Reading For Meaning: Tutoring Elementary Students to Enhance Comprehension

This article provides tutors with proven techniques for helping students acquire comprehension skills and strategies. In addition to building background knowledge about comprehension, it looks at six comprehension strategies and activities that support eachstrategy.

Imagine three different children reading the following page from the popular story, M & M and the Bad News Babies, by Pat Ross.

Mandy put a pink sea castle into the fish tank.Mimi added six yellow stones that glowed in the dark.The friends M and M had been fixing up the old fish tank all week."Now all we need are the fish," said Mimi."But fish cost money," said Mandy.

Think about what the following readersdid to understand this passage.

Reader 1: Mark is familiar with other stories about the two friends M and Mby Pat Ross and already knows that this story is an adventure about two girlsnamed Mandy and Mimi. With this knowledge, he made a connectionbetween what he already knows about the book series and this story. Markknows that the author gives clues about the girls' adventures in the title, so hepredicted that the two girls would try to earn money to buy fish for their fish tankand that their attempts will result in mishap. Finally, he ended by askinghimself, "What kind of trouble will Mandy and Mimi get into in this story?"and turned the page to read more.

Reader 2: Lizzy is not familiar with other stories about M and M. Instead ofmaking a text-to-text connection, she quickly previewed the text and activatedher prior knowledge about fish tanks. Lizzy made a text-to-self connectionbetween her prior knowledge and the information in the story. She knows thatpeople put different things in their fish tanks to decorate them and that fish costmoney. Finally, she asked herself, "How will Mandy and Mimi earn money for the fish they want?" and turned the page to read more.

Reader 3: Paul also quickly previewed the text, realizing that he doesn't knowanything about fish or fish tanks. He imagined that the friends must have anew hobby, pet, or homework assignment. While he doesn't know aboutfish, Paul does know about earning money by doing chores. He made a text-to-world connection between his priorknowledge and clues from the passage. He ended his reading by asking himself,"I wonder if Mandy and Mimi will do chores to earn money for the fish they want?" and turned the page to read more.

These examples demonstrate three paths to understanding the passage. Each path requires "in the head" strategies before, during, and after reading. The different paths help demonstrate that reading is an active thinking process and reveal what good readers do as they read. All children — whether struggling or proficient readers — benefit from learning to internalize and apply these comprehension strategies.

This article will provide you, the tutor, with proven techniques for helping students acquirecomprehension skills and strategies. Using these strategies to support students' developing abilities toread strategically and actively will make your work more effective. In addition to building your ownbackground knowledge about comprehension, you'll explore six comprehension strategies and follow atutor, Tina, and her student, Allison, through activities and conversations that support eachstrategy.

What is comprehension?

Comprehension is the "essence of reading" (Durkin, 1993). It is a complex thinking process that requiresthe reader to construct meaning from the text.

The well-known children's author, Katherine Paterson, describes the relationship between readerand writer this way: "Once a book is published, it no longer belongs to me… The work now belongs tothe creative mind of my readers… It's a wonderful feeling when readers hear what I thought I was tryingto say, but there is no law that they must. Frankly, it is even more thrilling for a reader to find somethingin my writing that I hadn't until that moment known was there" (Paterson, 1981).

Children need explicit instruction in reading comprehension. The role of the tutor is to helpchildren become aware of the variety of problemsolving strategies that enable them to independentlyunderstand, discuss, and interpret text. Children who are given this kind of support become moreproficient readers (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Let's look at what good readers do.

Good readers have strong listening comprehension skills. Comprehension developsthrough reading and listening to texts read aloud (Honig, Diamond, & Gutlohn, 2000). For youngchildren and beginning readers, listening to someone read aloud provides opportunities for them tocomprehend text they would not be able to read for themselves (Gillet & Temple, 1994). Developingchildren's listening comprehension helps them become more skillful at text comprehension (Fountas& Pinnell, 1996).

Good readers recognize that reading is more than decoding words. Decoding is the ability tosound out a written word and figure out the spoken word it represents. While children cannotunderstand text they cannot decode, it is also true that decoded words are meaningless unless they areunderstood (Maria, 1990).

Good readers make connections. Good readers experience the wonderful sensation of getting lost intext. They relate what they read to other books, to their own experiences, and to universal themes andthe world around them. These types of connections are called text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-worldconnections (Keene & Zimmerman, 1997).

Good readers think about their thinking. Good readers are aware of their own thought processes(Honig et al., 2000). Irvin (1998) points out that explicit instruction in comprehension skills helpsdevelop children's metacognition—the ability to think about their thinking. Good readers usemetacognition to "think about and have control over their reading" (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).

Good readers read a lot of good books! To be good readers, children need to read a lot. Allington(2001) points out that reading practice is a powerful contributor to the development of accurate, fluent,high-comprehension reading. Your work as a tutor not only provides additional learning time, butadditional reading time for the children you work with. Increasing the volume of children's readingand helping them develop comprehension strategies are characteristics of effective reading support(Donahue, Voelkl, Campbell, & Mazzeo, 1999).

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What are the comprehension strategies?

Research has shown that a major aspect of reading instruction is transforming comprehension skills intoexplicit strategies we teach to students (Simmons & Kameenui, 1998). Children need to learn to usecomprehension strategies before, during, and after they read. Tutors need to explicitly modelcomprehension strategies and help students understand when and how to use them (Honig et al., 2000).

The Comprehension Strategies

Research strongly supports the following strategies (Allington, 2001;Armbruster et al., 2001; Farstrup & Samuels, 2002):

  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Answering and generating questions
  • Making and verifying predictions
  • Using mental imagery and visualization
  • Monitoring comprehension
  • Recognizing story structure

The Tutor's Role

Pearson and Duke (2002) outline the components of effective comprehensionlessons. When you work on a comprehension strategy with your tutee, be sure to:

  • Provide an explicit description of the strategy and when it should be used
  • Model the strategy
  • Collaboratively use the strategy in action
  • Guide your tutee in practice using the strategy
  • Allow the student to use the strategy
  • independently

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Activating prior knowledge

Tina, the tutor, invites her student, Allison, to read the title of the book, M&M and the Bad News Babies,and then preview the book.

Tina: What does the title tell you about the story?
Allison: It's about babies who get into trouble.
Tina: Let's take a look at the first chapter and see what we can find out.
Allison: Look, they have a fish tank. I have fish, too. My fish live in a fish bowl, not a bigtank. (Allison points to the picture of the tank on the page.)

Tina continues to preview the first chapter with Allison. They notice pictures of a mother droppingoff two young children and a lively discussion about babysitting ensues. She then explicitly explains the strategy:

Tina: Allison, you are doing exactly what good readers do before they read. Good readers preview the book and think about what they already know about the topic. As we continue to read, keep in mind what you know about babysitting and doing chores. This may help you understand the story.

Why It's Important

Good readers make use of their prior knowledge and experiences to help themunderstand what they are reading. When a student activates her prior knowledge, the resultingconnection provides a framework for any new information she will learn while reading (Graves,Juel, & Graves, 1998). This also helps ensure that the reader will remember the text after reading.

How to Support Your Tutee

Before your studentreads, preview the text and help her make aconnection between what she already knows andthe new text.

  • Page through the book and ask students what they already know about the topic, broad concept, author, or genre. For example, Tina learns that Allison has a fish tank, like the characters in the story.
  • Draw the student's attention to key vocabulary or phrases. Tina draws Allison's attention to topic words such as fish tank, babysitting, and twins.
  • Talk about print and text features and the way the text is organized. For example, Tina points out that the text is divided into four chapters.

Another strategy for activating prior knowledge:K-W-L Chart. In addition to previewing the bookwith Allison, Tina decides to use a K-W-L chart(an example follows) as a way to explain the strategyfurther. K-W-L charts are especially helpful withnonfiction or expository text.

Before reading, draw a K-W-L chart like the onebelow on a sheet of paper.

  • What I Know

    In the K column, list what thechild already knows about the topic. If necessary,model a response to get the conversation started.

  • What I Want To Know

    Then point to the Wcolumn and ask the student what he would like tolearn by reading the text. Write responses in theform of questions. Use the questions to help set apurpose for reading.

  • What I Learned

    While reading, turn thestudent's attention to the W column. As he discoversthe answers to his questions, record them and anynew learnings in the L column. After reading, helpyour student summarize the text using all threecolumns.

KWL Chart

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Answering and generating questions

Before beginning the next session with Allison, Tinainvites her to talk about what they read last time.

Tina: Do you remember what was happeningwhen we read last week?
Allison: (Pauses) Well, they had to babysit. Themom left the babies.
Tina: Right. How do you think Mandy andMimi felt about that?
Allison: Well, it didn't really seem like theywanted to babysit. But they did it anyhow.
Tina: I wonder why they decided to do it. Doyou have any ideas?
Allison: (Silence.)
Tina: I'm going to reread the section. Listen tofind out why the girls decided to babysit thetwins. (Reads through the line, "I'd pay you,"offered Mrs. Green.)
Allison: That's right! They did it to get moneyto buy fish.

Why It's Important

Good readers ask questionsbefore, during, and after reading. Asking, reflectingon, and answering questions enhancesunderstanding. Encouraging students to askthemselves questions about the text will help themimprove their comprehension of the story as well asrecall selected elements.

Answering the questions tutors pose andgenerating their own questions helps children getmore out of reading (Armbruster et al., 2001).Questioning helps children:

  • Understand the purpose for reading
  • Focus their attention on what they are to learn
  • Think actively as they read
  • Monitor their comprehension
  • Review content and relate what they have learned to what they already know

When children ask their own questions abouttext, they become more aware of their level ofcomprehension (Armbruster et al., 2001).

How to Support Your Tutee

To support theirlearning, you can:

  • Ask open-ended questions that help students think actively about text
  • Share your own questions as you read together
  • Help students find clues in the text or use information they already have in their heads to answer questions
  • Invite children to keep track of their questions by telling you or by writing them into a notebook or on a sheet of paper

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Making and verifying predictions

After reading the first two chapters, Tina pauses tomodel how to make predictions, or good guesses,about the story.

Tina: Allison, let's think about what mighthappen next in the story. What kind of acontest could they have?
Allison: I don't know. Something else is goingto happen with the babies. Maybe they willhave a race with the babies — a crawling race.
Tina: (Writes down Allison's two predictions.)Using clues from the story to think about whatmight happen next is called making predictionsor very good guesses. Good readers think aboutwhat can happen in a story and then read tofind out if their prediction was correct. Peoplewho read a lot are constantly makingpredictions. Let's read the next two pages to seehow the story matches up with your predictions.
Allison: Great, let's see which one will win!

Why It's Important

Good readers make andconfirm predictions when they form a connectionbetween prior knowledge and new information inthe text. Proficient readers have learned how tomake informed predictions about what they read,read to confirm those predictions, and revise ormake new predictions based on what they find out.

How to Support Your Tutee

Proficient readers usethis strategy before and as they read. Ways to helpyour tutee make and verify predictions include:

  • Before reading, model how to use all available information (e.g., title of the book, prior knowledge, genre, author) to make a prediction:
    • What clues about the story does the title provide?
    • What does the illustration on the cover make you think of?
    • Is this a real or make-believe story?
    • How can you tell?
  • Remind your tutee that many predictions may be wrong and that's okay As your tutee reads, prompt her to confirm, revise, and make new predictions
  • After reading, review and evaluate predictions made before and during reading

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Using mental imagery and visualization

Allison comes to the point in the story when thegirls realize the twins are missing.

Tina: Allison, one of the strategies readers useto help them really understand a story ismaking pictures in their minds. It's calledvisualization. Try to visualize where the twinsmight be.
Allison: I can see them looking at the fishtank.
Tina: Keep going, what are they doing?
Allison: Well, they have to climb up to get agood look. Oops! They knock it over. Theyellow stones are rolling everywhere…
Tina:You're doing a good job of seeing thingsthat are suggested by the story. Visualizing whileyou read is important. It's like making a movieof the story in your mind.

Why It's Important

Visualization is a type ofinference, or informed guess, about the text. Readersmake a visual representation in their minds of whatthey read. By using prior knowledge and backgroundexperiences, readers connect the author's writingwith a personal picture. Through guidedvisualization, students learn how to create mentalpictures as they read.

How to Support Your Tutee

To practicevisualization, invite your student to listen carefully asyou suggest some things he is going to see in hismind. Then describe an everyday object — one that isnot within view — such as an animal, something toeat, a piece of sports equipment, or an article ofclothing. Give the student a few moments to form animage in his mind. Then invite him to name anddescribe more details, such as color, size, shape, andsmell. Vary this activity by allowing the student tochoose the subject of the visualization himself.

Use guided visualization either to prepare studentsfor reading or to deepen understanding as they read.For example, have your student reread a passage froma book that describes something that is not pictured.You might say, The sentence that reads, "My mother isdownstairs fixing her bike, said Mandy," leads me topicture a mother wearing jeans and sneakers working tofix a flat bike tire. What do you see?

As your student reads, pause and monitor hismental images. Ask leading questions like:

  • What sentences helped you make your mental picture?
  • Were your images of the characters the same or did they change? Why?
  • Did making your mental picture give you any new ideas or questions about the story?

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Monitoring comprehension

It becomes clear that Allison misunderstood a partof the story, M&M and the Bad News Babies. The textreads, Then they made silly faces at each other. This sillyfaces looked just like two babies sucking on bottles.Under the text is an illustration of the two girls.Allison looks at the picture and thinks that thepicture shows the two girls sticking out their tonguesat each other.

Allison: They look like they're angry but thatwouldn't make sense.
Tina: Think about what you should do whenyou come to a point in a story where somethingdoesn't make sense.
Allison: (Rereads the text and finds the wordsilly.) Oh, I see. This word is "silly." They aremaking a silly fish face.Tina: Does the story make sense now?
Allison: Yes, because the faces look like babiessucking a bottle.

Why It's Important

Good readers monitor theircomprehension while poor readers are less likely todo so (Simmons & Kameenui, 1998). Beginningreaders are also less likely to use strategies to keeptheir reading on track (Paris & Oka, 1986).

How to Support Your Tutee

Tutoring techniquesfor teaching and developing self-monitoring includestopping and summarizing, clarifying, makingpredictions, and asking questions. Questions shouldbe open-ended and thoughtful. Teaching children tomonitor their comprehension helps them:

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

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Recognizing story structure

After reading M & M and the Bad News Babies, Tinaand Allison flip back through the book to betterunderstand what happened first, next, and last in thestory.

Tina: (Writes the words Beginning, Middle, andEnding onto a sheet of paper.) Allison, let'sthink back to the beginning of the story. Whathappened first?
Allison: M and M were fixing up an old fishtank.
Tina: Good, then what happened next?
Allison: The neighbor, I think her name is Mrs.Green, knocked on their door. (Allison turns tothe part of the book to confirm the neighbor'sname.) Yup, her name is Mrs. Green. Mrs.Green came by and asked M and M to babysitthe twins.
Tina: Anything else important happen?
Allison: The babies got into a lot of trouble.They wrecked the plants and comic books. Thegirls thought the babies wrecked their fish tank,but they didn't.
Tina: What happened at the end of the story?
Allison: The girls used their babysitting moneyto buy fish. They named the fish after the twotwins.

Why It's Important

Most narrative stories areorganized around a set of elements called storygrammar or a story map. Learning about the structureof stories provides readers with a schema they canuse when reading or listening to a new story orwriting a story on their own. Most children's storiesare written using the following elements:

  • Setting

    The setting of a story tells when and where the story takes place. Some stories have specific settings, while others occur at an indefinite time or place. Sometimes, the setting changes within the story.

  • Characters

    Characters are the people, animals, and other individuals that populate a story. The main character is sometimes called the protagonist and generally drives the plot. The rival is called the antagonist.

  • Plot

    The plot of a story tells what happened. It is the action of the story and gives it a beginning, middle, and ending. In general the plot consists of the following:

    • A problem that the main character must solve
    • The steps the character takes to solve it
    • The resolution of the problem
    • How the story ends
  • Theme

    The theme is the big idea that the author wants the reader to understand. Often the conclusion of the story reveals the theme.

How to Support Your Tutee

In addition totalking about and modeling thinking about whathappened first, next, and last in the story, use a storymap to help children understand the elements ofstory structure. See the Story Map below for an example.

Story Map

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As we think back on Tina and Allison, we realizethat helping students become active, strategic readersrequires working with them on key comprehensionstrategies while fostering a love of reading. Thestrategies presented in this article encourage childrento develop their metacognition, or to think abouttheir own thinking while they read.

Learning to read actively and purposefully helpschildren become proficient readers and prevents laterreading difficulties. Your work with these strategiesincludes direct explanation, modeling, guidedpractice, and independent application.

As a tutor, your work also includes modeling alove of reading and reading often. Remember,children need lots of experiences with good booksand an environment that supports taking risks asreaders.

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Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Allington, R.L. (2001). What really matters for strugglingreaders: Designing research-based programs.New York, NY: Longman.

Armbruster, B.B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Putreading first: The research building blocks for teachingchildren to read, kindergarten through grade 3.Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Donahue, P.L., Voelkl, K.E., Campbell, J.R., &Mazzeo, J. (with Donahue, J., Finnegan, R., etal.). (1999). NAEP 1998 reading report card for thenation and the states. Washington, DC: U.S. Departmentof Education, National Center for EducationStatistics. Retrieved March 31, 2004, from

Durkin, D. (1993). Teaching them to read (6th ed.).Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Farstrup, A.E., & Samuels, S.J. (Eds.). (2002) Whatresearch has to say about reading instruction (3rded.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Fountas, I.C., & Pinnell, G.S. (1996). Guided reading:Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth,NH: Heinemann.

Gillet, J.W., & Temple, C. (with Mathews, S.R., II,& Young, J.P.). (1994). Understanding readingproblems: Assessment and instruction (4th ed.).New York, NY: HarperCollins College.

Graves, M.F., Juel, C., & Graves, B.B. (1998).Teaching reading in the 21st century. Boston, MA:Allyn & Bacon.

Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2000).Teaching reading sourcebook: For kindergartenthrough eight grade. Novato, CA: Arena Press, &Emeryville, CA: Consortium on Reading Excellence.

Irvin, J.L. (1998). Reading and the middle school student:Strategies to enhance literacy (2nd ed.).Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Keene, E.O., & Zimmerman, S. (1997). Mosaic ofthought: Teaching comprehension in a reader's workshop.Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Maria, K. (1990). Reading comprehension instruction:Issues and strategies. Parkton, MD: York Press.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children toread: An evidence-based assessment of the scientificresearch literature on reading and its implications forreading instruction. Reports of the subgroups. Washington,DC: National Institute of Child Healthand Human Development.

Paris, S.G., & Oka, E.R. (1986). Children's readingstrategies, metacognition, and motivation. DevelopmentalReview, 6(1), 25-56.

Paterson, K. (1988). Gates of excellence: On readingand writing books for children. New York, NY:Lodestar Books.

Pearson, P.D., & Duke, N.K. (2002). Comprehensioninstruction in the primary grades. In C.C.Block & M. Pressley (Eds.), Comprehension instruction:Research-based best practices (pp.247-258). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Ross, P. (1985). M & M and the bad news babies.New York, NY: Puffin Books.

Simmons, D.C., & Kameenui, E.J. (Eds.). (1998).What reading research tells us about children with diverselearning needs: Bases and basics. Mahwah,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gibson, A. (2004). Reading For Meaning: Tutoring Elementary Students To Enhance Comprehension. From The Tutor Newsletter, Spring 2004, 1-12. Portland, OR: LEARNS at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.


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Excellent article. I'm going to try these strategies when I wink with my second grader, who is a little behind in comprehension.

This is an excellent source for me. It is aligned with Reading Workshop that we have just implemented in our school, and I can use this as I begin to tutor a 6th grade struggling reader/writer. I wasn't sure where to begin with her, and this gives me a plan. Thank you!

Great article. I am helping a friend's son and this will be of great assistance. Thanks so much.

This article is very beneficial for someone trying to help a child learn to read.

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