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Comprehension Skills, Strategies & Best Practices

Best Practices Library

Introduction/Overview

This module explores comprehension strategies and their benefits. Examine descriptions of each type of comprehension strategy, instructional implications for teaching comprehension, and sample lessons.

Although word recognition, decoding, and fluency are building blocks of effective reading, the ability to comprehend text is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. Comprehension is a prerequisite for acquiring content knowledge and expressing ideas and opinions through discussion and writing.

Comprehension is evident when readers can:

  • Interpret and evaluate events, dialogue, ideas, and information
  • Connect information to what they already know
  • Adjust current knowledge to include new ideas or look at those ideas in a different way
  • Determine and remember the most important points in the reading
  • Read “between the lines” to understand underlying meanings

Comprehension strategies work together like a finely tuned machine. The reader begins to construct meaning by selecting and previewing the text. During reading, comprehension builds through predicting, inferring, synthesizing, and seeking answers to questions that arise. After reading, deeper meaning is constructed through reviewing, rereading portions of the text, discussion, and thoughtful reflection. During each of these phases, the reader relates the text to his own life experiences.

Comprehension is powerful because the ability to construct meaning comes from the mind of the reader. Therefore, specific comprehension instruction—modeling during read-alouds and shared reading, targeted mini-lessons, and varied opportunities for practice during small-group and independent reading—is crucial to the development of strategic, effective readers.


Types of Comprehension Strategies

There are six main types of comprehension strategies (Harvey and Goudvis; 2000):

  1. Make Connections—Readers connect the topic or information to what they already know about themselves, about other texts, and about the world.
  2. Ask Questions—Readers ask themselves questions about the text, their reactions to it, and the author's purpose for writing it.
  3. Visualize—Readers make the printed word real and concrete by creating a “movie” of the text in their minds.
  4. Determine Text Importance—Readers (a) distinguish between what's essential versus what's interesting, (b) distinguish between fact and opinion, (c) determine cause-and-effect relationships, (d) compare and contrast ideas or information, (e) discern themes, opinions, or perspectives, (f) pinpoint problems and solutions, (g) name steps in a process, (h) locate information that answers specific questions, or (i) summarize.
  5. Make Inferences—Readers merge text clues with their prior knowledge and determine answers to questions that lead to conclusions about underlying themes or ideas.
  6. Synthesize—Readers combine new information with existing knowledge to form original ideas, new lines of thinking, or new creations.

Students quickly grasp how to make connections, ask questions, and visualize. However, they often struggle with the way to identify what is most important in the text, identify clues and evidence to make inferences, and combine information into new thoughts. All these strategies should be modeled in isolation many times so that students get a firm grasp of what the strategy is and how it helps them comprehend text.

However, students must understand that good readers use a variety of these strategies every time they read. Simply knowing the individual strategies is not enough, nor is it enough to know them in isolation. Students must know when and how to collectively use these strategies.


Teaching Strategies

Modeling through think-alouds is the best way to teach all comprehension strategies. By thinking aloud, teachers show students what good readers do. Think-alouds can be used during read-alouds and shared reading. They can also be used during small-group reading to review or reteach a previously modeled strategy.

Wilhelm (2001) describes a think-aloud as a way to:

  • Create a record of the strategic decision-making process of going through text
  • Report everything the reader notices, does, sees, feels, asks, and understands as she reads
  • Talk about the reading strategies being used within the content being read

There are many ways to conduct think-alouds:

  • The teacher models the think-aloud while she reads aloud, and the students listen.
  • The teacher thinks aloud during shared reading, and the students help out.
  • Students think aloud during shared reading, and the teacher and other students monitor and help.
  • The teacher or students think aloud during shared reading while writing on an overhead, on self-stick notes, or in a journal.
  • Students think aloud in small-group reading, and the teacher monitors and helps.
  • Students individually think aloud during independent reading using self-stick notes or a journal. Then students compare their thoughts with others.

(Wilhelm, 2001)

When you introduce a new comprehension strategy, model during read-aloud and shared reading:

  1. Decide on a strategy to model.
  2. Choose a short text or section of text.
  3. Read the text ahead of time. Mark locations where you will stop and model the strategy.
  4. State your purpose—name the strategy and explain the focus of your think-alouds.
  5. Read the text aloud to students and think aloud at the designated points.
  6. If you conduct a shared reading experience, have students highlight words and phrases that show evidence of your thinking by placing self-stick notes in the book.
  7. Reinforce the think-alouds with follow-up lessons in the same text or with others.

