Developing & Improving Reading Comprehension Skills

Overview of Reading Comprehension

& Specific Actions to Help Students Develop Comprehension


Overview of Reading Comprehension:


Comprehension is acquiring meaning from the text. Comprehension is a complex higher level skill. Obviously, comprehension is critically important to the development of a student’s reading. Comprehension is an active process that requires an intentional and thoughtful interaction between the reader and the text. Vocabulary development is critical to comprehension.


While readers acquire some comprehension strategies informally, explicit or formal instruction in the application of comprehension strategies has been shown to be highly effective in enhancing understanding (from the Report of the National Reading Panel). In other words you can take specific actions to help a student develop comprehension skills.


Remember the student must first develop accurate phonological decoding skills and build fluency. This fluency that is critical to reading comprehension is accomplished word by word and is absolutely dependant on repeated accurate phonological processing. Comprehension strategies focus on teaching students to understand what they read NOT to build skills on how to read/decode. If the student struggles with accurate fluent decoding then comprehension will continue to be limited. Basically if decoding is not automatic and easy then the student has little energy left to devote to thinking about what they are reading.  Remember, if the student has decoding difficulties you need to first establish the necessary fundamental decoding skills of proficient phonologic processing BEFORE you can develop the more advanced comprehension. This section addresses techniques for developing the higher level comprehension skills. If your child or student struggles with reading see the article Students Who Face Difficulty learning to read: Information on Reading Problems and Dyslexia.


Specific Actions You CAN Use To Help Readers Develop Comprehension:


This summary gives some specific techniques you can use to help students develop comprehension skills. These strategies will help the student think about what he or she is reading, understand what he is reading, and remember what he read.  These strategies are effective for non-impaired readers. The following reading comprehension strategies should be implemented as a part of the guided reading.


Overview material BEFORE starting to read: Use various techniques to focus the student on the material before they begin reading. Basically, you help the student think about the material before they start reading.

·        Before the student begins reading, provide statements to direct the student toward what they will be reading. Quickly summarize previous text  and overview the section/chapter they are about to read.  Make statements such as:  “In the last chapter you already learned about ___. This chapter is going to discuss ____” . For example: “The last chapter was on invertebrates, now you will be reading about vertebrates.” or “You just finished learning about the Roman Empire. Now you are going to read about the fall of the Roman Empire”.  “You are continuing to learn about energy. This section discusses thermal or heat energy.”

·        Before they start reading, ask questions to ensure the student is actually on target. Ask questions such as: “What will this chapter be about?” “What will this chapter discuss?” “What are you learning about now?”  Make questions specific to the material such as: “Which region of the country does this chapter cover?”  “What form of energy is this chapter discussing?”

·        In non-fiction, preview the titles and headings of the sections before starting to read the chapter. This overview of the chapter outline is especially helpful with textbooks. This preview helps the student understand the overall intention of the chapter or section.

·        Review key vocabulary before reading the chapter. Some textbooks highlight key words, and important new vocabulary terms. Defining the keywords before reading  is especially critical with subject terminology. For example, knowing the definition of the term ‘Axis Powers’ is important before reading about WWII history. Knowing the difference between exothermic and endothermic reactions is important to understanding text discussions on chemical reactions. To comprehend the basic physics of motion the student needs to understand the difference between the terms speed, velocity and acceleration.

·        With fiction, you can summarize the previous chapters and ask the student to briefly review key events. Ask specific questions on the plot or key events to ‘set the stage’ for reading such as: “So what is going on in the story?”,  “What happened so far?”  “Where are they at?”.

·        With fiction, in addition to having the student give you the quick overview of key events ask the student what they think may happen next.  Ask questions along the lines of  “What do you think will happen now?”  Make questions as specific as possible: “ How do you think Sarah will be able to help her grandmother?” “Do you think the old man will be able to land the fish?”


Help the student understand the structure and organization of writing:   By recognizing important fundamentals about the structure and organization of writing, the student is better able to extract the important material and achieve comprehension.

·        Specifically point out the structure of paragraphs, sections and chapters. In informative writing most sections should have a main idea and supporting details. Most paragraphs have an opening, a middle and an end. The opening sentence usually outlines the main idea of the paragraph. The supporting points and details should be in the body of the paragraph and the concluding sentence at the end. Awareness of the structure of paragraphs, sections and chapters helps the student better understand material. 

·        Non-fiction can be organized differently. For example, stories usually contain a conflict with the typical plot structure of exposition, rising action, climax and conclusion or catastrophe. Awareness of elements including the point of view or voice the author uses to tell the story, situation, setting, and characterization all contribute to overall comprehension.  Help the student understand key writing elements.


