What is reading comprehension?
Reading comprehension is understanding what is being read. The reader is able to grasp information from any kind of text (fiction or nonfiction) and demonstrate knowledge of the piece by answering questions, discussing aspects or completing an activity.
Why is reading comprehension important?
Reading comprehension is important because everything is text-based in education. Students are expected to read articles, novels, directions, discussion responses, essay prompts, lab reports, and more. Once they read these works, students are then expected to do something with the information- participate in discussions, complete a homework assignment, fill out note sheets, etc.
Whether we realize it or not, reading comprehension is the crux of what students need to be successful in education.
There’s typically a shift in English/Language Arts classes when a student enters middle school. They not only have five different teachers, but they are expected to read and interact with texts in all of these classes. There is no Reading class where students practice decoding or have phonics lessons. These are some HUGE adjustments for young readers, and the need for strong reading comprehension is crucial.
So, what do we do if a student is having difficulty with reading comprehension?
Over the last ten years I’ve worked with thousands of middle and high school students and have figured out some really awesome tips for improving reading comprehension.
Tip #1- Activate prior knowledge.
When introducing a new text, tap into a student’s knowledge on an aspect of the text. It can be historical knowledge, a connection (text to self, text to world, text to text, text to media) or an experience.
Last month I had my students read an article about the history of education in the United States. To activate prior knowledge, I had students talk to their parents about what high school was like for them. What clothes did they wear? What did they eat for lunch? What did they do for fun? How was your parents’ school life different from your school life today?
The purpose of activating prior knowledge is to prepare student for what’s ahead. I like to think of it as giving my kiddos a “heads up”. They are able to focus on a specific concept and will be on the lookout for this idea while reading the text.
Tip #2- Provide necessary background information.
This is honestly one of my favorite pre-reading activity, that totally lends itself to reading comprehension. Author’s always use some sort of inspiration in their personal lives in their writing and this can typically influence the author’s purpose. Some teachers LOVE to give pre-reading information about the author, which is never a bad idea, but I personally prefer to dive into the historical aspects of a new text.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle is legit one of my favorite novels to read with students. Before I start this classic piece of children’s literature, I spend time going over the timeline of events during the 1960s, since this is when the book was written. The Space Race and Communism are underlying themes and concepts in the novel, so it’s important the students are familiar with these ideas before we read.
I’m currently reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde with 8th-10th graders. Before we even opened the text, we spent about a week learning about the Victorian era and watching parts of Oliver! to help students visualize the setting. For the record, this musical has superb costumes and sets that really capture London during this time period.
Providing background information helps students become familiar with time periods, historical events, the author, or concepts they will be reading about. It can also help with visualizing (one of the reasons I showed Oliver!).
Tip #3- Introduce new vocabulary
So many times students glaze over an unknown word and continue reading. Why? Because it takes extra time to try and figure out how to pronounce a new word, let alone try and figure out the definition. This typical strategy tends to cause some problems with reading comprehension because one word can change an entire sentence, paragraph or part of the plot.
Listing new vocabulary words for students before they start reading, will remind them that these are new words they will encounter in the reading. These words can be right from the textbook or hand-picked by the teacher. Some teachers also go ahead and give students the definition of the vocabulary words to make it even easier for them. As an English teacher, I usually have my students define the words on their own.
Tip #4- Provide a summary
SparkNotes are amazing. I can honestly say that as a student AND as a teacher. In college, to help with my understanding of various Shakespeare plays, I would read the SparkNotes after I finished reading a play. This worked really well for me because I would often miss concepts since Old English always threw me off.
As teachers, we usually think to summarize a text after we read it to fill in any gaps with reading comprehension. Whether it’s a teacher summary, SparkNotes or a video, there are plenty of options for providing students with a condensed version. My kids are really loving chapter summary videos from Course Hero on YouTube.
It’s okay to give students a summary of the text before or after they read.
Recently, I started giving a summary of the chapter before I read it with my classes, and it’s been an awesome game changer for my special education students. I’ve read the SparkNotes for the chapter to highlight the important plot points for my kiddos and it has been quite helpful. I will also point out key information while we’re reading and at the end, but adding that extra at the beginning is a new favorite technique of mine.
Tip #5- Listen to the audio version
I will admit that I was never an audio books fan until about two years ago when I came across Jim Dale’s version of Harry Potter. (Which, for the record, is AMAZING and I’m totally addicted to listening to it).
So, how exactly do audiobooks help with reading comprehension? When a student listens to the audiobook version of a story, it helps relieve the pressure of decoding. He or she can just focus on what is happening in the story without stressing about how to pronounce a word.
While I LOVE my Audible app, when I want to post the audio version for my class of students I generally use YouTube. Teachers have been so kind to post themselves reading full novels aloud for free and there are also some professional readers on there as well.
Bonus tip: one audio version for Dr. Jekyll and Hyde was too slow for my kiddos, so to keep them engaged I sped up the video. In YouTube, simply click on the gear (settings), go to Playback speed and change it up.
Tip #6- Read the eBook version
Nowadays, kids are used to reading from screens whether it be tablets and Chromebooks, so why not take advantage of this technology? While some students prefer to read a hard copy of a text (as do I once in awhile) there are quite a few perks to reading an eBook.
–Students can change the font. Whether you’re reading on a phone or tablet, iBooks and the Kindle app offer this feature, which is great for students who are visually impaired.
