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First Year Teacher is a self-paced professional development course for novice K-3 teachers, developed by Reading Rockets. The program provides teachers with an in-depth knowledge of reading so they are prepared to guide their students into becoming skilled and enthusiastic readers.

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Comprehension: In Depth

The scientific research on text comprehension instruction reveals important information about what students should be taught about text comprehension, as well as information on how it should be taught.

What should classroom teachers know about text comprehension?

Text comprehension can be improved by instruction that helps readers use specific comprehension strategies.

Comprehension strategies are conscious plans — sets of steps that good readers use to make sense of text. Comprehension strategy instruction helps students become purposeful, active readers who are in control of their own reading comprehension. The following seven strategies appear to have a firm scientific basis for improving text comprehension.

Monitoring comprehension

Students who are good at monitoring their comprehension know when they understand what they read and when they do not. They have strategies to "fix" problems in their understanding as the problems arise. Research shows that instruction, even in the early grades, can help students become better at monitoring their comprehension.

Comprehension monitoring instruction teaches students to:

  • Be aware of what they do understand
  • Identify what they do not understand
  • Use appropriate strategies to resolve problems in comprehension

Metacognition

Metacognition can be defined as "thinking about thinking." Good readers use metacognitive strategies to think about and have control over their reading. Before reading, they might clarify their purpose for reading and preview the text. During reading, they might monitor their understanding, adjusting their reading speed to fit the difficulty of the text and "fixing" any comprehension problems they have. After reading, they check their understanding of what they read.

Students may use several comprehension monitoring strategies:

  • Identify where the difficulty occurs ("I don't understand the second paragraph on page 76.")
  • Identify what the difficulty is ("I don't get what the author means when she says, 'Arriving in America was a milestone in my grandmother's life.'"
  • Restate the difficult sentence or passage in their own words ("Oh, so the author means that coming to America was a very important event in her grandmother's life.").
  • Look back through the text ("The author talked about Mr. McBride in Chapter 2, but I don't remember much about him. Maybe if I reread that chapter, I can figure out why he's acting this way now.").
  • Look forward in the text for information that might help them to resolve the difficulty. ("The text says, 'The groundwater may form a stream or pond or create a wetland. People can also bring groundwater to the surface.' Hmm, I don't understand how people can do that… Oh, the next section is called 'Wells.' I'll read this section to see if it tells how they do it.").

Using graphic and semantic organizers

Graphic organizers illustrate concepts and relationships between concepts in a text or using diagrams. Graphic organizers are known by different names, such as maps, webs, graphs, charts, frames, or clusters.

Regardless of the label, graphic organizers can help readers focus on concepts and how they are related to other concepts. Graphic organizers help students read and understand textbooks and picture books.

Graphic organizers can:

  • Help students focus on text structure "differences between fiction and nonfiction" as they read
  • Provide students with tools they can use to examine and show relationships in a text
  • Help students write well-organized summaries of a text

Answering questions

Questions can be effective because they:

  • Give students a purpose for reading
  • Focus students' attention on what they are to learn
  • Help students to think actively as they read
  • Encourage students to monitor their comprehension
  • Help students to review content and relate what they have learned to what they already know

The Question-Answer Relationship strategy (QAR) encourages students to learn how to answer questions better. Students are asked to indicate whether the information they used to answer questions about the text was textually explicit information (information that was directly stated in the text), textually implicit information (information that was implied in the text), or information entirely from the student's own background knowledge.

There are 4 different types of questions:

Right There: Questions found right in the text that ask students to find the one right answer located in one place as a word or a sentence in the passage.

Example: Who is Frog's friend?
Answer: Toad

Think and Search: Questions based on the recall of facts that can be found directly in the text. Answers are typically found in more than one place, thus requiring students to "think" and "search" through the passage to find the answer.

Example: Why was Frog sad?
Answer: His friend was leaving.

Author and You: Questions require students to use what they already know, with what they have learned from reading the text. Student's must understand the text and relate it to their prior knowledge before answering the question.

