10 Strategies to Increase Student Reading Comprehension

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"They don't understand what they are reading!" laments the teacher.

"This book is too hard," complains a student, "I'm confused!"

Statements like these are commonly heard in grades 7-12, and they highlight a reading comprehension problem that will connect to a student's academic success. Such reading comprehension problems are not limited to low-level readers. There are several reasons that even the best reader in class may have problems understanding the reading that a teacher assigns.

One major reason for a lack of understanding or confusion is the course textbook. Many of the content area textbooks in middle and high schools are designed to cram as much information as possible into the textbook and each of its chapters. This density of information may justify the cost of textbooks, but this density may be at the expense of student reading comprehension. 

Another reason for a lack of understanding is the high level, content-specific vocabulary (science, social studies, etc) in textbooks, which results in an increase in a textbook's complexity. A textbook's organization with sub-headings, bolded terms, definitions, charts, graphs coupled with sentence structure also increase complexity. Most textbooks are rated using a Lexile range, which is a measure of a text's vocabulary and sentences. The average Lexile level of textbooks, 1070L-1220L, does not consider the more wide range of student reading Lexile levels that may range from 3rd grade (415L to 760L) to 12th grade (1130L to 1440L).

The same can be said for the wide range of reading for students in English classes, which contributes to low reading comprehension. Students are assigned reading from the literary canon including works by Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Steinbeck. Students read literature that differs in format (drama, epic, essay, etc). Students read literature that differs in writing style, from 17th Century drama to the Modern American novella.

This difference between student reading levels and text complexity suggests increased attention should be given to teaching and modeling reading comprehension strategies in all content areas. Some students may not have the background knowledge or maturity to understand material written for an older audience. In addition, it is not unusual to have a student with a high Lexile readability measure encounter problems with reading comprehension because of his or her lack of background or prior knowledge, even with a low Lexile text.

Many students struggle trying to determine the key ideas from the details; other students have a hard time understanding what the purpose of a paragraph or chapter in the book may be. Helping students increase their reading comprehension can be a key to educational success or failure. Good reading comprehension strategies, therefore, are not only for low-level readers but for all readers. There is always room for improving comprehension, no matter how skilled a reader a student may be. 

The importance of reading comprehension cannot be understated. Reading comprehension is one of five elements identified as central to the instruction of reading according to the National Reading Panel in the late 1990s. Reading comprehension, the report noted, is the result of many different mental activities by a reader, done automatically and simultaneously, in order to understand the meaning communicated by a text. These mental activities include, but are not limited to:

  • Predicting the meaning of a text;
  • Determining the purpose of a text; 
  • Activation of prior knowledge in order to...
  • Connect prior experiences to the text;
  • Identify word and sentence meanings in order to decode the text;
  • Summarize the text in order to create new meanings;
  • Visualize the characters, settings, situations in the text;
  • Question the text;
  • Decide what is not understood in the text;
  • Use strategies to improve understanding of the text;
  • Reflect on the meaning of a text;
  • Apply understanding of the text as needed.

Reading comprehension is now thought to be a process that is interactive, strategic, and adaptable for each reader. Reading comprehension is not learned immediately, it is a process that is learned over time. In other words, reading comprehension takes practice.

Here are ten (10) effective tips and strategies that teachers can share with students to improve their comprehension of a text. These are strategies for all students. If the students have dyslexia or other special learning requirements, they may need additional strategies.

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Generate Questions

A good strategy to teach all readers is that instead of just rushing through a passage or chapter,  is to pause and generate questions. These can either be questions about what has just happened or what they think might happen in the future. Doing this can help them focus on the main ideas and increase the student's engagement with the material. 

After reading, students can go back and write questions that could be included in a quiz or test on the material. This will require them to look at the information in a different manner. By asking questions in this way, students can help the teacher correct misconceptions. This method also provides immediate feedback.

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Read Aloud and Monitor

While some might think of a teacher reading aloud in a secondary classroom as an elementary practice, there is evidence that reading aloud also benefits middle and high school students as well. Most importantly, by reading aloud teachers can model good reading behavior.

Reading aloud to students should also include stops to check for understanding. Teachers can demonstrate their own think-aloud or interactive elements and focus intentionally on the meaning “within the text,” “about the text,” and “beyond the text” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006) These interactive elements can push students for deeper thought around a big idea. Discussions after reading aloud can support conversations in class that help students make critical connections.

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Promote Cooperative Talk

Having students stop periodically to turn and talk in order to discuss what has just been read can reveal any issues with understanding. Listening to students can inform instruction and help a teacher to can reinforce what is being taught.

This is a useful strategy that can be used after a read-aloud (above) when all students have a shared experience in listening to a text.

This kind of cooperative learning, where students learn reading strategies reciprocally, is one of the most powerful instructional tools.

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Attention to Text Structure

An excellent strategy that soon becomes second nature is to have struggling students read through all the headings and subheadings in any chapter that they have been assigned. They can also look at the pictures and any graphs or charts. This information can help them gain an overview of what they will be learning as they read the chapter.

The same attention to text structure can be applied in reading literary works that use a story structure. Students can use the elements in a story's structure (setting, character, plot, etc) as a means of helping them recall story content.

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Take Notes or Annotate Texts

Students should read with paper and pen in hand. They can then take notes of things they predict or understand. They can write down questions. They can create a vocabulary list of all the highlighted words in the chapter along with any unfamiliar terms that they need to define. Taking notes is also helpful in preparing students for later discussions in class.

Annotations in a text, writing in the margins or highlighting, is another powerful way to record understanding. This strategy is ideal for handouts.

Using sticky notes can allow students to record information from a text without damaging the text. Sticky notes can also be removed and organized later for responses to a text.

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Use Context Clues

Students need to use the hints that an author provides in a text. Students may need to look at context clues, that is a word or phrase directly before or after  a word they may not know.

Context clues may be in the form of:

  • Roots and affixes: origin of the word;
  • Contrast: recognizing how word is compared or contrasted with another word in the sentence;
  • Logic: considering the rest of the sentence to understand an unknown word;
  • Definition: using a provided explanation that follows the word; 
  • Example or Illustration: literal or visual representation of the word;
  • Grammar: determining how the word functions in a sentence to better understand its meaning.
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Use Graphic Organizers

Some students find that graphic organizers like webs and concept maps can greatly enhance reading comprehension. These allow students to identify areas of focus and main ideas in a reading. By filling in this information, students can deepen their understanding of the author's meaning.

By the time students are in grades 7-12,  teachers should allow students to decide which graphic organizer would be most helpful to them in understanding a text. Giving students the opportunity to generate representations of the material is part of the reading comprehension process.

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Practice PQ4R

This consists of six steps: Preview, Question, Read, Reflect, Recite, and Review.

Preview: Students scan the material to get an overview. The question means that students should ask themselves questions as they read.

The four R's have students read the material, reflect on what has just been read, recite the major points to help learn better, and then return to the material and see if you can answer the questions previously asked.

This strategy works well when coupled with notes and annotations and is similar to the SQ3R strategy.

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As they read, students should be encouraged to stop periodically stop their reading and summarize what they have just read. In creating a summary, students have to integrate the most important ideas and generalize from the text information. They need to distill the important ideas from the unimportant or irrelevant elements.

This practice of integrating and generalizing in the creation of summaries make long passages more understandable. 

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Monitor Understanding

Some students prefer to annotate, while others are more comfortable summarizing, but all students must learn how to be aware of how they read. They need to know how fluently and accurate they are reading a text, but they also need to know how they can determine their own understanding of the materials.

They should decide which strategies are most helpful in making meaning, and practice those strategies, adjusting the strategies when necessary.  

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Kelly, Melissa. "10 Strategies to Increase Student Reading Comprehension." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/reading-comprehension-strategies-7952. Kelly, Melissa. (2021, July 29). 10 Strategies to Increase Student Reading Comprehension. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/reading-comprehension-strategies-7952 Kelly, Melissa. "10 Strategies to Increase Student Reading Comprehension." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/reading-comprehension-strategies-7952 (accessed March 21, 2023).