Strategies to Build Comprehension Skills

An introduction of six active reading strategies to improve reading comprehension

By Dawn Dodson

Building Comprehension

I think of reading as an interactive process. The following is a list of six strategies I use to help students begin interacting with text (adapted from Mosaic of Thought by Keene and Zimmerman, 2007). The six strategies require practice and should be used as part of a classroom reading routine. I track students’ progress by reading their journal entries and the traditional exit slip or end of term survey; this is a quick way for me to find out who is on the road to success, and who needs a little more help.

1. Connecting to Text

Students who make connections when they are reading tend to have an easier time comprehending text. There are three kinds of connections students can make:

  1. Text to self - when they connect reading to a personal experience.
  2. Text to text - when they connect their reading to something else they’ve read.
  3. Text to world - a connection from the text to something students have seen, heard, or read.

I encourage the use of these strategies before, during, and after reading. If students can connect learning to their lives, it becomes more meaningful.

2. Visualizing

I often describe this strategy as imagining the text as a movie while you’re reading. It always surprises me when students tell me they can’t imagine what a character or setting looks like from a story. One way to help students visualize what they are reading is to have small group or whole classroom discussions about how to use this strategy. Then, have them practice this skill by writing a descriptive paragraph or drawing different story elements. I also like to have my students look at and choose photographs or magazine pictures that they think embody a story element in order to help create the habit of visualizing text.  

3. Questioning

Questioning text can be a terrific way to help students understand text. They can incorporate this skill in many ways. They can write down questions when they come across something they find confusing or ask themselves questions to help review what they already read. I tell my students to ask themselves these questions:  

  1. What did I just read?
  2. What is the main idea?
  3. Is there something I find confusing?

If students can easily answer those questions, they are on their way to improving their reading comprehension. If they find the questions difficult to answer, they need to to go back and read the text again. As with all tools, questioning takes practice to perfect.

4. Inferring

This is a strategy that many of my students do naturally, yet they often don’t realize that they are doing it. The ability to take what you know and make a guess about what will happen next is a part of interacting with text. For students who haven’t developed this habit, it’s an easier skill to learn and practice than the other ones. I often use class or small group discussions to demonstrate how inferring works. It’s easy to practice, so I have students chart inferences made throughout the course of a story. In literature responses, I have students provide examples from the text to support their inferences.

5. Identifying Details 

As a sixth grade language arts teacher, it is necessary for me to teach students how to identify important elements in a text. Being able to distinguish major points from minor details is a skill that takes explicit practice. Not only does this affect summary writing and main idea identification, but students begin focusing on details rather than the main events and ideas of a text. In my classroom, we spend a great deal of time differentiating between these key concepts. I do this through providing many examples of different genres and lengths of texts, and using graphic organizers to identify main points and supporting details. I tell students to ask themselves, “If this detail were left out, does this story still make sense?”

6. Synthesizing Text

Being able to synthesize reading takes all other strategies into account. Students have to be able to summarize the most important parts of the text, communicate different elements of the text, and make inferences based off the text. I tell students that they are synthesizing information when they are thinking before, during, and after reading. There is a variety of activities to practice this strategy. We discuss how to use this strategy in depth because I want students to rely on the previous five to help them through this one. From summaries to class dialogue and dramas, I look for ways to allow students to take their reading and use the information in as many ways as possible. To me, that’s the ultimate synthesis.

Transforming a reluctant and passive reader into a successful and active reader can be challenging, but there are active reading strategies that teachers can use to help students achieve this goal. Active reading strategies are tools that help readers of all levels interact with text in order to comprehend and apply the information being shared. In my teaching experience, I’ve found that, at the very least, students can find one or two reading tools that work for them. Using these strategies can help students with both basic comprehension and test taking skills and can help students experience success, which normally wets the literary appetite.

Lesson Ideas to Teach Comprehension:

Guided Reading: Pink and Say 

This lesson uses Patricia Polacco’s book Pink and Say to practice active reading strategies. Students make connections and synthesize the information they have picked up during their reading using a variety of activities.

Guided Reading: The Breadwinner 

This lesson focuses on inferring and synthesizing skills.  Students read, discuss, and summarize information provided in the text.

Guided Reading: From Slave to Cowboy

Students focus on synthesizing biographical information. In this lesson, synthesis takes place through discussion and the creation of a timeline.

Guided Reading: Fossil Tales

Through the use of anticipation guides and poster activities, students focus on making connections to prior knowledge and synthesizing their reading. At the conclusion of the lesson, students are able to depict two extinction theories through the poster activity.