Comprehension is the pinnacle of reading success and essential for academic achievement.
It’s also, arguably, one of the most difficult skills to teach.
When I started teaching, I knew how to teach exactly one reading strategy. As you can imagine, only teaching kids to visualize didn’t work real well. Before long, most of my students were disengaged. Behavior issues kept cropping up, and reading motivation kept going down. Students were frustrated by their lack of progress. I was frustrated with myself.
I wish I could tell you that everything changed overnight. Sorry, it took longer than that, and I began by doing something radical. I stopped taking on reading comprehension students when I started my educational therapy private practice. (What a privilege it is to work for yourself.) I spent a few years learning how to teach reading comprehension. I read research, attended conferences, and learned from seasoned educators. Then I was ready to start again.
Today, I relish teaching reading comprehension. The complexities of teaching reading comprehension remain. Now they feel like a challenge to be solved rather than an insurmountable problem.
Today, I’m sharing the materials that I wish I’d known about when I first started teaching. These are the books and strategies that have made the biggest difference for my students. I hope you’ll find them as valuable as I have.
I’d also like to extend a warm thank you to my colleagues in the San Francisco Study Group of the Association of Educational Therapists. I so appreciate Li Moon, Diana Kennedy, Jo Ann Shapiro, Rebecca Bridges, Sabina Aurilio, and Genie Barry generously sharing their expertise with me! I feel fortunate to work in a field with such knowledgeable and generous colleagues.
Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension: A Handbook
If I could recommend only one book on reading comprehension, this would be the one. British researchers Oakhill, Cain, and Elbrow provide a handbook with a wide-ranging overview of recent research on comprehension. It’s important to understand why a child struggles to comprehend. And this book delves into the research on how different types of reading comprehension problems arise. When you can determine that a child is having a hard time with word knowledge, sentence understanding, inferences, text structure, or self-monitoring, then you can tailor your intervention plan much more effectively.
This slim, 144-page volume is packed with information. The authors highlight the gaps in research and remind us that reading comprehension is, indeed, a very complex task. (www.baytreeblog.com/reading-comprehension-handbook)
Reading Comprehension Strategies
Teaching Reading Comprehension to Students with Learning Difficulties
This book is a treasure trove of reading comprehension strategies that have been validated by empirical research. Teaching Reading Comprehension to Students with Learning Disabilities is one of my go-to reading comprehension resources because it includes so many practical, well-researched strategies. The chapter on effective testing for comprehension skills is exceptional. Klinger, Vaugn, and Boardman cover how to effectively teach vocabulary and text structure, and the majority of the book is dedicated to strategies to use before, during and after reading. This book is part of the What Works for Special-Needs Learners series that I highly recommend, and it includes strategies that are appropriate for students of all ages. (www.baytreeblog.com/teaching_reading_comprehension)
Building Comprehension in Adolescents: Powerful Strategies for Improving Reading and Writing in Content Areas
When you work with teens, you need strategies that you can use right away with school assignments. This book fits the bill. Written by preeminent researchers, this book includes lesson plans for using self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) to teach reading comprehension. SRSD has a robust body of research evidence to support its efficacy, and the strategies in this book are easy to use. I also love this method for students with ADHD because the SRSD method targets common concerns such as setting goals, self-monitoring, and staying motivated. Each lesson plan includes everything you need to teach including monitoring checklists, goal charts, self-instruction sheets, and graphic organizers. This book also includes valuable writing strategies. These methods are appropriate for upper elementary through high school. (baytreeblog.com/BuildingComprehension)
Visualizing and Verbalizing
Visualizing and Verbalizing is a popular comprehension strategy. It works particularly well for students who read passively. In this approach, children learn how to create a mental movie while they read. I find that this approach works well for disengaged readers who finish a textbook section and don’t remember what they’ve just read. To get started using this strategy, I recommend purchasing the manual and a grade-level workbook. The workbook stories are interesting and include some great questions. Some educators like the See Time Fly books for teaching history. Visualizing and Verbalizing is appropriate for students of all ages. I’ve mentioned this before in the Resources section. (www.baytreeblog.com/visualizing-verbalizing)
The Elementary Teacher’s Big Book of Graphic Organizers and The Big Book of Graphic Organizers
I’ve written about graphic organizers as a powerful writing tool. They’re equally useful for reading comprehension. Graphic organizers can boost comprehension because they make it easier to see the relationship between details and help students pick out the most essential information. These two books have clear, easy-to-use graphic organizers. Particular standouts include graphic organizers for learning new vocabulary and previewing text. This strategy is appropriate for students of all ages. There is an elementary version for students in grades K-5 and a version for students in the upper grades
Sticky Notes and Visual Brainstorming Software
Post-it Notes are an effective, low-cost tool that promote reading comprehension. Many children who struggle with reading comprehension have a hard time sustaining attention while they read. Because their mind drifts off as they read, they may get to the end of the chapter and not remember what they’ve read. With sticky notes, students write the chapter’s main idea and leave the note at the end of the chapter. This requires children to recall and synthesize what they’ve read (which is especially helpful for children with ADHD). They may even need to reread sections if they can’t paraphrase what they’ve read. Because they can refer to the sticky notes, this strategy also helps students write summaries or discuss the book. This strategy is especially effective for summer-reading when students may forget what they read by the time school resumes. (www.baytreeblog.com/sticky-notes)
A higher-tech option includes using Inspiration or Kidspiration as a tool to keep track of characters and plot. These programs are great since they let kids use clip art to represent their ideas.
Both strategies are appropriate for students of all ages.
Vocabulary through Morphemes
Word knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. Yet, it’s impossible to teach all of the words a child will need for comprehension success. That’s why I recommend teaching children about word parts such as prefixes, bases, and suffixes. Check out our podcast with Pete Bowers to learn more about how morphological instruction boosts vocabulary, spelling, and word reading. By learning about these essential word parts, students are equipped with the knowledge to analyze and understand thousands of words. Vocabulary through Morphemes explicitly teaches students about the most important Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek morphemes. Each lesson can be taught in about 20 minutes. This strategy is appropriate for students in middle school or high school. (www.baytreeblog.com/vocabularymorphemes)
These are an amazing resource if you’re working with a middle school or high school level student who reads seriously below grade level. These books are written for older students, though workbooks begin with text written at the second-grade level. I also like these workbooks because they help me keep my instruction better sequenced. These workbooks focus on teaching reading comprehension strategies with a selection of fiction and non-fiction passages. Students move sequentially through different reading comprehension strategies including main idea, inference, text structure, literary form, and using graphic organizers. These books include motivating self-assessments that helps student see their progress. (www.baytreeblog.com/signature-reading)
The Inference Strategy
If a student lack inferential skills, reading comprehension is going to be tough! The Inference Strategy provides you with a step-by-step guide to teaching inference. In this research-based approach, students learn how to identify types of inferential questions that teachers ask, such as prediction questions and big picture questions. To help them answer those questions, students learn how to uncover key words in the text. The Student Materials provide lots of opportunity for practice. In order to purchase these materials, you must first receive SIMS training. SIMS, or the Strategic Instruction Model, is a method of teaching that emphasizes explicit teaching, goal setting, and scaffolding. I find that this type of instruction is a great fit for students with learning differences. The Inference Strategy is appropriate for students in upper elementary through high school. (www.baytreeblog.com/sims-strategy)
Curriculum Associates Comprehension Materials
It seems as if every time I ask colleagues what comprehension tools they couldn’t teach without, somebody mentions Curriculum Associates’ materials. Both the CARS and STARS program and FOCUS on Reading include leveled workbooks and scaffolded lessons on the following comprehension skills:
- Comparing and Contrasting
- Making Predictions
- Drawing Conclusions and Making Inferences
- Recognizing Cause and Effect
- Understanding Sequence
- Understanding Main Idea and Details
Reading Comprehension Practice
Reading comprehension requires ongoing practice, so the one hundred short passages in the Six-Way Paragraphs Books are incredibly helpful. I use this book as a 15 minute warm-up for comprehension lessons. Each lesson includes a one-page expository piece followed by six comprehension questions. The lessons include multiple-choice questions for the main idea, facts, conclusions, vocabulary, and clarifying devices. This can also be a great assignment to send home. (www.baytreeblog.com/6way)
Jamestown Critical Reading Series
Do you have students who complain that reading is boring and pointless? These non-fiction books might be the antidote. Bursting with adventures, heroic deeds, and mysteries, these nonfiction stories make for an entertaining and quick read. Each book contains 12 passages written at three different grade levels. This is a great tool to help students practice identifying the main idea, summarizing, making inferences, spotting cause and effect, supporting conclusions, or making predictions. One of my students just read an article about a train conductor who leapt from a speeding train to rescue two children playing on the tracks. After the student read it, he turned to me and said, “That is so cool!” These books are written for students in 6th-12th grade.
- The Outer Edge Series (Reading Level 2-4) (www.baytreeblog.com/outeredge)
- The Wild Side Series (Reading Level 4-6) (www.baytreeblog.com/wildside)
- Critical Reading (Reading Level 6-8) (www.baytreeblog.com/criticalreading)
The Read Aloud Handbook
Read books to your kids! This is a common recommendation to boost reading comprehension. But which books? How? Jim Trelease’s The Read Aloud Handbook shows you how to create irresistible read-alouds for kids of all ages. The handbook, which is now in its seventh edition, features hundreds of recommended books, including picture books, novels, fairy tales, and reference books. My favorite chapter of the book lists his do’s and don’ts for reading aloud, and his tips on hooking boys on reading are great too. This book is especially good for younger readers in kindergarten through fifth grade. (www.baytreeblog.com/readaloud)
Today Is the Day to Intervene
Comprehension problems destroy motivation. Who would want to keep reading when they feel confused? Unfortunately, once kids start avoiding books, they fall further and further behind their peers. We can stop this cycle by connecting students with effective instruction and resources. I hope you’ll join me.
P.S. – I have a secret motive for writing this article. I’m hoping to hear from you! I feel as if I could spend months or even years devoted to learning more about reading comprehension. Would you share your expertise with me?
I’d love to hear what tools, techniques, and strategies you’ve found helpful! What obstacles are you running into?
Let’s get this conversation jumping! Please do share your ideas to help another reader!