Skip to main content
Comprehension: In Practice

Comprehension: In Practice

On this page:

When it comes to teaching comprehension, our work is never done! Unlike letter-name knowledge or phonics, comprehension can never be mastered. It continues to develop over the course of each individual’s lifetime. Even for proficient readers, comprehension is dependent on text, purpose, content, and complexity.

We can help our students develop their reading comprehension by:

  • Building their language comprehension
  • Guiding them to be “strategic” readers (in other words, providing them with tools and strategies they can use to help them make sense of their reading)
  • Matching them to texts that support their growth as readers

Help students develop language comprehension: knowledge base

As anyone knows who’s had the pleasure of seeing a child deeply absorbed in a book, skilled readers don’t decode words for the sake of decoding words. They read for learning and enjoyment. Our students “read to learn” and they read, we hope, for pleasure. They can’t enjoy or learn as much from a text, though, if they don’t start with some basic background knowledge and vocabulary related to the topic at hand. We can build our students’ knowledge base in support of reading comprehension in many ways.

Background knowledge

Students learn and remember more from a text when they have some familiarity with the content. In the famous “Baseball Study” (opens in a new window) (Recht & Leslie, 1988), students were assessed on how well they understood a passage about a baseball game. Students who had a high level of background knowledge about baseball outperformed other students in the study, independent of their overall reading ability.

As researcher Dan Willingham has explained, knowledge makes learning easier:

Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. (See: How Knowledge Helps)

When we connect what students already know with new content to be introduced, we spark their interest and curiosity and give them a sense of purpose for learning… and reading. Here are some ways we can build our students’ background knowledge.

Gauge and engage: Activating prior knowledge around a topic by having our students talk about what they already know is a good place to start. This can help them build motivation and also give us a better sense of what our students already know. From there, we can use a variety of instructional strategies to introduce the material and address the range of our students’ knowledge and experience.

Ask and anchor: We can also be ready to help our students build background knowledge by asking ourselves: “What are the key terms and concepts my students need to know? How can I help them build on their prior knowledge?” To understand a read-aloud about the life cycle of a plant, for example, students might need to know words like seed and leaf and be familiar with concepts like growing and changing. This knowledge base can anchor topic-specific vocabulary, like root and soil, and more complex concepts such as sprouting and blooming.

Map out and check in: “Advance” graphic organizers such as KWL charts or concept maps can help our students consolidate and organize what they already know, help us get a sense of their familiarity with the topic, and, best of all, be built upon over multiple lessons. Incorporating low-stakes formative assessments, such as pre-lesson “entry slips” into instruction can help us quickly identify and address gaps in our students’ knowledge or understanding.

Sequence and scaffold: We instinctively sequence and scaffold for our students when we plan instruction so that topics build on and reinforce one another. Taking time to review and reactivate content covered in previous lessons before introducing new information is another way to build from one lesson to the next.

Theme-based or interdisciplinary units that explore a topic or related topics in more depth can help our students build a body of background knowledge while making connections across content areas. Thematic text sets can be helpful as well. The more our students learn — and talk about what they are learning — the easier learning becomes.


It would be impossible for us to explicitly teach even a fraction of the words in the English language, but direct instruction in vocabulary is still important. The more words our students know, the more words they can learn from written and spoken language. Direct teaching of carefully selected words and word-learning strategies, combined with wide reading and rich oral language experiences, is an effective approach to building our students’ vocabulary. (For more on vocabulary instruction, see the Vocabulary module.) The diagram below, from the Teaching Reading Sourcebook (opens in a new window) (CORE), explains the basic components of effective vocabulary instruction:

Effective vocabulary instruction

Academic vocabulary

Our students will encounter academic language in books they read, in instructional materials like homework and assessments, and in our spoken explanations and instructions. It is more formal than the language they use in casual conversation with each other in the cafeteria or on the playground. We can help our students understand this type of language (and build vocabulary, generally) by explicitly teaching abstract words such as explain, compare, and estimate that they will encounter across subjects.

Help students develop language comprehension: language proficiency

We’ve been looking at why building our students’ knowledge base is important to language comprehension. But there is more to language comprehension than background knowledge and vocabulary. For strong language comprehension, our students also need to understand how language works. That’s language proficiency. Verbal reasoning, literacy knowledge, and knowledge of language structure are all part of language proficiency. We can help our students develop their language proficiency at the word, sentence, and discourse (paragraph and text) levels.

