Evidence-Based Practice: Direct Instruction in Comprehension Strategies

Direct Instruction in Comprehension Strategies



What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is the process of understanding and constructing meaning from a text.  Comprehension is sometimes called a “construction process” because it involves the reader, the text, and all the elements of the reading process working together to create a mental representation of a text.  A 2002 study by the RAND Reading Study Group demonstrated that a number of factors can affect reading comprehension, including: the text (What is the reader reading? Informational text, fiction, etc.), the context (Why is the reader reading or what might impact their reading? For a test, for pleasure, timed conditions, etc.), the reader (What things impact the reader’s experience/performance? Background knowledge, enjoyment of reading, etc.), and the task (Is there a specific task the reader is working to achieve? Finding an answer, reading for deeper meaning, identifying a main idea, etc.).

Strong readers think through texts, deciphering meaning as they go.  For this reason, young readers need direct instruction in comprehension strategies to apply before, during and after their reading.  Comprehension strategies can be described as mental actions or processes to use while reading in order to increase understanding. The teacher’s role in this process should be to help connect the reader and the text, while supporting the reader in “constructing meaning.” Teachers can best accomplish this process through gradual release of responsibility (modeling a comprehension strategy, engaging in guided practice, providing feedback, and progressing to independent application).

What does research say about reading comprehension?

  • Good reading comprehension relies on many covert mental activities, including: monitoring one’s own comprehension and reacting if the text did not make sense, directing the pace and purpose of one’s reading, connecting ideas into an organized mental structure, and synthesizing ideas in the text with one’s own views and background knowledge (LETRS, Module 6, 2009)
  • The National Reading Panel identified three predominant elements to support the development of reading comprehension skills: vocabulary instruction, active reading, and teacher preparation to deliver strategy instruction (Reading Rockets, 2017…analysis of NRP report).
  • Parents and teachers can encourage and support thinking, listening, and discussion, and model “think-alouds,” which reveal the inner conversation readers have with the text as they read (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000). They can also point out connections between prior experiences and the text, similarities between books, and any relationship between texts and a larger concept.

The What Works Clearinghouse report, “Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten through Third Grade,” indicates “strong evidence” for teaching students how to use reading comprehension strategies (pgs. 16-22, portions of report excerpted below):

(https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/Docs/PracticeGuide/readingcomp_pg_092810.pdf#page=16 )

Teaching students using direct instruction in comprehension strategies was one of the practices identified by the National Reading Panel (NRP).

How should reading comprehension be taught?

Teachers must guide students to look for meaning (Sweet & Snow, 2003) and “grapple with ideas in a text” (Beck & McKeown, 2006) until the students achieve understanding.  In order to build towards this practice, teachers must train students to attend to what they read at the word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and text level. In addition, teachers must model strategies that encourage students to think deeply and connect new learning to their background knowledge, as well as provide guided practice and opportunities to apply strategies independently.  An important factor in comprehension is a reader’s existing knowledge on a topic.  For this reason, a teacher must also strive to help students unlock or activate their prior knowledge on a topic to better comprehend a text. The National Reading Panel identified six solidly research-tested comprehension strategies (and one additional strategy with evidence of an improved comprehension): 1) Monitoring one’s own comprehension, 2) Using graphic and semantic organizers, 3) Generating questions, 4) Using mental imagery, 5) Summarizing, 6) Answering questions, and 7) Working collaboratively with a peer on a comprehension task.

Comprehension Instruction should target the following components:

  1. Word Awareness and Learning
  2. Sentence Level Comprehension
  3. Single and Multi-Paragraph Level Comprehension
  4. Text Structures
  5. Comprehension Strategies


Each skill is outlined below, with sample activities to target each skill. A more comprehensive list of sample activities is available via the “reading comprehension” tab on the literacy portal.

  1. Word Awareness and Word Learning


The National Reading Panel identified vocabulary instruction as a core method for improving reading comprehension.  Vocabulary activities will be covered in greater detail during the vocabulary module, but some vocabulary activities that will aid reading comprehension are included here.

Sample Activity 1:


Pre-Teach a Small Set of Vocabulary: Select a short informational text to read with your students (3-5 paragraph expository text).  Review the text in advance, identifying words that students might not know.  Select 2-4 key words that are important to understanding the passage.  Introduce the words to the students in advance, providing a student-friendly definition for each word.  Read the passage aloud with the students, stopping to recheck their understanding of how each vocabulary word is used in the context of the passage.  Encourage the students to work together with a peer to come up with their own unique sentence using each one of the vocabulary words. Alternatively, ask students to complete a Blank Frayer Model to reinforce a word. You can find a completed Frayer model here.

Sample Activity 2:


Four Corners Vocabulary: Students will divide pieces of paper into four segments.  They will write the word in one corner, the definition of the word in another, a sentence using the word in another, and a picture that represents the meaning of the word in the fourth corner (Ex: if the word were “loathe” they may write “to hate” as their definition, “I loathe broccoli.” as their sentence, and a picture of a stalk of broccoli as their image to remember the word’s meaning).


