Comprehension Strategy Instruction

All Ages Can Be Successful Readers

Why Comprehension Matters in Every Classroom

Reading, at its utmost foundation, is the ability to make meaning from a text. It's far more than just decoding words on a page or reading a certain number of words per minute; it is a symphonic culmination of words, images, and other structures with the reader. Reading is an interaction between a person and a text, print or digital. Teachers often are intimidated by teaching students how to bridge the gap between simply reading words on the page to truly making meaning as they read.

Teachers and parents alike can come to see how easily they can support comprehension by fostering the development of fluency, vocabulary, metacognition and explicit strategy instruction. Reading should be and can be something joyful for our students. However, without proper comprehension, reading cannot come alive. In the larger sense, fostering reading comprehension can ignite a love of reading in our students and help them become lifelong readers. When students feel more successful and confident in themselves as readers, their enjoyment dramatically increases (Scharlach, 2008). From the high school AP biology class to the kindergarten classroom, all students can begin learning and using comprehension strategies with careful modeling, scaffolding, and opportunity to read.

The Fluency-Comprehension Conundrum: A Word Of Caution

Long standing research of LaBerge and Samuels (1974) has supported the correlation between fluency and comprehension; the more automatic students' word recognition, the more attentional resources they could direct toward comprehension. In most of our classrooms, we have seen our struggling readers labor over decoding as they read aloud in small groups. However, a word of caution before oversimplifying the relationship between fluency and comprehension. A few things to consider:

  • Readers' comprehension and fluency strategies are affected by the extent to which they find the material interesting and motivating (Walczyk & Griffith-Ross, 2007).
  • Many studies that investigate the correlation between comprehension and fluency use low level questioning such as recall and remembering as the means of testing comprehension. They do not always adequately portray higher order comprehension (Allington, 2001).
  • For many students, the freed-up resources that result from automaticity do not necessarily flow toward comprehension. A study by Applegate, Applegate, and Modla (2009) found 33% of students who rate as fluent, "strong" readers struggle with comprehension at their grade level.

Tackling Comprehension: The QAR Strategy

The Question Answer Relationship is a strategy that can be implemented in all grade levels and in all types of classrooms, including early childhood and special education. It is a question-answer strategy that is used before, during, and after reading. This system gradually builds upon itself, starting with the first two levels (In the Book vs. In My Head). Research has shown that by second grade, students can distinguish between the next level of discernment, Right There and Think & Search (Raphael & McKinney, 1983). By fourth grade, students can understand the difference between all four core QARs (Raphael & Wonnacott, 1985).

The following infographic displays the four main frameworks of the QAR, conveys how the QAR can help students see the relationship between strategies they are learning and the tasks represnted in different types of questions, and how QAR varies across the phases of the reading cycle.

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Another Approach: The START Strategy

The Students and Teachers Actively Reading Text framework also uses modeling and scaffolding to provide students with a series of strategies to implement before, during, and after reading independently. Starting with teacher read-aloud, instructors model and explain the comprehension strategy during the initial introduction. Through guided practice, teachers guide students toward using the strategies on their own. Sticky-notes can be used as well recording sheets during guided and independent practice to train students to be more active, engaged readers. Students that have participated in START classrooms were significantly more likely to have higher reading comprehension gains than students not participating in the intervention (Scharlach, 2008, p.28). In addition, these students become more confident readers, thus their enjoyment for reading improves (Scharalach, 2008, p. 29).

The following infographic displays the START Reading Strategies in a diagram. Teachers gradually introduce one strategy at a time, building upon each one rather than having them taught in isolation.