Word and sentence

Cohesive words

There are some words and phrases that alert readers to the relationship between ideas in both spoken and written language. As skilled readers, we recognize these relationships without conscious effort. For example, the words “first,” “second,” and “next” signal a sequence of events or ideas. “Therefore” signals that one idea is building on an idea that came before. “However” and “in contrast” let us know that an opposite point or counter-example is coming next. Explicitly teaching our students to notice and think about these words can help them understand what they read.

Complex sentences

As our students read increasingly complex texts, they will come across more challenging vocabulary, but it’s not just individual words that present a challenge. Some sentences are more difficult to understand than others, not only because they’re longer, but because of the way they are structured.

To help our students “repair” meaning within hard-to-understand sentences, the first step is noticing the kinds of syntax (the order of words and phrases) and structures that may be confusing. We can give our students a head start in understanding complex text by explicitly teaching sentence structure. Features of complex sentences include:

  • Passive voice (“It is going to be a hot day.”) We understand this sentence effortlessly, but some of our students may not know automatically what “it” refers to.
  • Multiple verb tenses (“The ball hit the ground because gravity makes things fall.”) As skilled readers, we understand that the ball falling is a discrete event that happened in the past while gravity is not tied to a particular time — it always makes things fall. This mixture of past and present, however, may be confusing to some of our students.
  • Nested phrases and clauses (“The boy who jumped over the fence and tried to grab the bucket later disappeared in the field.”) In this sentence, some of our students may need scaffolding to recognize that the boy, not the bucket, disappeared in the field.
  • Anaphoric references (“Monique went to the park. She ran straight to the swings.”) If a student can’t keep track of who “she” is, comprehension may break down. Words that refer back to words earlier in the text, like the pronouns he, she, it, and they, can make sentences tricky. Color-coding pronouns that refer to a particular character is a great way to help students keep track.

Targeted questioning is one way to scaffold our students through complex sentences. By asking questions like “Who is this sentence about?” (the subject) and “What is the main ‘doing’ or ‘being’ word?” (the verb) and pointing out meaningful “chunks” (in our nested phrases sentence above, the entire phrase “who jumped over the fence and tried to grab the bucket” describes the boy) we can help students break sentences down into manageable units.

Sentence unpacking — rewriting complex sentences as a series of simple sentences — is another way to help our students break down and comprehend complex sentences. Sentence unpacking is a technique often used with English-learners, but is beneficial for all our students. This video below shows a sentence unpacking activity with fifth-graders that could be adapted for younger students.

Figurative language

Language that has a meaning beyond its literal meaning can be confusing for our students, especially students who are very concrete thinkers, who are learning a second language, or who have language limitations. With our help — and with lots of examples — they can use their growing understanding of idioms (“You can say that again!”), metaphors (“This math problem is a beast”), hyperbole (“My backpack weighs a ton!”), onomatopoeia (“Snap, crackle, pop”) and other kinds of figurative language to help them understand what they read. As an added benefit, teaching about figurative language supports our students’ growth as writers!

The entertaining video below offers a clear, example-filled explanation of metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole for older kids and adults. For younger students, picture books (opens in a new window) are a great tool for teaching about figurative language.

Discourse: paragraphs, chapters, and whole text

Understanding text at the “discourse” level means following the thread of meaning through longer sections of text, from paragraphs to chapters to entire books. This is where building our students’ familiarity with different kinds of text structure comes in handy.

Narrative text structure

Narrative text can be fiction or nonfiction. In fact, the line between the two can be pretty blurry! An autobiographical story like Patricia Polacco’s Thank You, Mr. Falker (opens in a new window) is a great example. All narrative texts tell stories, and stories have a structure we can teach our students to recognize. In this classroom video (opens in a new window), first-graders are explicitly taught about the story structure of a read-aloud text using a graphic organizer.

Making inferences

Making inferences is a part of language comprehension; it is also a behavior consistently observed in skilled readers. Developing our students’ ability to make inferences will help them to understand what they read and to tackle assignments throughout the school day. If we can also help them be aware that they are making inferences and encourage them to be intentional in doing so, we are giving them one of those “strategic” boosts that will support them as they make their way into more complex texts.

Learning to make educated guesses about what an author means takes practice. We can help our students get practice by examining the words an author chooses, facilitating discussion about what the author meant, asking what the characters might have been thinking or feeling, or exploring what a specific event might tell readers about the bigger picture.

There are plenty of opportunities to point out inferences in everyday situations. An observation like, “When I said, ‘It’s 10:15,’ you all started to clean up from centers and get ready to line up for recess. I didn’t tell you to do those things, but you knew to do them anyway,” can be a great starting point for a discussion about inferencing.

Help students be “strategic” readers

We’ve talked about how developing strong language comprehension and strong word recognition in our students helps to prepare them for the kind of close reading and deep, thoughtful comprehension that will help them succeed in school and in life.

We can boost reading comprehension even further for many students by teaching specific strategies — conscious steps that skilled readers take to help them make sense of text. Teaching these strategies appears to be most helpful once children have mastered basic decoding skills and have at least a basic level of fluency.

Here are recommended comprehension strategies to teach.

Monitoring comprehension

Students who are good at monitoring their own comprehension are aware, as they read, of whether they understand what they are reading. Research shows that instruction in self-monitoring, even in the early grades, can help students recognize when they don’t understand and take steps to fill gaps in comprehension.

Before reading, skilled readers often preview the text and remind themselves of their purpose for reading. They monitor their understanding as they read, adjusting their speed to fit the difficulty of the text and actively trying to solve comprehension problems that arise. After reading, they make sure they understand the passage they just read.

Some tools our students can use to “fix” their comprehension include:

  • Figuring out where comprehension breaks down (“I don’t understand this sentence.”)
  • Homing in on the part that’s hard to understand (“I don’t get what ‘Turtles are creatures of habit’ means.”)
  • Restating that part in their own words (“Oh, I think the author is talking about how turtles always go back to the same beach to lay their eggs.”)
  • Looking back through the text (“I remember I read more about this character at the beginning of the story. Maybe if I go back and reread, I can figure out why he’s acting this way now.”)
  • Looking ahead in the text for information that might help. (“It says, ‘Molten rock flows out of volcanoes.’ What does molten mean… Oh, the next section is called ‘Hot Enough to Melt Rocks.’ Maybe molten means melted. I’ll read on to see if it tells me.”).

Using graphic and semantic organizers

Most of us have used graphic organizers with our students at one time or another. They are known by different names, such as maps, webs, graphs, charts, frames, or clusters, but regardless of the label, graphic organizers can help readers focus on concepts in a text and how they are related to other concepts. They can be used with expository and narrative text to:

  • Help students focus on text structure 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

Types of graphic organizers

There are too many types of graphic organizers to describe them all. A few of the most useful ones are listed below. Click on the titles to see and print example versions of each organizer.

Venn-Diagrams (opens in a new window)Compare and contrast two sources of information. For example, comparing two books by the same author.
Storyboard/Chain of Events (opens in a new window)Sequence events in a text. For example, listing the steps for brushing your teeth or identifying the events in a story.
Story Maps (opens in a new window)Chart the structure of a narrative text, whether fiction or nonfiction. For example, identifying the beginning, middle, and end (opens in a new window) of a story, or defining story elements (opens in a new window) such as characters, setting, events, problem, and resolution.
Concept Maps (opens in a new window)Support comprehension of unfamiliar concepts by helping organize and categorize new information and make connections between ideas (e.g., identifying main ideas and supporting information)
Cause and Effect (opens in a new window)Show causal relationships between events or pieces of information in the text. For example, rising temperatures cause glaciers to melt, or treating a friend unkindly might lead to a rift in the friendship.

Answering questions

We tend to expect our students to demonstrate their understanding of a text by answering questions about it. What we think about less often is that answering questions can be helpful in understanding the text to begin with! Asking questions:

  • Gives our students a purpose for reading
  • Focuses their attention on what they need to learn
  • Helps them to think actively as they read
  • Encourages them to monitor their comprehension
  • Helps them relate what they have learned to what they already know

We can help our students stay grounded in the text they’re reading by asking text-dependent questions (questions that can only be answered by referencing the text). If students do not support their answers with evidence from the text, try asking a follow-up question like, “What in the text makes you think that?” or “Can someone find a section of the text that supports or disproves what Anthony just shared?” and direct the attention of the whole class back to the text. The video below, How to Use Text Dependent Questions in Close Reading, shows parts of a live lesson interspersed with commentary on text-dependent questions by reading expert Timothy Shanahan.

