To become a competent reader, learners need to be skilled across five components that feed into the reading process:
- Phonemic awareness – identifying individual units of sound or phonemes;
- Phonics – mapping the sounds in words to the written letters;
- Vocabulary – recognising words;
- Reading comprehension – understanding the meaning of words and texts; and
- Fluency – having the decoding skills and vocabulary to be able to scan text and focus on the meaning.
Learning to read is a process of layering skill upon skill to become a fluent reader. In the early stages of reading, the focus is predominantly on word reading skills and word recognition. Once a learner reaches the desired level of competency, the focus moves to language comprehension, which becomes the main predictor of reading comprehension.
Reading and understanding a piece of text means applying competency in the five components within a four-step process of varying complexity:
- Decode the words
- Keep the information in working memory long enough for it to be processed
- Use vocabulary and grammar knowledge to organise and interpret the text
- Access higher-order thinking to process what’s been read, infer meaning and construct a mental model.
Learning to read well is not a linear process; there is a two-way, mutually supportive link between vocabulary and language comprehension. A deep understanding of words and their meanings makes it easier to understand text, while being able to read and understand text expands vocabulary knowledge.
Reading comprehension is an ongoing circular system of learning that also includes other critical literacy skills, such as grammar, and requires higher-order thinking and memory skills. Learners who struggle to master one of the components can falter in this learning process and struggle to reach the ultimate goal of fluency. The level of complexity involved varies with different types of texts, with some presenting particular comprehension challenges for learners.
Reading comprehension challenges in different types of texts
Reading comprehension is essential for becoming an active reader who engages with many different types of text. From meaning can come information, debate, humour, enjoyment and - the holy grail - the experience of reading for pleasure. As learners progress through the education system, those that struggle with reading comprehension are faced with increasingly complex and diverse texts they lack the reading skills to tackle and, ultimately, poor reading comprehension can lead to low academic attainment.
It’s beneficial to start introducing a variety of different text types early on in the learning-to-read process as this expands both word learning and language comprehension. The National Curriculum in England expects students to have read widely across fiction and nonfiction by the end of year 6 in order to “develop their knowledge of themselves and the world in which they live, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain knowledge across the curriculum.” Ultimately, research has linked reading for pleasure with a benefit in overall text comprehension and grammar knowledge, as well as a wider vocabulary and a broader cultural awareness.
Broadly speaking, texts can be placed within one of two categories and, as we discuss below, each comes with its own reading comprehension challenges that can be addressed through particular strategies.
This is a text that tells a story and incorporates many story types, including:
- Fairy tales
- Historical fiction
- Memoirs and biographies
- Plays and scripts
- Science fiction
Reading narrative texts involves following characters through a story, tracking dialogue, visualising people and places, imagining emotions and reactions, and reading between the lines, or using inference, to go beyond what is written on the page. This is cognitively demanding and can be made more challenging by the following elements.
Different storytelling techniques
Narratives can include a range of different storytelling techniques, combining dialogue, diary entries, emails, letters and text messages that challenge learners to integrate different contexts within the mental model constructed for the story, requiring strong inference and processing skills.
Narratives set in imaginary worlds may well include made-up vocabulary, such as places or creatures that don’t exist, or verbs that are specific to a book or an author. Road Dahl is an example of an author who created many new words, such as the verb ‘argy’ (to argue) or the noun ‘snozzberry’ (an edible berry). While these add excitement and interest, they may also throw readers off course by slowing the decoding process or presenting a distraction.
A single narrative text may use multiple narrators and combine first person, second person and third person, with each having specific perspectives and views on the story being told. This adds complexity to comprehension and may slow down some readers as they try to distinguish between tenses and compare and contrast viewpoints.
Unusual narrative structures
The most common narrative structure is to have an opening that establishes the setting and characters, a middle where events happen, and an end that sees a resolution. However, many books deviate from this and may use an unpredictable narrative structure that doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, using techniques such as flashbacks and backtracking. This can prove challenging and require extra cognitive processing for learners to understand the order of events and make connections across them.
