How Can Children Be Taught to Comprehend Text Better?

Michael Pressley and Katherine Hilden, University of Notre Dame

The hallmark of good reading is that readers actively comprehend and interpret texts, often at several levels, as is necessary in reading complex literature. Excellent readers understand what they read by bringing prior knowledge to new texts and using active strategies to discover meanings. Some reading educators feel that developing excellent young readers is too distant a goal and aim primarily at teaching children to recognize words. This article disagrees with that perspective, arguing that learning to recognize words is only one of many competencies necessary for children to become strong readers. Reading involves simultaneous, concerted development of word recognition, comprehension, and interpretational skills. Researchers have progressed in identifying instructional practices that help young readers develop these skills. This article reviews components of skilled comprehension and of comprehension instruction that make for good readers.


Skilled Comprehension

Research asking readers to think aloud as they read shows that skilled reading is active and coherent. Readers construct meaning before, during, and after reading. Skilled readers know why they are reading and use their goals to guide them. They often engage in a prereading skim of the text to distinguish relevant from less relevant material and to form an idea of the form and content. While reading generally progresses from beginning to end, skilled readers know when to skip and when to reread, reflect, and take notes, especially for difficult texts. As they read, skilled readers anticipate what will be revealed, compare it to what they expected, and adjust their goals accordingly. They also engage in five key functions. First, they identify important information. They look for and remember key points, noticing relevant new ideas and vocabulary. Second, they make conscious inferences, using prior knowledge to fill in details and construct explanations about actions, people, and authors. Third, they integrate parts of texts, consciously relating parts and summarizing the whole. Holding key ideas in mind, they reread when they have not understood something important. Fourth, they interpret reaching conclusions about the purposes of a work or about lessons to be drawn from it. Fifth, skilled readers monitor a textís difficulty, the authorís strategies, and the relation of the textís ideas to their own. Aware of their degree of understanding and appreciation, they know whether reading problems arise in texts or themselves.

Having finished a text, good readers consider whether they have attained their goals, and if not, they may decide to reread, study, or take notes. They also reflect on the reading to prepare for future use of the knowledge. Both during and after reading good comprehenders evaluate a text extensively, forming opinions. They consciously accept or reject an authorís conclusions on the basis of reasoning and evidence. They also evaluate the quality of the style. Skilled readers, then, use strategies separating them from struggling readers. These include using prior knowledge, self-questioning, seeking clarification, and making interpretations.


Comprehension Instruction

Nevertheless, research indicates that little comprehension instruction takes place in classrooms beyond asking literal questions about texts. Teachers do not promote deeper understanding and active interpretation. However, we do know how to achieve those goals through various modes of instruction. INDIVIDUAL STRATEGIES INSTRUCTION

Much research has focused on whether increased use of a single strategy, such as self-questioning, improves comprehension. Studies typically compare participants using the strategy to controls on some measure of comprehension. The positive results are relevant to teaching comprehension. For example, children do not usually form mental images of what is described in text, but they can be taught to form images, with improved reading memory. Also, children can use schematic knowledge (e.g. the pattern of a shipís christening) learned earlier to understand new text. Other research illustrates that since readers naturally integrate textual details into higher-order ideas called macropropositions, teaching summarization to encourage macroproposition formation improves text memory and comprehension. Further, teaching children to generate questions and answers about readings stimulates deeper thinking, and teaching them to heed key elements of story structure like character and problem solving improves comprehension. MULTIPLE STRATEGIES INSTRUCTION

Despite its benefits, individual strategies instruction entails problems. Teaching a strategy does not guarantee its sustained use, and transferring it to new situations is difficult. Cognitive psychologists think that readers need both strategies and accompanying metacognition: They need know how to monitor the skills taught and know when to use them. Research shows that expert readers monitor comprehension and know how to implement strategies when they do not understand; crucially, they coordinate numerous strategies. Thus, instruction for young readers should focus on teaching not single strategies but coordinated use of several. And since strategy mastery requires practice, instruction should include extensive practice, particularly in transferring strategies young readers know to new readings, so that they understand better how and when the skills are valuable.