Example: How do think Frog felt when he found Toad?
Answer: I think that Frog felt happy because he had not seen Toad in a long time. I feel happy when I get to see my friend who lives far away.

On Your Own: Questions are answered based on a students prior knowledge and experiences. Reading the text may not be helpful to them when answering this type of question.

Example: How would you feel if your best friend moved away?
Answer: I would feel very sad if my best friend moved away because I would miss her.

Generating questions

By generating questions, students become aware of whether they can answer the questions and if they understand what they are reading. Students learn to ask themselves questions that require them to combine information from different segments of text. For example, students can be taught to ask main idea questions that relate to important information in a text.

Recognizing story structure

In story structure instruction, students learn to identify the categories of content (characters, setting, events, problem, resolution). Often, students learn to recognize story structure through the use of story maps. Instruction in story structure improves students' comprehension.

Summarizing

Summarizing requires students to determine what is important in what they are reading and to put it into their own words. Instruction in summarizing helps students:

  • Identify or generate main ideas
  • Connect the main or central ideas
  • Eliminate unnecessary information
  • Remember what they read

Effective comprehension strategy instruction is explicit, or direct

Research shows that explicit teaching techniques are particularly effective for comprehension strategy instruction. In explicit instruction, teachers tell readers why and when they should use strategies, what strategies to use, and how to apply them. The steps of explicit instruction typically include direct explanation, teacher modeling ("thinking aloud"), guided practice, and application.

  • Direct explanation: The teacher explains to students why the strategy helps comprehension and when to apply the strategy.
  • Modeling: The teacher models, or demonstrates, how to apply the strategy, usually by "thinking aloud" while reading the text that the students are using.
  • Guided practice:. The teacher guides and assists students as they learn how and when to apply the strategy.
  • Application: The teacher helps students practice the strategy until they can apply it independently.

Effective comprehension strategy instruction can be accomplished through cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning involves students working together as partners or in small groups on clearly defined tasks. Cooperative learning instruction has been used successfully to teach comprehension strategies. Students work together to understand texts, helping each other learn and apply comprehension strategies. Teachers help students learn to work in groups. Teachers also provide modeling of the comprehension strategies.

When should text comprehension instruction begin?

Even teachers in the primary grades can begin to build the foundation for reading comprehension. Reading is a complex process that develops over time. Although the basics of reading--word recognition and fluency--can be learned in a few years, reading to learn subject matter does not occur automatically once students have "learned to read." Teachers should emphasize text comprehension from the beginning, rather than waiting until students have mastered "the basics" of reading. Instruction at all grade levels can benefit from showing students how reading is a process of making sense out of text, or constructing meaning. Beginning readers, as well as more advanced readers, must understand that the ultimate goal of reading is comprehension.

Has research identified comprehension strategies other than the six described here?

The six strategies described have received the strongest scientific support. The strategies below and in te sidebar to the right have also received some support from research. You may want to consider them for use in your classroom.

Making use of prior knowledge: Good readers draw on prior knowledge and experience to help them understand what they are reading. You can help your students make use of their prior knowledge to improve their comprehension. Before your students read, preview the text with them. As part of previewing, ask the students what they already know about the content of the selection (for example, the topic, the concept, or the time period). Ask them what they know about the author and what text structure he or she is likely to use. Discuss the important vocabulary used in the text. Show students some pictures or diagrams to prepare them for what they are about to read.

Using mental imagery: Good readers often form mental pictures, or images, as they read. Readers (especially younger readers) who picture the story during reading understand and remember what they read better than readers who do not create a picture in their mind. Help your students learn to form mental images of what they are reading. For example, urge them to picture a setting, character, or event described in the text.

Jigsaw

Go inside Cathy Doyle's second grade classroom in Evanston, Illinois to observe her students use the jigsaw strategy to understand the topic of gardening more deeply and share what they have learned. Joanne Meier, our research director, introduces the strategy and talks about the importance of advanced planning and organization to make this strategy really effective.

Comprehension: In Depth

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller