No matter why we love to read, we wouldn’t be able to love it without reading comprehension skills. Reading comprehension unlocks the ability to enjoy new texts. Whether we read fiction or nonfiction, we employ reading comprehension skills every time we open a book.
For learners who struggle with reading comprehension, it can be difficult to understand the appeal of reading for pleasure. Due to this, struggling learners are less likely to practise reading at home. Without the ability to understand and enjoy books, learners do not read, so their reading comprehension skills do not improve – the gap widens.
These are just some of the reasons why reading comprehension skills should be taught explicitly to every learner. Not only does progress in reading comprehension improve attainment in English, but it removes barriers in every subject. Whether learners read a poetry collection or a biology textbook, the right reading comprehension strategies open doors to progress.
What is reading comprehension?
Reading comprehension is a fundamental skill learners must master to succeed in school. It allows learners to understand the texts they are reading, facilitating learning through literacy, while also having the potential to unlock a love of reading.
We know the impact that reading can have on a learners’ success. Cultivating a love for reading in your learners is a gift that will benefit them throughout their life, in education and beyond. To give learners that gift, you must start with improving reading comprehension – and to teach reading comprehension skills explicitly, you need useful strategies.
In this blog, we’ll be listing a number of research-driven strategies you can use to teach reading comprehension in your classroom.
Making connections with prior knowledge
In order to read successfully, learners need the ability to connect the text they’re currently reading with the knowledge they already have. This might be as simple as connecting the chapter you are reading now with the chapter before. However, the prior knowledge learners need to have in order to read a text might be cultural. For example:
Joshua was aching so badly from the morning’s work that he could hardly eat his gruel.
With the skill to be able to activate prior knowledge, we can infer (and we’ll come to this later) that Joshua works in a Victorian workhouse. From this, we can roughly guess his age and the time period of the text, all with one sentence – but it requires prior knowledge of Victorian workhouses and what life was like living there.
Keen and Zimmerman (1997) identified three main types of prior knowledge activation:
- Text to self
- Text to text
- Text to world
When it comes to text-to-self and text-to-text prior knowledge activation, this is something you can model to your class. While reading a text, vocalise the connections you are making; this shows the class your thought process. Through listening to you make connections with prior texts and knowledge that has already been taught, learners can increase their understanding of how to activate this prior knowledge for themselves. Over time, you will need to model this thought process less and less as learners gain metacognition – the ability to think about how they are thinking. With this skill, learners can begin to activate prior knowledge internally as they read a text, improving their reading comprehension.
On the other hand, when it comes to text-to-world prior knowledge activation (seen in the quote about Joshua above), this is a little more tricky. In a class of 20-30 learners, we can’t guarantee that each of them will have the same cultural knowledge. For some, the prior knowledge needed to access a text about a Victorian workhouse would already be present, but for some this text could be the first time they encounter this period in history.
To tackle this, encourage learners to note down questions they have about the text as they read. This will give you a clear insight as to whether learners are activating prior world knowledge when reading the text. To fill in some of the gaps, encourage learners to think of any prior knowledge they have that is similar to the text – for example, even if a learner does not know about the Victorian workhouses, they might know something about the Victorian era, which is a good springboard to build on their knowledge.
Remind learners that with every new text they read, they are building up a body of prior knowledge they can use to engage with texts in the future. This means the more they read, the easier it gets – this can be incredibly motivating for your learners to hear.
Understanding new vocabulary
Research suggests that learners need to understand over 85% of the words in a text to understand its meaning overall (Schmitt et al. 2011) (Stoeckel et al. 2020). Some believe this figure is closer to 98%! A limited vocabulary not only limits learners’ reading comprehension but also their enjoyment of the text.
Tier 2 vocabulary is the high-level language that isn’t commonly used in everyday conversation, and is essential for learners to succeed in school. These Tier 2 terms make up the language of the academic texts they read and the exams they sit. As these words are used mostly in written text, such as in textbooks and novels, learners who read less miss out on many encounters with new language. This makes accessing texts even more difficult in the future.
To break this cycle, you should provide every learner with explicit vocabulary instruction.
In 1996, Hazenberg and Hulstijn found that learners need 3000 words to understand 95% of ordinary texts, and be able to understand general ideas and themes from texts. While this isn’t enough language for complete proficiency, it’s sufficient to allow learners to access fundamental texts – building up this body of vocabulary requires explicit vocabulary instruction.
The tricky part when teaching vocabulary to your learners is that no two learners will have the same prior vocabulary knowledge. In one classroom, you may have some learners with an extensive arsenal of vocabulary, and some who rely mainly on Tier 1 language to communicate. Your method of teaching vocabulary should be differentiated for each learner – this is where Bedrock Vocabulary comes in.
Rather than having to assess each learners’ vocabulary ability individually and match your activities to their level, Bedrock uses a deep-learning algorithm to find each learners’ vocabulary level. Language that is too simple can seem boring, and language that is too complex forms a barrier to learning. Not only does Bedrock’s deep-learning algorithm save you time, but it allows learners to access the language best suited to their ability, keeping them motivated.
