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How to Teach Reading Comprehension

two bugs in a stack of books

Reading comprehension is the ultimate goal when teaching your child to read. After all, when a child struggles with comprehension, reading can be a miserable chore. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find some easy-to-follow ideas to help you nurture this ability?

Good news! There are many different ways to help develop your child’s reading comprehension!

In this article, you’ll discover why reading comprehension is so important, explore strategies for developing this skill, and find out how we teach reading comprehension in the All About Reading program.

The delight of reading awaits your child!

What Is Reading Comprehension?

Reading comprehension is the ability to fully understand what is being read.

A person with great reading comprehension can visualize, question, and interpret what they are reading, and they can think about their own feelings and opinions while reading text. The comprehension process is mostly unconscious—it happens without our active involvement or awareness.

There are some prerequisites for good reading comprehension. If any of these skills are lacking, comprehension will be lacking as well:

But even when these foundational skills are present, reading comprehension is not necessarily automatic. Some important strategies may still be required.

What Reading Comprehension Strategies Are Helpful?

Good readers use many different strategies. Some strategies are used at a conscious level, while others are employed unconsciously. Depending on the purpose for reading and the difficulty of the text, effective strategies may include those listed in the chart below.

(You can download a printable Reading Comprehension Strategies Poster to hang on your fridge or classroom wall.)

reading comprehension strategies chart

But as helpful as these strategies can be, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

3 Things NOT to Do When Teaching Comprehension

While it is important to teach comprehension strategies to your student, it’s also important to realize that these strategies are tools and not the main goal. It’s imperative that you avoid focusing too much on individual comprehension strategies.

  1. Don’t assume that your child is comprehending just because she can decode all the words. Make sure that she understands what she is reading and isn’t just “word calling.”
  2. Don’t confuse comprehension with being able to answer literal questions. When working with beginning readers, it is sometimes helpful to ask a literal question such as “what did Jack buy at the store?” but be sure to move on from shallow questions. Focusing on literal questions not only bores your student, but also discourages in-depth interactions with the text.
  3. Don’t spend too much time teaching a single comprehension strategy. Good readers use many different strategies, often simultaneously. Over-emphasizing a single strategy will make reading harder than it needs to be. For example, when students are constantly asked to compare and contrast, meaning can be lost (as well as motivation for reading). More time should be spent reading interesting books than working on comprehension strategies.

Background Information Is Crucial for Reading Comprehension

In order to make sense of what you read, you need to have background knowledge. Before a child can understand the short story “Pirate Food,” for example, it is important that she have some familiarity with different foods and pirate dialects.

Reading aloud to your child is one of the best ways to help develop background knowledge. Reading a wide variety of books helps build a storehouse of knowledge of places, events, emotions, vocabulary, and language structure. Other methods of building background knowledge include travel, hands-on activities, workshops, and discussions. Your child will later draw upon this information when she is reading independently.

Exposure to a wide variety of books and experiences help your child distinguish reality from fantasy, recognize cause-and-effect, understand character motivation, and make predictions about what she is reading.

How Does All About Reading Teach Comprehension?

In the All About Reading program, we work on reading comprehension from the very first story your child reads, which is in Level 1, Lesson 3. The story contains only words that have already been taught, using just eight letters (M, S, P, A, N, T, B, and J). Would you like to see how we do it?

Download the lesson and story from Level 1, Lesson 3, and then follow along as we demonstrate this first reading lesson in action.

All about Reading Story Lesson

As you watch the video below, notice that even though there are only 20 words in this first story, Linda is already helping her student work on comprehension through the following:

  • expressive reading
  • introducing new vocabulary
  • activating prior knowledge
  • modeling comprehension strategies
  • making predictions
  • skimming

Every story lesson in the All About Reading program focuses on reading comprehension. A wide variety of methods are used, including graphic organizers, discussing literary devices, providing background information, and relating stories to the child’s own life. Students learn that reading is much more than just decoding the words—it is about engaging in a conversation with the text.

