Teaching effective reading comprehension strategies is essential to help students grow as strong and independent readers in your classroom and beyond. Keep reading to learn how to implement effective reading comprehension strategies in your classroom.
Effective reading comprehension strategies turn mindless readers into active readers. However, as experienced readers, it’s easy to forget that building those reading comprehension skills takes time and practice.
The truth is, reading is hard for many students, especially if they’ve never been explicitly taught how to read. And I’m not just talking about putting sounds together to make words. Or stringing words together to make sentences. I’m talking about truly understanding what they are reading.
Enter: Reading comprehension strategies.
Think about this: How many of your seemingly struggling readers are unmotivated because they don’t have the tools they need to truly understand what they’re reading? How many students mindlessly look at the text on the page rather than truly read and comprehend what’s being said (and what isn’t)?
That’s where explicitly teaching and implementing effective comprehension strategies comes into play. Even at the secondary level, we have to be willing to take a step back and ensure there is a strong foundation for reading comprehension.
The Benefits of Explicitly Teaching Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies
Enjoying reading is fan-freaking-tastic, for sure. But understanding and finding meaning in what you read is the ultimate goal, is it not? (It should be.) Understanding what we read helps us gain perspective, build empathy, make connections, and grow our knowledge base.
While this may come as a surprise, the truth is reading comprehension woes aren’t unique to obviously struggling readers. For example, a student might be able to read well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can effectively interpret or analyze the words on the page. And that, my teacher friends, is where explicit teaching effective reading comprehension strategies comes into play.
But what does that look like? The first thing is to avoid assuming students “get it.” Instead, explicit instruction involves you telling students why and when they should use which strategies and showing them how to apply them.
Tips For Explicitly Teaching Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies
- Define And Explain. Begin by explicitly explaining to your students the purpose of the comprehension strategy at hand. Don’t stop at defining what the strategy is, but also explain when to use it and whyit’s helpful in building meaning.
- Provide Examples. Students benefit from seeing concepts in action. So, after explaining a strategy, show them examples of what the strategy looks like. And to avoid common mistakes, include a few “this not that” examples as well. In fact, you can use the non-examples to have a discussion with your class about what the example is missing or how to make it better.
- Show Them How. This is where you lead by example. Think out loud as you model the strategy for your students, showing them when and how to implement the strategy for utmost comprehension. By thinking out loud, you are giving students an inside look at the thought process behind making use of the strategy.
- Do It With Them. After showing them how, lead them through a guided activity. This is where students get to dip their toes into the strategy with your help. Read the text as a class and then guide them through each step of implementing the strategy.
- Pass The Baton. After showing them the way, providing them with the knowledge, resources, and confidence they need to do it on their own, let them. Create a safe space where it is okay to fail rather than jumping right to a summative assessment. That way you can provide continued guidance as needed
The 7 Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies (With Examples)
Whether reading expository text or narrative story, the foundational techniques are the same. So, without further adieu, here are 7 effective comprehension strategies you can reuse and recycle all year long.
Strategy #1: Activating Background Knowledge
Experience and prior knowledge are some of the best learning tools we have. Background knowledge refers to a person’s experiences with the world including historical knowledge, personal experience, vocabulary, text structure, literary genres, and more. That prior knowledge plays a critical role in one’s ability to comprehend a text.
When it comes to reading comprehension, activating prior knowledge can help students make more sense of what they are reading. For example, teaching about both Puritan beliefs and McCarthyism are essential to my student’s deeper understanding of The Crucible. As we read the play, they are able to recall the applicable background information to make better sense of the events unfolding on the pages before them, including understanding major themes, character motivations, and overall plot.
What it looks like.
- Spending time teaching vocabulary as well as taking time to build knowledge around significant historical periods and literary genres.
- Filling out a KWL Chart to help students list out their background knowledge relevant to what they will read, encouraging active reading.
- Completing and Anticipation Guide to encourage students to consider personal beliefs and experiences before seeing them play out in a text
- Making meaningful connections with the text to themselves, other texts, and the world. This can be done as a writing activity or a discussion activity– or both!
- Facilitating a discussion around how prior knowledge helped increase student understanding of the text.
Strategy #2: Generating and Asking Questions
When done well, generating and asking questions helps students engage with a text in a more active and meaningful way. Yet, struggling readers likely aren’t asking questions as they read. Therefore, the first step is ensuring your students understand different types of questions and when to use them. While each of these types of questions play a role in reading comprehension, readers should strive for thicker, more critical thinking-style questions as they advance. These questions move readers from basic understanding to a deeper meaning of the text.
Regardless of the type of question, they play a role in helping students to clarify and comprehend what they are reading. Questions can (and should) be asked before, during, and after reading. Asking the right questions is essential, not only to comprehension, but to focusing on the most essential elements of a text as well. Overall, a student’s ability to ask and answer questions can help point to strengths and weaknesses in their comprehension.
What it looks like.
- Asking questions to clarify the meaning of the text (ex. What does that word mean? Why is that happening? What is the main idea? What am I learning?)