Reading comprehension strategies for narrative texts
It’s prudent to prepare for these challenges: there are many strategies educators can use to help a learner tackle challenging narrative texts and come out the other side a more skilled and satisfied reader.
1. Preview the text
This is about pre-empting any difficulties that you may anticipate for your learners before reading. Highlight any new or challenging vocabulary they will come across through vocabulary pre-teaching, identify the main characters, create a plot outline, and look at the main themes and storytelling techniques.
For each element you preview, activate prior knowledge by linking to previous similar texts, experiences and existing knowledge. This will ease the cognitive load of processing a complex storyline, unusual vocabulary, or a meandering structure.
During reading, include activities to keep their interest in the story and give them a purpose, such as keeping track of the number of times they come across a particular word, or the number of times a character uses a particular phrase. All of these strategies help to scaffold the challenging text and boost learners’ reading comprehension.
2. Illustrate and organise
Graphic organisers are visual representations of information and are a great organisation tool to aid reading comprehension. They can be used before reading as part of the preview process discussed above, during reading to organise new information as it comes in, and after reading to link with existing information.
Many types of graphic organisers can be used to tackle different challenging elements of a narrative text. For example, a story map helps create a visual overview of the different elements of a narrative and can include segments for setting, characters, problem, solution and so on; a timeline is useful for mapping out the sequence in which events take place and can help make sense of a non-chronological structure; a Venn diagram can be used to identify similarities between different characters or narrators; and a T-chart is good for making comparisons between characters or settings in a story.
Character sketches are another useful illustrative tool, particularly in a story with multiple narrators. Create a sketch for each character that incorporates physical descriptions as well as opinions and experiences associated with the character. It can be useful to provide learners with simple outlines for each character at the outset and to build in pauses throughout reading for them to add any details to the sketch as they are revealed.
3. Answer questions
The question-answer relationship (QAR) strategy aims to boost comprehension by teaching learners three different things – how to locate information, how to understand text structures and how information is organised, as well as to identify when they must read between the lines to understand something (inference). This strategy is beneficial for making sense of a complex narrative and the different inputs to the mental processing required to understand it.
QAR involves the teacher creating questions for small sections of text at a time, with the questions falling within four categories:
- Right There – The answer is in the text and learners reread, scan and look for keywords to find it. For example, "What has just happened to the main character?"
- Think and Search – The answer is across different sections of the text and the learner has to recall previously read information through rereading and accessing working memory. For example, "Has this happened to them before?"
- The Author and You – The answer comes from a combination of what is in the text and the learner’s prior knowledge. The learner rereads, thinks about what they’ve read, and applies their own experience to that information. For example, "How do you think the character felt when that happened?"
- On Your Own – The answer is based on the learner’s own experience and knowledge. The learner thinks about what they’ve read and makes connections with their own experiences. For example, "How would you feel if that happened to you?"
4. Monitoring understanding
Teach learners to get into the habit of reading and pausing, using monitoring techniques during the pause to test their understanding of the narrative. This could incorporate the graphic organisers or visual tools discussed above; summarising activities to see if they’ve understood what they’ve just read; or self-questioning, where learners create a list of questions to answer after reading each section. For example, after each section they could ask themselves: Who, what, when, where and why?
Offer learners strategies to use if they haven’t understood the first time, such as rereading with the explicit purpose of finding the missing information, going back to previous passages, or looking up words they don’t understand.
Improve reading comprehension on Bedrock
Targeted vocabulary and grammar instruction to support literacy improvement and close attainment gaps.
These are texts that are factual and can include one or a combination of the following:
- Accounts or recounts - retelling events, such as in newspaper articles
- Discussion texts - presenting different viewpoints
- Expository texts - sharing information
- Instructional texts - providing procedures, such as recipes or game instructions
- Persuasion texts – seeking to persuade a reader, such as marketing materials or advertisements
Nonfiction texts can be challenging, particularly if they’re focused on a complex theme or topic. When learners move from primary education into secondary schooling, the majority of their reading comes from informational texts with subject-specific content and vocabulary. It’s essential for learners that they are exposed to nonfiction before secondary school so they can develop the necessary comprehension skills to read for information, not just enjoyment.
