Authors write to tell a story and share information. When readers comprehend text, they are actively thinking, learning something new, and feeling entertained or inspired.
Students need to learn a variety of comprehension strategies to effectively read the many different types of text they encounter. Studies show that good readers nimbly use strategies, adjusting as needed. For example, before a good reader even begins, they will quickly assess what their purpose is for reading. Can they skim the information and search for a few important facts? Or do they need to read slowly and carefully, either for enjoyment, or because they will be tested on the information later for a class. All readers can be taught effective strategies to help with comprehension.
Students with reading disabilities often have difficulty with comprehension. Sometimes it is because their decoding skills are poor and they are unable to read words correctly. Other students may have trouble processing information when they read, keeping large amounts of information in short term memory, making connections, or understanding information they read versus hear.
If you are a teacher, parent, or tutor, you can demonstrate how to effectively read text such as email, magazines, novels, and picture books using different strategies. Try modeling these comprehension strategies as you teach by pretending to be thinking out loud about each strategy while reading a text:
- Set a purpose
Think about why you are reading a particular text. Is it for fun, to learn new information, to find out a quick fact, or to prepare for a test? Ask out loud,"Hmmm, why am I reading this? How should I read this?" Model your decision making, and explain to the student why you are going to read in a certain way.
- Decide how you will read
Slowly, quickly? Will you take notes on paper, sticky notes, or in a notebook as you go along?
- Make predictions before and during reading
Take a prereading "walk" through a book, looking at pictures, charts, headings, graphics, and formatting to predict what the book will be about. During reading, ask what will happen next at significant points in the story.
- Activate prior knowledge
Ask yourself what you already know about the main idea or topic. Prepare your brain for reading by thinking about the topic. Then ask yourself questions you hope will be answered during reading. If you know little about a topic, use hands-on activities, group conversations, graphic organizers, or visual media to build new knowledge before reading.
- Use dictionary.com, an electronic speller, or a paper dictionary to help with unknown words
Teach children that comprehension depends on understanding the words that they read. Sometimes a text can give you enough clues to guess the meaning of an unknown word. However, it is important to tell students it is okay to stop reading to look up a word. Doing so improves comprehension and builds a rich and varied vocabulary.
- Stop and think as you read
Create a short written or oral summary of what you just read. Think about what is happening, and imagine what the characters and setting look like.
- Ask questions while you read
“Wow! Why would they do that?” “I wonder what is going to happen next?”
- After reading, think out loud about what you have read and make connections
Does it remind you of something else? Something in your own life, another story, or an event you recently heard about? Retell the story orally or in a written summary, using story picture cards, a graphic organizer, or sentence strips.
Two proven tips for helping students boost reading comprehension are choosing books at a comfortable reading level, and picking books on familiar topics. If the goal of a lesson is to learn comprehension strategies, it is important for students to be comfortable with the reading level and length of the text so their anxiety level is low. Choosing text with a familiar topic helps students focus on learning new strategies rather than new vocabulary and concepts.
It is important to expand your student’s vocabulary to increase comprehension. Explicitly and systematically teach new words before they are introduced in text. Students for whom English is a Second Language will need more vocabulary development instruction.
As you teach comprehension strategies, consider the different learning styles of your students. Graphic organizers such as story maps, time-lines, Venn diagrams, and cause-and-effect charts can be used before, during, and after reading to support reading comprehension. Many readers need to think about what they are reading visually, not just orally. Some students build comprehension through acting out a story or using puppets.
Children who love to read are usually good at comprehending what they read. Help students develop a love of reading by teaching simple and effective comprehension skills.
My favorite classroom workbooks for practicing different comprehension skills are written by Linda Ward Beech and published by Scholastic. They are available on amazon.com:
Buy Main Idea and Summarizing: 35 Reading Passages for Comprehension
Buy Inferences and Drawing Conclusions: 35 Reading Passages for Reading Comprehension