- Asking questions to understand the characters and plot better (ex. Why did the character do that? Why did that happen?)
- Asking questions to help understand the author’s purpose (ex. Why did the author write this? What does the author want you to think? What is their stance on subject X?)
Activities might include:
- Playing 21 questions to show how asking the right questions can reveal answers we may not know initially.
- Using student generated questions to promote deeper discussions during and after reading.
- Providing question starters that students can refer to as they generate their own questions.
- Developing an evolving questions list, showing how questions evolve as comprehension does.
Strategy #3: Making Inferences
Reading comprehension isn’t just about what an author writes on the page. It’s also about what isn’t said. Therefore, a hallmark sign of understanding what you’re reading is being able to read between the lines. This strategy requires readers to evaluate or draw conclusions from information in a text without them being explicitly stated. Instead, they must learn how to interpret “clues” in the page and activate their prior knowledge. Knowing how to do this greatly helps students make meaning of what they are reading, from author intentions to character motivations.
Since asking questions can play a key role in making appropriate inferences, I recommend teaching this strategy once your students have a strong foundation for generating and asking questions (ex. “Why is the character acting this way?”)
What it looks like.
Ideas for teaching and practicing inference:
- Play the Emotion Challenge. Challenge students to practice show vs. tell by describing a particular emotion without expliciting naming the emotion. Then, turn it into a guessing game as they share their responses with the class. This is an effective way to show students how to deduce information.
- Bring in the celebrities. In the world of digital media, it’s easy to feel like we “know” celebrities. But do we really? Work with your class to come up with a short list of well-known figures. Then, work together to write a short description. Students must then find “evidence” to support their inferences.
- Play “What’s In A Song?” as another great way to teach inferences using pop culture. You can either do this as a class in small groups, or have each student pick a song on their own. Either way, students must piece together the story the song is telling, though the details aren’t all explicitly stated.
- Pause to ask “But Why” during reading to help students dig into character motives or make sense of an author’s choices.
Strategy #4: Making Predictions
This strategy is about more than making any predictions. It’s about making informed predictions. (I always find it useful to explain this to students by comparing it to the difference between a guess and educated guess.) Before reading, they may use what they know about an author to predict what a text will be about. This is especially useful when it comes to selecting independent reading books that will be of interest to them.
But why is it useful during reading? This strategy helps students derive meaning from a text by using what they read and what they already know to make predictions. It can help with predicting what might happen next or how an author will support an argument. (There’s something validating when a prediction rings true.) While anyone can make a prediction, a sound prediction requires an understanding of what is (and isn’t) said within the text.
What it looks like.
- Providing thinking stems to help students stay active as they read, interact with, and think critically about the text.
- Keeping track of predictions to keep students engaged in reading as they reveal if their predictions are on track or if they need to be revised.
- Using a Pause and Predict char to guide students through making reasonable predictions as they pair each one with textual evidence.
- Creating crystal ball predictions by having students write their predictions on a sticky note to add to the classroom “crystal ball” drawn on the white board. Then, review the predictions with the class, welcoming anyone to provide reasoning behind the prediction.
- Conducting a finger walk to look for clues. Have students spend some time scanning the text, looking at the various elements that might give way to a prediction. (Title, chapter names, bolded words, and cover photos and other images.)
Strategy #5: Summarizing
Summarizing is an essential reading comprehension strategy that hones in on the text’s main idea and key details. And while it might sound simple, many students struggle to find just the right amount of details. Many provide far too many while others don’t provide enough and miss the main idea(s) all together.
Therefore, it’s important to remind students that summarizing is not simply retelling a story. Instead, it demonstrated the ability to wade through the words and select those that are of the utmost importance. In order to do so, students must understand the purpose behind the text. It’s safe to say writing a summary is a harder task than many assume.
What this looks like.
- Start with something they know. To introduce students to summaries, have them warm up by summarizing their favorite tv show, movie, or book. (Just be sure they don’t include any spoiler alerts if sharing out loud.)
- Comic Strip Summary. Visual learners will love this one. Challenge students to summarize the story in a certain amount of frames. You can include other requirements like a certain number of characters or direct quotes from the text as well.
- Headline Summaries. Write a headline that summarizes the text, highlighting the most important idea(s). If time permits, you can turn this into a writing assignments. Have students write a “newspaper article” to summarize an event, story, article, or section of reading.
- 5-finger summary. This can be done in conversation or in writing. Have students summarize a text using their hand. Each finger represents one sentence, giving them only five sentences to use.
- Cut right to the chase with a One-Sentence Summary. This is a great “quick check” or exit ticket activity. Challenge students to summarize the key point of the text using only one sentence. Have students share their summaries with the class as you facilitate a discussion on why they chose the elements they chose.
Strategy #6: Visualizing the Text
One of my favorite things about reading for pleasure is watching the movie that plays out in my head as I move from page to page. It’s almost as though I can “see” the characters, setting, and plot unfold before me. And that, my friend, is the power of visualization. While visualization isn’t necessarily a make or break when it comes to comprehension, it certainly doesn’t hurt. These mental images have been shown to increase our ability to recall information, unpack events, and understand processes.
