What components comprise high-quality reading instruction?
Page 8: Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension is the ability to understand written text, and it ultimately occurs when students translate written text into spoken text. This is a process that, combined with prior knowledge, allows them to:
Identify simple facts presented in written text (literal comprehension)
Make judgments regarding the written text’s content (evaluative comprehension)
Connect the text being read to other written passages and situations (inferential comprehension)
Why Should I Teach It?
Reading comprehension is a critical skill that students must acquire. The National Reading Panel describes comprehension as the “essence of reading.” In other words, reading comprehension is necessary to achieve academic success and to continue a lifetime of learning.
Students have a significantly greater chance of understanding what they have read when they employ a variety of reading-comprehension strategies. Although asking students questions about what they read is important, doing so is not the same as teaching them reading-comprehension strategies. The skill should be taught to students of all grade levels.
Reading research from the past 30 years has clearly demonstrated that teaching comprehension strategies to students is effective in improving students’ reading-comprehension skills. (National Reading Panel, 2000)
Comprehension-strategy training should be emphasized early in elementary school, even as students are just beginning to read. (Partnership for Reading, 2006b)
How Do I Teach It?
Reading-comprehension strategies should be employed across the grade levels. These may be taught effectively through explicit instruction, a process that can be achieved through the following steps:
Explain and discuss what strategy students should use, as well as when, where, and how to apply it.
Model the strategy. Click on the video below to view an example of a teacher modeling a strategy.
Guide students in the strategy.
Allow students the time to practice the strategy on their own.
Teacher: Boys and girls, we’re going to learn what to do when you don’t understand something that you’re reading. Sometimes, when you’re reading and you come upon a word that you don’t know what it means and that confuses you, that’s called a “clunk.” Say that word.
Teacher: Very good. So a clunk is a word that stops you from understanding what you’re reading.
Narrator: In this lesson, the teacher uses two fix-up strategies, both using context clues that students can apply on their own to determine word meanings. The first strategy is to reread the sentence with the clunk, look for key ideas, and think about what makes sense. Another strategy is to reread the sentences before and after the clunk and look for clues.
Teacher: So I’m going to model for you on how to use these two strategies and how to figure out the meaning of the clunk. Now I’m going to be looking for a word that might cause me a problem. (Reads) “Millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, strange creatures swam in the sea…”
Narrator: Students listen as the teacher reads the text:
Teacher: “The ocean boiled and bubbled, volcanoes erupted underwater, and the floor of the sea came up to form great cliffs.” Now here’s a clunk: “erupted.” “Volcanoes erupted under water.” I do not know the meaning of that word, so what I’m going to do first is I’m going to write the clunk “erupted” on my sticky note.
Narrator: Ms. Leanderos teaches students to write down unfamiliar words; then, she thinks aloud for students, as she works out the meaning.
Teacher: Now I’m going to use my fix-up strategies to help me find the meaning of this clunk word, “erupted.” “Volcanoes erupted under water.” So I know that something happened under water. “And the floor of the sea came up to form great cliffs.” So something happened under the volcano.
Narrator: The teacher models trying another fix-up strategy when the first one doesn’t provide an answer.
Teacher: The sentence before “volcanoes” is: “Time passed. The ocean boiled and bubbled.” I think I have some ideas. I have some key ideas in this sentence that comes before the clunk. “Boiled and bubbled.” When something boils and it bubbles then that could probably mean exploded. Let me see if that makes sense. “Volcanoes exploded under water, and the floor of the sea came up to form great cliffs.” That makes sense. So now that I find the meaning, I’m going to write the meaning of the word erupted on my sticky note. And that’s to remind me that if I read this word “erupted,” it means “exploded.”
Do you understand how I’m using these fix-up strategies to figure out the clunk? You reread the sentences, you look for clues—ideas—to figure out the meaning and think if it makes sense. And if clunk note card number 1 doesn’t help, then you go to number 2, where you have to read the sentences before and sometimes the sentences after to figure out the meaning of a word. Now, let’s practice together on how to use our fix-up strategies when we come upon a clunk that keeps us from understanding the story.
