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Direct, Explicit Comprehension Strategy Instruction

U.S. Depertment of Education
Comprehension strategies are routines and procedures that readers use to help them make sense of texts. Struggling adolescent readers need direct, explicit instruction in comprehension strategies to improve their reading comprehension.

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Teachers should provide adolescents with direct and explicit instruction in comprehension strategies to improve students’ reading comprehension. Comprehension strategies are routines and procedures that readers use to help them make sense of texts. These strategies include, but are not limited to, summarizing, asking and answering questions, paraphrasing, and finding the main idea.

Comprehension strategy instruction can also include specific teacher activities that have been demonstrated to improve students’ comprehension of texts. Asking students questions and using graphic organizers are examples of such strategies. Direct and explicit teaching involves a teacher modeling and providing explanations of the specific strategies students are learning, giving guided practice and feedback on the use of the strategies, and promoting independent practice to apply the strategies.1

An important part of comprehension strategy instruction is the active participation of students in the comprehension process. In addition, explicit instruction involves providing a sufficient amount of support, or scaffolding, to students as they learn the strategies to ensure success.2

Providing Comprehension Instruction

Upper elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers can take several action steps to implement explicit strategy instruction, which involves helping students actively engage in the texts they read. A number of different strategies can be taught directly and explicitly to students and applied to content-area texts they read. Assisting students in learning how to apply these strategies to their texts will empower them and give them more control over their reading and understanding. Specifically, to implement explicit strategy instruction, teachers can do the following:

  1. Select carefully the text to use when first beginning to teach a given strategy.

    Although strategies can be applied to many different texts, they cannot be applied blindly to all texts. For example, using main-idea summarizing is difficult to do with narrative texts because narrative texts do not have clear main ideas. Main-idea summarizing should be used with informational texts, such as a content-area textbook or a nonfiction trade book. Similarly, asking questions about a text is more easily applied to some texts than to others.

  2. Show students how to apply the strategies they are learning to different texts, not just to one text.

    Applying the strategies to different texts encourages students to learn to use the strategies flexibly.1 It also allows students to learn when and where to apply the strategies and when and where the strategies are inappropriate.2

  3. Ensure that the text is appropriate for the reading level of students.

    A text that is too difficult to read makes using the strategy difficult because students are struggling with the text itself. Likewise, a text that is too easy eliminates the need for strategies in the first place. Begin teaching strategies by using a single text followed by students’ applying them to appropriate texts at their reading level.

  4. Use direct and explicit instruction for teaching students how to use comprehension strategies.

    As the lesson begins, it is important for teachers to tell students specifically what strategies they are going to learn, tell them why it is important for them to learn the strategies,3 model how to use the strategies by thinking aloud with a text,4 provide guided practice with feedback so that students have opportunities to practice using the strategies, provide independent practice using the strategies, and discuss with students when and where they should apply the strategies when they read and the importance of having the will to use the strategies along with the skill. Even if students know how to use strategies as they read, research demonstrates that they have to make the effort to actually use them when they read on their own.5

  5. Provide the appropriate amount of guided practice depending on the difficulty level of the strategies that the students are learning.

    For example, the strategy of predicting can be demonstrated briefly and with a few examples. However, summarizing a paragraph or a passage may require several steps within guided practice.

    First, provide support for students in cooperative learning groups. As students work in these groups, assist them directly if necessary by modeling how to use a given strategy again or by asking questions to generate ideas about how they would use it. If necessary, give students direct answers and have them repeat those answers.

    Second, as students become better at using the strategies, gradually reduce the support, perhaps by asking them to break the cooperative learning groups into pairs so they have fewer peers to rely on. Third, reduce support further by asking students to use the strategies on their own with texts they read independently.6

  6. When teaching comprehension strategies, make sure students understand that the goal is to understand the content of the text.

    Too much focus on the process of learning the strategies can take away from students’ understanding of the text itself.7 Instead, show students how using the strategies can help them understand the text they are reading. The goal should always be comprehending texts — not using strategies.

Potential Roadblocks and Solutions

  1. Most teachers lack the skills to provide direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction.

    Most teacher education programs do not prepare preservice teachers to teach strategies. In addition, teachers may find it particularly challenging to model their own thinking by providing thinkaloud of how they use strategies as they read. Many teachers use various strategies automatically as they read and are not aware of how they use the strategies they are teaching.

    Professional development in direct and explicit instruction of comprehension strategies will assist all teachers, including language arts and content-area teachers, in learning how to teach strategies. One component of professional development should be coaching teachers in the classroom as they teach. In addition, it is often helpful for teachers to practice thinking aloud on their own. They can take a text and practice explaining how they would go about summarizing the text or finding the main idea. Teachers will need to become conscious of many of the reading processes that are automatic for them.

  2. Content-area teachers may believe that they are not responsible for teaching comprehension strategies to their students.

    They may also believe that they do not have enough time to teach these strategies because they have to cover the content presented in their curriculum guides and textbooks. Because teaching comprehension strategies improves students’ ability to comprehend their textbooks, it is a valuable classroom activity for content-area teachers, not just language arts teachers.

    Teaching comprehension strategies should expand students’ long-term learning abilities. Although it may take a short time to teach several strategies, that time should pay off in the long term by helping students learn more independently from their textbooks and other source material they are asked to read in their classrooms. After all, the goal of using comprehension strategies is improved comprehension — of all text materials that students read.

  3. Some teachers and students may “lose the forest for the trees.”

    Teachers may misunderstand or misinterpret the research on teaching comprehension strategies, such that they think teaching comprehension is all about teaching a specific sequence of comprehension strategies, one after the other. Likewise, students too may misunderstand and misinterpret teachers’ emphasis on strategies, such that they inappropriately apply strategies to the texts they are reading. Teachers and students may miss the larger point of the strategies, that is, active comprehension.

    A critically important part of professional development is the focus on the end goal of comprehension. As teachers learn how to teach the various strategies, they need to keep this goal in mind. Likewise, teachers need to emphasize to students the idea that the end goal of strategy use is comprehension, not just the use of many strategies. It is important for teachers to ensure that students understand that using strategies is a way to accomplish the goal of comprehension.

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from