Teaching students with comprehension difficulties

This page discusses teaching strategies to improve reading comprehension for students of all ages, including those with learning difficulties.

Issues with reading comprehension occur when students struggle to understand the meaning behind words, phrases and other texts.

Signs that may indicate a reading comprehension difficulty include:

  • trouble with letter and word recognition
  • difficulty understanding words and ideas
  • slow reading speed and fluency
  • limited vocabulary or underdeveloped oral language skills
  • difficulty answering questions about or discussing a text.

When supporting students with comprehension difficulties, it is vital to understand the reason(s) behind their difficulties.

High Impact Teaching Strategies to support reading comprehension

The High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS) are 10 instructional practices that reliably increase student learning and can be used as a framework for planning how to teach reading comprehension and writing composition.

Adjust the use of each strategy for students with learning difficulties by considering their needs and how they learn best.

Strategy 1: Setting goals

Goals set for students with learning difficulties need to consider the foundational knowledge and skills they are missing but are required for them to be successful users of literacy. Goals might be drawn from the Victorian Curriculum F–10: English or the National Literacy Learning Progressions or include phonological and word reading goals.

Strategy 2: Structuring lessons

Lessons may need to include activities that scaffold foundational knowledge for students or help them to recall what they already know or have learned previously about a topic.  

For example, if students are reading a text about turtles, it may be helpful to revisit previous lessons and review the content knowledge so that students can more easily make links between what they are reading and what they already know. Regular reviews of previously learnt content is a valuable way to help students embed the information in long-term memory.   


Strategy 3: Explicit teaching

Your lessons may need to model skills or concepts using more explicit steps for students with learning difficulties. When teaching inferring skills, provide a model answer and then guide your students through the process you undertook. Use small steps to allow students to understand and practise according to your model. Giving non-example model is also a useful technique. 

Strategy 4: Worked examples

The worked examples that you use when teaching students with learning difficulties should be appropriate and matched to their level of ability. This may be different from their age or year level. Focus on using straightforward examples with a clear purpose in mind. This is an excellent technique aligned with explicit instruction. It allows students to practise tasks in small steps before they must do the task more independently. Choose your worked examples to match the intentions of your lessons.

Strategy 5: Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning needs to be considered carefully when teaching students with learning difficulties. The nature of their learning difficulty may impact on their capability to participate in group activities and tasks. However, with planning and organisation, collaborative learning can be a successful and positive experience, particularly for students with comprehension difficulties, allowing them to explore important skills and strategies as modelled by their peers.

Strategy 6: Multiple exposures

Students with learning difficulties will benefit from being exposed to new literacy knowledge and skills more frequently and with greater intensity than their peers. Multiple exposures may involve demonstrating or modelling a new idea initially by using physical actions or a visual aid and then pairing these with language descriptions. It is important not to overwhelm students when doing this. Ensure they have a firm grasp of a piece of knowledge or skill before presenting it in a different way.

Strategy 7: Questioning

There are several ways that questioning can be used in teaching: to improve recall, to enhance a student's knowledge of a topic, to provoke higher levels of reasoning. For students with learning difficulties, however, using questioning to learn can be challenging. These students will benefit from clear scaffolding, being shown explicitly how to ask questions and to link questions with the texts they read.

To encourage as much participation as possible, differentiate the questions you ask struggling students so that they experience success. The questions you ask other students also provide opportunities for the struggling students to hear and embed the information as well.

Some students may have verbal retrieval difficulties and will benefit from being asked recognition questions prior to recall or comprehension questions.
For example, instead of asking students, 'What is the character in this text feeling?', you could first ask them, 'What are some feeling words that we know?'. Then tune students into a particular character by asking, 'What events lead up to this part of the text?'. Answering these recognition questions first will assist them in answering the subsequent comprehension question.

Strategy 8: Feedback

The feedback you provide students needs to be clear, corrective and actionable. Feedback should acknowledge what the student is currently doing well and what they need to do next. It also needs to be delivered close to the time the task was completed.