Help the Student Learn to Identify and Extract the Main Ideas: The ability to find, identify, extract and understand main ideas is critical to not just reading comprehension but to educational objectives.  Much of the reading students do is to acquire specific information.  Some students have high comprehension on fictional stories yet have difficulty extracting necessary information from textbooks and other non-fictional informational reading. These students need direct instruction on how to identify and extract necessary information. Many of the new textbooks contain a style of writing that many students need to learn how to read. The short paragraphs, numerous interruptions, interesting but irrelevant trivia, and tidbits of boxed information at various locations can sometimes make it more difficult to locate, identify and extract pertinent information. For example, if the student is reading a chapter on United States expansion, the photo of a grizzly bear and sentences about how Thomas Jefferson had a grizzly bear in a cage on the White House grounds may distract the student from the main point. For content comprehension, the student can’t just relate the trivia of the grizzly bear in the cage. The student needs to understand Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase and sent the Corps of Discovery expedition to explore this new territory. They need to understand how Lewis and Clark mapped this new region and recorded information not just on many new plants and animals but also on the peoples that lived there. Help the student learn how to look for and identify the main idea both before reading and during the reading process.

·        As discussed in the ‘overview materials’ techniques, introductory statements and questions can point the student in the right direction before they start reading. 

·        Review the main headings and overall outline of the chapter.

·        As the student reads, help them identify and focus on main ideas by asking specific questions. Stop the student at appropriate paragraphs or sections and ask targeted questions that direct the student to important information. “What was the Lewis and Clark expedition?” “What were the primary missions of the Corps of Discovery?”  “What important information did Lewis and Clark gather during their expedition?” “Explain the process of oxidation?” “What happens in an exothermic chemical reaction and how is it different from an endothermic reaction?”  “Why did the Greeks begin the first Olympic Games? “What weakened the Greek civilization and made is susceptible to defeat?” Help the student learn how to focus on important information.  Ask specific questions that help the student identify and understand the key concepts.

·        By asking questions you can help target the student toward the key concepts that they do not  recognize or understand. For example if you ask the student to explain complete metamorphosis and he gives you the answer ‘a frog’, then you would ask the student a follow up question such as  “Yes, a frog is an example of an animal that undergoes complete metamorphosis, but can you explain the primary difference between complete and incomplete metamorphosis?”. You do not want to ‘give’ the answers to the student, but rather help direct them toward locating and understanding the main ideas. 

·        If the student can not answer questions or is missing pertinent details, then have them re-read the paragraph or section. Not only does this allow the student to find necessary information but it teaches the student the essential skill of looking back and re-reading text to find necessary information.

·        Outlining can be a highly effective tool for helping students identify main points. Show the student how to make an outline. Outlining does not have to be detailed. Short bullet statements are often effective in identifying main ideas. The student can then orally explain the bullet points. 


Stop or pause the student during the reading to think about and process the material. Directly encourage and develop the student’s skills in processing and understanding text as they read. These techniques help the student develop the interaction between the reader and the text that is important to comprehension. Encourage and develop skill in actively processing the material. Help the student think about what they are reading.   

·        Stop at appropriate paragraphs or sections and ask specific questions that make the student think about what they are reading. Once again design questions  to help the student think about specific aspects of the text. Ask both direct informational as well as more advanced interpretative questions.

·        As the student comes across unknown vocabulary or expressions, stop and see if they understand what they are reading. Explain or define the word or expression and then have the student re-read the paragraph or section. For example, the reader comes across the phrase “take the bull by the horns” make sure they understand the phrase means “to tackle tough issues head on with direct action”. The English language is full of many sayings and phrases that do not make sense if read literally. The student needs to not just read the phrase correctly but understand what that phrase means to comprehend the overall meaning of the text.

·        Once again, if the student can not answer a question or is missing pertinent details, have him go back and re-read the section.

·        Begin helping the student develop the higher level processing skills of interpretation and inference. Ask both ‘what do you think’ and ‘why do you think’ type questions.  The process of explaining “why” helps the student think through and back up their answers with reasoning.  


Help Reader Learn to Summarize: Help the student learn to summarize material as they read. In other words, teach the reader how to integrate all the various aspects of the material and give the ‘nuts and bolts’ of a short and quick summary of the text. This ability to summarize is a more advanced skill than simply pulling out the main points. Summarizing main points can be harder for some students because they need to understand the material well enough to be able to explain the key points in their own words. 

·        Have the student practice this essential skill by asking  “What was that about?” or “How would you summarize that in your own words?” If the student is unable to ‘pull out’ and summarize important information, give guidance that teaches him how to do this. Sometimes students will remember small details but are unable to summarize the important points. Once again questions and discussions are effective in helping the student learn this important skill of understanding and summarizing important points.


Specifically Develop Vocabulary Knowledge: Vocabulary instruction leads to gains in comprehension.  Please see the article Expanding Vocabulary Knowledge for further details and specific techniques you can use to help your child or student  expand their vocabulary.