Narrator: The teacher guides students through the fix-up strategies again, ensuring that instruction is appropriately scaffolded.
Teacher: And what do you do with clunk card number 2?
Little Boy: Reread the sentences before and after the clunk, looking for clues.
Teacher: Very good!
Narrator: The teacher allows time for additional guided practice, monitoring as students read with partners and begin to apply the fix-up strategies.
Little Girl: “Fragrant” is another clunk word. (Reads instructions) “Reread the sentence with the clunk and look for key ideas to help you figure out the word. Think about what makes sense.” (Reads) “The little house smelled of fresh bread and new cut wood and fragrant flowers, for Mary’s mother always kept a… [inaudible]” “Flowers” is a clue word.
(Close this panel)
More information about strategy instruction is available in the following IRIS Modules.
Reading comprehension typically begins in kindergarten and continues through third grade and beyond.
If students are to master a strategy, they must have opportunities to apply it in a variety of settings and conditions. Depending on students’ individual abilities, most strategies will require three or more lessons before many students are able to demonstrate independent use. When providing such instruction, it is important that teachers use texts written at students’ independent reading levels; otherwise, students are likely to shift their focus from trying to use the new comprehension strategy to decoding unknown words.
Reading-comprehension strategies may be implemented before reading, during reading, and after reading. The table below includes examples of reading-comprehension strategies for each of these stages. Though some strategies can be utilized in more than one stage or can overlap (e.g., students may create and answer questions while predicting), each strategy has been listed only once in the following table.
Predicting focuses students’ attention on anticipating what they are going to read. Learning to use this strategy helps students prepare mentally for the content of the written text, helps them make connections with their previous reading and experiences, and helps them formulate questions they may wish to have answered by their reading. Predicting is not limited to prereading an entire book. Recognizing a foreshadow in an illustration or predicting the action of a subsequent chapter or the reaction of a character to another character’s statement are all effective uses of this strategy.
For example, when students view the cover of Happy Birthday Rotten Ralph, they see a red cat sitting in a cake and preparing to take a bite and a girl with her hands at her cheeks, looking surprised. Based on the title and the cover illustration, students might anticipate that this story is about a birthday party gone topsy-turvy and could be prepared for the corresponding vocabulary they might encounter. Alternatively, students who read the following paragraph from Chapter 12 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might predict Harry’s return to a mirror later in the chapter:
How long he stood there, he didn’t know. The reflections did not fade and he looked and looked until a distant noise brought him back to his senses. He couldn’t stay here, he had to find his way back to bed. He tore his eyes away from his mother’s face, whispered, “I’ll come back,” and hurried from the room.
The confirmation of students’ reading predictions serves to increase their comprehension; when their predictions are refuted, however, students are able to identify potential misunderstandings in their reading.
Preteaching new vocabulary
Preteaching vocabulary is one way to prepare students to encounter unfamiliar words. Rather than stumbling on individual words in reading, students can anticipate new words and read a written text for comprehension. Carnine, Silbert, and Kameenui recommend following the method of preteaching outlined below:
State the definition and ask students to repeat the it.
Provide students with good and bad examples of the word in sentences.
Review the new word along with previously learned words to ensure that students have added them to their long-term memories.
Taking a book walk
Taking a book walk helps students to anticipate what they will read. During a book walk, students consider a book’s front and back covers, its table of contents, a sample of its pages, and its illustrations. Students then discuss together (initially) or think through independently (mastery) what information they have gathered about the book by knowing the title, author, illustrator, reviews, summary, etc. Students can use what they have gleaned from the book walk to make predictions or to make connections with their prior knowledge. They may also learn to use this strategy to select books of interest for future reading.