Strategy 9: Metacognitive strategies

The teaching of metacognitive strategies is recommended for every aspect of literacy learning. However, students with learning difficulties commonly have challenges with using metacognitive strategies and will need additional scaffolding to do so (for example, ‘I am learning about …’ ‘I didn’t know …’ ‘I now know …’).

Strategy 10: Differentiated teaching

Differentiated teaching is essential for students with learning difficulties and should be present in each stage of a lesson. It is important to draw on the assessment data you have collected to understand where students are in their learning and what their next steps should be.

Grouping students

Students with learning difficulties will benefit from individual or small group instruction. This is because the speed of processing among these students often differs from their peers. This also ensures that students with word reading difficulties can be taught using strategies that target the nature of their learning difficulty.

The Response to Intervention (RTI) framework can be helpful for thinking about how to embed academic support for students with learning difficulties within a school-wide approach to teaching and learning.

RTI is a framework of academic support that is often embedded within a Multi-tiered System of Support, alongside School-wide Positive Behaviour Support. It divides support into three tiers of increasing intensity, organised according to need.

Tier 1: whole school

Teachers have opportunities to design whole-class instruction that meets the needs of as many students as possible. All students receive high-quality, differentiated instruction. Classroom teachers gather evidence about which students are responding to Tier 1 instruction and which students require additional support.

Tier 2: targeted

Targeted intervention for select identified students is delivered at a classroom level or in small groups. This will comprise approximately five to 15 percent of students. Students are provided with additional support to help them succeed in a general education classroom.

Tier 3: individualised

Intensive, individualised instruction for students needing additional support to access and engage with the curriculum. This will comprise approximately one to five per cent of students. Student support services may be included in the collaborative learning team supporting the student.

For example, a student whose literacy knowledge and skills fall at or around the sixteenth percentile will likely benefit from the greater differentiation and small group teaching offered as part of Tier 2 intervention, in addition to the evidenced-based delivery of curriculum as part of Tier 1.

This more substantive differentiation may involve helping students develop organisational and planning skills, breaking down a problem or activity into smaller steps and providing additional opportunities to practise key or specific skills.

Students who do not benefit substantially from Tier 2 intervention will need to receive Tier 3 support. It is likely that these students qualify as having a learning disability. The support in Tier 3 is more intensive and targeted than Tier 2 and is typically delivered by a teacher with highly developed literacy capability in identifying and supporting students with learning difficulties. Students requiring Tier 3 support for word-level reading problems are likely to need to go back to the basics of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.

Students may also require explicit instruction in spelling and writing. Aim to personalise instruction based on each student's literacy profile and rigorous assessment data.

Structuring lessons

Stimulating existing knowledge

When teaching reading comprehension, it is important to draw out what a student may already know about a topic and to help stimulate this knowledge.    

For example, before reading a text about the solar system it is helpful to have students recall what they already know about solar systems. Ask them to share this knowledge with their peers or to suggest words that may be in the text. You could also ask students to predict what types of questions they might need to answer or what the text may teach them.   

If students have been taught different comprehension strategies (for example, making inferences, summarising) they might list those they could use as they read.

Teaching new knowledge and skills

When introducing new content to students with learning difficulties, instruction may need to be adjusted in the following ways:

Break learning down into small steps

Avoid making big conceptual leaps or moving through new content too quickly. Break them down into smaller steps than for most of your students. Focus on teaching and then embedding the key knowledge and skills that students need to know before moving onto the next step. Ensure that your instruction is clearly sequenced, cumulative and well structured.

Make clear links between new ideas

Explain things clearly and in a way that makes the connections between existing knowledge and new knowledge explicit.

Help students focus their attention

Check-in regularly with students that have trouble focussing their attention and ignoring distractions, so that they are accountable for their progress on a task. Try asking things like, 'Show me where you will be up to when I come back in 10 minutes.'

Multimodal teaching

All students benefit from teaching being presented, and opportunities to practise, using multiple modalities (for example, auditorily and visually) instead of just being written. Teaching concepts using multiple modalities can help students to demonstrate their understanding before explaining it in sentences. It can also assist them to explain new ideas or share this knowledge or skills with others.

