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Teacher's Guide to Reading Comprehension

What is Reading Comprehension?

What is reading comprehension? It refers to the domain of reading that deals with textual understanding. In other words, students who are working on comprehension are not necessarily focused on decoding words or reading with speed and expression, but rather on making sense of what they have read. Students can work on reading comprehension even before they can decode, by making meaning from stories and other texts they listen to. Comprehension in independent reading is an ongoing developmental task, and one that often becomes more complex as texts get more advanced and complicated.

Literal comprehension has to do with making concrete meaning out of text. In literal comprehension, we are thinking about what a story is about, what the words mean, or what facts we can learn from a nonfiction text.

Inferential comprehension gets beyond the text and deals with connecting what we are reading to what we know about the world. Inferential comprehension might include questioning a text, making connections to a character, envisioning a story, or making solid predictions about the text.

Together, literal and inferential work make up reading comprehension. It is also important to know that comprehension capacities often vary in relation to the text; a reader might have strong comprehension of grade-level fiction, for example, but might still struggle to comprehend a nonfiction text at a higher level.

Why is Reading Comprehension Important?

Reading comprehension is important for so many different reasons. First of all, as teachers, we want our students to be able to read independently and access texts that are meaningful to them. This means helping them develop reading comprehension strategies, or tools they can bring to bear on texts of different genres and at different levels. Some reading comprehension strategies might include finding ways to access prior knowledge before beginning a text about a new topic, underlining and determining the meaning of new vocabulary words, or talking about a chapter's summary with a peer before moving on to the next chapter. Any strategy a reader can internalize will help them become a more motivated and independent reader.

It is also crucial for students to develop reading comprehension skills, or capacities that enable them to make literal and inferential meaning from text. Skills include learning how to retell the important parts of a story, or knowing how to determine the main idea of a nonfiction text.

Students who have strong listening comprehension might be better equipped to develop reading comprehension, but you will also find that as students' reading comprehension grows, their listening capacities will become more adept as well. This is in part because listening and reading both deal with receptive language skills.

Some students might require extra help with reading comprehension, including English language learners.

ESL reading comprehension allows students to grow their academic language proficiency and take part in content area learning even as their English is still developing.

How to Teach Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension instruction looks different at different age levels, so how you teach will depend on your grade level as well as your students' capacities.

In first grade, educators would want to focus on helping students making movies in their mind as they listen to stories, identify characters and sequencing a plot in a story, and making simple predictions.

In second grade, when more students have mastered the basics of decoding and fluency, teachers will begin focusing more on understanding character behaviors and personality traits, asking questions, and talking sensibly about stories. Third grade reading comprehension often deals more explicitly with nonfiction reading strategies, including finding the main idea and understanding causal relationships in reading. Third graders are also typically ready to determine their own reading preferences, make connections to characters, write more sophisticatedly about their reading, and make meaningful inferences. Many third graders and upper elementary students read series, and they are able to use these kinds of texts to make more meaningful inferences about characters' personality traits, plot patterns, and writers' stylistic choices.

The ability to develop inference skills, evaluate reading for veracity and quality, and think critically about author's purpose are all an important part of what reading comprehension instruction focuses on in the upper elementary grades. By sixth grade, many teachers are ready to focus on depth of inference, as well as on teasing out the different perspectives of different reading materials.

Middle and high school reading comprehension instruction is often embedded in science and social studies, and deals even more explicitly with reading to learn and becoming a self-extending reader who is capable of strong critical thinking in relation to a variety of texts.

How to Improve Reading Comprehension

Some students really struggle with reading comprehension, while others take to it quite naturally. As a teacher, there are some specific things you can do to help students improve their reading comprehension.

First of all, it is important to assess students frequently, so that you can understand exactly where they are struggling. Some students have a harder time with literal tasks, while others have more difficulties making inferences or judgements.

Once you have conducted careful assessments, it is important to make sure your students are reading frequently and widely. The more students read, the more accustomed they will become to applying comprehension strategies. Developing stamina will also help them enhance their understanding.

Next, make sure you teach comprehension lessons explicitly. After all, it is not fair to simply expect all students to pick up comprehension by osmosis! Plan directed lessons based on the skills and strategies that you think will help your students most. Then, have them practice the skills you are teaching independently or in the context of small group instruction. Teaching vocabulary directly and consistently will also make a difference in your students' comprehension.

Sometimes, it is helpful to play comprehension games with students, pair them up into reading partners or book groups, or find other social and lighthearted ways to make it fun for students to practice their comprehension skills. It is also important to enlist families, asking them to talk with students about what they are reading.

Finally, asking students to keep journals or write about reading will also improve their comprehension and help them understand that you are holding them accountable not only for finishing books, but also for making sense of them.

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