How To Teach Reading Comprehension: 10 Tips for Better Lessons
The Classroom

How To Teach Reading Comprehension: 10 Tips for Better Lessons

Tara Shanley
Apr 4, 2024

Reading comprehension is a necessary skill that follows students through their entire academic journey and touches every subject they learn. Most students start learning the basics of comprehension as early as preschool and add tools and strategies to their mental toolbox as they advance to each new grade level. As an educator, you want to make sure you’re helping your students build, practice, and use their reading comprehension skills, no matter what grade or class you teach. In this article, we’ve provided an outline for how to teach reading comprehension in a flexible way that works for any classroom.

What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is reading a text, internalizing it, and understanding the meaning of what you read. Comprehending a text is the ultimate goal of reading. Whether we read for fun or read to learn (or both!), we’re always trying to understand what the text means. To do this, a reader must actively be paying attention to the content, analyzing the words and the ideas behind them, and processing the content internally to make sense of it.

Why reading comprehension is important

Reading is everywhere. As adults, we do it all day, every day, without even realizing we’re reading. Students are also surrounded by reading every day. It’s not confined to novels in their ELA classes. To succeed in any school subject, even math, you have to have the foundation of being able to read words on the page and understand what they mean. 

That foundation helps students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. They first have to understand how letters and syllables come together to create recognizable words. This part of their reading foundation is the main focus of the science of reading. Then, after students can recognize words, they need to start assigning meaning to them through language comprehension. Often, this part of the reading foundation is left out of the science of reading discussions, but it’s equally important to help students become proficient readers and master reading comprehension.

After students can recognize words and comprehend language, they can start doing skilled reading, which is understanding and making sense of a complete text. When students can do skilled reading, that’s when they can make the switch from learning to read to reading to learn.

What strategies make teaching reading comprehension effective?

As an educator, there are certain things you can do to make sure your reading comprehension instruction is as effective as possible. These strategies include:

Relying on explicit instruction and demonstration

Explicit instruction is an effective way to teach reading comprehension. With explicit instruction, teachers tell readers which comprehension strategies to use, when and why to use them, and how to apply them. Hallmarks of explicit instruction include modeling, guided practice, and opportunities for students to apply what they know independently.

During explicit instruction, teachers use clear and direct statements to explain the purpose of each skill. It’s important to find the right pacing for explicit instruction so that a lesson doesn’t move too slowly and bore students, but it’s also not too fast to rush them when processing information.

Chunking and sequencing skills logically

It’s also important to consider the order or sequence in which you teach students new skills. Though certain literacy skills can stand on their own as independent lessons or units, they all rely on each other to help students learn to read and make sense of information in a text. When you chunk or segment reading comprehension instruction, you lighten the students’ mental load, making it easier to retain what they’ve learned.

Teaching more basic, foundational skills first before moving on to more intricate skills can help students build a stronger reading foundation. For example, this is why we teach the alphabet before teaching skills like phonics blending. Or why we teach word recognition before more involved comprehension strategies like summarizing. Other ways to logically chunk reading comprehension lessons include prioritizing skills students use all the time over less common ones and separating lessons on similar skills to avoid confusion.

Focusing on practice and application

It’s often easier to learn a new skill by doing rather than by just listening. Think about yourself, are you more engaged and focused when listening to an hour-long lecture or when you’re in a hands-on workshop? Combining both methods is a great way to make sure your reading comprehension lessons are effective.

Explicit instruction is the lecture part of the lesson, where teachers tell and model what students should do. Making time for student practice and application is the workshop portion. Practice and application don’t have to include in-depth projects and activities. Pausing explicit instruction to ask questions or providing time for guided practice or small-group work is also helpful. While students practice and apply what they know, immediate affirmative and corrective feedback can help reduce the chance of them practicing errors and keep them on track for success.

Building knowledge, not just skills

Most basal readers for ELA education are focused on teaching skills, but they're out of context from the real world and students' lives. Why is this a problem? Teaching reading comprehension isn’t about memorizing how to do a skill for the sake of replicating the skill. But that can happen with skill-and-drill methods and disconnected content

According to the science of reading, when students can connect what they’re reading to a classroom lesson or real-world event, it makes recalling and taking in new information easier. When it’s easier to understand the content, it can also be easier to understand how a comprehension skill works and the right way to use it. When students practice ELA skills in content-rich lessons, their interests and imaginations pave the way for learning that sticks.

