Once students can read, reading then becomes an activity for acquiring knowledge. As they build knowledge through reading, this in turns provides a foundation for further thinking, understanding and learning. Effective reading comprehension is important not just in the educational setting, but for employment and daily living.
We need to teach students how to read strategically by activating background knowledge, asking questions, creating sensory imagery, determining importance, drawing inferences, synthesising information and making predictions.
Students with poor comprehension often don’t think about what they are reading. Sometimes, it is because they are so busy trying to decode the text that they don’t have enough mental energy left for thinking about and understanding what they are reading. Sometimes, it is simply because they don’t realise that they should be thinking about and interacting with the text.
We often test students’ comprehension rather than teaching them the skills and strategies underpinning comprehension. We shouldn’t confine comprehension to the literacy block. Rather comprehension is required across the curriculum and therefore strategies for comprehending should be embedded in all subjects.
Monitoring comprehension occurs when readers reflect on their understanding of the text. Does the text make sense? Why did the character do that? How does this connect with previous events or my own knowledge of the topic?
Sometimes, a strategy as simple as encouraging students to stop when they get to the end of a page or a complex passage and to really reflect on what they have read is sufficient for them to begin monitoring meaning. Other strategies might include:
- Responding to reading by talking, writing or illustrating.
- Noticing when they are no longer thinking about the text.
- Noticing when the text no longer makes sense.
- Questioning the validity of the information.
Activate and Connect to Background Knowledge
Comprehension is partly about having the background knowledge to understand the text. We are also likely to really connect with a story if we can relate to the events. One strategy for demonstrating this connection to students is to find a book with which you can connect personally. Perhaps it is set in a place where you grew up or went on holidays. It might be an activity in which you have participated such as horse-riding or gardening. It could be an event that you have also experienced such as going to hospital or getting lost.
Read the story to your students and stop at relevant pages, pictures or passages to reflect on your own experience that might be the same or different to the one described. Demonstrate how to use a sticky note to identify the section and to note the key words relevant to your experience.
Challenge your students to find a book with which they can connect. Give them a pad of sticky notes and ask them to annotate their book in a similar way.
However, you must also read texts which contain information of which you have no knowledge. In these case students must learn to:
- Connect what they do know to the unknown (you might not have been snow skiing, but perhaps you have never been water skiing).
- Use their knowledge of genre, structure and style (if you know that non-fiction text often contains sub-headings, diagrams and pictures, this can help with your understanding).
- Make connections to other media (although you may have never seen snow, you may have seen a documentary or a news report on snow).
Questions prompt us to keep reading and to give us a purpose for reading. We can question:
- The ideas and information.
- The author’s claims and assumptions.
- The validity of the information.
- What we want to learn or understand.
- The relationship between ideas or events or characters.
Infer and Visualise Meaning
Texts give readers pieces of information and from this they must form a mental model of the whole situation or event by using their background knowledge and making inferences. Inferring and visualising requires you to interpret what is written in the text and to think beyond what has been explicitly stated. It adds depth to our understanding. We need to teach students to:
- Use context clues.
- Merge information in the text with their own background knowledge.
- Predict outcomes, events and characters’ actions.
- Identify underlying themes.
- Use their senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) to ‘put themselves in the picture’.
- Understand ‘colourful language’ (similes, metaphors, adjectives, adverbs, idioms).
- Determine cause and effect.
- Identify emotions.
- Draw conclusions.
Not everything written in a text is of equal importance for understanding the underlying message and consequently not everything written in the text needs to be remembered. Students need to be able to:
- Identify the main idea and differentiate supporting detail from irrelevant detail.
- Distinguish between fact and opinion.
Summarise and Synthesise Information
It is not sufficient just to recall the basic information in a text. You also need to understand the ‘bigger picture’. It is through summarising and synthesising that we gain an in depth understanding and acquire new knowledge. Students need to learn to:
- Restate the information in their own words.
- Condense the key message into one or two sentences.
- Merge known information with the new information contained in the text.
- Reconsider current understanding in light of the new information.
Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2017). Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding, Engagement and Knowledge Building (3rd Edition). Stenhouse Publishers: Portland, Maine.
Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension: A Handbook. Routledge: New York.