–Students can look up unknown words. Ebooks have this amazing quality where with just a few finger taps a reader can look up an unknown word. As we discussed with Tip #3 , defining new words plays a huge role in reading comprehension, and these nifty pieces of technology make this task super simple for readers.
–Students can highlight and record notes. One of the drawbacks about having a class set of novels/texts, is that students aren’t allowed to write in the books. Many teachers, including myself, rely on the Post-it method for notes. However, eBooks allow students to highlight and make notes right on the text. Students can truly make notes their own, while interacting with the information.
–Students can read anywhere at any time. I LOVE the portability of eBooks. I have the Kindle app on all of my devices and rely on iCloud to save my place as I switch back and forth. It’s no big deal if I forget to bring a book because I have a whole library in my pocket. In addition to Kindle, apps like Vooks, Epic!, Raz-Kids and ABC Mouse offer incredible eBooks (many with audio versions) for readers of all ages. For more information on ABC Mouse, check out my review on this online learning program.
Bonus tip: For my auditory learners and special education kiddos, I always recommend listening to the audio version and following along with the text of the story. Many prefer to use their phones or tablets so everything is in the palm of their hands.
Tip #7- Covering the basics
This is the go-to for every teacher, regardless of what grade or subject we teach. Guided notes or just straight reading comprehension questions require students to DO SOMETHING with their new knowledge.
In my early years of teaching, I tried to get away from this “traditional” method of teaching. During literature circle discussions, I found that I had some students missing key plot points. Now, learning from this, I ask some of the basic questions (describe this character, discuss the main conflict, etc.) but I will also throw in higher order thinking questions focusing on quote analysis. This allows me to touch on those basic points while also hitting making inferences and drawing conclusions.
Other than using reading comprehension questions, there are other ways to cover the basics:
–Students can bullet point important key information from the text. To differentiate this, the teacher can provide a template with headings to help students navigate the text and note sheet
–Students can draw a picture with captions. I really like this idea for breaking down chapter events, even for older students. Students can either physically draw or they can create a Google doc and copy and paste pictures from the web.
For more note-taking suggestions, check out my post: 6 Effective Nonfiction Note-Taking Tips.
Tip #8- Always share thoughts
Along the lines of having students do something with the new information they read, it’s just as important to talk about what is read.
Whether I’m tutoring one-on-one or teaching an English class, at the end of every chapter we read, I ask students to share their thoughts, comments or questions. This encourages students to reflect on the reading and evaluate their knowledge of the chapter. When kids ask questions, I’m able to determine if I need to re-teach or summarize the chapter. If a student says the almighty, “I don’t know.”, I often ask what the purpose of the chapter is. Is it a fluff chapter that is just there to connect the plot events? Does it move the plot along? Why?
When in a class, I tend to use Think-Pair-Share (turn and talk) with kids for this part. I then take volunteers at the end so every student can hear other thoughts, comments and questions. Why? You never know what a kid misses during a reading. They may go to the bathroom, day dream, or get distracted, etc. This is a quick strategy that allows all students to get filled in.
Tip #9- Encourage connections
The first few weeks of sixth grade are always the most challenging as a teacher because we are helping kiddos transition from elementary school to middle school. For those that have taught this age group, we all have stories where we mention a dog as a character and we get hands waving frantically for kids to tell us all about their dog. Kids love to talk and make connections to things we say all the time.
So, why not encourage students to make connections with the various texts they read?
This not only increases student engagement, but it also helps kids interact with a text. Connections (text to text, text to self, text to world, text to media) will not happen with every reading, but suggest for kids to make connections whenever possible. Also, make sure you take a few minutes here and there for students to share their connections.
Tip #10- Keep communication open
It’s very rare that a kid will approach me and say they don’t understand something. A student will sit in silence, skip quiz questions and not complete homework because they are struggling.
As teachers, we need to create a system of communication that works for our classrooms.
When I taught in brick and mortar schools, I created Communication Cards. I took red, yellow and green index cards, fastened them together and had kids “show me your color” during lessons. Sometimes I had kids hold up their cards, but mostly I had them lay the card down on their desk. Red cards meant a student needed help ASAP, yellow meant they wanted to chat and green meant they were good to go. I would approach red cards first to see what they needed from me before moving onto the yellow cards. It’s amazing how honest kids were when they knew they didn’t have to ask questions in front of the whole class.
In my virtual classrooms today, I encourage kids to private chat me in Zoom or send me an email. This year more than ever I have had kids ask me specific questions about assignments and advocate for themselves. I also text my students A LOT because I know they hate talking on the phone. Many of them will send me a quick text with a question and then they are able to get right back to work. Keeping that chain of communication open is incredibly important.
Involving parents in supporting reading comprehension.
Every year I have parents reach out to me asking about how they can support their learner at home, especially in middle and high school. My usual suggestion is to read our class novel together at home while we are reading it in school so parents can talk about it with their student.
In addition, I also recommend doing family read-alouds a few times a week and asking some reading questions. I developed this FREE list of reading questions for parents to use in this exact situation.
For more specific tips and tricks for parents, check out my post on Reading Comprehension at Home: 5 Things Parents Can Do.
Reading comprehension is necessary for all classes, not just English. It is never too late to introduce students to new tips and strategies for improving reading comprehension.
Little Reading Coach is a certified Teacher of English (K-12) and Reading Specialist (P-12) offering online reading, writing and home-based learning support tutoring services for students in grades 6-12. For more information head to my website.