Generating questions

Asking questions can be as powerful as answering them. If our students are able to ask and answer their own questions, they can deepen their understanding of a text. Over time, they can learn to ask themselves and others a broad range of questions about their reading.

Asking varied questions: We can guide students to ask questions that require different levels of knowledge. For example, some questions require remembering (e.g. “What happened?” “Where did this take place?” “Who was …”) while other questions require synthesis (e.g. “What evidence can you find…?” “What would happen if…?”). See this resource for sample questions and ideas (opens in a new window) for actively engaging our students with their reading.

Questioning the Author (Beck, McKeown, Hamilton and Kucan, 1997) Students engage actively with text by generating questions to help them think more deeply about the text and the author’s purpose and point of view.

Reciprocal Teaching: Students become the teacher in small group reading sessions. This article, Reciprocal Teaching for the Primary Grades: “We Can Do It, Too!”, goes into more depth about adapting reciprocal teaching for the primary grades. See the video below for a look at reciprocal teaching in the classroom.


Being able to determine what is important in a text and to put it in their own words isn’t just critical to reading comprehension. It’s a life skill that all of our students need. Instruction in summarizing helps students:

  • To identify or generate main ideas
  • To connect the main or central ideas
  • To put aside for the moment ideas or information that are less important
  • To remember what they read

For classroom video and templates for summarizing, see this article. You can also find an extensive list of written and non-written strategies and activities for summarizing here (opens in a new window).

Cooperative learning

Most of us use cooperative learning strategies with our students at one time or another during the school day. Having children work together in pairs or in small groups on clearly defined tasks has been shown to help them practice and internalize comprehension strategies.

Working with a partner or a small group of classmates takes practice! In addition to modeling the comprehension strategy being taught, we need to explicitly teach the cooperative learning structure itself. Using cooperative learning structures such as partner reading, collaborative strategic reading, and think-pair-share, our students can understand — and help each other understand — what they read.

Making use of prior knowledge

Our students bring a wealth of knowledge and experiences with them to school. By asking questions that draw on what students may already know, we can help them make use of their prior knowledge to understand and learn from what they’re reading. Having students turn and talk with a partner about what they already know helps them activate their prior knowledge. This activity also integrates cooperative learning, another research-supported strategy, into the process.

One way to activate prior knowledge is to use an “anticipation guide,” a set of text-specific questions that can be followed up on as students read. To see a teacher using the anticipation guide strategy in her classroom, watch the video below.

Using mental imagery

Skilled readers often form mental pictures, or images, as they read. In general, students who picture a story in their minds while reading tend to understand and remember what they read better than students who don’t. For instructional suggestions and classroom video of teaching visualization, see this article on visual imagery.

Help students access increasingly complex text

We invest so much time and effort in helping students become skilled readers because we believe that almost every student can understand, learn from, and enjoy reading. We hope to put them on the path to college and career readiness and we’d like them to become engaged, lifelong learners who feel empowered to pursue their passions and interests. That’s why it’s important, when matching students with books, to support them in reading increasingly complex texts.

Fortunately, classroom practices for working with complex text aren’t all that different from best practices for teaching reading generally. Drs. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey have described five “access points” that serve to “build a bridge between the reader and the text.” We can help our students take on challenging texts by:

1. Establishing a purpose for reading a complex text and then modeling how we, as skilled readers, draw meaning from it

2. Providing scaffolded and close reading instruction to guide students through complex texts

3. Creating opportunities for cooperative and collaborative learning

4. Moving students forward through independent reading of increasingly complex texts

5. Staying aware of our students’ progress by using formative assessments and by addressing gaps in their knowledge and understanding


Catts, H.W., Adlof, S.M., &Weismer, S.E. (2006). Language deficits in poor comprehenders: A case for the simple view of reading. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49(2), 278-293.

Clarke, P. J., Snowling, M. J., Truelove, E. & Hulme, C. (2010).Ameliorating children’s reading-comprehension difficulties: A randomized controlled trial. Psychological Science, 21, 1106-1116.

Snow, Catherine E. Rand Report on Reading for Understanding (2002).

Spear-Swerling, L. (2015). The power of RTI and reading profiles: A blueprint for solving reading problems. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Willingham, Daniel.  The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in  Reading Comprehension Strategies. American Educator, Winter 2006/07.

Browse our comprehension resource library

Learn more about helping children strengthen their reading comprehension and critical thinking skills through our articles, tips for parents, video, FAQs, and research briefs. Visit our Comprehension section