Teaching comprehension

​​Research provides evidence for the ways comprehension is embedded into daily literacy lessons. Firstly, a supportive classroom context to promote comprehension must be developed. Duke and Pearson (2002, pp. 207-208) recommend teachers:

  • ensure their students read engaging texts for significant amounts of time
  • select texts for students which support authentic learning (i.e. interest-based or topic-based texts)
  • provide a range of texts (multimodal, print-based, images, animations, graphic representations, video, audio, diagrams/charts, newspapers/magazines, fiction, non-fiction) for students to read in various genres (i.e. texts on different topics or different text types about the same topic)
  • identify and discuss vocabulary from rich texts with their students
  • provide time for students to talk to each other about the texts they read and have listened to
  • provide time for students to write and reflect on their reading

Multiple copies of literary texts promote opportunities for students to talk about texts with each other.

Opportunities for teaching comprehension occur throughout the curriculum.  Early learners engage in “very much the same comprehension processes as do their older counterparts” (van den Brock, Kindeou, Kremer, Lynch, Butler, White and Pugzles Lorch, 2005). Therefore, the strategies that are taught in the early years of education should be practised, consolidated and expanded on throughout a student’s schooling. Depending on the researcher or author, there are a range of strategies recommended to assist comprehension (For example see:

The main strategies that are generally viewed as supporting comprehension are:

​​Many commercial products provide large amounts of blackline photocopy material for the various comprehension strategies. Other products provide a sequence of cards/levels that students progress through by reading and answering questions. Using the materials in this way unfortunately does not actually teach comprehension. It is important for teachers to provide explicit instruction in comprehension strategies .

For more information, see: Explicit teaching: high impact teaching strategies 

Then allow time for their students to practise them, in small groups, when reading independently, through writing and in discussion-based groups.

For more information, see:

A brief discussion of the identified comprehension strategies follows below.

Activating and using prior knowledge to make connections

Prior knowledge is unique to each reader. It is the sum of all experiences and knowledge they bring to the reading or viewing of a text. These experiences and knowledge may include:

  • the personal. For example they may be well travelled, well read, have hobbies or interests, belong to clubs, social or religious groups, share friendships, be part of an extended family, or have specific duties or responsibilities.
  • the cultural. For example these can be religious, can draw on specific traditions and rituals including music, dance, food, rites of passage and can be language-based.
  • the knowledge of concepts. For example if a reader has a wide general knowledge or knows a lot about specific topics, they are more likely to understand the technical vocabulary and related concepts associated with what they read/view on that topic.

A reader/viewer has opportunities to activate their prior knowledge and make connections before reading:

  • What ideas do I already know about this topic?
  • What known vocabulary will help me with this text?
  • What do I already know about this text type?

During the reading:

  • This part of the text is just like another one I read/viewed.
  • This part is just like when I…

After the reading:

  • I know more about this topic now. I can add this new information to what I already knew.
  • I have changed my mind about what I think on this topic because of the new information I read/viewed. This text reminds me of…

Predicting

Prediction is about anticipation. “Skilled readers learn to expect the actions, events and ideas that are coming up in the text” (Davis, 2015, p. 51).

A reader/viewer has opportunities to predict before reading:

  • I know this is a fairy tale so I predict it will start with ‘Once upon a time’.
  • I can see a picture of a dog and a sad little girl on the front cover. I predict this will be a story about a little girl who loses her dog.
  • This text is about bugs. I predict it will have a section on their life cycle.

During the reading:

  • I can use prediction to help me monitor my reading. I can anticipate what words might be coming up and use the syntactic and semantic relationships of the words and sentences to make meaning.
  • I can make new predictions based on what has already happened.

After the reading:

  • I can reflect on the predictions I made and confirm or reject them. (For example, this book is about bugs but it only had information about endangered species, not life cycles).
  • I am surprised by the story resolution. I did not predict that would happen. I thought….