Understanding nonfiction has value beyond education, as it's a requirement for everyday life, from reading menus to magazines, guides and online information. Literacy is the language of learning, and making the most of this requires confidence in reading nonfiction texts.
Following are some of the comprehensive challenges readers might face when reading nonfiction:
Nonfiction text can include complex ideas that require a depth of background knowledge and good inference skills to find sufficient meaning. Readers need to be able to retain new information in their working memory long enough to connect with prior knowledge and process connections, when there may be contradictions across new and existing information or a range of viewpoints around a single topic.
Nonfiction texts often feature specialised vocabulary that may be new to a reader. Applying the tiered vocabulary framework, readers of nonfiction will come across Tier 3 vocabulary - low-frequency words that are specific to a topic or subject - as well as Tier 2 words, which aren’t specialised but include more mature language that may be used across nonfiction texts.
Research suggests learners need to understand between 85% and 98% of words in a text to understand its overall meaning. If a reader is unfamiliar with the vocabulary within the reading matter, this will slow down the reading process and potentially disrupt comprehension.
This is subjective, but some learners may find the content in nonfiction books difficult to read because they are not interested in the topic, don’t see the point or can’t make sense of it.
Research has found that interest is related to attention and deeper processing, effort, enjoyment and learning. Lacking interest in the topic makes it difficult to apply the focus required to process, infer meaning, seek connections and activate prior knowledge.
Reading comprehension strategies for nonfiction texts
Despite the challenges of nonfiction and specialised texts, educators and learners can progress together using appropriate reading comprehension strategies in a collaborative approach that combines reader-led and instructional activities. It can be helpful to let learners know before they start a complex text that it is difficult and some of them may struggle. This makes it ‘normal’ for them to find the text hard going and lets them know why you will work together on strategies.
Following are some strategies to help with understanding nonfiction texts.
1. Offer a choice of reading materials
When learners are first exposed to nonfiction texts at primary school, it’s possible to include an element of choice in their reading matter. By the time they enter the secondary school curriculum, much of their nonfiction reading will be mandatory.
Educators can use the early schooling years to build comprehension skills across all text types. Nonfiction covers a huge range of topics and allowing learners to pick what they want to read can help them to enjoy the process of reading informational texts.
2. Share nonfiction text characteristics
Prepare learners for nonfiction by teaching them about features and structures commonly used across different nonfiction types. For example, use a table and index to discuss structures of compare and contrast, problem and solution, or cause and effect. Knowing what to expect in how the text is presented and structured makes it easier to focus on understanding the content.
3. Stimulate interest in the topic
When it comes to challenging texts, research suggests that having an interest in the topic can lessen the impact of excessive challenge and lead to persistence with the reading task. Before reading, work on some activities to stimulate curiosity about the topic. Encourage learners to make predictions about the text, as this is shown to stimulate interest by giving readers a goal of finding out whether or not the prediction holds true. This falls within the instructional Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DR-TA) strategy of predicting, verifying the accuracy of predictions while reading, and modifying other predictions based on what’s been learned.
A simple way of facilitating this is to create a set of statements relating to the text you are going to read, ask learners to agree or disagree, and, after reading, return to their predictions to see if they were correct.
4. Activate prior knowledge
Before reading nonfiction or subject-specific information, activate prior knowledge about the topic through discussion. This helps learners make sense of what they are about to read by connecting it to information they already know, either from experience (connecting text to self), previous reading (connecting text to text) or their knowledge of the world (connecting text to world).
The QAR strategy discussed earlier for narrative comprehension works really well for nonfiction, helping learners to engage with the text and make connections with prior knowledge. Educators should continuously model making connections before, during and after reading, vocalising the connections out loud, and inviting learners also to share their thoughts. Graphic organisers can be used to create flow charts, graphs, semantic maps and T-charts to organise new and existing information, with collaborative learning applied to encourage students to share their meaningful connections with one other.