Activating prior knowledge
Readers comprehend and learn when they are able to connect new information in their reading material to what they already know. Activating prior knowledge encourages students to recall information they already have in mind concerning a written text, author, or related topic. For example, a common classroom activity at the elementary level that involves activating prior knowledge is the KWL chart. Before reading, students indicate what they already Know about a topic/ author/ time period and what they Want to learn from reading, and then, following the reading, students list what they have just Learned.
Using mental imagery
When students learn to use mental imagery, they improve their understanding of the text and increase the likelihood that they will remember what they have read. Readers use mental imagery when they form mental pictures of the information, setting, characters, or events described in their reading. For example, a student learning mental imagery with the Newberry-Award-winning book Bud, Not Buddy would use the author’s words to visualize a jazz band getting ready to practice:
Five of the men had their eyes on the other guy. One of them had drumsticks in his hands and was leaned over softly tapping out a rhythm on the wooden stage floor. Three of them were drinking from bottles of pop, and one, a real old one, was using a rag to wipe the inside of a trumpet. The guy who had to be my father was sitting with his back to me wearing a hat.
When learning to use mental imagery, students can role-play, draw a picture of the subject discussed in the reading, or describe to a peer what they read.
Utilizing graphic organizers
The use of graphic organizers allows students to record information from written texts in diagrams, charts, or other visual representations. Graphic organizers help students to better grasp concepts and their connections and to recognize story structure. For example:
Students may complete a story map to record a story’s characters, setting, conflict, resolution, and main events of a story. In recording this information, students focus on locating the central ideas of a story.
Students may develop a timeline to identify key events from a history text. In documenting the events, students may make more sophisticated connections regarding event sequence, simultaneity, patterns, and possible consequences than they would be capable with only the written text.
Students may create a semantic web to demonstrate a vocabulary word’s synonyms and antonyms. By listing closely connected words, students may gain a more thorough understanding of new vocabulary.
Graphic organizers have been shown to help children with learning disabilities increase their comprehension skills.
Creating and answering questions
Creating and answering questions encourages students to interact with the written text. Students develop questions that they anticipate answering either with the text they are about to read or with further information they may seek after reading, if the questions are not answered. For instance students may:
Ask about curiosities, uncertainties, doubts, and predictions (“I wonder what will happen when…?” “Why would this person…?” “Could that really…?”)
Probe issues (“Would I act the same in this situation?” “How would this affect my family?”)
Examine problems in the text or with their reading (“Didn’t the author state…?” “When did I lose my focus…?”) using with their self-generated questions
Students, including those with learning disabilities, show improvement in reading comprehension when they learn to question themselves before, during, and after reading a passage. Again, note that assigning students to answer questions about their reading is not the same as teaching them how to ask and seek answers to questions as they read.
By monitoring their comprehension, students assess their own understanding while engaging in reading a written text. When students recognize that they do not understand a portion of a text, they can use a variety of reading techniques to resolve the difficulty. For example, imagine that a student reads the sentence below and does not understand it but realizes that three words (italicized) are not familiar.
The clever rabbit outsmarted the wolf by darting into its underground den.
In order to understand the sentence, the student could use a dictionary, a peer, a teacher, or his or her own reading skills to define the unknown words. The student might try to:
Reread the sentence to see whether the unknown words make sense in context (“into its underground” may lead the student to infer that “den” means “home”).
Substitute another word to guess the unknown word’s meaning (the student could replace “darting” with “going” and gather enough information to keep reading).
Skip the unknown word altogether to see whether it is required for comprehension (removing “clever” from the sentence does not change its meaning).
Summarizing involves students’ restating succinctly and in their own words the main or central ideas of a written text. When students condense information into a summary, they concentrate on the important elements of a written text, weed out the extraneous detail, and remember what they have read. In order to teach students to effectively summarize what they read, it is helpful for them to compare good and bad example summaries of a shared reading. The good example summaries should demonstrate a complete yet brief overview of the text, whereas the bad example summaries would provide incomplete or incorrect information and extraneous detail. Discussing good and bad example summaries helps students to identify what they need to include in their own reading summaries.