Ask recognition questions

Students with learning difficulties may have trouble rapidly retrieving information so that answering questions can be difficult and may even create a sense of fear for some. It is important that all students feel able to contribute to class discussions, so scaffold your questions carefully for struggling students and provide as much support as needed to facilitate a correct response.

Ask a recognition question first. For example, 'Would you call this … or …?', and then follow up with recall questions once the student's knowledge has been stimulated.

Have students explain images

When a task or text has images, you can encourage the student to describe what each image shows. They could name the items in an image or make observations about these items and the links between them.

For example, 'The bucket is next to the man.'

Help students to recognise what they have learned

The purpose of doing a task is to change what students know or can do. It is important that students understand this. After they have finished a task, teach students to ask, 'What did I learn? What do I know now that I didn't know before?'

For example, a student's reflection after reading a non-fiction book about cats might be: 'Before, I thought that all cats were pets. Now I know that there are pets and wild cats. There are also "big cats", which are wild, like tigers and lions. I didn't know that tigers and lions were also cats.'

Helping students to recognise what they have learned helps to build their confidence and self-efficacy as readers. It also shows students that they can be successful and motivates them to persevere with other activities in future.

Make sure the student can explain or show you what they know once they have finished the task, to ensure they fully understand. This type of teacher-student dialogue will help students with learning difficulties to transfer this knowledge from their short-term working memory to their long-term memory.

Create a safe space in the classroom

Many students with learning difficulties will be anxious about responding to questions and initiating tasks in their learning. This can prevent them from fully benefitting from activities and tasks designed to extend them. Calling on non-volunteers is one helpful strategy to facilitate this environment.

With scaffolding, encourage students to take risks in their literacy learning. For example, when they encounter a new word ask them, 'What do you think this could mean, based on the rest of the sentence?' Encourage them to consider links between other words they know and to think about the steps they have already taken. It is important that this is done in a positive way without consequences or value judgments (such as asking a question one-on-one instead of in front of the entire class).

Give students time to think

Providing students with enough time to process information and respond is important, particularly for students with learning difficulties. Avoid rushing students by allowing a little extra time but balance this with not letting struggling students stay for ‘too long’ when responding.

Provide regular, immediate and corrective feedback. Acknowledge what the student already knows or has done, discuss this in positive terms and then point them in the direction of what they need to know or think about next.

Teach language skills

Students with learning difficulties often have trouble thinking about texts and their meanings in different ways. This is because much of their cognitive energy is taken up with simply recognising and reading the text. This means that, compared to their peers, struggling readers may be missing out on opportunities to build their vocabulary, general knowledge and sophisticated use of language.

Gradually teach students new ways of thinking and the language for describing these actions. For example, prompting students to, 'Say it in another way' or 'Create a picture in your head'. When students learn to do this, and can use these actions when instructed, you will be more able to direct their thinking moment to moment.

Reviewing and reinforcing what has been learned

Students with learning difficulties may have trouble transferring what they have learned to long-term memory. This will be apparent when they are unable to recall knowledge or a skill they have learned before, even when they appeared to have understood it clearly at the time.
Teaching may need to be more intensively delivered (more opportunities to practise and additional scaffolding), differentiated or include scaffolding to assist students to embed learning. Adjustments include:

  • helping students to identify what new knowledge or skills they have learned. Encourage students to ask themselves, 'What did I just learn?' or 'What do I know now that I didn't know before?'
  • helping students to summarise this new knowledge or outline skills in simple language will help them more easily recall this information later.
  • providing scaffolding for students to be able to make connections between what they have learned and what they already know. For example, exploring how it is different from their existing knowledge or how it adds to, extends or changes this.
  • creating opportunities for students to practise the act of recalling what they have learned. For example, 'Can you tell me what we learned about yesterday during reading?', 'What about on Monday?'.

You can use these adjustments to help plan reading comprehension activities and lessons.

Teaching and learning activities for reading comprehension

The Literacy Teaching Toolkit describes various approaches you can use to teach word reading, spelling and reading comprehension. Each activity can be adjusted for students with learning difficulties.

The approaches include:

  • building students' vocabulary
  • building students' background knowledge
  • modelled reading
  • shared reading
  • guided reading
  • reciprocal teaching
  • close reading.