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.
EAL/D students’ prior knowledge

EAL/D students are likely to have differing prior knowledge and experience to their English first language classmates.

  • Some topics may be unfamiliar in terms of the family, school or social settings they have experienced before starting school in Australia.
  • They may have learnt about similar topics, but with a different context or focus.
  • Their understanding of the topic may be encoded in a different language.

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…


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.
Supporting EAL/D learners to make predictions

An EAL/D reader/viewer may need support to develop the cultural and textual knowledge they need to successfully make predictions. They may also need support to understand how predictions aid comprehension and how to make informed predictions:

  • I know that this is a recipe so I predict I will see a list of utensils and ingredients. The verbs will be at the start of the sentences.
  • I have been reading similar books about natural disasters. I predict that I will see vocabulary such as ‘cyclones’ or ‘disaster’.
  • This text is about an Aboriginal child. I predict there will be Aboriginal words and events that I don’t understand, and I will need to find out what they mean.

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 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).

Supporting EAL/D learners to visualise

EAL/D students can be better supported to see, hear and visualise the content through multimodal texts. Breaking down a text allows EAL/D students time to process and visualise each sentence. They look at a picture based on a paragraph of text and associate each sentence in the paragraph with a component of the picture. Alternatively, they draw their own images and symbols to relate to the text. Readers/viewers can also draw on aural stimulus such as music to describe emotions and connect these to colours (Ollerhead, 2019).

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.
Additional questions for EAL/D learners

EAL/D students may ask questions that are different from those of students who speak English as their first language. After the reading, EAL/D students may use question and answer stems to clarify any unfamiliar cultural or social contexts:

  • What do I think this word means? Do I need to use an English, bilingual or slang dictionary to find out?
  • What are some events in the text that are similar to events from my own experience?
  • Does it mean that…?
  • I think it means…because…
  • The text says that…so I think…

For more information, see:


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

Supporting EAL/D learners to summarise

EAL/D students might be unfamiliar with the practice of summarising and will need to learn explicitly the importance of summarising and the strategies to summarise a text.

With support EAL/D learners can:

  • identify key vocabulary needed for the summary, and rewrite a summary using the key words
  • co-create a summary of a familiar text to model how the activity is carried out and discuss which pieces of information should be included in and left out of the final summary and reasons for these decisions
  • create a set of cards using pictures or simple language to retell parts of the text - then sequence the cards and write a sentence to accompany each card
  • create a list of simple ideas from the text and justify the five most important ideas
  • retell the text to a same language peer using home language and English
  • create a storyboard retelling the text in images and short captions
  • write a retelling in home language and English.

If students use home language in paraphrasing, whether oral or written, they are converting the information into new language forms. If students are literate in their home language using this to paraphrase can be a strategic way to support content learning. Support staff such as Multicultural Education Aides may be able to verify the accuracy of the information.


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).

Supporting EAL/D learners to synthesise

When synthesising new knowledge about languages, EAL/D students may be combining knowledge about more than one language. Strategies to actively support this type of knowledge transfer about language and synthesis include:

  • explicitly comparing expressions and meanings across languages (de Jong and Freeman Field, 2010). The teacher asks students for all the different ways they know of saying “the fan is broken”. The class looks for similarities and differences in language features such as vocabulary, word order or sentence length, and comes up with statements about language structures.
  • modelling the use of more than one language in their teaching (García, Flores and Woodley, 2012) using the think aloud strategy. For example,  "In my language I would say, ‘...’. That means ‘I broke the fan’, no I mean, ‘The fan is broken’ in English."
  • explicitly comparing two different genres written in English to identify how meaning is structured differently at the whole text, paragraph and sentence level.
  • explicitly comparing a text type written in English and in the EAL/D student’s home language. For example, students compare how narratives are structured in English and in their home language.
  • asking students to explain an aspect of their language to the class (Skilton-Sylvester, 2003). This could be a greeting, song, written word, or sentence translated from a class text.

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?
Supporting EAL/D learners in critical thinking

Critical reading and viewing can be scaffolded for EAL/D students by breaking questions into more concrete components. For example;

  • ‘What is the viewpoint supported in this text?’ can be broken down into:
    • What are the different viewpoints on the issue?
    • What are the reasons given for viewpoint A?
    • Why did the other side have a different opinion?
    • Which viewpoint is stronger in the text?
  • ‘Why did the author compose this text?’ can be broken down into:
    • Who is the author of this text?
    • What expertise or experience does the author have?
    • Who is the intended audience of the text?
    • What would the audience think after reading/viewing this text?
    • Why would the author want the audience to think that?


Anderson, N. (2008). Reading. New York: McGraw-Hill.

de Jong, E. J., & Freeman Field, R. (2010). Bilingual Approaches. In C. Leung & A. Creese (Eds.), English as an Additional Language: Approaches to teaching linguistic minority students (pp. 108–121). London: Sage.

García, O., Flores, N., & Woodley, H. H. (2012). Transgressing Monolingual and Bilingual Dualities: Translanguaging Pedagogies. In A. Yiakometti (Ed.), Rethinking Education, Volume 5: Harnessing Linguistic Variation to Improve Education. Oxford: Peter Lang AG. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Nation, P. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL reading and writing. New York: Routledge.

Ollerhead, S. (2019) Teaching across semiotic modes with multilingual learners: translanguaging in an Australian classroom, Language and Education, 33(2), 106-122, http://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2018.1516780

Skilton-Sylvester, E. (2003). Legal Discourse and Decisions, Teacher Policymaking and the Multilingual Classroom: Constraining and Supporting Khmer/English Biliteracy in the United States. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 6(3–4), 168–184. http://doi.org/10.1080/13670050308667779

Vogel, S., Ascenzi-Moreno, L., and García, O. (2018). An expanded view of translanguaging: leveraging the dynamic interactions between a young multilingual writer and machine translation software. In Choi, J. and Ollerhead, S. (eds) Plurililingualism in Teaching and Learning. New York: Routledge, pp. 89-106.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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