Analyzing story elements
Teaching students to attend to story elements has been shown to enhance reading-comprehension skills. Analyzing story elements—such as characters, setting, and plot—helps students to make connections within the story and to better comprehend what they read. Graphic organizers, such as story maps and matrices, are formats frequently used by students to record story elements. Students can also draw images of story elements to increase their understanding of texts. For example, in an activity called “Draw and Label Retelling,” students draw their representations of a story and label its key components (i.e., Who? Where? What happened? How did it end?).
Retelling involves a student’s restating the story, concept, or description in his or her own words. Retelling is different from summarizing in that retelling allows detail to be included with the main ideas. When students retell, they practice recalling the reading, may use vocabulary from the reading, and locate points of confusion about the reading. Retelling is frequently completed orally and requires an audience (teacher, peer, class) for the reteller. One method of practicing retelling is for pairs of students to share a reading, and take alternating, one-minute timed turns retelling what they have read—picking up the story retelling where the partner leaves off.
One important component of retelling is sequence. Teachers can use transitional words or questions (e.g., “First,” Next,” “What happened at the beginning? Middle? End?”) to prompt students to retell a reading more completely. Younger students find tangible props helpful for retelling a story. For example, pig and wolf puppets can make a retelling of The Three Little Pigs more accessible for young readers.
Identifying main idea(s)
Identifying the main idea or ideas within a written text helps students to self-monitor their understanding. Teaching students to identify the main idea of a paragraph, story, or description focuses students’ attention on the key aspects of the written text. This focus is especially important when students can otherwise be distracted by the frustration of encountering new vocabulary, the difficulty of reading about a topic of lesser interest, or the embarrassment of not understanding what their peers seem to comprehend. Learning to identify the main idea(s) is particularly helpful in reading written texts in core content areas (e.g., science, math, social studies), as subject-area textbooks are often difficult for students to comprehend.
To assist students in practicing how to identify the main idea(s), teachers should draw students’ attention to chapter titles and headings as well as to the pattern of main ideas often being stated in the first sentences of paragraphs. As with summarizing, students benefit from practice, either of simply identifying main ideas or of comparing good and bad examples of stated main ideas. For example, students could compare good and bad examples of main ideas after reading a paragraph about writing expository paragraphs in a language textbook. Take a look at how this is done:
The main purpose of an expository paragraph is to give information about a topic. It may explain ideas, give directions, or show how to do something. An expository paragraph uses transition words (such as first, second, and most important in the model below). These words help guide the reader through the explanation.
The main purpose of an expository paragraph is to give information about a topic.
Expository paragraphs give information on a topic to readers.
Expository paragraphs give directions. (True, but this is not the main idea. They also explain ideas or show the reader how to do something.)
First and most important are words you have to use when writing. (First and most important are examples of transitional words in expository writing, but this is not the main idea in this paragraph.)
As mentioned above, teachers can use different strategies for developing reading comprehension. However, reading-comprehension strategies will not prove effective tools for learning if they are not combined with high-quality teaching. Below are some tips on how to effectively implement reading comprehension.
Tips for Teaching
Make vocabulary instruction a major curriculum component.
Teach comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, prediction, answering questions about text, and inferring word meaning).
Use graphic organizers to help students grasp key concepts.
Require students to form inferences (e.g., Why do you think the main character did that?).
Determine the reasons for students’ comprehension difficulties.
Decide whether students’ weaknesses are related to word decoding or to oral language comprehension.
For Your Information
Teachers might find it helpful to explore Collaborative Reading Strategy (CSR), a multi-component approach developed to improve reading comprehension in a way that maximizes student engagement. CSR has been shown to be equally effective with average- and high-achieving students, struggling readers, and English learners (ELS). For this reason, CSR is an ideal Tier 1 strategy.