Such multiple strategies instruction has been tried before in the influential study skills movement. The best-known multiple strategy approach was SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite, and review). Though the approach improved comprehension slightly, it was a rigid method in conflict with the flexible approach of expert readers. It was taught without metacognition about how and when the approach might work best. A related but less rigid approach was reciprocal teaching. Here, students were taught to make predictions before reading, ask questions about texts, seek clarifications when confused, and summarize ideas. Teachers modeled strategies; then students practiced them extensively. Again, comprehension improved only slightly. More recent multiple-strategies approaches have used additional strategies, greater teacher involvement, think-aloud reporting in small groups, and longer practice. Additional strategies include predictions from prior knowledge, self-questioning, image construction, relation of content to prior knowledge, and comprehension monitoring.

Since readers have different prior knowledge and experience, they interpret texts differently and personally. A recent approach that accounts for these differences is transactional strategies instruction. This approach, which views comprehension as transactions between unique readers and texts open to interpretation, has resulted in dramatic comprehension improvement in well-controlled studies. Its success recommends it for KĖ12 comprehension instruction. To teach students a repertoire of strategies, transactional instruction begins with direct explanation and modeling, followed by teacher-supported practice to encourage long-term internalization of strategies. Notable is the success of this method with previously low-achieving second graders; even primary students benefit from learning multiple strategies. OTHER KEYS TO COMPREHENSION

Excellent comprehension requires not only strategies but prior knowledge, especially understanding of individual words; evidence supports the logical assumption that enriching vocabulary increases comprehension. However, most word meanings are learned not through direct instruction but in context. Thus, students should be taught to heed context clues when encountering new words. Context helps readers determine whether guesses about sounds and word meanings are correct, particularly when readers have already encountered the words in speech. Vocabulary and context skills can help young readers avoid mistakes about key words that can defeat comprehension. Further, as E. D. Hirsch has argued, children need to read high-quality books to gain the deep cultural knowledge that educated people enjoy. Though research is needed to link such reading with comprehension gains, research shows that boosting cultural knowledge in schools raises elementary language-arts achievement.

Although overemphasis on word recognition works against comprehension, recognition must be high if comprehension is to be so. Without automatic word recognition, efforts to comprehend compete in consciousness with more immediately important recognition efforts, and comprehension suffers. Thus, word recognition must be developed well beyond the ability to sound out words, so that recognition is effortless and larger units than words can be grasped quickly.

To summarize, research demonstrates that the multiple strategies used by expert readers can be taught and that transactional instruction teaches them effectively. Also important is a good prior knowledge base for further reading; we should both teach comprehension skills and encourage students to read highquality texts that foster sophisticated vocabulary and cultural knowledge.



We can develop student’s comprehension, but the task will not be accomplished easily or quickly. One reason for slow progress to date is that relevant research is not translated into practice, partly because teachers resist teaching comprehension. One way to overcome their resistance is to inspire them to become better comprehenders themselves. If they use comprehension strategies more effectively in their own reading, they may be more motivated to teach the strategies to their students, who may become parents teaching their children to read with more understanding, creating a nation of expert readers.


Article Source:


Visit's online store to find books for teaching your children/students to read.


Other articles that may interest you:

Learning from Memoirs

Teaching Self-Assessment

Reading 'can help reduce stress'

Poor Reading Skills--High Risk

How Children Learn to Read

Ready to Read: Early Literacy Skills

Start the New School Year Organized!

Reading Differences

Top 10 Summer Reading Lists For Kids and Teens: 2011

Outdoor Learning Games for Kids

Brains on Fire: The Multimodality of Gifted Thinkers

How Can Children Be Taught to Comprehend Text Better?

How to Teach Poetry to Kids

It's Important! Read Poetry to Your Children

Choosing Books that are Just Right

The Child and the Well Chosen Book

Learning to Read

Reading Milestones

Teaching Non-Fiction Reading and Writing

6 Reasons to Use Informational Text in Primary Grades

Building Vocabulary

Building Vocabulary: Using Context Clues

Teaching Prediction in Picture Books and Non-Fiction Texts

Picture Books and Illustrator Studies

Improve your English through Reading

Tips for Teaching Autistic Children Reading Skills

Autism and Reading Comprehension<

Children on the Autistic Spectrum: Guidelines for Mainstream Practice

Reading Out Loud with Your Child/Student(s)

Reading Comprehension and Book Reports

Teaching Autistic Children Reading