Thirty-one percent of fourth-graders in the United States failed to achieve basic skills on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. Thirty-six percent demonstrated reading skills at or above the proficient level.
In a review of research on comprehension instruction, the significant number of students who do not understand grade-appropriate material “is all the more troubling given that we know more than ever about teaching reading effectively,” according to the National Reading Technical Assistance Center. “The importance of understanding the nature of good reading instruction in the primary grades cannot be overstated.” Research has shown a strong correlation between learning to read early and later achieving academic success.
Educators can equip beginning readers with the tools needed to help them think about and analyze text as they read. According to a guide from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a part of the U.S. Department of Education, students in kindergarten through third grade should learn how to use strategies to improve reading comprehension.
The panel conducted an extensive review of more than 800 relevant studies in a 20-year span. The recommendation to teach reading strategies was the only method that was labeled as having strong evidence of effectiveness. This recommendation includes six specific reading comprehension strategies, which are explained below.
What Does Teaching Reading Strategies Involve?
Reading strategies involve intentional mental actions during reading that improve comprehension. They are also defined by the IES as deliberate efforts by readers to understand or remember what they are reading. These strategies help readers overcome difficulties in comprehension and compensate for weak textual knowledge.
Reading strategies should not be confused with instructional activities such as completing worksheets. These activities rarely include instruction in how to mentally improve comprehension. Reading strategies should also not be confused with exercises aimed at giving students practice with other skills, like sequencing or drawing conclusions, which lack explicit instruction in how to think in these ways while reading.
Teachers can implement reading strategies individually or in combination. They can also choose the approaches they feel are most effective for their students.
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The panel identified 10 studies demonstrating that teaching reading comprehension strategies to primary students had positive effects on comprehension when measured by standardized tests and research-created measures. The panel members believe that the following six strategies for improving reading comprehension are the most important in the primary grades.
1. Activating Prior Knowledge/Predicting
Students think about what they already know and use that knowledge, along with other clues, to better understand what they read or to predict what will happen next. It is assumed that students will continue to read to see if their predictions are correct.
Teachers can promote this strategy by selecting a main idea from the text and asking students a question that relates the idea to their experience. Students can predict whether a similar experience might occur in the text.
Another option is that when students reach the halfway point of a story, teachers can have students predict what will happen at the end of the story. Students can explain how they came to this prediction, which will encourage them to look at what they are reading and gain a deeper understanding of words and passages in the text.
Students develop and attempt to answer questions about the important ideas in the text while reading, using words such as “where” or “why” to develop their questions.
Teachers can promote this strategy by putting words that are used to formulate questions (such as “where” and “why”) on index cards for students to use. Teachers can also have students form small groups and ask questions using these words.
The National Institute for Literacy offers a number of reasons that explain why questions are effective for improving reading ability.
- Gives students a purpose for reading
- Focuses students’ attention on what they should be learning
- Helps students think actively as they read
- Encourages students to monitor their comprehension
- Helps students review content and relate what they have learned to what they already know
Students develop a mental image of what is described in the text.
Teachers can explain to students how visualizing what is described in the text will help them remember what they read. A sample activity to promote this strategy involves students examining objects placed in front of them. Later, they look carefully at a picture that depicts a scene. Finally, the teacher removes the objects and picture, and then asks students to visualize and describe what they saw.
4. Monitoring, Clarifying and Fix-Up
Students are instructed to pay attention to whether they understand what they are reading, and when they do not, they re-read or use other strategies that will help.
Teachers can relate each strategy to a traffic sign. For instance, a stop sign for the students to stop reading and then try to restate in their own words what is happening in the text. Another way to use this strategy is to write different reading comprehension strategies on cards with their traffic signs, and then have students work in pairs to apply them.
5. Drawing Inferences
Students generate information that is important to constructing meaning but that is missing from, or not explicitly stated in, the text.
Teachers can help students look for key words that will help in understanding the text, demonstrating how they can draw inferences from these words. Teachers can also identify key words in a sample passage and then explain what students can learn about the passage from these terms.
Students briefly describe, orally or in writing, the main points of what they read.
Teachers can ask students to describe the text in their own words to a partner or a teacher. If students are having trouble with this activity, teachers can prompt students with questions like “What comes next?” or “What else did the passage say about [subject]?”
Developing Reading Skills in Students
Teaching reading strategies in an accessible way can help students think actively while they read. When combined with fun reading activities for kids, teachers can develop students’ reading comprehension in an engaging fashion.
Southeastern University offers online master’s degrees in education that help teachers to inspire and lead students. Programs such as the Master of Education in Reading Education and the Master of Education in Elementary Education focus on literacy skills. They take place in a flexible and convenient online learning environment.