Imagine asking your students to raise their hands if they think they can read. If you aren’t teaching kindergarten or first grade, I’m guessing most, if not all, would raise their hands. Now imagine having them read a story, then asking them to raise their hands if they understood what they just read. You probably won’t see as many hands shooting up. Why the difference?
Read the following sentence:
Si puede reconocer y pronunciar las palabras en la página, pero no entiende los que significan, ¿puede realmente decir que puede leer?
Unless you are fluent in Spanish, you probably didn’t understand it. Here is a rough translation: “If you can recognize and pronounce the words on the page, but don’t understand what they mean, can you really say that you can read?”
Just like an English speaker trying to read Spanish, if your students don’t understand what they are reading, they won’t get anything from it.
Reading is much more than just recognizing the words and being able to say them. I can memorize how to pronounce hundreds of Spanish words, but if I don’t know what they mean, I can’t say that I know how to read Spanish. Why do students who can “read” so often struggle with comprehending what they read?
Why Don’t They Understand?
There are many possible reasons why students are struggling to comprehend, but it can often be traced to several core issues.
- Difficulty decoding words and reading fluently: Some students struggle to understand (decode) individual words. You can imagine how comprehension would be hindered if students don’t know what words mean. Also, some students who can decode words will struggle to comprehend if they are unable to read fluently. Students who can’t read fluently will use so much of their mental energy just to read and understand the individual words that they will be unable to comprehend the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph.
- Reading too rapidly: Students may be able to decode words and read fluently, but they read so fast that they skim the text and miss important information.
- Lack of background knowledge: Students understand the meaning of text in the context of what they already know. If your students live in an agrarian community, they will have no trouble understanding a story about a boy who milks a cow. If, however, you read them a story about a young girl living in Tahiti during the 1700s, they won’t have many “hooks” to help them understand what is happening in the story.
- Poor reading strategies: All experienced readers unconsciously use strategies to understand difficult texts. One example of this is monitoring understanding. If you don’t understand what you just read, you will go back and read the paragraph or page you didn’t quite understand. Some students will use these strategies without being taught, but others need specific instruction on how to use reading strategies.
How Can You Increase Your Students’ Comprehension?
There are several methods you can use to help your students increase their reading comprehension.
- Give background information: Explain any background information necessary for students to better understand what they are going to read. Is it an unfamiliar period of history or an area of the world they don’t know much about? This background information will help students better understand the new information they are about to read.
- Ask comprehension questions: The goal of any questions you have your students answer is to help them engage with the text and teach them reading comprehension. Once your students have read the story or text, ask them a variety of questions about what they just read. Ask some simple, factual questions, and some that require them to read between the lines. You should also stop in the middle of stories to ask to students to reflect on what has happened or have them predict what is about to happen.
- Model reading strategies: Read your students a story or text while thinking aloud and using reading strategies. You can model monitoring understanding by stopping in the middle of the story and saying, “I don’t understand what this sentence is saying, Maybe I should back up and reread this whole paragraph again.” By modeling reading strategies in “think-alouds,” you are showing your students what good readers do.
Teaching Reading Strategies
Now let’s look at some of the reading strategies experienced readers use and some ways you can teach students how to use them.
- Previewing: Previewing the story before reading allows the reader to gather background information and context.
- Ask your students, “What does the title of the story tell us? What can we learn by looking at the cover of the book or other artwork?”
- Discuss the background of the story if the setting is unfamiliar to your students.
- Questioning: Questioning give the reader a purpose for reading and engages them in the story.
- Ask students what they want to learn from the story.
- Teach students to wonder about the text. Ask, “What questions do you want answered?”
- Ask students questions the story can then answer for them. They will then have a purpose for reading the story.
- Predicting: Predicting what will happen in a story makes readers pay more attention to see if their predictions are correct.
- Before they read a story, ask students to predict what might happen in the story.
- After the story, ask them if their predictions were correct.
- Visualizing: Visualizing the characters and setting in a story “brings the story to life.” It seems more real and will be understood better if it is visualized.
- Teach students to visualize what is happening in the story.
- Ask students what they think a character or setting looks like.
- Relating material to prior knowledge: Connecting what a reader does know with what he doesn’t know helps him to better understand what he is reading.
- Help students make connections with what they already know.
- Have students ask themselves questions. “Does this story remind me of anything that happened to me or someone I know?” “Have I learned about this in school?”
- Summarizing: Summarizing helps readers gain a better understanding of the overall meaning of a section of text by finding the text’s main point.
- Ask students to tell the story in their own words.
- Teach students to summarize what happened in the story.
- Sequencing: Sequencing details or events in the correct order such as chronological, cause-and-effect, and so on, helps readers see how parts of a story relate to each other.
- Ask students to tell you when different events occurred in the story.
- Ask them what the effect of a character’s action was or which action caused a certain effect.
- Inferring: Inferring, or reading between the lines, helps readers find information that is not clearly written in the text.
- Ask the students comprehension questions that require them to infer meaning from the text.
- Have your students write their own comprehension questions.
- Monitoring understanding: Good readers know when they are not understanding a text and will reread a difficult sentence or paragraph until they understand it.
- Teach students to think about whether they are comprehending a section of text.
- Teach them to be willing to reread it or slow their reading if they don’t understand it.
- Have students ask questions about what they don’t understand in a story. Model this behavior to students so they know how to do it.
If you want to try modeling reading strategies to your students, download the “Do You Understand” printout and use the story and comprehension questions in it.
The subject of teaching reading comprehension is a complex topic a short blog post cannot fully explore. I recommend you do more reading and research about modeling reading strategies if you have students who are struggling with reading comprehension. Following are some websites with resources for modeling reading strategies.
CONTRIBUTOR: James A Goering II