Another approach is the KWL Method developed by Donna Ogle, which encourages learners to examine three aspects of informational text before and after reading:
- What do I KNOW about the topic?
- What do I WANT to know?
- What did I learn?
This helps to activate prior knowledge and give purpose to learners' reading.
5. Preview specific vocabulary
Prior to accessing the text, introduce learners to the type of vocabulary they will come across in the text. Focus on the Tier 3 subject-specific words and phrases and, where relevant, any Tier 2 words they are likely to experience in academic texts, such as ‘analyse’, ‘context’ or ‘sufficient’.
6. Encourage monitoring and metacognition
Metacognition is ‘thinking about thinking’ - metacognitive strategies encourage readers to think actively about what they are reading and to monitor their own understanding. This includes previewing text to anticipate any difficulties, monitoring reading comprehension, and taking action if the text does not make sense (rereading, revisiting prior passages, reading ahead). Monitoring and metacognition take practice but can help students become independent readers of complex texts across the curriculum.
7. Summarise key facts
After reading a passage, encourage learners to summarise the key points of what they’ve read; they should decide what is most important and record those facts in their own words. This helps them to separate significant and essential details from unnecessary information, to remember what they’ve read, and to make connections across the key facts they have recorded.
You could consider providing structured notes that contain some of the key information and asking them to fill in the rest.
8. Reflect on the meaning
Research suggests that reflection is an important part of reading comprehension for nonfiction texts, as well as the ability to recall information later. After reading and summarising, learners should reflect on what they’ve read, evaluate it, and form their own conclusions around the information.
Applying strategies to improve reading comprehension
Reading comprehension strategies have a high impact and, alongside phonics, are crucial to early reading instruction. According to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), reading comprehension strategies can add an additional six months’ progress over the course of a year.
Educators should include comprehension strategies as standard within reading instruction activities for different text types, taking an explicit and consistent approach to help all learners and giving them the skills to practise independently in other reading tasks and subjects. It may be confusing to introduce too many strategies at once and, instead, educators should consider picking one or two that are best suited to the type of text being read.
It’s important to be explicit in telling learners which comprehension strategy they are using, when they are using it and why, and to introduce it gradually with the aim of learners eventually incorporating it automatically in their reading. The following steps help embed a reading comprehension strategy:
- Explanation - Teachers should explain to learners how the strategy helps reading comprehension and when and how to use it.
- Modelling - When reading texts, teachers should model the application of the reading comprehension strategy they’re teaching, demonstrating how it works in practice.
- Guided practice - Learners start to apply the strategy themselves with guidance and support from the teacher.
- Application and collaborative learning - Learners continue to practise the strategy, working in pairs or small groups with teacher support as required.
Reading comprehension needs to be tailored to current reading capabilities - not all learners will progress at the same pace. Educators can use informal assessments such as observations, learner retelling and reporting, and content comprehension checklists to assess progress.
Signs that a learner is struggling with comprehension and may need more individualised support or a formal assessment include:
- The inability to concentrate while reading
- Not being able to connect ideas in a piece of writing, across sentences or paragraphs
- Not understanding the meaning of words or sentences
- Leaving out important details when retelling or summarising what’s been read
- Difficulty separating significant details from minor ones.
Where individual students are struggling, there may be a need for additional one-to-one or small group intervention, using focused strategies to boost progress.
How Bedrock helps learners become familiar with tackling new texts
Strong reading comprehension requires the skills to break down different types of texts learners encounter in day-to-day life, such as textbooks, fiction texts, websites, newspapers, diary entries and more.
For this reason, teaching on Bedrock’s core curriculum presents bespoke fiction and nonfiction prose through a range of formats, styles and registers, including short stories, news articles, webpages, text messages and social media posts. This is because all formats of reading have the potential to impart useful knowledge, so learners are equipped with the scaffolding to tackle new information in every format.
Learners on Bedrock improve their vocabulary while exploring types of text relevant to the society they live in, preparing them not only for their exams but for life beyond the school gates.