How to Teach Reading Comprehension July 08 2008

Literacy experts often define reading comprehension as the ability to perceive and understand ideas communicated by the written word.

Sounds simple enough, right? After all, it stands to reason that once a child develops an acceptable level of alphabet knowledge and phonemic awareness, he or she should be able to sound out the words and then - presto! The child is reading.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more to learning to read, and reading comprehension, than this oversimplified definition would indicate. In fact, many thousands of children in the U.S. fall below expected levels on standardized testing in this area each year, and subsequently fall behind their peers in school.

As a teacher or parent, it is crucial to understand the basic steps towards developing strong reading comprehension skills, and to develop successful techniques to teach kids early literacy.  Please read on to discover the latest research-based methods in reading comprehension strategies.

Focus on decoding skills

Before a child can read effectively, he must first achieve a strong level of proficiency in phonics instruction. After all, if he does not have a way to reliably figure out each word he's reading, he's certainly not going to be able to understand it.

Early readers must be aware of all the letters in the alphabet and know the sounds represented by each letter. Then, he must learn to blend the different sounds together to make words.

If you have a student or child that is struggling to learn the alphabet letters and their corresponding sounds it is imperative to focus on learning these decoding skills first.  Visit Making it Fun to Learn the Alphabet Letters for several innovative ideas on how to increase success in this area.

Increase reading fluency

For beginning readers, sounding out words letter by letter is a slow process that requires a great deal of mental effort. So much so, that by the time he reaches the end of a sentence or passage, he's likely already forgotten what he read at the beginning.

It is important that the child learn to read quickly and fluently so that more cognitive energy is left over for reading comprehension. Only with fluency will a child truly understand what he has read.

In her article "Reading Comprehension - Research Informs Us," educational psychologist Jan Baumel points out that the most effective method for gaining fluency is to consistently provide opportunities for the child to read aloud.

Reading out loud provides opportunities for teachers and parents to help the get through the longer, more difficult words, thereby increasing their vocabulary, their ability to recognize sight words, and their level of confidence.

Teachers, therefore, can have students take turns reading in class, while parents might have the child read them a story at bedtime, instead of the other way around.  It may take longer, but the results are well worth it.

Expand Oral Language Skills & Vocabulary Skills

Research has consistently shown that children with larger vocabularies tend to have better reading comprehension skills. This makes sense considering that a child would logically need to understand the meaning of an individual word before he could understand a sentence or passage using that word.

Once students have mastered phonemic awareness, and are on their way to become fluent readers, it is then important to provide ongoing vocabulary lessons. Many teachers, for example, may find that teaching a few dozen words per year is effective during the early grades, while 100-200 new words per year increases comprehension levels in older elementary school students. These books offer great resources on the subject: Phonemic Awareness in Young Children and Reciprocal Teaching at Work.

Personal History/Experience

Another important component of reading comprehension is the student's own life experience. A reader needs to have at least some background knowledge on the subject he's reading about or he's certainly going to have some trouble extracting meaning from the text.

It would be difficult to comprehend a story about an acrobat at the circus, for instance, if the child had never seen a circus, and didn't know what acrobats were.

Parents can be especially helpful in this area by giving their child a variety of experiences, or by reading frequently and then discussing the stories in depth with your child. Also, design and play imaginary games with your child to expose them to new concepts.

Teachers should try to the best of their ability to be sensitive the histories of their students and provide explanation wherever possible.

Work on English Grammar Skills

Part of developing proficient reading comprehension skills involves understanding and recognizing patterns in the English language. Word placement, for example, can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

With the displacement of just two words, the statement, "You can't hear me," can be turned into a question, "Can't you hear me?" Make sure your students understand the basics of subject/verb agreement, basic English grammar, antonyms, and synonyms and your students will likely become more efficient readers.

Text Comprehension Instruction

Once a child has high reading skills, there Is much the teacher must do to further her students' skills and monitor their progress. Most importantly, the child must have as many opportunities as possible to discuss the things he has read, both verbally and through writing.

Below are a number of activities that allow teachers and students to discuss their reading. Most of these ideas can be used in both a discussion format or through writing exercises.

As a child is reading, have her mark an X in the margin each time she reads something she doesn't understand. After the reading is finished, go back and discuss each X and ask them what it was they didn't understand and attempt to help them work through it.
Using a large Magnetic, Write-On/Wipe-Off Lapboard (, create a Story Map with your class.  Draw a vertical diagram with spaces for your students to fill in the names of the main characters, the story's setting, the main problem explored in the story, two or three story events, how the problem is resolved, and the ending.
Ask your students to retell the story or article in their own words.
Ask students to draw pictures illustrating the story, or a couple of main events from the story.
Ask them to discuss any parts of the story or article that might have been confusing for them.  The explanations can be provided by the teacher or other students in a discussion session.
Write the words Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How on the board and have students answer how these questions pertain to the reading.
Use WriteReflections an innovative writing spiral program that is sequenced from grades K-12.  Each grade level provides 36 weeks of writing curriculum featuring a color-coded webbing system designed to help students organize their thoughts.
Older students should get in the habit of learning to predict the direction a story is headed based on what they've already read.  Ask them what they think might happen in the next chapter.
Reading comprehension should also include critical thinking skills. Ask students to draw parallels between what they've just read, and something they've read in the past.
When designing lesson plans, be sure to keep your activities varied. For many more strategy ideas, the books Reading Comprehension: Strategies for Independent Learners, by Camille Blackowicz, and Alternatives to Worksheet both offer a wealth of sample activities, assessment tools, and recommendations for planning instruction and organizing the classroom effectively.
Teacher Tip - Keep classroom books safe and clean in Velcro-backed, sturdy nylon and clear plastic book pouches. They may cost more than those Ziploc bags, but they'll last and last!