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How to Teach Reading Comprehension

Teachers struggle with how to teach reading comprehension. The implicit-instruction teachers hope that reading a lot really will teach comprehension through some form of reading osmosis. The explicit-instruction teachers teach the skills that can be quantified, but ignore meaning-making as the true purpose of reading.

The die-hard implicit-instruction teachers want to believe that reading comprehension is something caught, and not taught. They want to believe this “feel-good” saying because it assuages guilt and legitimizes pedagogical laziness. These same teachers spend tremendous amounts of time reading out loud and enjoying literature with their students. Occasionally, these “sages on their stages” may drop pearls of literary wisdom to their enraptured audiences. Of course, students enjoy this implicit, spoon-fed “instruction” because it keeps them from having to read challenging text on their own.

The die-hard explicit-instruction teachers believe that every instructional moment  must be planned as part of the teachers’ instructional objectives. If the reading skill cannot be measured and put on a progress monitoring chart, then it is simply not worth teaching. Unfortunately, these teachers focus on the appetizers of reading and not the main course. The appetizers of discreet reading skills are easily diagnosed and are frequently easy to teach. The main course of reading comprehension is difficult to diagnose, even more difficult to teach, and just cannot be quantified on traditional recording matrices.

Having detailed the extremes, here are the reading comprehension strategies that will help teachers strike the balance between implicit and explicit instruction and turn their students into capable independent readers.

1. The explicit direct instruction advocates are right: the appetizers are necessary to enjoy the meal. But the appetizers are not the meal; reading comprehension is the meal. So, as efficiently as possible, teach the pre-requisite reading skills and help students unlearn their bad reading habits.

How? Know your readers. Each comes to your class with different skill-sets and deficits. Each needs mastery of phonemic awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, and grade-level fluency to master the reading automaticity that will allow them to attend to meaning-making.

Effective whole-class diagnostic assessments that won’t take up all of your teaching time and differentiated reading skills instruction are crucial to setting the main course. However, students need to understand the purpose behind the appetizers. Teachers accomplish this by helping all students “catch up” in their areas of reading skill deficits, while they concurrently “keep up” with challenging reading comprehension strategies instruction and practice. Read about the value and purpose of reading assessments and get the free diagnostic reading assessments that will inform your instruction. Learn about the importance and role of phonemic awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, and fluency in shaping reading comprehension for you readers.

2. Use shared reading to model the synthesized process of reading. Shared reading means that the teacher reads stories, articles, poetry, songs, etc. out loud to students to model the whole reading process. Students need to see and hear modeled reading that integrates all of the reading skills with a focus on meaning-making. Without this “whole to part” modeling, isolated reading skills instruction will fail to develop readers who read well on their own. The teacher shares the reading strategies as she reads that help her understand, interpret, and enjoy the text. She models self-questioning strategies and problem solving. Learn how to do a reading think-aloud and teach self-questioning skills.

3. Use guided reading to teach discreet reading comprehension strategies. Guided reading means that the teacher reads or plays a CD and stops to help students practice a pre-selected reading comprehension strategy. At stops, students share whole group, pair share, or write responses to the comprehension strategies. Students do not read out loud as they are generally poor models. Learn how to teach the following SCRIP reading comprehension strategies: Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict.

4. Teach independent reading by getting students to practice guided reading strategies on their own. Teach students to make personal connections with the text. This does not mean that students relate aspects of the reading to their own experience. Instead, readers access their prior knowledge and experiences to understand and interpret the reading. The focus is on the author-reader relationship. Learn how to teach students to visualize and connect their lives and knowledge to the text to increase reading comprehension.

Assign reading homework with required parental discussion, even at the middle school level. We have to get students practicing reading for at least two hours weekly at 5% unknown word recognition with accountability. SSR in the classroom won’t get this done, even with response journals. Immediate discussion at the summary and analytical levels builds comprehension. Parents can quite capably supervise this independent activity. Learn how to develop a successful independent reading homework component.

5. Teach the reading and writing connection. Reinforce the reading/writing connection by showing how expository and narrative texts are organized and how each should be read according to their own characteristics. Wide experience across many reading genres will help build comprehension and writing ability. Learn the reading-writing strategies that “kill two birds with one stone”  and learn how to teach an effective read-study method for expository text.

6. Teach vocabulary explicitly and in context. Vocabulary acquisition is essential to reading comprehension. Teachers need to expose students to challenging text, teach context clues, teach the common Greek and Latin word parts, teach vocabulary strategies such as semantic spectrums, and practice “word play” and memory tricks to increase vocabulary proficiency.

7. Teach content. Teaching content is teaching reading comprehension. Good readers bring content, prior knowledge, and experience to their side of the author-reader relationship. Content-deficient readers can’t make relevant personal, literary, or academic connections to the text and comprehension suffers. Pre-teaching story background is essential to build comprehension. For example, why not show the movie first, once in awhile, before reading the novel? Pull aside a group of struggling readers and pre-teach key concepts to scaffold meaning.

Remedial readers often practice reading skills ad nauseum, but grow more deficient in content. For example, a seventh grade student who is removed from an English-language arts class for remedial reading will probably lose the content of reading two novels, learning grade level grammar and vocabulary, missing the speech and poetry units… you get the idea. Not to mention, the possibility of losing social science or science instruction if placed in a remedial reading class… Both content and reading strategies are critical for reading development.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly TRSincrease the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 390 flashcards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

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  1. Brenda Pardee
    March 2nd, 2012 at 06:51 | #1

    I am a speech language pathologist in an a rural and economically deprived elementary school. I spend the majority of my day supporting my language impaired students in the classroom. Since my state (FL) instituted the FL Comprehensive Assessment Test (F-CAT), the students are forced into completing endless practice tests. Often, the teachers don’t have the time to go over and discuss the reading passages with the students. The teachers cry out that the students are just not comprehending what they have read. Your article succinctly states what I have tried for years to express. Thank you. Hopefully seeing it from another source will add power to my words. Brenda Pardee

  1. November 1st, 2014 at 11:17 | #1