Reading comprehension is the key to critical thinking and learning new information. However, it’s not always an easy process for students to navigate, and it’s at the point where learning to read transitions into reading to learn that many falter. So what’s the best approach to assuring that students are able to master this complex skill? Not everybody agrees on all of the components that should be included, but there’s a general consensus of a “core collection” necessary for student success.
- Tapping into Prior Knowledge
Students are more likely to understand a topic or story better and remember it at a later time if they can connect it to something they already know, or an experience they’ve previously had. It also helps for them to be able to predict where that topic or story is going — once they see their predictions can be accurate, they’re more likely to become actively involved in the reading and learning process.
There are different ways to help students connect with their prior knowledge:
- Teachers can use a main idea contained in the text and ask the students questions along the lines of: 1) Does this idea remind you of anything that’s happening, or has happened, in your life? What is it, and why? 2) Are the characters in this story like anyone you know? How are they similar? How are they different? 3) What do you already know about this topic? 4) Based on your experience, where do you think this topic/character’s actions will lead? Research shows that when children have a personal investment in something, they care more about it, and they tend to do better academically as a result.
- Teachers can read to about the halfway point in a story and then ask the students to predict what’s going to happen later on. Have the students explain the way they reached their conclusions so they can see the relationship between what they know and what they read. It will help encourage them to read material more critically.
As with accessing prior knowledge, teachers can use leading questions — such as those that start with who, what, when, where, why, and how — to develop student interaction with the text. One idea is to write the questions on one side of an index card and the probable answers on the other; holding and viewing the cards can help reinforce the information for the students. So can assigning students to small groups and having them ask the questions of each other.
According to The National Institute for Literacy, these types of questions are effective for improving reading ability because they:
- Give students a purpose for reading
- Focus students’ attention on what they should be learning
- Help students think actively as they read
- Encourage students to monitor their comprehension
- Help students review content and relate what they’ve learned to their prior knowledge
Teachers can help students learn to create a mental image of what’s happening in a given text (good for visual learners) or modeling what’s happening using diagrams or objects (good for kinesthetic learners). A good way to start is to have students examine objects placed before them (good for both visual and kinesthetic learners), then follow that with having them look carefully at a picture that describes a scene from the story they’re reading that contains the objects. Finally, remove both the objects and the picture and ask the class to visualize what they saw and describe it verbally. The link between the visualization and the speaking will help create distinct neural pathways that will allow the students to recall information at a later date.
There’s a condition called aphantasia (described in this blog), where a person is unable to form a mental image of either words or objects. In such cases, it’s important to trigger associations by using the students’ other senses.
Once the class is finished reading through a story or text, the teacher then asks them to recall the main points, either verbally or in writing. If they get stuck along the way, prompts such as “What comes after that?”, “How did the character respond?”, or “What else did the story say about this idea?” can often be helpful.
- Reading All Together or with a Partner
Reading “round robin,” where every student takes a turn at part of the text, may not be the most effective way to build reading and comprehension skills. Todd Finley, a professor of English education, says, “Of the 30-odd studies and articles I’ve consumed on the subject, only one graduate research paper claimed a benefit to round-robin reading or its variations.” He feels the practice doesn’t benefit students who are ahead to have poor fluency skills and pronunciation modeled, and making students who are struggling read out loud can stigmatize them.
Instead, he suggests choral reading — when the teacher and class read the text out loud together. Since no student is on the “hot seat,” all are encouraged to participate. Indeed, research suggests this strategy improves reading fluency, expands vocabulary, and increases students’ confidence.
Partner reading is another good strategy. A pair of students alternate reading to each other, with the “listener” asking leading questions to make sure the reader understands the material. This method improves fluency, since when the stronger reader goes first, the struggling reader benefits because they hear the difficult words pronounced before having to say them out loud.
- Using Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers come in hundreds of different forms and can be tailored to different students’ unique learning styles. They allow students to see connections within the material they’re reading, whether they organize it in the form of a Venn diagram, a semantic map, or a list of compare/contrast details. They can also be color-coded to reinforce specific pieces of information.
- Giving Students a Choice in what They Read
Perhaps one of the most effective strategies is giving students a voice. When they’re allowed to choose the material they read, they’re bound to choose something that “speaks” to them and reflects their interests. That makes it much more likely that they’ll be motivated to read and be engaged most or all of the way through the book. You can ensure that the reading material challenges them by offering options in their interest categories and rotate between these and whole-class reading.
- Using Technology
From apps to websites to Smartboards, there are loads of interactive programs out there that can help students improve their comprehension and learn to read fluently. One of the most flexible is AceReader, used across the United States in schools, learning centers, universities, and all branches of the military. With content that’s both leveled and themed, students are bound to find something that both interests and challenges them. And the program is structured with reading comprehension tests, drills, and games, all designed to push the reader to faster and more effective reading without sacrificing comprehension in the process. You can find out more about the program at www.acereader.com.
 Cox, Janelle. (2019). “5 Effective Teaching Strategies for Reading.” TeachHub.com. Retrieved from https://www.teachhub.com/5-effective-teaching-strategies-reading.
 Armbruster, Bonnie B., Lehr, Fran, and Osborn, Jean. (nd). “Put Reading First: Kindergarten through Grade 3, Third Edition.” National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved from https://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/PRFbooklet.pdf.
 Finley, Todd. (December 1, 2014). “11 Alternatives to Round Robin (and Popcorn) Reading.” Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/alternatives-to-round-robin-reading-todd-finley.
 Antonacci, Patricia A., and O’Callaghan, Catherine M. (nd). “Strategy 12: Choral Reading.” Promoting Literacy Development: 50 Research-Based Strategies for K–8 Learners. SAGE Knowledge. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452230634.n12. Retrieved from https://sk.sagepub.com/books/promoting-literacy-development/n12.xml.
 Marr, Mary Beth; Dugan, Katherine Keller. (2007). “Using Partners to Build Reading Fluency.” Preventing School Failure, v51 n2 p52-55. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?q=partner+reading&pr=on&pg=3&id=EJ773690.