Strategies for Building Reading Comprehension

By Justin Lim on May 16, 2010
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

When I first began teaching, I was surprised by how well my students could "read" without understanding anything. On the surface, they appeared to be strong readers, but it soon became apparent that they could not recall anything expressed on the page. During her work as an elementary reading specialist, Sarah Armstrong referred to these readers as "word callers" in her book Teaching Smarter With the Brain in Focus.

Although I recognized that there was a problem, I had a difficult time addressing it because it was amorphous to me. Learning and training to become a teacher is such a rigorous process that the comprehension strategies I had developed had become second nature to me — I utilized all the time without even knowing it. For me, it was hard to identify what my kids couldn't do because these strategies were skills that I regularly implemented without even realizing it. I decided to start teaching essential vocabulary while also encouraging my students to read more. These practices are no doubt powerful, but they don't fully address the internalized reading strategies that are at the core of comprehension.

As outlined by Pearson, Roehler, Dole, and Duffy (1992), there are seven key reading strategies that effective readers use to comprehend a text. These seven strategies need to be taught and practiced until they become second nature to the reader:

1. Activating background knowledge to make connections: What does this remind you of?

2. Questioning the text: Do you agree or disagree? Does it depend?

3. Drawing inferences: What can you figure out? What might happen next?

4. Determining importance: What do you think you need to remember?

5. Creating mental images: What do you picture in your head?

6. Repairing understanding when meaning breaks down: How can you figure out what it means?

7. Synthesizing information: How can you put it all together? What is the big picture?

Here are some practical ways to intentionally teach these skills to your students:

1. Directed Think-Out-Louds
Think-out-loud is a strategy that many teachers already use to help students follow along during group reads. Whenever I pause to "think out loud," I'm always sure to point out the specific reading strategy that I am using. I might literally say, "I'm going to think out loud for a moment. Something that good readers do is ask questions about the text. The question that I have right now is... What are you wondering?" The simple act of explicitly pointing out how I came to a conclusion instead of just saying what my conclusion is helps my students to focus on the thought process.

2. List the strategies
In order to explicitly teach these skills, I have them listed on my wall and I will use my laser pointer to draw attention to particular skills whenever I think-out-loud. I'm also very intentional about recognizing students who use any of the strategies when participating in class discussions. I provide specific praise and draw the classes attention to the strategy that was used to generate a high quality response. Having the strategies listed helps me to maximize the number of opportunities to point them out during the reading or discussion process. 

3. Focus on the how
I used to use questioning as a way to get students to introduce ideas that I wanted to expound upon myself. I've now shifted my focus to open ended discussions, where students can explain how or why they hold an opinion. When one of my students shares an insight, immediately after praising the response, I ask him to share with the class how he came to his conclusion. Shortly after, I ask the rest of the class to evaluate or build upon the response. In the time that I've used this practice, I've noticed that the critical insights of my students have skyrocketed. My students are now intentionally trying to come up with comments that are relevant, but not immediately obvious from the readings. In order to this, they are practicing the reading strategies listed above.

For next year, I plan to develop a more systematic approach for explicitly teaching these essential skills. One specific tool that I would like to create is an independent reading log that prompts students to utilize these strategies instead of simply providing summaries.



Armstrong, Sarah (2008). Teaching Smarter With the Brain in Focus. New York: Scholastic.

Pearson, P.D., Roehler, L.R., Dole, J.A., &Duffy, G. G. (1992). Developing expertise in reading comprehension. In S. J. Samuels & A. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading Instruction,(2nd Ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


I appreciate all the ideas you have shared! I also appreciate seeing a dedication to not just doing a job, but caring deeply if the students excelled. This kind of commitment is wonderful to see. The changes you made for those students, will clearly aid them throughout their lives.

Once you realized that your students were struggling to comprehend the material that they were reading, did you make an effort to contact the middle schools in your area to try to change the curriculum so that future high school students do not face this problem?

[Edit: Response]

Hi Danielle,

To be quite honest, when I first realized what was going on, I was so new to the profession that I was struggling to figure out how to first handle the situation in front of me. Also, as a new teacher, I was happy just to have a job and I didn't want to make any waves.

Since then, our district and school site has become more active in working with the local middle schools. That's not to say that word callers are not still around (I would actually venture to say that there are more than most teachers believe), but we are making progress!

Were you in a similar situation?



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