Everything we do as reading teachers is to ultimately aid comprehension. Even if you teach primary grades, the phonics and fluency work you do increases a child’s ability to comprehend the texts they read.
Reading without comprehension is meaningless, so it’s no surprise that our most reluctant readers are also the readers who struggle the most. It’s difficult to find the joy of reading if you have trouble retaining and understanding what you read!
So, how do we help boost comprehension skills in our readers? If you have ever wondered how to teach reading comprehension, I have three tips for you.
How to Teach Reading Comprehension
Tip #1: Unlock Student Interest & Motivation
“As a teacher, what you do (or don’t do) before your students read a text will determine their level of motivation and interest… this in turn will have a direct effect on their level of comprehension” – Kelly Galagher
One of the biggest keys to aiding student comprehension is to build a student’s interest in the text. This increases engagement and the desire to read. This investment makes it more likely that a student will work to understand what they are reading. My number one tip on how to do this is to always provide context (or a frame) for the reading assignment that goes beyond the standard.
For example, If you give students a reading passage and a graphic organizer and simply ask them to read the passage and complete the graphic organizer to find the main idea, they are likely not going to be motivated to simply find the main idea of a random article. Even those students who don’t struggle will be less engaged with the task.
Instead, frame the passage within the context of doing research to learn about animal adaptations or another relevant topic. They will still read the passage and find the main idea/details, but they are doing it with a larger purpose: to conduct research and learn something new!
Other tips for getting students interested and motivated in reading:
- Thematic Planning: Map all of your reading content around a main theme that also connects to the other subjects.
- Author or Genre Studies: Plan all of the reading for the week to be done by one author, or part of the same genre to build engagement!
- Research Projects: Any nonfiction text can be turned into a research project, which allows students to display new learning.
- Incorporating More Student Choice: When possible, provide students choice on what they read. This naturally builds interest!
Tip # 2: Help Students Access Background Knowledge
All too often we limit a student’s background knowledge to the specific facts they know about a topic. But background knowledge is much deeper than facts. We want students to access anything that will help them with their reading experience.
I recommend giving students a process to follow to activate their prior knowledge. I do this through a series of questions that I ask before reading, but ultimately want students to ask themselves each time they read something new.
- What do you know about the topic?
- What do you know about this author?
- What do you know about the genre?
- What do you know about this series?
Asking about more than just what a student already knows about the topic helps him or her access background knowledge of all kinds. If a student responds to the questions with ‘I don’t know’, or ‘nothing’, reframe the questions to sound like this:
- If you were someone who DID know about the _______, what would you say?
- What would someone who DID know a lot about _______ say?
- If you don’t know, what do you think you MIGHT learn about _________?
These questions get students’ brains moving, but on top of that they also give the students the opportunity to give an answer without fear of getting it right. We don’t want to give our students’ a free pass in simply not answering, because it doesn’t benefit their understanding of the text!
Other tips for building background knowledge:
- Be strategic about the texts you are reading. Use current read alouds or passages to help build content knowledge for future reading.
- Thematic planning. The more often students read about the same topic during one unit, the more background knowledge they will build.
- Genre Studies. These help students develop a strong understanding of attributes of each genre. This can be helpful if students lack content knowledge. If they understand how each genre is written, they still have a roadmap they can follow when reading.
Tip # 3: Provide Effective Strategy Instruction
Our reading instruction can fall short when we only:
- Focus on one strategy
- Define the strategy
- Explain how it helps the reader
- Model with a limited think aloud
All of these things are important, but if we forget to teach a step-by-step process that our students can confidently apply to their independent reading, they won’t have the tools they need to understand new texts. My best teaching tip is to fully equip students to apply strategies to their independent reading.
What does that look like?
- Teach students a universal strategy that they can apply to ANY text they read. This could be a stop-and-jot method, chunking and summarizing a text, etc.
- Make sure they know the step-by-step process to apply the strategy. Give clear, explicit directions on how to apply the strategy. Practice in small groups. Put the steps on a poster or chart for students to refer back to.
- Give students a set of questions to ask themselves that will force them to apply that strategy.
- Teach students how to draw a graphic organizer for that specific strategy.
- Highlight what the skill IS and what it is NOT.
- Teach a variety of strategies over time so students can decide which tool helps them most as a reader.
If you are looking for more tips on effective strategy instruction, check out THIS blog post.
If you apply these tips, your students will comprehend more deeply, and make tremendous growth as readers! And isn’t that what we always hope for as teachers?
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Reading Process Checklist
These printable reading process checklists are perfect to use every time your students sit down to read. They include the 5 step process that will help your students to apply skills & strategies to fully understand & comprehend what they are reading.