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10 Comprehension Tips for Your Classroom

  1. Explicit and Direct Instruction- Comprehension improves if readers are taught to use strategies good readers use (Block, Gambrell, & Pressley, 2002). This can range in complexity to meet the needs of the students in your classroom, yet even students in kindergarten can be taught comprehension strategies. A strategy must be modeled by the teacher, scaffolded in meaningful guided activities, and be eventually self-regulated by the student. START and QAR are two frameworks that can easily be applied to any classroom.
  2. ALL Readers Need Strategies- Be aware of providing only strategy instruction to struggling readers. Our responsibility is to meet the reading needs of all our students. Work to improve the metacogintion and comprehension of average, advanced, and challenged readers alike (Scharlach, 2008, p. 21).
  3. Purposeful Reading- When students consciously think about why they are reading, their comprehension improves (Pressley, 2000). This ranges from working on applying a specific strategy to answering a target question. It can even be usual or game-like, such as having students read with the intention of explaining it to others at a later time (Benware and Deci, 1984). Students should be aware of the variety of purposes readers read for, and sometimes the purpose is just for enjoyment.
  4. Time to Apply Strategies- While it is helpful for students to see the thinking of the teacher through modeling and direct instruction, students also need plenty of time to practice applying these strategies to their own reading with feedback from their teachers. Brown (2002) urges teachers to provide students with a variety of opportunities to practice the strategies they are learning every week. Self-monitoring sheets can be used to help students develop their metacognition.
  5. Student Choice- The importance of student-selected texts during independent reading cannot be stressed enough! Students are more motivated, read more deeply, and may use metacognitive strategies more strategically than those who are just assigned a text (Guthrie et al., 2004). Students should have at least 20 minutes of self-selected reading time three to four times a week (Scharlach, 2008).
  6. Reading Aloud- This strategy can be most helpful to students who are tired, bored, or less fluent. It is a tactic students naturally use with challenging texts or when reading environments are distracting or noisy (Chall, 1996). The act of reading aloud provides auditory feedback to help students learn about words and assist more fluent readers with prosody (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
  7. Positive Reading Environment- Low-fluency readers especially comprehend better in relaxed, unrestricted environments that foster and encourage them to comprehend freely (Walczyk & Griffith-Ross, 2007). ROUTMAN?
  8. Time Restrictions- Teachers should be cautious of setting limits for reading assignments. Across all elementary grade levels, the comprehension of time-pressured readers were significantly lower than that of non-time pressured readers (Walczyk & Griffith-Ross, 2007). Interestingly, after seventh grade, time pressure can actually increase reading engagement and comprehension due to its added challenging element (Walczyk & Griffith-Ross, 2007). These findings are true with adults, too (Walczyk, Kelly, Meche, & Braud, 1999).
  9. Cooperative Reading Groups- After reading, students can work with peers to discuss their strategies, what works best for them, and explain how they apply their strategies. Students can learn from others with similar comprehension problems. Knowing they are not alone in their difficulties can improve students' self-esteem and further motivate readers (Winstead, 2004).
  10. Apply to Test Prep- With standardized testing pressure at an all-time high, comprehension strategies could not be more important of a tool to help our students become successful. When students are taught to independently apply and use strategies in their own reading, they can easily transfer these to high-stakes testing. Strategy frameworks like START and QAR can be applied to tests in variety of grade levels and subject areas without detracting from high-quality instruction that leads to high levels of literacy (Raphael & Au, 2005).

Parent's Corner

First and foremost, we must encourage our students' parents to encourage reading outside of school. Whether it is reading together or reading aloud to their children, our students' reading progress will accelerate if they read at home. Good readers use comprehension strategies whenever they read, no matter where or when they are reading. At home, parents can easily support our students by implementing these simple tips that good readers do all the time. Our students need to be aware of these monitoring tactics. These tips can also be used in the classroom, too.

1. Slower Reading Rate- As readers become more skills, their control over their reading rate increases. When texts increase in difficulty, readers become more aware to slow their pace. In fact, slowing reading helps to prevent confusions by allowing inefficient readers to read text at a pace that their skills can handle, whereas keeping a normal or fast pace can overwhelm skills (Walczyk et al., 2006).

2. Pause When Needed- A pause in reading can be helpful when readers become confused or find reading unclear. This extra time can allow readers to understand what went wrong, what is the source of confusion, and provide a chance to try another comprehension strategy instead (Walcyk et al., 2006).

3. Look Back in the Text- When students become confused when reading, they can be taught to start the sentence or part of the sentence again. Looking back a few words in a story while reading can help restore the working memory or provide information overlooked on the first pass through the text. In addition, it can help students uncover text clues to unfamiliar words (Ehri, 1994).

4. Sounding Out and Context Clues- Recoding, or sounding out a word when stuck, is a successful tool to use for words that are not fluently readable. If sounding out the word is not helpful, students can use contextual guessing by using the surrounding words to infer the word's meaning (Ehri, 1994).

5. Word Skips- Occasionally, readers will still struggle to sound out words and determine the context clues for uncovering its meaning. At these times, it can be beneficial to skip over the confusing word. Older students know how spending too much time laboring over challenging words can cause them to forget important information previously read, thus making it even harder to make connections while reading (Walczyk et al., 2006). We should be cautious, however, to allow students to use this too frequently as it can lead to further comprehension problems.

6. Rereading- Unlike looking back, which is briefly reading a few words, rereading has the reader review a sentence or more. By rereading, students can become more familiar with words, phrasing, and the meanings, thus focusing more attention on comprehension (Samuels & Flor, 1997). Rereading can help students with choppy or abstract texts and assist with poor decoding skills (Walczyk et al., 2004).


Barton, J., & Sawyer, D. (2003). Our students are ready for this: Comprehension instruction in the elementary school. The Reading Teacher, 57(4), 334-347.

This article is targeted toward elementary school teachers, reassuring them that their students are intellectually capable of understanding deeper comprehension lessons. After highlighting the main elements of effective comprehension- reading widely, direct strategy instruction, making connections, focused responses, metacognitive awareness, visual support- the article outlines 8 common strategies teachers use for comprehension. Sequencing, comparing/contrasting, predicting, making connections, locating details and main idea, drawing conclusions, connecting to a theme, and considering multiple points of view are combined with graphic visual structures to assist the comprehension process. This article walks through a lesson on each, provides photographs of the visuals, and reminds teachers to remember there is no prescription for comprehension; the teaching of it requires creativity yet can be flexibly applied to any grade level or content area.

Cunningham, P., & Allington, R. (2011). Developing thoughtful comprehenders. Classrooms that work: They can all read and write (117-144). Boston: Pearson.

While this text focuses on both reading and writing, it has an excellent chapter on comprehension strategies. Making connections is a large focus on comprehension instruction, which Cunningham and Allington emphasize. They discuss literature conversations, which are similar to literature circles, as a way of having students thoughtfully discuss their reactions, predictions, and thoughts about their reading. Like most of our reading, they push for using think-aloud to open students to our thought processes as good readers. I love that Cunningham and Allington equally discuss nonfiction and fiction strategies, describing graphic organizers, anchor charts, and lessons that can be used with both genres.

Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishing.

This text is one I go to time and time again from my college courses in literacy education. The book is broken down into four main sections: the foundation of meaning, strategy lessons, comprehension across the curriculum, resources that support strategy instruction. Part two of the book details specific strategy lessons, including questioning, visualizing, inferring, connecting, summarizing, and synthesizing information. The third section highights teaching comprehension in content areas (especially science and social studies), reading textbooks as a genre, and testing as a genre. The final section of the book is filled with resources ranging from websites and journal recommendations to anchor chart examples to use in the classroom.

McLaughlin, M. (2012). Reading comprehension: What every teacher needs to know. The Reading Teacher, 65(7), 432-440.

Sometimes, it is helpful for teachers to back-up, consider their personal philosophies about reading instruction, and then work out the details of their day-to-day instruction. This article allows teachers to do just that. It guides teachers through an overview of what comprehension entails, how teachers' and students' roles may shift during the learning process, and how comprehension can be extended in the classroom to a deeper, more critical level. It reminds teachers that comprehension instruction requires creativity, perseverance, and lots of caring.


1. article provides teachers with additional reading strategies. It provides links to printable graphic organizers that can be used in comprehension strategy lessons. It includes printable story maps, sequence charts, Venn diagrams, and cause/effect charts. Providing such visual support to the comprehension strategy can help further student understanding of the concept and allow them to apply the visuals to any type of reading they encounter.

2. Despite the cautions I mentioned in the handout, I want to reinforce that fluency is still a crucial part of a reader's abilities. Developing fluency is a way to help foster comprehension. This link provides teachers or parents with additional articles, research, and strategies geared toward fluency improvement. It also highlights a variety of ways teachers can easily monitor fluency with informal assessments, including running record, rapid automatic naming, and MAZE tests. Finally, it has a section dedicated to resources and advice for dual language learners and their fluency, which pertains perfectly to my school environment.

3. This website provides teachers with a sample lesson that scaffolds the QAR framework, starting with guiding questions leading to students' self-questioning. Teachers could see exactly what this strategy looks like in a classroom setting. It provides printable materials, links for student enrichment or development of background knowledge, and could be applied to 3rd-8th grade classrooms. It has recommended readings for other QAR resources and resources pertaining to the lesson's topic, Ruby Bridges.

4. This Pinterest board has link to several printables, anchor charts, graphic organizers, and lesson ideas for implementing the QAR comprehension framework. It would be especially beneficial for teachers using QAR for the first time. It could provide resources for small groups, intervention, independent reading activities, or intervention groups. These resources, like comprehension instruction, could be easily adapted to fit a variety of classroom types and ages.

5. This blog post from a terrific teaching site lists 25 simple yet effective strategies teachers can use in any content area (including language arts class) to improve comprehension. Like any comprehension strategy, these suggested can be modified for early readers or older readers. The site includes a poster with visuals that could be included in any classroom as students become more independent in implementing strategies on their own during self-selected reading.

6. From the previous blog, this site is perfect for any teacher wondering how in the world they can better use iPads to support their literacy instruction. This site organizes 50 apps into 5 main categories: tools, fundamentals, reading, writing, spelling. Ranging from alphabetic awareness to mind-mapping, these resources could be applied to small groups, intervention groups, or station activities. Technology is very engaging to our students, who need to develop a literacy of it as a medium.


Allington, R.L. (2001). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. New York: Longman.

Applegate, M.D., Applegate, A.J., & Modla, V.B. (2009). She's my best reader; She just can't comprehend: Studying the relationship between fluency and comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 62(6), 512-521.

Block, C.C., Gambrell, L.B., & Pressley, M. (Eds.). (2002). Improving comprehension instruction: Rethinking research, theory, and classroom practice. Neward, DE: International Reading Association.

Brown, R. (2002). Straddling two worlds: Self-directed comprehension instruction for middle schoolers. In C.C. Block & M. Pressley

Guthrie, J.T., Wigfield, A., Barbosa, P., Perencevich, K.C., Taboada, A., & Davis, M.H. (2004). Increasing reading comprehension and engagement through concept-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(3), 403-423.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Neufeld, P. (2005). Comprehension instruction in content area classes. The Reading Teacher. 59(4), 302-312.

Raphael, T.E., & Au, K, (2005). QAR: Enhancing comprehension and test taking across grades and content areas. The Reading Teacher, 59(3).

Raphael, T.E., & McKinney, J. (1983). An examination of 5th and 8th grade children's question answering behavior: An instructional study in metacognition. Journal of Reading Behavior, 15, 67-86.

Rapheal, T.E., & Wonnacott, C.A. (1985). Heightening fourth-grade students' sensitivity to sources of information for answering comprehension strategies. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 282-296.

Scharlach, T. (2008). START Comprehending: Students and teachers actively reading text. The Reading Teacher, (62) 1, 20-31.

Walczyk, J.J., & Griffin-Ross, D.A. (2007). How important is reading skill fluency for comprehension? The Reading Teacher, 60(6), 560-569.

Walcyk, J.J., Kelly, K.E., Meche, S.D., & Braud, H. (1999). Time limitations enhance reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 24, 155-165.

Walczyk, J.J., Wei, M., Griffin-Ross, D.A., Goubert, S.E., Cooper, A.L., & Zha, P. (2006). Development of the interplay between automatic processes and cognitive resources in reading. Manuscript in process.

Winstead, L. (2004). Increasing academic motivation and cognition in reading, writing, and mathematics: Meaning-making strategies. Educational Research Quarterly, 28, 29-49.