For more information, see: Prediction term in the VCAA English Glossary​

Visualising

Visualising is drawing on prior knowledge and the five senses to create a mental image of what is being read. Research indicates that comprehension is enhanced if readers can create mental images because “a visual display helps readers understand, organize, and remember some of those thousand words” (Duke and Pearson, 2002, p. 218).

Readers draw on their senses to imagine:

  • what pictures they see in their mind as they read
  • what sounds they can hear in their mind as they read
  • what smells are associated with what they read
  • what tastes might be associated with what they read
  • what might the mind be able to touch as it reads.

By putting together all of these sensory details along with any prior knowledge, a reader can create a vivid mental picture. Successful readers describe the strategy of visualisation as “having a movie going on in your mind while you read” (Davis, 2015, p. 61).

Asking and answering questions

Skilled readers constantly ask and answer questions of themselves as they read. They ask questions to wonder, justify, clarify, inquire and understand. They answer their questions by drawing on their metacognition; that is searching for and selecting thinking strategies to help them answer the questions they have posed.

A reader/viewer has opportunities to ask and answer questions before reading:

I wonder what this text might be about. I need to look at the front cover, title, blurb and illustrations to help me answer my wonderings.

This book is about the water cycle. What makes rain? I need to look up the glossary or contents page to check whether my question can be answered.

During the reading:

  • What does this word mean? I need to clarify the meaning of the word to understand it.
  • Who or what was this paragraph about? I need to go back and reread to answer this.
  • How does this idea relate to what has gone before? I need to connect my new understanding with my previous understandings to answer this.
  • What has happened so far? I need to summarise the content to answer this.
  • Is there something missing that is causing me to misunderstand? I need to think critically to answer this.

After the reading:

  • What was the main idea in this text? I need to synthesise all the information to determine what was most important to answer this.
  • What do I think about the characters in the text? I need to draw on my visualisation and critical thinking strategies to help me answer this.
  • What do I think of the way the text concluded? Was there another way it could have concluded? I need to infer, evaluate and predict to help me answer this.
  • What am I still confused about? I need to reread, find another text on the same topic or discuss my confusion with others to answer this.

For more information, see:

Summarising

Summarising means recalling the main points or ideas. A reader must first learn to sequence a text, retell a text using the language of the text, then put it into their own words (paraphrase) and finally select the most important ideas to sum up what the author has told them.

In order to summarise successfully a reader must be able to:

  • select the key words of a paragraph
  • locate the topic sentence (for example a sentence that contains the main message often found at the start or conclusion of a paragraph)
  • articulate that idea in one sentence
  • repeat the above sequence until they have worked their way through a text.

Readers must learn to separate the topic sentence or main idea from the supporting details.

For more information, see: Guided reading lesson: Summarising

Synthesising

Synthesising is a higher order skill than summarising. A reader who successfully synthesises content is able to “summarize the information, listen to their inner voice, and merge their thinking so that the information is meaningful to them. They connect the new to the known, they ask questions, they pick out the most important information” (Harvey and Goudvis, 2007, p. 180).

The process of synthesising changes and adds to a reader’s thinking. It occurs during and after reading. Sometimes new knowledge can affirm what a reader already knows about a topic and the information is integrated into their existing knowledge. Conversely, new knowledge can also challenge what readers already think and provide alternate options. “We synthesize when we think about what we have finished reading, bringing in additional concepts, beliefs, emotions, and texts that affect our understanding” (Keene and Zimmermann, 2007, p. 229).

Critical thinking

Critical thinking requires the reader/viewer to recognise that all texts are ‘crafted objects’ and are positioned by the author (Freebody and Luke, 1990; Luke and Freebody, 1999). “Text critics do more than read for truth and accuracy; they explore the intention of a text and how the text works on them or makes them feel (Hill, 2015, p. 200).

When a reader is reading/viewing a text critically they ask:

  • What is the viewpoint supported in this text?
  • Why did the author compose this text?
  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • What information is missing from this text which would help me develop an informed view?
  • What do I think or feel about the content in this text?

See Guided Reading Sample Lesson: The merry-go-round-thinking critically about text