Other useful strategies for improving your learners’ vocabulary include upgrading their speech, high-quality teacher-student communication and scaffolded peer-to-peer conversation. Read more about these strategies in our blog on improving vocabulary.
Part of the enjoyment of reading is making predictions about what happens next. Luckily, making predictions is a great way to practise reading comprehension, as it combines skills of inference, critical literacy and activating prior knowledge all at once.
“To accurately make predictions students must understand not only what the author said, but what the author is implying.” (Bailey, 2020)
Predictions can be made before opening the book and while you are reading, and then can be reflected upon after you have finished reading the extract.
For example, when reading An Inspector Calls with your class, ask them to recall what happened in the chapter previously, and, using the chapter you have read together, predict what might happen in the next one. Not only does this increase reading comprehension skills, but it helps learners access the suspense, tension, and enjoyment in a novel, encouraging them to read for pleasure further down the line.
You don’t even have to open the book to make a prediction. One fun activity to kick off your reading comprehension work is to have learners look at the front and back page of the book. Examine the cover, read the blurb, think about the title, consider the spine. What do you think the book is about? What do you think will happen? What is the author trying to make you feel about the text before you’ve even opened the first page?
For example, take the book cover of the Golden Compass by Philip Pullman:
When we look at the ornate design of the cover and the enigmatic title, what is Pullman encouraging you to feel before you begin reading?
Simple questions such as “What do you think will happen next?” and “How do you think the story will end?” encourage learners to combine prior knowledge of the text with the inferences they have made so far. Practising combining these skills helps to improve reading comprehension overall.
Identifying the main idea and summarising
Summarising can be a fantastic tool for supporting reading comprehension.
The ability to summarise well can feel like a skill people take for granted, but it allows learners to not only identify the main themes in a text, but to communicate them using their own words. This provides them with the freedom and autonomy to interact with reading in a way that suits them, encouraging reading for pleasure and deepening reading comprehension skills.
As well as this, summaries from learners give teachers an insight into potential problem areas. When information is summarised, it’s easier to see where main ideas and key themes have been lost or misunderstood. This gives you an opportunity to support their knowledge, ensuring they are able to access the text.
Summarising is one of the simplest strategies you can employ when improving reading comprehension. After reading a text, ask learners to summarise what they have read in their own words. This could be a simple summary, or as a response to a previous prediction they make about the text.
When you’re done, ask learners to contribute their ideas to the class or to their peers. This gives other learners the opportunity to fill in gaps in the summary. By doing this as a class, you ensure that every learner comes away from the text with a clear understanding of its contents.
In addition to the reading comprehension benefits, having structured conversations like this as a class reinforce communication skills and independent learning, as every learner has their own voice and gets involved in the discussion.
Answering comprehension questions
This is a well-used strategy for measuring reading comprehension, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. Reading comprehension questions work for both the teacher and the learner.
For teachers, they give a clear insight into whether learners comprehend a text. The insights you receive aren’t as immediate as those you receive when reviewing summaries, but they are more in-depth, giving you a better view of where learners are misunderstanding a text.
For the learner, reading comprehension questions frame the important parts of a text that they should read carefully. In this way, comprehension questions scaffold where learners should be thinking deeply, helping to shape the way they read texts.
Reading comprehension questions alone are not enough to close gaps in reading comprehension, as they do not directly tackle the skills needed to read effectively. However, they do increase visibility for you as a teacher, while playing a role in helping to scaffold how learners should think about texts.
These questions don’t have to be set out in an exam paper. Introduce low-stakes comprehension questions while reading a text. Here are some examples of different types of questions you can ask to get learners thinking deeply about a text:
- What time of day do you think this story is taking place? What month or season? Why?
- Looking at the front cover, why do you think the author chose that illustration and that font?
- How do you think this character is feeling? Why do you think they feel this way?
- What is the setting of the story and how does it affect the plot?
- Can you summarise the story in just two sentences?
- Do you think the blurb describes the story well? How would you change it?
As you can see, the right reading comprehension questions bring together skills from all of the other strategies mentioned in this blog. By teaching all of these aspects of reading comprehension together, you form a consistent, cohesive strategy for improving learners’ reading.
Comparing and contrasting
Comparing and contrasting is the process of identifying whether two things are different or similar. Making a comparison between two things identifies that there is a link between them, whether that’s due to them being the same or opposite.
Not only does this encourage learners to think deeper about the text, but it encourages them to identify overall themes, moods and motifs, even when they are not stated explicitly. In this way, comparing and contrasting works together with inference to boost learners’ critical thinking skills – a key component of reading comprehension.
As well as this, texts that use comparisons within themselves provide great examples of language cues for learners. For example, when a text uses “similar to”, this signals that it is about to compare one thing to another. On the other hand, “on the other hand” signifies that the text is about to make a distinction between two things. Comparing and contrasting helps learners recognise when a text is supporting an argument or introducing a different perspective, reinforcing learners’ critical thinking skills and boosting reading comprehension.
Comparing and contrasting is another opportunity to link back to prior knowledge. By comparing one section to another, you encourage learners to consider how current texts compare to texts they have read previously. This calls upon that prior knowledge and reinforces it.
Questions such as, “How is this chapter different from the last chapter?” in English, or “Why do you think this letter contradicts the last letter?” in history encourage learners in every subject to compare and contrast the text with the knowledge they already have, strengthening their reading comprehension.
You could include comparison and contrast in verbal reading comprehension questions, asking questions such as:
- What’s changed between this chapter and the last chapter?
- How is the main character similar or different to his father?
- What is the text trying to do by putting the two different cities side by side?
- Why is it important that this happy moment occurs while it is raining?
These are great opportunities for comprehension practice and text-to-text comparisons.
Visualising and using graphic organisers
Graphic organisers are a great way to visualise ideas from a text. They allow learners to put new knowledge onto paper and organise it in a way that’s visible, deepening their knowledge and increasing their long-term retention.
Using graphic organisers is a great way to make the process of summarising clear to see. After encouraging your class to summarise key ideas from the text in their own words, hand out graphic organisers and ask learners to write down three main ideas. From there, learners can give examples of how these ideas are shown in the text, as well as keywords that support this.
We have made a template with this structure – feel free to share this template amongst your class and use it for deepening these reading comprehension techniques.
As well as this, graphic organisers can be used to activate prior knowledge and facilitate effective prediction. Before you start reading a text, ask learners to come up with predictions for the text using their prior knowledge.
During the reading process, encourage learners to write down any further predictions they have now they are informed by the text, or questions they have for the text after having read a section.
After you have finished reading, get learners to finish off their predictions and questions. Were they right? Did any of their questions get answered as the text progressed? Do they have any more questions now the text has finished?
This is another example of using visual tools to improve reading comprehension. A story map is a type of graphic organiser and works best when studying fiction texts.
Oftentimes, when planning a piece of creative writing, we plan out the plot, the characters, the dilemma and the solution to craft an engaging story. Creating a story map is similar to this, only backwards. Learners can work back from an already written text, turning it back into its story plan – or story map.
After reading a text, ask learners to list its main themes. Then you can go deeper, asking them to name characters and the dilemmas they face in the story. Encourage learners to identify problems and solutions, helping them build up an idea of the plot timeline. To go even further, combine this activity with your reading comprehension questions by asking them the impact of setting and time period.
Through this activity, learners consider how aspects of the piece fit together to create an effect beyond what is explicitly written on the page.
Story maps can also be applied to smaller sections of the text. For example, if you’re trying to encourage your learners to infer how characters are feeling in a certain chapter, you could design a map that links actions the characters are doing with emotions they may be feeling.
Story maps call upon explicit vocabulary instruction, prior knowledge and inference skills, as well as visualisation – together, these strategies reinforce strong reading comprehension.
Retelling works as a natural next step from summarising. Rather than just reducing the story to its main themes, learners use their own words to retell the events of the story to someone else. This utilises summarisation and story map strategies, as learners have to not only grasp the themes of the text but also the plot trajectory.
This strategy is effective as it provides visibility on where knowledge has been misunderstood, much like with summarisation. However, it also provides the opportunity for you to upgrade their narrative through high-quality teacher-learner conversation, deepening their vocabulary and reading comprehension knowledge.
At first, supporting your learners to retell the story might require some scaffolding. You might have to prompt with questions or fill in blanks. However, retelling the events of the story is an exercise that helps learners comprehend the trajectory of a story. Practising this increases their independence when reading and reduces their need for teacher support.
How Bedrock incorporates strategies for reading comprehension into our teaching
Books are one of the most important ways we gain information, especially in the classroom. English is the language of learning; strong reading comprehension skills unlock knowledge found in both fiction and non-fiction texts. By helping to improve reading comprehension skills, we improve learning through literacy. Our activities are crafted to support vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension, supporting learners’ development in every subject across the curriculum.
Firstly, Bedrock’s vocabulary curriculum tackles the Tier 2 vocabulary instruction needed for strong reading comprehension. Struggling readers often cannot access the texts in the classroom, and therefore can’t practise their reading comprehension skills. That’s why we teach vocabulary through intelligent differentiation and accessible stories, not only boosting learners’ vocabulary but encouraging them to love reading.
Bedrock's vocabulary curriculum teaches new words through bespoke fiction and non-fiction texts, written in Tier 1 vocabulary. This ensures every learner has the chance to engage with the texts they read. Not only does this method of teaching provide high-quality, contextualised encounters with new vocabulary, but it also helps to cultivate a love of reading – this is a gift that will continue to boost learners’ progress throughout their lives.
As well as this, Bedrock’s grammar curriculum teaches the grammar skills learners need to navigate texts effectively. Grammar is taught through engaging video content and interactive learning activities, consolidating learners’ grammar knowledge. From proper nouns to sentence structure to semicolons, Bedrock provides learners with the tools they need to understand grammar in practice. This doesn’t just benefit their own writing but their reading also.
In Bedrock's core curriculum, vocabulary and grammar instruction work in tandem to give learners the tools they need to understand language, improving their literacy overall.
If you’re looking to improve reading comprehension in your school, reap the benefits of Bedrock’s core curriculum. Find out more about how Bedrock can improve reading comprehension at your school.