Reading comprehension is a critical skill for students to master. As they progress through school, they will be expected to understand and analyze increasingly complex texts across all subject areas. However, teaching reading comprehension can be challenging, especially for struggling readers or English language learners. Here are some best practices for helping students develop strong comprehension skills.
Start With the Basics
Before diving into specific comprehension strategies, ensure students have a solid foundation in the basics of reading. This includes concepts like phonics, sight words, fluency, and vocabulary. Students who struggle with decoding words will have a hard time comprehending what they read. Take time to assess students’ reading abilities and fill in any gaps through targeted instruction and practice.
Build Background Knowledge
Background knowledge is key to making sense of new information. Students comprehend best when they can connect new content to what they already know about a topic. Do pre-reading activities like brainstorming, semantic webs, or class discussions to activate prior knowledge. Bring in visual aids, conduct experiments, or take educational field trips to give students direct experiences related to the reading.
Teach Vocabulary Strategies
Unfamiliar vocabulary is a major obstacle to comprehension. Explore the meanings of new words before reading and highlight key terms. Context clues, morpheme analysis, and using dictionaries/glossaries can help students figure out unfamiliar vocabulary. Pre-teaching essential vocabulary and providing concept maps or word walls are other options.
Guide Students Through the Text
Don’t just hand students a text and expect them to comprehend it independently. Implement guided close reading techniques where you read passages together, stopping frequently to check for understanding. Model how to annotate, ask questions, clarify confusing parts, make inferences, and identify the main idea and supporting details. Gradually release responsibility to students through shared reading and collaborative group work.
Encourage Active Reading
Passive reading leads to shallow comprehension. Teach students to actively engage with texts by annotating, taking notes, asking questions, making predictions, and responding personally. Think-aloud modeling is helpful here. Prompt students to monitor their understanding, verifying when the text makes sense and re-reading when meaning breaks down.
Teach Specific Comprehension Strategies
Equip students with concrete strategies for tackling different aspects of comprehension:
- Main idea and details – Identify topic sentences, highlight supporting details, and summarize.
- Inferences – Make educated guesses about ideas implied but not directly stated.
- Story structure – Analyze elements like setting, characters, problem, and resolution. Use story maps or plot diagrams.
- Cause and effect – Understand chains of events and their relationships. Use signal words like “because,” “as a result,” “consequently.”
- Compare/contrast – Identify how two things are alike and different. Use Venn diagrams or comparison matrices.
- Sequence/chronology – Follow the order of events. Put scrambled steps in sequence.
- Fact vs. opinion – Distinguish between objective facts and subjective opinions.
- Author’s purpose – Determine the author’s intent, perspective, or bias.
- Visualization – Form mental pictures to represent ideas. Encourage sketching.
Practice Comprehension Skills Through Discussion
Classroom discussions allow students to verbalize their thinking and gain insights from peers. For text-based discussions, develop open-ended questions targeting different comprehension skills. Set expectations for active listening, respectful exchanges, and using text evidence. Small reading groups also provide a comfortable space to practice comprehension strategies collaboratively.
Check for Understanding
Monitor student progress through informal strategies like thumbs up/down, Whiteboard responses, and think-pair-share. More formal comprehension checks include retellings, graphic organizers, and written responses like reading response journals. Adjust instruction based on formative assessment data.
Make It Fun and Engaging
Incorporate games, drama, art, and technology to help students practice comprehension in motivating ways. For example, have students act out a text through tableaus or role plays. Or use online quiz games as a review. Leverage their interests by letting them read magazine articles or websites on hobbies, sports, or pop culture.
With explicit modeling, guided practice, gradual release, and engaging activities, teachers can equip students to become active, strategic readers who comprehend text at deep levels. Comprehension opens doors to acquiring new knowledge, so make it a priority in ELA instruction.
5 Unique FAQs on Teaching Reading Comprehension
How can I help students who struggle with decoding?
For students lacking decoding skills, use leveled texts at their instructional reading level and focus on building phonics, sight words, and fluency. Target words from upcoming reading selections for repetition and practice. Consider assistive technology like audiobooks while remediating foundational gaps.
What pre-reading activities are most effective?
Activities that tap into background knowledge like brainstorming, anticipation guides, picture walks, and class discussions prime students’ brains for learning new content. Pre-teaching vocabulary, sharing learning objectives, and allowing time to preview texts can also aid comprehension.
How much scaffolding should I provide versus letting students read independently?
Balance explicit modeling with gradual release of responsibility. At first, read aloud and think aloud to demonstrate strategies. Then do shared and guided reading, providing prompts and support. Over time, shift to collaborative group work for peer-assisted learning. Checking in and conferring with individuals ensures help is given when needed.
How do I keep reading groups productive and on-task?
Establish routine procedures, rules, and expectations, using student input. Give each student a role like discussion leader, illustrator, connector, etc. Set a purpose and timeframe for completing assigned tasks. Circulate to keep groups focused. Allow sharing time to hold groups accountable. Change up grouping formats to sustain engagement.
What are quick informal assessments I can use day-to-day?
Exit slips, short written responses, thumbs up/down, whiteboard responses, and reading conference notes give rapid insight into student understanding. Asking probing questions during read-alouds and discussions also reveals comprehension breakdowns in real-time so you can immediately reteach concepts.