Develop Comprehension Monitoring: Self-monitoring is where the reader checks themselves and recognizes if they understand the material. The goal is for the student to develop self awareness of his or her comprehension. 

·        The student needs to ask themselves at the end of each paragraph or section “Do I understand this material?”.   To develop this essential skill, have the student ask themselves outloud, “What was that about?” By asking and answering this question outloud, the student learns to check himself. The outloud self questioning is a temporary tool. When the student learns to automatically check and monitor their own comprehension, the outloud self questioning is no longer necessary.

·        Another technique for developing self comprehension monitoring is for the student to generate questions about various aspects of the content. By coming up with their own key questions, it allows them to review their understanding of the material. The student answers these questions himself or asks you the questions.

·        If the student does not understand what they read, they need to learn to go back on their own and re-read the section. This self-directed ‘going back’ and re-reading is critical to comprehension. Be sure and compliment the student when you notice them going back on their own.

·        Point out this self-monitoring of comprehension is a characteristic of skilled readers. 


Use of Graphic Organizers: Organizers where the student makes various graphic representations of the material such as story maps, outlines and timelines can effectively enhance comprehension. The key with graphic organizers is to ensure these tools are carefully targeted to achieve comprehension goals and the tools are appropriate for the content areas.  

·        Maps are virtually mandatory when studying content areas dealing with geography. Maps are also critical in understanding history.  For example:  It is difficult to understand the importance of the Panama Canal without looking at a map,  and understanding the ancient Egyptian civilization is dependent on understanding the influence of the Nile river and the geography of the region.

·        Timelines are a highly useful tool. The timelines allow students to ‘see’ the progression of events chronologically. Once again history is a prime candidate for timelines. The timelines are also useful in other subjects that relate to chronologic progression  such as medicine, scientific discoveries, and advancement in technology.  

·        Sketches, illustrations, diagrams and other visual representations can be highly effective when they are properly applied. For example, sketches of the various landforms helps students define and understand geography terms. Diagrams are important in describing and understanding the physical structure and function of item such as atoms, molecules, cells, and life cycles.

·        Story maps are a tool for visually outlining fiction.

·        Outlining is a highly effective tool across a wide range of subjects and material context. 

·        Once again, all these tools need to be properly targeted to develop the necessary content objectives. It is important to realize that not all ‘projects’ or ‘visual representations will enhance comprehension.  For example spending time making an elaborate paper pirate ship mobile is unlikely to improve comprehension of  Treasure Island’.  Building a model of a pyramid out of sugar cubes is unlikely to help the student learn the importance of the ancient Egyptian civilization.   Remember to target and focus graphic organizers to what the student needs to learn.


Cooperative Learning: Cooperative learning is where students learn and discuss material with others. As can be expected, effectiveness of  ‘cooperative learning’ strategies varies greatly. These cooperative learning strategies need to be properly applied and carefully monitored. 

·        Discussions guided or facilitated by a knowledgeable instructor are more effective than unguided discussions. Even if the instructor does not direct the details of the discussions, facilitation is important. Students who start off discussing their thoughts about “The Old Man and the Sea” can easily drift off into a series of unrelated fishing stories. Facilitation is important for keeping students on target.

·        The open discussions between students are usually more appropriate for fictional text than for non-fictional informational reading.  Students can learn from each other when discussing elements such as ‘what do you think will happen? “Why did this character do this?” “Why do you think…” etc. These types of discussions can bring out elements of the story that the student had not previously thought of.

·        Common sense dictates the effectiveness of these ‘cooperative’ discussion strategies with factual informational text. Obviously, it does not help students’ comprehension if the ‘cooperators’ share incorrect or inaccurate information. Particular care and careful monitoring is essential so that uninformed students do not share misinformation with other students. The ‘cooperative’ discussions among students often have limited benefit when students are learning new concepts and information. While question generation from students is helpful, the answers and factual information need to be provided by knowledgeable sources.

·        Cooperative learning with knowledgeable individuals or subject experts can be highly beneficial. For example, if my son discusses military history with his grandfather the cooperative discussions between them provide incredible opportunities for him to expand his comprehension and knowledge base. Obviously he would not achieve this enhanced comprehension if he discussed the same topic with his buddy whose knowledge of WWII history was limited to a fictional TV show.

·        Monitoring is always important with cooperative learning to ensure accurate information is shared and the students remain on target.


In summary, comprehension is the essential higher level skill of actually understanding the material being read. Obviously, comprehension is the goal of proficient reading.  You can help students develop these critical comprehension skills with various direct instruction strategies. Most activities that develop comprehension skills can be effectively applied as a part of guided reading.


Comprehension is just one skill necessary for proficient reading. Link to the Free Reading Information page of Right Track Reading for additional informative articles and resources on teaching students to read proficiently.



This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at  ~ Copyright 2007 Miscese R. Gagen