Helping older students with their reading comprehension. What should we teach and how?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

We know a lot about teaching reading comprehension skills to older children with language, reading and learning difficulties.  One of my favourite researchers, Dr Teresa Urkrainetz, has just published a wonderful article summarising the evidence.

Here’s my summary of her summary!

What’s needed for effective teaching?

In 2000, the US National Reading Panel identified seven teaching procedures that help children’s reading comprehension:

  1. Co-operative learning.
  2. Answering teacher questions.
  3. Using graphic organisers like this one.
  4. Story structure analysis.
  5. Active comprehension monitoring.
  6. Question generation.
  7. Summarising.

In 2008, Kamil and colleagues systematically looked at the evidence for strategies that help students in 8th grade and above and identified four important elements of teaching children about reading comprehension:

  1. Explicit vocabulary instruction.
  2. Direct and explicit comprehension strategies.
  3. Opportunities for extended discussion about the meaning and interpretation of what they read.
  4. Increasing student motivation and engagement in learning to read.

Three kinds of comprehension reading strategies

By strategies, we are talking about rules of thumb that help children actively focus on, and think about, what they’re reading.  Ideally, we want children to use these strategies independently – not just in class with teacher support.  This can be challenging!

Researchers call the things we read – e.g. stories, reports, essays, instructions, etc – “texts”.  Reading comprehension strategies can be grouped into three categories:

(a) Pre-reading strategies: thinking about what is already known about the topic, predicting the content and coming up with a plan to read the text.

(b) During-reading strategies: maintaining the reading purpose, noting important information, paraphrasing ideas, integrating new information with things already known, and staying alert to lapses in understanding.

(c) After-reading strategies: recalling the most important ideas, reviewing what has been learned, and re-reading to fill in comprehension gaps.

Which strategies should we teach?

The strategies with a strong scientific basis include:

  • comprehension monitoring;
  • question generation;
  • summarising;
  • paraphrasing; and
  • vocabulary/word-learning.

Other strategies supported by moderate evidence include giving children specific prompts about text ideas and text structure.  Examples of these questions include:

  • What is the main idea of this paragraph?
  • What is the difference between this idea and the idea in the previous paragraph?
  • What was the problem in the story?
  • Where in the story was the problem solved? How?

Teaching children multiple strategies is more useful than just one strategy.  What matters most is that students get into the habit of asking themselves “What did that part say?” and responding with “I’m not sure. I’d better re-read that part”.

How should we teach the strategies?

Research tells us that we should teach children about reading comprehension with:

(a) explicit modelling – we should tell them how we do it as we do it;
(b) lots of practice, with our feedback;
(c) enough support to keep the student motivated; and

(d) tasks that keep children interested and engaged, knowing why they are reading the text.

Three things are vital:

(1) making sure texts are at the right reading level so decoding problems don’t get in the way;
(2) using small, interactive groups; and
(3) having students use a specified language or format for strategy questions.

Other considerations include:

  • using texts appropriate for the strategies being taught, e.g. using non-fiction texts to teach a “main idea” strategy; or stories to teach the strategy of identifying characters or “the problem”; and
  • engaging students with things that interest them – especially when first teaching strategies, e.g. video game or other product reviews that appeal to the children being taught.

How should we teach older children with language, reading and learning delays?

Strategically. To learn, students with communication or learning challenges need what Dr Ukrainetz calls sufficient “RISE”, meaning:

  • Repeated opportunities;
  • Intensity of practice;
  • Systematic scaffolding (support); and
  • Explicit instruction.

This means we need to choose a small number of goals for which we have the time and resources to provide sufficient RISE to obtain noticeable, functional change and help students to become more competent and independent learners.

For teenagers, in particular, we also need students to buy-in to the process.  For this to happen, students need to have confidence in their skills, interest in the topic and texts and of course knowledge of the right strategies.

Three examples

Text preview strategy

This pre-reading strategy is useful for information texts.  It starts with the student and teacher identifying the type of thing being read – e.g. a story chapter or a research report.  Then the student identifies the purpose for reading the material (e.g. entertainment, information about a topic).  The student is then guided to travel through the text to get a sense for what it covers, the organisation, how important points are indicated and where summaries are located.  For example, a student’s attention might be drawn to chapter titles, section headings, abstracts, opening paragraphs, conclusions with “takeaway” messages, and glossaries and indexes.

Look-back strategy

This after-reading strategy is also useful for information texts.  It involves raising a student’s awareness that he or she has a gap in understanding and that it is permissible to look back at the text to find the answer.  The teacher models asking a question about something not understood, and then skims the text to find the most likely place to find it, with comments on why the other sections are not good candidates.  Children should be taught that good readers use look-backs – many students think that looking back is not allowed or even cheating!

Finding the main idea strategy

There are a few ways to teach this – from teaching children ways of identifying topics and supporting sentences in paragraphs and how information texts are usually structured.  It’s best to start with texts that have strong first or “topic” sentences at the start of each paragraph.  Graphical organisers can be used to identify and then to summarise the gist or main idea of what the paragraph is about.

Bottom line

Poor readers need to be taught strategies and given support to improve their reading comprehension.  Ukrainetz’s excellent article provides examples of several practical, evidence-based things we can do at school and in speech therapy to help.

Source: Ukrainetz, T.A. (2015). Improving Text Comprehension: Scaffold Adolescents into Strategic Reading. Seminars in Speech and Language, 36(1), 17-30.

Related articles:


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard