprehension outcomes for texts specific to the instruction and that background knowledge/vocabulary instruction does not improve general reading comprehension. In other words, it suggests that there is no transfer effect for background knowledge and vocabulary instruction. 


Critics of strategy instruction often cite the 1988 landmark Baseball study by Recht, et al. In this study, the authors tested the students ability to understand a story about baseball before and after learning background knowledge/vocabulary regarding baseball. Their study showed students could understand the text better, after learning about baseball vocabulary and background knowledge. However, this study was measuring proximal effects, not distal effects. It showed that background knowledge and vocabulary instruction could increase a students ability to comprehend a specific text, but did not show that it improved general reading comprehension. In other words, it did not establish whether or not there was a transfer effect to background knowledge and vocabulary instruction, for comprehension. 


In 2022 Filderman, et al conducted a meta-analysis of comprehension instruction that included studies on strategy, vocabulary, and background knowledge instruction. Their study showed that strategy instruction showed the highest outcomes. However, the difference between background knowledge instruction and strategy instruction was not statistically significant, suggesting that both types of instruction were effective. That said, Filderman, et al did not control for standardized, vs researcher designed assessments, so the study could not measure which type of instruction created a better transfer effect. Moreover Filderman et al, looked at higher grades and older students might benefit more from reading comprehension instruction, as their texts are more abstract.


While all of these meta-analyses were well done and have helped to propel the science of reading forward, they also all shared limitations. None of these studies coded for core vs intervention instruction. They used an input model that included all assessments and measured the general overall impact of reading comprehension, not what type of instruction best improved reading comprehension results. Moreover, most studies included in these meta-analyses looked at multiple types of comprehension instruction at once and compared to business as usual control groups. This means that these meta-analyses mostly measured the random effects of comprehension, but the authors did not control for fixed vs random effects.


For these reasons I did not believe the current scientific research could definitively answer several important questions:


  1. What was the impact of comprehension instruction across different grades?

  2. What was the best type of comprehension instruction if only standardized tests/distal measures were used?

  3. How does a random vs fixed effects model impact our understanding of the comprehension literature? 

  4. How should comprehension instruction change for struggling readers, vs for core instruction?


Over the last 7 months, I have been working with a group of colleagues to answer these questions by conducting a meta-analysis on the topic that: included studies from k-12, coded for fixed vs random effects, coded for standardized vs researcher designed assessments, coded for demographic differences, and only included reading comprehension assessments. Today I am submitting our meta-analysis for peer-review. And while, I’m sure it will be months, before we succeed in getting the paper published, I wanted to share some of our preliminary non-peer reviewed findings. However, please note that this blog post is not the full meta-analysis. That said, while I will not be sharing our full meta-analysis, before the peer-review process is complete, I am happy to share the unpublished manuscript with any particularly keen individual. The full manuscript is much longer, and contains much more exhaustive statistical analysis, including 9 regression analyses. 


Meta-Analysis Summary: 

Within our initial search for the meta-analysis we included all 43 studies from the Silverman study and all 64 studies from the Filderman study. We also did a systematic search of the ERIC database that yielded an additional 394 studies. However, most studies were excluded for being non-experimental and many more were excluded for not having a reading comprehension assessment. After all exclusions, we included 73 studies in total. 


Studies were then coded for the following classifications:

Vocabulary: the explicit instruction of word meanings.

Background Knowledge/Content: explicit instruction on content, not directly related to literacy. 

Cognitive Strategy/Skill: activating, inferring, monitoring-clarifying, questioning, searching-selecting, summarizing, and visualizing-organizing.

Meta-Cognition Strategies: Strategies meant to make the student more self-aware of the comprehension process, such as pausing, and self-questioning. 

Miscellaneous Strategies: Reading comprehension strategies that are not cognitive or meta-cognition based.

Reciprocal Teaching: A pedagogy in which “students become the teacher in small group reading sessions. Teachers model, then help students learn to guide group discussions using four strategies: summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Once students have learned the strategies, they take turns assuming the role of teacher in leading a dialogue about what has been read.” (Reading Rockets, 2022). 

Graphic Organizers: Organizing information, with visual tools.

Morphology: Comprehension instruction that focused on the meaning of word parts. 

Technology Based: Comprehension instruction that utilized computer software or apps. 

Standardized Assessment:  A commonly used assessment made by a third party separate from the study researcher. 

Researcher Designed Assessment: An assessment, (usually proximal) made specific for the study at hand.
Fixed Effect Study: A study in which both the treatment and control group received the same instruction, except for the addition of the treatment variable. 

Random Effect Study:  A study in which either the treatment group received multiple additional treatment variables or the control group received no specified instruction. 

Intervention Study: A study on struggling readers.

Core Instruction Study: A study on regular classroom instruction. 

Meta-Analysis Results:


The researcher designed assessments showed statistically significant effects for all types of instruction, especially background knowledge instruction and graphic organizers. However, when only standardized assessment results were included only reciprocal, cognitive strategy, meta-cognition strategy, vocabulary, and graphic organizer instruction showed statistically significant effects. Moreover, only reciprocal teaching showed an effect size greater than .39. Both strategy and vocabulary instruction showed equivalent, but small effect sizes. These results changed significantly across demographics and grades though. Background knowledge instruction results were insignificant, across all standardized assessment moderator variables, suggesting that there is no transfer effect to background knowledge instruction. That said, this does not mean teachers should not teach background knowledge, but rather it should be targeted towards what the students are reading/being assessed on.

In the early grades, vocabulary instruction showed the greatest benefits. Whereas in the later grades strategy instruction was more effective. For core  instruction only cognitive strategy instruction showed a statistically significant benefit for core instruction. Whereas for struggling readers, reciprocal teaching, graphic organizers, and vocabulary instruction proved to be the most valuable. 


Of course,  the debate for using strategy vs vocabulary/background knowledge, might in itself be a false dichotomy, as the debate seems to be built on an “either or'' model. This is problematic, because we found no evidence that using just one form of comprehension instruction at a time produced better outcomes. Indeed, we ran a Pearson and T-test analysis on the number of types of comprehension instruction used within a study and the mean effect size found. We found a Pearson effect size of .09 and a p-value of .10 suggesting that the number of types of comprehension instruction used at one time had no meaningful impact on reading comprehension results. Since both strategy and vocabulary instruction showed statistically significant benefits, we believe it makes the most sense to teach both. 


Written by Nathaniel Hansford, Sky McGlynn, and Joshua King

Last Edited 2023-02-20



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