(Wilhelm, 2001)

Use the following language prompts to model the chosen strategy :

Make Connections

  1. This reminds me of a time when I …
  2. I know about this topic because I …
  3. The setting of this book is just like …
  4. This book is something like …
  5. What's going on in this book is just like what's happening in …

Ask Questions

  1. Before I read this text, I wonder about …
  2. While I'm reading, I try to figure out …
  3. After I read, I ask myself …
  4. I wonder why…
  5. What does this word mean?
  6. Why did ____________ do that?
  7. What is going to happen next?
  8. Why did the author put that part in there?
  9. I have questions about this part because it doesn't make sense. I need to make sure I read it right. If I reread and fix a mistake, that might answer my question.

Visualize

  1. The author gives me a picture in my mind when he or she describes …
  2. I can really see what the author talks about when he or she …
  3. I can draw a picture of what the author describes.

Determine Text Importance

  1. I know these parts of the story are important because they match my purpose for reading, which was …
  2. I believe the author thinks ____________ is important because …
  3. I think the author's opinion about _____ is ______ because …
  4. This text uses the (cause/effect, problem/solution, description, compare/contrast, sequence/steps in a process) text structure. I can use a graphic organizer to help me understand it.
  5. I see lots of information right here. I need to identify which parts are important and which parts are just interesting.
  6. All these ideas are important, but I think some are more important than others. I need to determine which ideas are the most important.
  7. This (chart, table, graph, time line) helps me understand that …
  8. These (boldfaced words, font changes, bullets, captions) help me locate what is important.
  9. Let me take the big ideas and summarize the text.

Make Inferences

  1. The author says this, but means …
  2. If I read between the lines, the author tells me that …
  3. The clues to prove my inference are …
  4. Because of what the author said, I know that …
  5. From the clues or information the author gives, I can conclude that …
  6. I think that ____________ will happen next because the author says ____________.

Synthesize

  1. This story or passage is really about… My views on this are…
  2. My opinion of _________ is …
  3. I first thought ________ about the topic. Now I think …
  4. I've read a lot of information. Let me stop and think about this for a minute.
  5. My judgment of this information is …
  6. From this information, I can generalize that …

Additional Tips

Revisit the same text to model more than one strategy. For example, on Monday, use a text to model what's important versus what's interesting. On Tuesday, use the text to model how to identify big ideas. On Wednesday, use the big ideas to summarize and synthesize.

Extend the text as a reader-response activity. For example, on Monday, use a text as a shared reading lesson to model how cause-and-effect relationships help determine text importance. On Tuesday, extend thinking: map the cause-and-effect relationships onto graphic organizers, synthesize big ideas, and draw conclusions.


Sample Shared Reading Lesson

Strategy: Determine Text Importance (Main Idea/Supporting Details)

Text: greeting card, Benchmark Education Company's Comprehension Strategy Poster “Safety Signs”

Day 1

  1. Say: Sometimes when we read a piece of text, we have a hard time choosing the most important parts. This lesson will help us learn to do that. Here is a card that I received. First I'll think of the main idea about the card, and then I'll think of some details that help to prove the main idea. This isn't a playing card or a note card—it's a greeting card. That is the most important concept. I'll write This is a greeting card on the graphic organizer where it reads Main Idea.
  2. Read the card aloud to students.
  3. Use the following think-aloud to model how to determine details: Now I'll think of some details about the card. These details describe the main idea and let people know that the main idea is true. I'll look for details that prove that this is a greeting card. First, I see that the card has a picture on the front. I'll write It has a picture in the first Supporting Details box. Next, I notice that the card is signed by the person who sent it. I'll write It has a signature in the next Supporting Details box. Can you think of another detail about the greeting card? Let's add that to the graphic organizer.

Day 2

  1. Say: Yesterday we looked at a greeting card and identified the main idea and supporting details. Today we're going to read a text about road signs and pay attention to what the words tell us. Please listen to find out the main idea and supporting details of the text.

  2. After reading aloud the text, draw a main idea and supporting-details graphic organizer on chart paper. Ask students to help complete it with information from the text. If they have difficulty, guide them with the following prompts:

Main Idea: Read the title and the first sentence. Ask: Is the author telling us the main idea here? Model thinking about the strategy: The title of the selection is Signs. This is the topic, which gives us a clue about the main idea. In the first sentence, the author states that it is easy to read road signs if you look at their colors. That sounds as though it is an important concept the author wants us to know about signs. Now I'll keep reading to see what types of signs the author mentions to support this idea.

