Nell K. Duke, Researcher with a Heart

“All kids have prior knowledge. The question is, does it match what they are learning in school?”

Nell K. DukeThis was just one of many memorable quotes participants jotted down as Nell K. Duke spoke to principals during their January conference at Teachers College. Duke is a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of numerous articles and books on early literacy development, reading comprehension instruction, and informational reading and writing in the primary grades. Her research often focuses on children living in poverty and issues of equity in literacy instruction. Passionate about children and about research, Duke shared many insights about what is truly important when it comes to developing children’s reading and comprehension skills.

Duke began by sharing her experiences and discoveries while being a part of the panel of researchers for the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide on “Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade” ( The panel outlined five recommendations for what is most important to teach young children. While these suggestions were not surprising, the list reinforced what we all strive to do across our schools, including:

  • Teach students how to use reading comprehension strategies
  • Teach students to identify and use the text’s organizational structure
  • Guide students through focused, high-quality discussion on the meaning of text
  • Select texts purposely to support comprehension development
  • Establish an engaging and motivating context in which to teach reading comprehension

Duke identified motivation and discussion as areas that compel further research, however anecdotal evidence strongly supports the importance of these key factors in strengthening reading ability in young children. What motivates kids to read? Purpose and choice. Kids need to have real reasons to read and choices of texts to read, but above all, they need to feel successful. There is also a positive relationship between a cooperative collaborative approach and literacy development.

Nell Duke gave some tips for bringing these suggestions into the classroom. For example, teach text structure early on by getting kids to think, “How does this author organize this text or this part?” With narrative structure, it is better to teach story elements: characters (and their thoughts, feelings, actions), setting, problem, and solution, than it is to teach “beginning, middle, end” sequence. After all, personality traits are what we want readers to attend to more than physical characteristics. Interactive read-aloud is another essential component of the primary classroom that increases comprehension, especially when higher-order questions and explanations are utilized. The quality of the questions and the active participation of the students affects positively on how kids comprehend and process texts. In addition, elaborating on children’s comments helps develop vocabulary and oral language. In fact, according to Nell Duke, deliberate and systematic vocabulary instruction is the single greatest tool you can use to build comprehension, especially when words are talked about, acted out, used in book discussions, and used throughout the day and week (Scanlon, Anderson, & Sweeney, 2010, drawing on Beck, et al, 2002).

Finally, “a kid is not a level” summarized Nell Duke’s thinking about the human side of teaching reading. If a child is interested in a topic he or she will read at a higher level and understand even better than a more proficient reader with little interest in the same topic. In one study, a group of readers were sorted by reading ability and then, interest in baseball (JimĂ©nez and Duke 2011). They were then given books to read about baseball. The “poor readers” were better readers of these texts than the “good readers” even when the texts were considered too hard for the lower readers. She cautioned that if we want to push kids as far as they can go, we need to help them find texts of interest and to integrate literacy into the sciences and other areas that can spark curiosity and passion in our young readers, while also building conceptual and content knowledge. Research also shows that teachers make more difference than programs; so take heart, you can make all the difference when it comes to developing lifelong readers.

To read further articles and chapters by Nell Duke on the topic of reading comprehension and instruction you can access this link: