The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading Comprehension - ASCD
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February 1, 2020

The Skill, Will, and Thrill of Reading Comprehension

A three-pronged framework can help students not only learn meaning of texts, but also gain motivation and purpose from them.

Instructional Strategies
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Helping students make meaning from texts is critical to their success, and reading comprehension is one of the oldest lines of inquiry in education. Way back in the early 20th century, Thorndike noted that comprehension requires "a cooperation of many forces" (1917, p. 232). Following a thorough review of research, Snow (2002) later clarified those forces and noted that comprehension is dependent on four variables: (1) reader variables (age, ability, affect, knowledge base, and motivation); (2) text variables (genre, format, features, and considerateness); (3) educational-context variables (environment, task, social grouping, and purpose); and (4) teacher variables (knowledge, experience, attitude, and pedagogical approach).

Unfortunately, however, models for helping teachers develop students' comprehension have not kept pace with the knowledge about what comprehension is. While there are strategies, such as modeling or reciprocal teaching, a unifying framework for reading comprehension instruction remains elusive. The education field needs a structured approach to comprehension instruction.

Hattie and Donoghue (2016) suggested instructional strategies could be organized along a continuum of skill, will, and thrill, which sparked our thinking about reading. These three phases also apply to students' improved reading comprehension. When students do all of these, they come to see the instructional experiences their teachers provide them as purposeful. Importantly, they begin to accept responsibility for their learning and understand that struggle is a natural part of the process.

Getting the Skills

In this first phase of instruction, teachers focus on the component parts of reading—oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and fluency. These components are formulated according to the age and needs of students, with the need fading for some skills instruction as students master them. However, neglecting any one of these processes will very likely result in compromised comprehension. If a student is laboring over individual words, whether because she can't decode them or because she doesn't know what they mean, meaning making is harder and sometimes impossible. When students read laboriously, they rarely pay attention to the meaning and often forget what they read at the start of the sentence or paragraph. Comprehension suffers.

We want students to evolve from strategic readers to skilled ones. As Afflerbach, Pearson, and Paris (2008) note, "Reading skills operate without the reader's deliberate control or conscious awareness … [t]his has important, positive consequences for each reader's limited working memory" (p. 368).

Strategies, on the other hand, are "effortful and deliberate" and occur during initial learning, and when the text becomes more difficult for the reader to understand (p. 369). At the skill level, specific comprehension strategies can be introduced, such as monitoring, predicting, summarizing, questioning, and inferring. Noticing when meaning is lost is a useful skill, especially when the reader has fix-up strategies such as rereading, revisiting the purpose for reading, using context clues, talking with others, or formulating questions. Similarly, summarizing information in a text, asking questions during reading, and making inferences will likely improve a reader's comprehension of a text.

Building Background Knowledge

Notably, comprehension strategies cannot compensate for lack of background knowledge or vocabulary. Imagine trying to predict or visualize while reading the following sentence from a physics textbook: "Plane potential flow supplemented by the inclusion of circulation is of considerable practical importance" (Joos, 1986, p. 207). You can probably decode all the words and read it fluently. You likely even know the general meaning of the vocabulary. But without the knowledge of the discipline, true meaning is elusive, and not even a whole host of comprehension strategies will help.

Two effective instructional approaches that can help with this background knowledge and vocabulary issue are direct instruction and teacher modeling. Despite some negative perceptions about direct instruction, there is evidence of its influence on learning (Hattie, 2012). Direct instruction is not simply telling students what to do or think but rather is an explicit approach to guiding student thinking. For example, the teacher might directly teach the meaning of key vocabulary terms and have students practice those word meanings. The technique requires that teachers provide students with input and then guide their practice, check for understanding, and have students practice independently.

Teacher modeling using a think-aloud process is another effective instructional approach for developing students' skills (Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2011). Teachers verbalize their expert thinking such that students can imitate similar cognitive and metacognitive actions. It is an apprenticeship technique in which students learn to approximate the actions of another more skilled person. For example, a teacher might say:

I've noticed that I'm not really understanding this paragraph. I think that I'll go back to reread because it might be that I lost focus and wasn't paying attention. If that doesn't work, then I think I'll focus on the words that are confusing to me.

The teacher then proceeds to demonstrate exactly that. In turn, students apply the same strategies to a similarly complex text to support their own understanding.

Unfortunately, many students are left at the skill level of learning. Reading comprehension appears to them as a set of skills they must mobilize to understand a text. However, we argue that the skills alone are insufficient. To develop strong readers who choose to read and learn from texts, skill must be coupled with will.

Where There's a Will …

The will level of reading comprehension focuses on students' mind-sets about reading. These approaches invite students to engage more fully with texts and attempt to create the mental attitude, inclination, habit, or disposition that predetermines their willingness to engage in reading. In other words, the will of comprehension relates to student engagement and motivation to read and understand.