Supporting Details: Read the second, third, and fourth sentences. Ask: Does the author tell us supporting details here? How do you know? Model your thinking: The author describes three different colors of signs—red stop sign, a yellow be careful sign, and an orange work sign. These examples support the main idea that colors help us read road signs.


Sample Small-Group Reading Lesson

Strategy: Determine Text Importance (Implied Main Idea/Supporting Details)

Text: Benchmark Education Company's text Plants—Level 12 (G)

Part 1

Use a real-life example to model how to infer.

Say: Listen carefully to the following sentence: Even though the children wore heavy coats, they were shivering as they waited for the bus. I'm giving you a hint as to what season it might be. I don't tell you, but you can use the clues in the sentence to infer that it is winter. Many times, authors do not directly state information in the text. To be good readers, we have to infer as we read. We use clues and evidence to figure out what the author hints or implies.

We're going to find an implied main idea for two different parts of a book. We know that the main idea is the most important information that the writer wants us to understand. In this case, the topic is plants. We'll need to think carefully about what the authors tell us about plants so that we can understand the implied main idea. Remember, the main idea will not be directly stated.

Create a graphic organizer.

To activate students' prior knowledge about plants, creating a KWL chart. Record what they already know about plants in the K column and what they would like to know in the W column. Tell them that they will complete the L column after they read.

Topic: Plants

K

(What I Know)

W

(What I Want to Know)

L

(What I Learned)

Plants have roots and leaves. What other plant parts are there?  
Plants need water and light to grow.

How does a plant get water?

How does a plant get food?

 
We can eat plants.

What parts of a plant can we eat?

Do we use plants in other ways?

 
Some animals eat plants.    
  How can we grow a plant?  

Preview the book.

Hold up the book. Ask: What do you see in the photograph on the cover? What do you think the girl is doing? What kind of plant is shown on the cover?

Look at the title page. Ask: What do you think these children are doing? How are plants involved? What things are the children using as they work with the plants?

Preview the photographs in the book, reinforcing the language used in the text. For example, say: On page 2, I see three kinds of plants. What are some ways that plants are alike?

Set a purpose for reading.

Say: I want you to see if you can find answers to the questions on our KWL chart. Monitor students' reading and provide support as necessary.

Discuss the reading and complete the graphic organizer.

Ask students to share answers to any questions from the KWL chart that they found during the reading. Complete the L column of the chart.

Topic: Plants

K

(What I Know)

W

(What I Want to Know)

L

(What I Learned)

Plants have roots and leaves. What other plant parts are there? Plants have roots, leaves, stems, and flowers.
Plants need water and light to grow.

How does a plant get water?

How does a plant get food?

Water falls as rain. The ground soaks it up. The roots help get water from the ground.

The leaves use light from the sun to make food.

We can eat plants.

What parts of a plant can we eat?

Do we use plants in other ways?

We can eat some roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds.
Some animals eat plants.    
  How can we grow a plant? We can put soil and a seed in a cup, water it, and give it sunlight to grow our own plant.

Sample Small-Group Reading Lesson

Part 2

 

Model how to determine the implied main idea utilizing a graphic organizer.

Remind students that to infer means to understand clues and evidence that the author has provided for us in the text. Implications are not directly stated.

Say: The first part of the book (pages 2–11) gives me many details about the parts of a plant. One detail is that roots help a plant stay in the ground. The book also tells me that roots help a plant get water. I'll write these facts in the first Supporting Details box. Now I'll look for other details to add to my chart. Leaves make food for the plant. Stems take water to the leaves and flowers. Flowers make seeds. New plants grow from seeds. All these details tell me how the parts of a plant help it grow and stay alive. Even though the author didn't directly state this as the main idea, the clues and evidence imply it. I'll write this on the chart where it reads Main Idea #1.

Main Idea/Supporting Details

Topic: Plants

Part 3

Guide students to identify the second implied main idea.

Briefly review pages 12–16. Then ask students to select the most important details and use those as clues and evidence to find the implied main idea. If students need additional modeling and think-alouds, complete the remainder of the graphic organizer together. If they seem to understand the concept, allow them to complete the graphic organizer in small groups, pairs, or individually. Monitor their work and provide guidance as necessary. Allow time for students to share their recorded information.

Main Idea/Supporting Details

Topic: Plants