How to teach reading comprehension to students in 10 steps

There are many different ways you can teach reading comprehension in your classroom. It’s important to find a balance between the way you’re comfortable and confident in teaching it and how your students learn best. Here is an outline of a method that’s adaptable enough to work in every classroom and make for better skills lessons:

1. Provide content at the right reading level

Students in your classroom all have different reading levels and learning needs. Reading appropriately leveled texts lets students access grade-level curriculum and make progress with reading comprehension. Educator and thought leader Timothy Shanahan found that providing students with texts at various levels can help them meet specific learning goals.

If you want your students to develop comprehension strategies in a teacher-guided or small group setting, assigning texts at or above grade level can help. If you want students to build background knowledge on a topic or read independently with fluency and accuracy, sharing texts at a reading level that’s right for them is a helpful option.

Read more: Student reading levels on Newsela

2. Target overall language comprehension

In school, we often focus on teaching reading comprehension. But comprehension in general—whether it’s written, oral, or visual—is something students should master, too. If students have an oral language weakness, meaning they understand fewer spoken words than their peers, it can lead to decreased reading comprehension also. By focusing on not just reading comprehension but on overall language comprehension in the classroom, you can aim to improve students’ understanding of all words and concepts.

Activities to help with overall language comprehension can include having in-class conversations, sharing oral stories, or playing listening games like “Simon Says.” You can add this type of practice to your lessons along with regular reading activities.

3. Make time for vocabulary instruction

If students don’t understand the words they’re reading (or the ones that are supposed to provide context clues), comprehension is a lot harder to learn. Making time for vocabulary instruction during reading and independent lessons can help students grow the words they know. The more words and meanings they know, the less they’ll encounter comprehension problems with vocabulary itself.

Vocabulary instruction can look like having students write key terms from a nonfiction text, having weekly spelling and vocabulary lists for students to memorize, or pulling out specific keywords in the texts they’re reading and defining them as a class. You can also teach students to use tools like the dictionary to look up words they don’t recognize and learn the definitions on their own.

4. Model thinking strategies with think-alouds

Teachers can model how students should think about a text while they’re reading. A think-aloud activity, where a reader talks through their thinking process out loud, can help create a record of the decision-making process students follow while reading. It’s also a way for students to record or report everything they notice, feel, or understand while they read.

When modeling a think-aloud, it’s important to think of different prompts you can pose to your students to get them thinking about what they’re reading and learning. Some of the prompts you can use include:

  • Activating prior knowledge: "The setting of this text is just like..."

  • Self-monitoring: "While I'm reading, I'm trying to figure out..."

  • Visualizing: "I can see or feel what the author is talking about when..."

  • Determining key details: "I'm going to find the main idea and summarize it."

  • Making predictions: "I think [something] will happen next because the author said..."

  • Synthesizing: "My opinion of [something] is..."

5. Stress close reading

When you read something to understand it, you’re doing more than giving it a quick skim or rushing to finish. Close reading is helpful for reading comprehension because it includes repeated exposure to a text through rereading.

Plus, it encourages using different literacy skills each time you read. Stress close reading in your classroom by having students read every text three times, with a different purpose each time. The three steps of close reading include:

  1. Reading for general understanding and to find the main idea.

  2. Reading to look for new ideas, unfamiliar words, and the author's purpose.

  3. Reading for deeper analysis and to make connections within the text.

6. Ask the right questions

There are four types of questions teachers can ask students to help them build reading comprehension:

  1. Right there: The answer appears explicitly in the text and students can locate it or point it out.

  2. Think and search: The answer appears explicitly and implicitly in the text in more than one place.

  3. Author and you: The answer requires students to share information based on what they already know and what they read.

  4. On your own: The answer requires students to reflect on how their background knowledge connects to a text.

The order of these questions follows a pattern to help students build knowledge and then start thinking independently. Starting with right there questions helps you understand if your students can recall or point out information in a text. On your own questions encourage students to synthesize new ideas based on what they read. Think and search and author and you questions help students scaffold their thinking from recall to synthesizing.

7. Engage in guided practice

Guided practice, or scaffolding, is the bridge between explicit teacher instruction and independent student work. It allows students to start practicing skills on their own, but still have the support they need to make sure they’re understanding and using the skills correctly.

For teachers, adding guided practice to reading comprehension lessons lets you observe your students as they work and provide feedback and more individualized tips to help them practice. This phase of instruction is perfect for helping students identify mistakes they’re making and correct them to help improve their reading comprehension.

8. Encourage discussion and collaboration

Teachers aren’t the only ones who can help students practice comprehension skills. They can also learn from each other. Encouraging students to collaborate and share ideas gives them more opportunities to understand the material. Group work or peer work lets students engage with texts on a deeper level, ask each other questions, and make connections they may not have made otherwise. 

Collaboration also helps students develop critical thinking skills by considering diverse perspectives or even debating certain topics with classmates who have different viewpoints. Plus, when students have the opportunity to work with their friends, they may be more motivated to learn the material and participate. One method for collaboration is reciprocal teaching. In this process, students take turns acting as the teacher, either for the whole class or for a small group. Alternatively, you can have small groups of students work together to teach their classmates about a topic or text.

9. Add in opportunities for independent practice

After guided practice, students should be ready to start using the comprehension skills they learned independently. This type of independent practice could look like assigning a new text for students to read on their own and adding an accompanying activity to complete during silent time. It could also look like assigning homework to complete outside of the classroom.

But independent practice doesn’t always have to look like a graded assignment. It can be as simple as providing independent reading time throughout the day on topics students find interesting.

10. Differentiate instruction

Differentiated instruction is a process that allows teachers to tailor instruction to their students based on data and observations about their learning readiness and interests. It motivates all students to learn by meeting them where they are. There are four areas where a classroom teacher can differentiate instruction:

  • Content: The information students need to learn and the materials used to learn it.

  • Process: The activities a student does to make sense of the content.

  • Product: The projects, tools, and other means that challenge the student to show what they know.

  • Learning environment: The way the classroom works, looks, and feels.

Differentiation is a game changer for teaching reading comprehension because it benefits students of all intellectual and physical ability levels. It allows teachers to create a lesson that works for all their students so they can learn the same skills at the same time with the same or similar content.

3 things to avoid when teaching reading comprehension

Now that you have a framework for how to teach reading comprehension in the classroom, here are three things to avoid while you’re putting your lessons into practice:

1. Confusing comprehension with decoding

Just because a student can read words doesn’t mean they understand them. Reading with fluency and decoding words are important skills that help with reading comprehension, but they don’t replace it. Teaching, modeling, and providing opportunities to practice comprehension skills and strategies can help you determine if your students are internalizing the information or if they’re just fluent readers.

2. Asking only literal “right there” questions

Asking right there questions that show students can locate a word or concept in the text is a great foundation for building other reading comprehension skills. But similar to confusing decoding with comprehension, locating words and ideas on the page isn’t the same as understanding them.

It’s a good foundational skill to teach students how to find ideas in the text, but that should lead to them learning how to make inferences about things that don’t appear explicitly, and eventually synthesize their own ideas. Be sure to add think and search, author and you, and on your own questions to reading comprehension lessons too.

3. Spending too much time teaching one comprehension strategy

Reading comprehension skills and strategies don’t exist in a vacuum. Good readers use many of them simultaneously while they read to make sense of information and create new ideas. There’s nothing wrong with teaching a reading comprehension skill or strategy in isolation… for a while. Doing this can help you understand what students know about that skill and where they need more practice.

But it’s also important to show them how individual strategies work together and provide context about how using more than one strategy at the same time can help them understand content better. Similarly to how we discussed building knowledge and skills together, consider how you plan to vary individual strategy instruction with more holistic reading comprehension practice.

Help students understand what the text says with Newsela

Teaching reading comprehension is easier with Newsela’s product suite! Here are some of the great features that help you create the best comprehension lessons for your students:

  • Use annotations to highlight ideas, ask questions, and provide context for students within a lesson.

  • Add pre-created polls to articles to help students activate prior knowledge.

  • Use interactive graphic organizers for any article and customize them with the Formative and Newsela integration.

  • Assign standards-aligned multiple-choice quizzes on authentic texts for comprehension and skills practice. Students who read and take quizzes on Newsela ELA twice per week see an additional three months of literacy skills growth by the end of the school year.

  • Differentiate instruction with nonfiction texts published at five reading levels. With teacher controls, you can lock the level to give students practice with grade-level or appropriately challenging texts. Choose the Newsela recommended level for independent reading.

  • Use Newsela ELA to add Power Words with student-friendly definitions and activities to encourage in-context vocabulary practice.

Not a Newsela customer yet? You can sign up for Newsela Lite for free and access the content and skill-building scaffolds you need to teach reading comprehension in your classroom.

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