Teaching reading comprehension: Some useful advice

Written by: Di Hatchett & Gill Jordan | Published:
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Drawing on evidence into the best approaches to teaching reading comprehension, experts Di Hatchett and Gill Jordan give us their advice and tips for effective classroom practice

Good reading comprehension is a critical skill, fundamental to learning across the curriculum, to reading for pleasure and for success in life. Helping children to develop this skill can feel like a challenging process. However, a strong body of research evidence, including the recent report Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2 (Education Endowment Foundation, April 2017), reveals three identifiable practices that underpin successful teaching and learning in this area:

  • A focus on key comprehension strategies.
  • Modelling your thought processes when reading.
  • Using appropriate texts.

Assessing the situation

The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Turner, 1986) can be a useful point of reference when reflecting on children’s reading skills. It can help teachers identify which areas need more focus. This model conceives of reading ability as being composed of two key elements: word recognition (decoding) and language comprehension. Successful readers have well developed skills in both areas.

The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Turner, 1986)

The strongest and weakest readers are easier to spot, while children with strong word reading skills and weak comprehension are perhaps the easiest to miss. If we hear a child read fluently it may mask the fact that they do not fully understand what they are reading. These children can benefit from lots of group and teacher-led talk as well as learning to use specific cognitive strategies to enable them to access texts independently.

So how can the three recommendations translate into successful classroom practice?

A focus on key comprehension strategies

There are many extensively researched comprehension strategies children need to use to develop a deep understanding of the text. There are simple strategies that you can introduce to your class immediately, such as re-reading extracts they are unsure of, or encouraging children to draw upon what they already know about a subject. There are also more complex strategies that need further explanation, such as searching for clues and making connections. It is incredibly important to introduce these strategies to children as early on as possible.

Modelling your thought processes when reading

It can be difficult to find ways to introduce more complex comprehension strategies to children – they need to learn how to articulate strategies by focusing on the how of core aspects of “learning to learn” skills (metacognition, self-regulation and feedback). Some of the most effective ways to do this include:

  • Modelling the use of strategies: this provides children with concrete examples which they can relate to and remember. The teacher articulates his/her thinking, for example when using text structures to understand what a text is about, you might say: “I’m going to start by looking at the whole of these two pages. There is a heading, two subheadings and a labelled diagram. I can use each of these features to help me understand.”
  • Providing opportunities for supported practice and application, using comprehension strategies.
  • Offering time for children to work both independently and collaboratively within reading lessons and in other subject areas.
  • Increasing your expectation of children taking personal responsibility for their own learning.

Using appropriate texts

In general, pupils make progress in comprehension as they come to understand increasingly complex texts. They demonstrate this understanding through their thinking and discussion of the ideas they encounter in the texts. Hence, the level of the text, the challenge in terms of comprehension and the demands on the reader are critical to developing comprehension skills. As children’s skills develop, the texts they engage with should grow in complexity and sophistication to continue to stimulate and stretch them.

Promoting inclusion and extending achievement

A whole-class approach to reading comprehension enables the teacher to facilitate the learning process, and act as a guide, enabling children to benefit from the teacher’s expertise in reading as well as that of their peers, collectively accessing texts that may be beyond their usual reach.

In a mixed ability setting we can also deploy specific techniques to provide extra support and ensure the class can continue to move forward together.

Pre-teaching has traditionally been associated with support for learners of English as an additional language but is now being increasingly advocated for any learners who would benefit from this type of preparation, where the focus is on key skills, vocabulary or content. Pre-teaching usually involves teaching key skills, vocabulary or content ahead of a whole-class lesson. It may take the following forms:

  • Shared reading with an adult of the text for children likely to find the text more challenging.
  • Going over an area that was the source of difficulty in a previous lesson ahead of the next lesson.
  • Recapping the tasks and reading material covered in the previous lesson for children with poor working memory.
  • Its sister strategy of reteaching involves revisiting the content of the lesson with any children identified as requiring additional teaching in order to keep up with their peers. This might include:
  • Re-running the lesson (or part of the lesson) with a teacher or teaching assistant who was involved in the original lesson.
  • Providing extra opportunities to practise, using the strategies they have learned on a familiar text.
  • Writing out the thought process undergone when using a strategy to comprehend a text.

Even children working at greater depth within age-related expectations will benefit from developing a greater awareness of the strategies they can use to access texts and this will instil them with the confidence to choose more challenging texts for their own independent reading. In addition, their cognitive and speaking skills will benefit from articulating their thinking clearly and coherently to teachers and peers.

  • Di Hatchett is a former headteacher and national advisor on literacy. Gill Jordan is a former specialist teacher trainer and national advisor on literacy. They are authors of the series of Project X Comprehension Express published by Oxford University Press.

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