While it’s easier to understand visualization when it comes to narrative texts, that doesn’t mean this strategy can’t be applied to expository texts as well. Visualization of more informational writing includes visualizing steps in a process or the unfolding of a particular event. Additionally, visualization is extremely helpful when it comes to understanding more abstract concepts or historical figures and time periods.
What this looks like.
Some of my favorite activities to promote this strategy include:
- “Where will you be in 10 years?” Help students understand visualization by asking them to draw a picture to represent where they will be in 10 years. Since there is no way to truly know the future, they must rely on their ability to “visualize” themselves 10 years down the road.
- Creating a Collage. Have students create a visual representation of what they read using a collage. Collages can be used to display a student’s understanding of a story as whole or a particular element like a character or theme.
- Drawing. Keep it simple (and rather literal) and effective with this activity. Have students create a drawing to turn their mental visualization into a literal piece of art.
- Creating a cartoon or comic strip. Students always love the opportunity to create a comic strip. Let them show off their visualizations by creating a comic strip or cartoon of a particular scene, series of events, or an entire plot. Either way, students must pick out the most essential elements (including chanractions, actions, and dialogue) to include in this activity.
- Illustrating the story. Very similar to the activity above, illustrating the story encourages students to retell a story (or part of one) using their own images. Encourage them to pay attention to things like colors and symbols.
Strategy #7: Comprehension Monitoring
Comprehension monitoring is the ultimate reading comprehension strategy as it truly puts students in the driver’s seat. It’s all about students knowing when they understand what they[‘re reading and when they don’t. But it doesn’t stop there. Once they recognize the roadblock, they then take appropriate action.
Comprehension monitoring is a form of metacognition practices by highly active readers. Instead of glazing over the words on the page because they “have to,” students show awareness of their process and understanding. By the time students reach the ability to conduct comprehension monitoring, they should have an understanding of several reading comprehension strategies. That way, they can decide which strategies are most helpful to them and make appropriate use of them.
What this looks like.
- Establishing checkpoints to help guide struggling readers through their comprehension monitoring. (For example, “Are there any words you don’t know?” or “What was the main idea?”
- Providing a list of reading comprehension strategies students are familiar with, outline what they are and when and how to use them to increase comprehension.
- Using a KWL chart. Just as a KWL chart helps students activate prior knowledge, they are also a great tool to help monitor comprehension as they fill out the Learn column and reflect on what they learned.
- Supplying a Problem and Solution flow chart that guides students through identifying the problem, reviewing the types of problems, and using the right solutions. (Stuck on a word? Look it up or use surrounding context clues!)
Active comprehension monitoring task may include:
- Stopping and thinking about what they have already read.
- Rereading sections of text they didn’t fully comprehend.
- Adjusting their reading rate to give more time and space for processing and understanding.
- Reflecting on what they just read and making connections to other texts, prior knowledge, the real world, or their own experiences.
More Tips For Teaching Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies
Start Small. When introducing students to a new reading comprehension strategy, you want to make it as accessible as possible. Remember, reading comprehension is a challenge for many students. So, instead of challenging them with an entire novel, start small. Introducing concepts and strategies with short stories allow students to practice and build confidence before moving on to a larger text.
When In Doubt, Chunk It Out. However, teaching reading comprehension strategies with a longer text isn’t an impossible task.You just need to break it up into manageable bits. Chunking out longer and perhaps more complex texts limits students’ stress as they work to identify unknown words, organize ideas, and synthesize and summarize information before moving on. Therefore, it’s a great way for students to monitor their comprehension as they move throughout a text.
Conduct a Close Reading. If there is a particularly important or complex section of a text, lead your students through a close reading. Since students can focus on a smaller portion of text, a close reading allows them to tap into critical thinking with fewer distractions. Have students read the section multiple times, using a mix of independent reading, reading aloud, and working in a small group. As they read, students should annotate for things like essential ideas, overall structure, literary devices, and unknown words. Once you lay the groundwork, students can conduct close readings and uncover a deeper meaning on their own.
Incorporate Graphic Organizers. Graphic organizers are an approachable way to show students how to organize their thoughts and come to conclusions. Additionally, graphic organizers are a great stepping stone from teacher-led thought to independent process. These worksheets can guide order of thought, organization, and process, showing students how to think about a text with a specific purpose or outcome in mind.
A Final Thought
The bottom line? Teaching effective reading comprehension strategies are a must in the ELA classroom, regardless what grade you teach. These strategies are also essential regardless of the type of text your students are reading. Strong reading comprehension paves the way for inferences, real-world connections, analysis, and engaging conversation. So, be sure to allow students plenty of opportunities to hone in on these skills as a class, in small groups, and on their own.
Remember, start off small and with direct instruction. That way you’ll lay the groundwork for your students to understand text on a deeper level, think more critically about what they read, and actively engage with the words on the page as well as grasp what isn’t said by reading between the lines. Because that, my friend, is the recipe for an independent reader who will continue to flourish all year long.