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In the last few years, an alarm has sounded throughout the nation’s middle and high schools: too many students cannot read well. It isn’t that they don’t know their ABCs or how to read words. It’s that they cannot understand or explain what they’re reading. Johnny can read, but he doesn’t understand.

Teaching children to understand what they read — called reading comprehension — was until recently undervalued in all grades. This is one reason why so many middle and high schoolers are struggling.

Up until a decade ago, most classrooms waited until 3rd or 4th grade to teach students reading comprehension strategies and tools. But not anymore. Reading comprehension is now being taught in the early elementary grades. One trigger for this change was the 1997 landmark National Reading Report, a comprehensive examination of research on reading. The study identified five essential reading components:

  • Phonics: Associating the letters with the speech sounds they represent.
  • Phonemic Awareness: The ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words.
  • Vocabulary: The knowledge of words.
  • Fluency: The ability to speak or express a language effortlessly and correctly.
  • Reading Comprehension: Understanding of text.

These findings encouraged a research-based makeover of the teaching of reading. “In the past five or 10 years, the research has indicated that educators need to make reading comprehension more of a focus, right from the get-go. So in our district there is a definite focus on reading comprehension beginning in kindergarten,” says Carolyn Evans, Director of Elementary Literacy, Grand Rapids Public Schools.

So what is the best way for students to learn reading comprehension? That depends on the child. According to The International Reading Association, there is no single method that can successfully teach all children to read. Therefore, teachers must know several methods for teaching reading. They must also know their students so they can balance the methods needed for each child.

Dr. Patricia Edwards, a literacy expert with Michigan State University, says that all teaching methods work for some children — but not all children respond to every program. “When you go into our schools, you have a variety of different kids, and what I have argued vehemently for is that we need to look at what the child needs. We don’t teach a method, we teach what the child needs,” says Edwards. “It’s like when you go to the doctor, he doesn’t give you ‘global’ medicine. He would take your family history and examine you and give you what you need for your condition.”

No one method is better than all the others. But there are many proven strategies that help children improve their reading comprehension. These include:

  • Identifying key elements in a story and summarizing
  • Predicting
  • Questioning
  • Making connections while reading
  • Using pictures to help figure out the text
  • Reading at the right level
  • Writing or journaling

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to develop grade-specific content expectations for all core subjects, including reading. These guidelines provide teachers, parents and students with a detailed, focused list of skills students should know at the end of each grade.

The parent factor

Exposing children to the written word and books early on is crucial to their reading success. Teachers say these activities need to occur well before a child steps foot in a classroom. “When parents and day care providers start at a very early age to teach those concepts of print — what the front of the book is, what the back of the book is, how you hold a book, that the print carries message, that a picture can help you with the understanding and the comprehension of a story — a kindergartener’s job is much easier because they have the basic understanding of print and that print carries message,” explains Coscarella.

“Parents need to take some responsibility early on for nurturing early literacy,” says MSU’s Edwards. “Kids who come to school marinated — soaking and dripping in print — are the kids who have a sense of what’s going on and will do well in school. Parents have to give their kids the basic skills and work on those building blocks.”


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