Far too often, students abandon reading when the text is complex. A common misconception is that reading should always be easy, and struggle must be avoided. In fact, productive failure is widely understood as a necessary component of the problem-solving process. And reading is problem solving. There are times when we grapple with ideas and persevere to make sense. That is not to say that 1st graders should be reading War and Peace, but rather that struggle should be seen as natural, and that sometimes the texts we read are challenging. Overcoming appropriately challenging tasks fuels a sense of pride and accomplishment, important ingredients in motivation.

Challenge is crucial for goal setting, which is itself a powerful influence on learning. But all goals are not created equally. Mastery goals are focused on increasing competence ("I want to learn to speak Mandarin"), whereas performance goals are focused on the grade for the assessment ("I want to get an A in my Mandarin course"). Performance goals are much less motivating, whereas helping students establish mastery goals can positively impact their will. For example, getting a good grade on an essay (a performance goal) is not likely to increase a student's will to read, but writing a clear and coherent essay that persuades others might serve to increase motivation and engagement (it is also likely to result in a good grade). We have seen students set mastery goals to understand an Emily Brontë novel ("My goal is to understand the ways the author uses the unreliable narrator device in Wuthering Heights") and with science texts ("My goal is to use the information in the main part of the article with what's listed in the diagrams"). But students don't independently generate mastery goals like these—they are the product of success criteria developed by the teacher. Mastery goals that illustrate the criteria for success in the lesson illuminate the incremental progress students are making in their learning.

Another dimension of will in reading comprehension is providing choice. There is nothing wrong with studying particular texts in class, but if you can increase students' choice about which texts to read, you will increase the number of students who actually do the reading. Instead of sending students home to read the whole-class novel, focus on a genre, topic, or theme and create a list of 10 titles that will allow students to master the standards. Then have them select the one they are most interested in. Book clubs and literature circles also work well. Students can choose from a list of possible titles and meet regularly in small groups with fellow readers to discuss their selected book. Students are more likely to engage in the reading if they know that they will have opportunities to talk with peers during class about the text.

Finally, to increase will, ensure that students' learning is relevant. When students understand why they are reading something (and accept the challenge of learning), they are more likely to put forth the effort. Teachers should make connections between the content and the ways that students will use the information inside and outside the classroom. For example, the students in Brandy Ziegler's middle school science class knew that they would use the information they were reading in in their English class to write letters to elected officials about water pollution. In addition, teachers can increase relevance by ensuring that the texts they select honor the range of life experiences, interests, and aspirations of students.

For the Thrill of It

The final phase of our framework focuses on the excitement that students should experience when they comprehend a text. Thrill in this context refers to the ways that students can use the information or the experience of reading and comprehending in service of something else. We discovered this phase when we started asking students, "What does the text inspire you to do?"

Consider the group of kindergarten students who read The Day the Crayons Quit (Daywalt, 2013) with their teacher. This picture book follows the perspectives of different characters, all crayons. Following several readings of the text over the week, the teacher asked the students what they were inspired to do or what they were curious about after finishing the book. One group of students decided to search the internet to figure out the correct color of the Sun (the picture book includes a debate about this). Another group wanted to know if the author had written other books (he had not at the time) and went on a search for additional books about crayons specifically and art in general. Still another group decided to write their own books about what their crayons would say. And one student wrote a book about what her shoes might argue about. Each student was inspired, but not in the same way as their peers. This served to reinforce the idea that reading allows you to do something with the ideas that you gain from the experience.

Students need to experience the thrill of comprehension if they are to accept the challenge of developing their skills and putting forth the will to understand. Richard Anderson, a pioneer in reading research, recently argued that we needed new metaphors for the purpose, or thrill, of reading. He said that students should be speaking, thinking, and taking action and argued that the new roles might be of storyteller, explainer, or arguer.

Imagine the power of writing reviews rather than book reports. Or the impact of presenting information to others and seeing something change. Or debating ideas or engaging in a Socratic seminar. There are many ways that students can be invited into the thrill of comprehension. But all of them involve students becoming producers and sharing their thinking with others.

Next-Level Comprehension

Simply comprehending a text is not the point of comprehension instruction. Too often, educators seem to be stuck at the skill level, working very hard to develop students' strengths in this area and forgetting to introduce joy, curiosity, and purpose into the experience. A more comprehensive framework for comprehension instruction recognizes that skills are not enough. Ultimately, we must show students that reading, and reading comprehension, are not passive experiences. The point of this work is to do something with the information. When the skill, will, and thrill of reading are all developed together, educators can radically change students' learning from texts.


Afflerbach, P., Pearson, P. D., & Paris, S. (2008). Clarifying differences between reading skills and reading strategies. The Reading Teacher, 61(5), 364–373.

Daywalt, D. (2013). The day the crayons quit. New York: Philomel Books.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2011). Coaching middle-level teachers to think aloud improves comprehension instruction and student reading achievement. Teacher Educator, 46(3), 231–243.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Donoghue, G. (2016). Learning strategies: A synthesis and conceptual framework. Science of Learning, 1.

Joos, G. (1986). Theoretical physics (3rd ed.). New York: Dover.

Snow, C. E. (2002). Reading for understanding: Toward a research and development program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Thorndike, E. L. (1917). Reading as reasoning: A study of mistakes in paragraph reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 8(6), 323–332.

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