To see an example of how we teach reading comprehension in the higher levels of All About Reading, download this story lesson from All About Reading Level 4, Lesson 49.

The Bottom Line on Improving Reading Comprehension

When it comes to improving your child’s reading comprehension, here’s what you need to keep in mind:

  • Build a foundation for reading comprehension with decoding skills, fluency, vocabulary, and background knowledge.
  • Spend more time reading interesting books than on teaching comprehension strategies.
  • Help build your child’s background knowledge with hands-on activities, workshops, discussions, and exposure to a wide variety of books and experiences.

The All About Reading program walks you and your child through all the steps to help your child achieve reading comprehension. The program is multisensory, motivating, and complete, with everything you need to raise a strong reader. And if you ever need a helping hand, we’re here for you.

What’s your take on teaching reading comprehension? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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Meredith

says:

What do you do for students who do not picture anything while they read?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Meredith,
First, I would talk with the student and find if they are able to create mental pictures in other situations. For example, if I read a story aloud to them, do they see it in their mind? Can they see in their mind something that they actually saw previously; can they “see” a memory?

If the student can create pictures in other situations, then I would look closer at why the child is having trouble doing so while reading. Comprehension struggles are almost always due to some underlying issue, such as if a child is working hard to decode each word, he may have no mental room left to understand what is being read.

However, as Laura mentioned, there is a percentage of the population that never form mental images. This is normal for such people and is not typically a problem with comprehension. The terms “visualize” or “picture in your mind” come up time and again throughout life, so teach such students not to worry about making pictures. Teach them to instead to think deeply about what is being described, to get a good “feel” for it. (Note, not necessarily a physical feel, but rather the thought of it. The appleness of the apple, if you will.)

In fact, I thought for decades that “visualize” just meant deep thought or focus; it never occurred to me that other people could actually make clear and detailed pictures in their minds! It amazes me when my son tells me he “sees” the books he reads as movies in his mind! Yet, even without pictures, I have never struggled with the comprehension of what I read. I don’t need to “see” it to understand it deeply.

Anyway, you will notice that “Visualize what is happening or what is being described” is only one of the twelve comprehension strategies suggested. There are lots of ways to increase comprehension even for students that do not create pictures as they read.

Laura Brown

says:

If the student has aphantasia (the inability to visualize images at will), sometimes simply using different words can help. Most students can “imagine” (some have difficulty with that, especially if they have been taught that imagination uses visual components) — or just “think about what is happening in the story” and that will help them work through the comprehension.
Aphantasia affects at least 2%-3% of the population, and speaking as a lifelong 5-senses aphant, I would not want to be able to use my defunct mind’s eye – I would find it completely overwhelming, I’m certain. There are certainly other coping methods for things many people use visualization for – it just has to be worked out with what makes sense to the individual. I think of my thinking as conceptualizing or “feeling out what is going on.” A good description that many aphants resonate with is, “It’s like I have all the data, or even a movie playing on a computer — but the monitor is broken, and the screen is blank.”

If I think of a story talking about how “Ted picked a ripe apple and gave it to James, who waved him away, saying, ‘Ick! I hate apples!” then I will not picture Ted, or the ripe apple, or James, or the waving. I will conceptualize “Boy / picked (memory sensing of the motion of picking something, but not the feeling itself) / concept of apples – everything I know about apples / gave (similar to picked) / Another Boy / waved (may mentally act this out) / concept of what away means / dialogue – I know what he is talking about as there are foods I hate, too.

If someone asks something (stupid — at least by my conceptualizing) like, “What color was your apple?” I’ll wonder if I missed something in the text. I’d have to go through mentally deciding whether I missed something in the text, whether you think there is a right or wrong answer, what the possible colors are of apples I know, and which color I am choosing to pick to satisfy your desire for an answer. Just asking for narration back can be useful, because many aphants can put things in words, and words are very, very important to most of us.

I bring this up largely because people who are able to visualize often cannot understand anything about people who can’t, or don’t even know that such a thing as aphantasia exists. It’s been around for at the very least, millenia, but nobody named it or began to study it until about 10 years ago. And there are a lot of people who insist it isn’t possible, and that we *have* to learn to visualize. Please don’t push that on a student who simply doesn’t have the mental capacity to do such a wacky thing. (There is a large subset of aphants who think of visualizing as being in a semi-constant state of hallucination, which seems straight up lunatic to those of us who have never once visualized something on demand.)

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great explanation, Laura! I, too, have aphantasia and completely understand. I can’t think in sound at all and struggle to “visualize” even a single letter or simple shape.

JoAnne Stone

says:

Your free materials are the best I have ever seen! I’m a retired elementary teacher who has started “Grammy School” for my 3 preschool grandsons (whose schools are currently closed). I will buy your materials as I can, and as I conquer your downloadables. Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are so welcome, JoAnn. And what great fun “Grammy School” must be! ❤️

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our resources on Reading Readiness: The Top 5 Skills. These skills help ensure little ones the best success when they start reading.

If you ever need anything or have questions, please let me know!

Nicholas Berens

says:

I have 2 questions.
1) What mastery criteria do you employ?
2) One of the videos mentions Direct Instruction (big D big I not direct instruction). How is DI incorporated?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Nicholas,
The criteria for whether something is mastered depends on what’s being taught, but you can learn more about mastery-based curriculum in general in our blog post: https://blog.allaboutlearningpress.com/mastery-based/.

With regard to direct instruction, we simply mean that all of our programs are designed for one-on-one or small group instruction so that you can really meet the individual’s needs. If you saw the words capitalized in a video, they were probably a heading or subheading for a section of the video.

Thanks for your interest!

Sharon Weltman

says:

The free downloads are not working

Merry

says: Customer Service

I’m sorry for the frustration, Sharon. I just tested them, and they seem to be working. If you are using your phone or tablet, make sure that your device has the program needed for downloading PDF files. You can search your specific device and “how to download PDF files” to find out what you will need.

If you have problems while downloading PDFs on your computer, follow these steps:

1. Click on the download link for the PDF. If a dialog box opens prompting you to either open or save the file, save the file to your computer at a location you will remember (such as your desktop). If the dialog box does not open, the default location is your Downloads folder.

2. If you have not previously installed Adobe Reader, install the latest version. (Note: if you have a previous version of Adobe Reader, uninstall it before installing the latest version.) http://www.adobe.com/products/reader

3. Open Adobe Reader. After opening, go to File > Open…. Navigate to where you saved the PDF.

If you still aren’t able to download the PDF file from our website, please email me at support@allaboutlearningpress.com and I can email the file to you. Specify which file you would like and the url of the webpage you found it on. Hopefully you can get it working!

Merryl

says:

Thank you for letting me see a sample lesson!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Merryl. Let me know if you would like more information or have questions.

Paul Le

says:

First I would like to thank you for the valuable information. In the text, I do not see you mentioning of how much kids in elementary must or should read each day to improve their comprehension. Can you share this information?

Thanks,

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Paul,
We recommend students read themselves or have reading instruction for a total of 20 minutes a day five days a week. This is whether they need to improve comprehension or not.

Reading comprehension issues are caused by some underlying problem. For example, if the student uses word guessing strategies, her incorrect guesses will stop her from fully understanding. A child that struggles with fluency may be spending so much focus reading that he has nothing left to comprehend with. There can be other reasons as well. Our blog post Signs of a Reading Problem discusses many of them.

If you aren’t already, have the child read aloud to an adult for at least a portion of each day’s reading. When an adult listens, she will be able to more easily pinpoint where the trouble lies.

I hope this helps, but please let me know if you need more information.

Merly M

says:

My 8 year old boy is struggling with finding evidence in text for answers in a reading comprehension text, what would you advise?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Merly,
Reading comprehension issues can happen for a variety of reasons. For example:

Decoding issues and also a reliance on word-guessing strategies – incorrect guesses lead to a lack of comprehension. If your child is still working hard at decoding, he’s not going to have the working memory left over to think about the meaning of what he’s reading or the skill to be able to read the words fluently and with expression.

Reading too fast or skipping words

Fluency struggles (Students can sound out what they read but can’t read it fluently–if they are focusing on the work of reading, they won’t be able to focus on understanding what they read)

Vocabulary issues or a lack of background knowledge.

– Sometimes kids do understand, but feel overwhelmed when asked to put what they know into words. (Sometimes you’ll notice a similar issue with listening comprehension.)

With regard to listening comprehension, a student may need more specific prompts to share what he knows. Sometimes reading a passage and expecting the child to explain it back in his own words will overwhelm elementary school-aged children—they don’t know where to start and just can’t do it. In that case, you probably would be more successful if you gave your student prompts. Marie, the author of All About Reading, uses this example: Find out something that the student is really interested in, such as “raising turtles.” Get a book and read a section aloud to him, such as the section on “what kinds of food should you feed your turtle.” Then start a discussion with the child, and incorporate some of the new info that you just read in the book. “I never knew that you could feed lettuce to turtles! What else can you feed turtles?” Then read the part on habitats of box turtles. Start a discussion on that. “If you were to set up a tank for a box turtle, what kinds of things should you include in it?”

These types of conversations will show the child’s level of listening comprehension much better than the traditional way for a couple of reasons:
1. The child is more likely to be engaged in the topic. (Oftentimes, kids’ attention wanders during typical reading comprehension passages or books that they aren’t interested in.)
2. The child doesn’t “freeze up” and therefore can relay more info (just being asked to repeat what was read can be a scary or uncomfortable moment for a child)

Back to reading comprehension. Since the measure of comprehension is written, he may feel bored (it’s busy work) or overwhelmed by the task of writing, or the questions asked may be overly picky (focusing on aspects of the story that were unimportant, for example).
Do you have your son read aloud daily? If not, this is a really good way for you to be able to assess what’s going on and why your son is struggling with comprehension. It’s hard to catch problems without hearing the student read. If the materials are beyond your son’s vocabulary or life experience, he will need more help to understand what he is reading, for example. Sometimes parents choose materials on the edge of a child’s reading ability–the child is capable of reading the words, but because the child has to work at reading, the child doesn’t have brain power left for comprehension. So, you might assess whether that is happening. Materials need to be easy enough for students to focus on reading to learn, instead of focusing on the act of reading.

You might take a look at some of the sample All About Reading lessons for ideas too. The comprehension exercises are in the Teacher’s Manuals, and gradually get more involved with each successive level. So, look at several levels to see the progression.

I hope this helps, but please let me know if you have further questions.

Merly M.

says:

Thank you very much for helpful pointers.

Laurice B.

says:

Great suggestions!

Lisa Gevers

says:

Very good lesson, but the boy should be using his finger to point to each word as he reads them.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Lisa,
Great observation. You’ll notice Linda, the teacher, is doing the pointing. Many children are resistant to pointing to each word as they read. Instead of forcing the issue, the teacher or parent can do the pointing as Linda did.

Judy DIckson

says:

Do you have a book series to recommend for my granddaughter who just today turned 8 years old and has already read over 30 of The Boxcar Children books. Thank you
We are not interested in books like Junie B Jones.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Judy,
What an accomplishment your granddaughter has done! My daughter only got through 8 or so of the Boxcar Children books before she started looking for something different to read.

I think you will find something she will enjoy among the many Chapter Book Reviews we have done. Considering her love of the Boxcar Children, look especially at The Moffats and The Penderwicks. These are a bit more difficult than the Boxcar Children, but she will definitely enjoy the stories.

I hope you can help her find something new to enjoy!

Kristin

says:

Thank you for this article. Very helpful.

Jill

says:

Really great suggestions on teaching reading comprehension!

Danielle

says:

This is some great information!

Danielle

says:

There is some great information here!

LAura

says:

It is helpful to see the lessons in action; thank you!

Lena

says:

Great information! Do you have any articles on how to teach older kids to take notes. I always struggled with myself, either writing down too much basically copying everything or too little.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Lena,
We don’t have any articles on notetaking, but there is a lot about notetaking online. The Cornell method is popular and effective and there are numerous websites and videos that explain it. Crash Course Study Skills is a set of high-quality educational videos that include note-taking and other topics like time management and studying. Also, check out what your library has available. Through my library, I was able to get the Great Courses class “How to Become a SuperStar Student”. I love how it teaches note-taking.

I hope this helps some. Learning to take good notes is important, but it is also a skill that needs to be practiced in order to become really good at it.

Lena

says:

Thank you so much for the great suggestions. I will be checking them out soon.

Ech

says:

Wonderful resources, thank you!

Betsy

says:

Great Article!

Heidi

says:

This was a great article as my daughter struggles with this!

Crystal

says:

Very helpful information! We love All About Reading!

I love how All About Reading adds reading comprehension practice right to the program. That along with the helpful tips provided by this blog makes teaching reading so simple!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Sarah,
Comprehension is so important! I’m happy to hear that All About Reading and our blog are helping to make it simple for you.

Linda

says:

I’d not yet heard of the making predictions tip when teaching reading comprehension, but it makes sense. This will be helpful.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Linda,
Making predictions is a great way to get kids to think deeper about a story than just the surface plot. Plus, it’s great fun when you make a prediction and turn out to be correct!

Carol

says:

I really like this teaching as lots of kids struggle with comprehension. Thank you.

Cynthia Forshee

says:

She does good with comprehension but I know she needs to improve. Wonderful tips. thank you

Sherylou Betonio

says:

i would love to have the all about reading and the all about spelling curriculum for my kids. i think if would greatly help them in learning the english language. thanks

Rebecka Christenson

says:

Thanks! This makes me want to buy your All About Reading program.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Rebecka,
The way All About Reading teaches comprehension in context from the very beginning of reading is exciting! Let me know if you have any questions, need help with placement, or need anything else.

Jessica

says:

We’ve started using narration when we read, meaning I stop my son every little bit and have him tell me back the story so far. I do this both when he is reading and when I am reading to him. It helps me gauge what he’s been able to pick up on, and it also helps him pay better attention.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Jessica,
Narration is a great way to assess comprehension and to help children retain what they comprehend longer. It’s a great tool for even older, independent students as narrating back to yourself can help when studying for tests and such. Narration can be limiting in that is focuses on the literal, the who and what. It may not move into deeper comprehension such a character’s motivations, connecting the reading to your life and experiences, and so on. However, if you ask a deeper comprehension question or two at the end of some of your son’s narrations, you can bring in the non-literal as well.

Allison

says:

I’m a big fan of the strategy “mark up the book” to apply many of the other comprehension strategies – I definitely did that myself in college quite a bit (writing questions, underlining important points, etc). For kiddos who you may not want writing in books to be reused by siblings or others later on, sticky-notes/post-its are very helpful!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Allison,
Yes! Jotting notes, ideas, thoughts, and so on right on the page of a book or on a Post-It that you leave on that page is an excellent strategy for increasing deep comprehension while reading! They even make see-through sticky notes now so you can not mark a book but still underline passages and add notes right where you want them. Thank you for pointing this out.

Rachel

says:

Love the do’s and dont’s! This article is extremely helpful. Thank you!

Sandi W

says:

Good tips. Thanks.

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