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Multicultural high school classroom with active discussion groups

Reading Instruction: Comprehension

Reading comprehension is a complex task. Research-based strategies can help, but there are other key ways to help your students become strong readers, including building background knowledge, providing a range of texts and text difficulty, and teaching self-monitoring skills.

Even the most highly literate people sometimes find themselves reading something without understanding it. For instance, sleepy readers might pass their eyes over a page or two of a novel only to realize that they haven’t been registering the words.

Non-investors might struggle to make sense of the daily business report. Just about anybody can trip over the Latinate legal language on a credit card contract. And anybody other than a plumber is likely to be baffled reading an on-line discussion about dip tubes, drip legs, drum traps, and other pipe-related devices, even though the individual words may be familiar.

Students often struggle with any or all four of these comprehension problems: difficulty monitoring their own understanding while reading, difficulty making sense of unfamiliar content, difficulty making sense of specialized terms and concepts, and difficulty making sense of familiar words used in specialized or unusual ways.

(Notice that these challenges have nothing to do with decoding or fluency. Students might have mastered the written code in elementary school yet be unable to make heads or tails of the materials they’re asked to read in the middle or high school grades).

Over the years, educators have developed many comprehension strategies, or techniques that students can use before, during, and after reading to help them understand a text. Numerous research studies have found some comprehension strategies to be effective, helping students to make significant and lasting gains in their ability to make sense of texts they read in and out of school.

Comprehension instruction: the basics

Before reading

Help students tap into what they already know about the material.

It doesn’t necessarily occur to students that their existing knowledge, experience, and preconceptions will have an impact on their reading. Before assigning them to begin a new book, chapter, or other text, give them a chance to review what they learned from previous assignments, to write down any important questions or points of confusion related to the topic, and to discuss any assumptions or opinions likely to influence their understanding of the material.

Provide important background information.

For example, use vocabulary, specialized terminology, context, and content that students might not know, but which they’ll need in order to make sense of the text.

Preview the text.

Encourage students to glance through the material before they read it, in order to get a sense of the overall length, tone, and direction of the piece. Point out any headings, subheadings, and other information that might be useful, or have them discuss or write down predictions as to what the text is likely to say.

During reading

Help students monitor their own comprehension.

Struggling readers often focus so intently on the mechanics of reading that they neglect to attend fully to the meaning of what they read. Some may even assume that it’s more important to “get through” the text, so as to “complete” the assignment, than to understand it. And others may be unsure what to do when text becomes hard to follow. Skilled readers may already know that they can stop and review paragraphs to make sure they understand them, or re-read confusing passages, or look up a word in a dictionary, or jot down questions as they go, but some students need to be taught these “fix-up” strategies.

Teach students to take notes and to draw visual representations of what they read.

It may not occur to students that they can read with a pen in their hand, making notes on paper or, when appropriate, on the text itself.  Research has shown that using “graphic organizers” can be especially helpful in boosting reading comprehension.  Graphic organizers can include any kind of outline, annotation, mapping out of text, or other visual representation of what a text means, how it connects to other material, and what questions it raises.

After reading

Teach students to summarize accurately.

Summarizing texts can help both to clear up any confusion about the meaning of a text and to secure it more firmly in students’ memories. However, it can take a lot of practice to become adept at writing concise, accurate summaries that focus on main points and skip extraneous information. Teachers can begin by providing sample summaries to their students or by modeling their own work, showing students how to identify key points, paraphrase them, and condense them.  Then students can work on their own with relatively short, simple passages before going on to summarize longer and more complicated texts.

Watch: Generating a Summary  

Discuss the text.

Probably the most important comprehension strategy of all — but one that is surprisingly rare in secondary classrooms — is to give students frequent and extensive opportunities to discuss what they’ve read. As described in this 2008 IES report from the US Department of Education, it’s neither easy nor straightforward to lead  students in focused, informative, and engaging discussions of texts. Teachers need to pose provocative questions, keep the conversation focused, guide it through lulls, and help students to learn and then stick with important classroom norms and rules (having to do with turn-taking, respecting others’ opinions, staying on point, and so on). However, when students do engage in high-quality text-based discussions, they tend to come away with much clearer and more nuanced understanding of course materials.


An important warning

Strategies shouldn’t replace content.

The bulk of the available evidence suggests that the explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies tends to be effective, helping students to better understand what they read. However, critics argue that strategy instruction is often taught in a wrongheaded and ineffective way. Rather than viewing strategies as tools to help students to understand the academic content they study, some schools treat them as if they were the content, to be learned for their own sake.

Be careful not to put the cart before the horse.

Keep in mind that comprehension strategies, like other skills, are useful only to the extent that they help students to master the historical, scientific, mathematical, and other content that matters.

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