  1. Sentence Level Comprehension


Students need to be familiar with the syntax of the English language to properly comprehend sentences. You can increase student awareness of and experience with sentences through a series of activities:

●       Teaching parts of speech and practice identifying in sentences

●       Teaching phrases and clauses, and categorizing as dependent or independent

●       Teaching sentence types (simple, compound, complex) and categorizing

●       Coding sentences (identifying subject, predicate, etc.)

●       Constructing sentences (putting words in correct order)

●       Punctuating sentences

●       Elaborating short sentences

●       Paraphrasing or combining sentences

●       Visualizing sentences (encouraging students to make a mental picture to match a vivid sentence)

Sample Activity 1:


 Match components of a complete sentence: Say, “Today we will make complete sentences by combining a subject (who or what a sentence is about) with its matching predicate (what the subject is feeling, thinking or doing). Ex: Template

Who or What? Action (Doing, Thinking, or Feeling?
The timid cat ran up the tree to safety.
The brown and white dog hides under the couch.
The furry squirrel chews excitedly on his new bone.
Sample Activity 2:


Build simple sentences: Give students a sentence builder chart with at least one category filled in. Guide students to fill in the remaining components by asking basic questions: “Who survived? Where did he survive?”

Who or What? Action? Where? When? How?
The penguin survived in the icebox during the day by cooling off.
The elves danced on the table at night with silent feet.
  1. Single and Multi-Paragraph Level Comprehension


Once students develop sentence-level comprehension skills, they will need to learn components of quality paragraph or multi-paragraph writing.  Move through the below steps to build paragraph awareness:

●       Sequencing the sentences of a paragraph

●       Teaching and identifying key parts of paragraphs

●       Writing main ideas and/or topic sentences for paragraphs that are missing them

●       Summarizing paragraphs

●       Annotating paragraphs or multi-paragraph texts

●       Visualizing paragraphs (encourage students to make a mental picture to match a vivid paragraph)

Sample Activity 1:


Paragraph Shrinking: Teach students the concept of main ideas (i.e., a statement that quickly summarizes the main point of a paragraph or multi-paragraph piece of writing).  Teach them steps to take to identify the main idea.  For example, they may use a three-step process like: 1) Ask yourself the most important who or what in the paragraph, 2) Ask yourself the most important thing about the who/what in the paragraph, 3) Say/write a main idea in ten words or less that includes the most important who/what and most important thing about who/what.  Encourage students to read paragraph or multi-paragraph essays together, stopping after reading to “shrink” the paragraph.


Sample Activity 2:


Paragraph Sequencing: Write the sentences of a short paragraph (4-6 sentences) on notecards or strips of paper.  Encourage students to work in teams to read each sentence and sequence them in the a cohesive order.  The teacher can circulate around the room and ask students to defend why they grouped the sentences in the order that they did.

  1. Text Structures


Different genres have specific characteristics.  If students understand the specific characteristics of different texts and know what to look for, they can increase their overall comprehension of the text.  Teachers need to make students aware of how each of the below text types functions, and how to approach each one:

●       Narrative text structures

●       Expository text structures

●       Poetry structure (poetry can be narrative or expository, or have a completely separate format/structure)

●       Play structure

●       Visualizing segments of narrative text, expository text, poetry, or plays (encourage students to visualize vivid setting descriptions, characters, plot sequences, items or people described in informational text, etc.)


Sample Activity 1:


Narrative Story Mapping: Teach students about the key elements of a story (setting, plot, problem/solution, climax, etc.).  Introduce them to a graphic organizer such as a story map or story structure chart and practice applying it to a story you’ve read recently.  Encourage students to get into the habit of completing one of these charts to organize each story read in class.  To make the process more kinesthetic/tactile, you can put out a floor map with the story elements.  Students walk by each item on the map while describing the details of each element as it relates to the story.

Sample Activity 2:


Informational Text Organizer: Teach students the characteristics and components of expository text (generally provides information, features a topic and key ideas, conveys an author’s point of view, encourages a reader to think of the significance of the information in the context of their life and the world).  Assign students to read an informational text with a partner, working together to fill out an Informational Text Organizer


  1. Comprehension Strategies


As students increase their vocabulary knowledge and enhance their knowledge of how sentences, paragraphs, and texts work, they will also benefit from learning metacognitive strategies that will benefit them as they approach texts. The seven primarily metacognitive strategies outlined by the National Reading Panel are:

●       Monitoring one’s own comprehension

●       Using graphic and semantic organizers

●       Generating questions

●       Using mental imagery

●       Summarizing

●       Answering questions

●       Cooperative learning with peers


Sample Activity #1:


Strategic Questioning: Open-ended questioning and discussion involves longer, more elaborate answers than closed “yes or no” questions about literal events. High-leverage questions are those that require students to refer to the text and develop inferences rather than solely relying on personal experience. Strategic questioning allows teachers to guide students in the right direction by drawing their attention toward key events/understandings in a text. Examples of transferable questions that help students make inferences are:



●        Who are the characters and what have we learned about them?

●        Who is telling the story? (narrator/point of view)

●        What does the character want or not want?

●        How would you describe this character? Why?

●        What is going wrong for the character? What problem is starting to emerge?

●        How has your understanding of the problem developed?

●        Why did the character do/say that?

●        What might happen next based on what we know about this character?

●        What did you think about ____? What did you expect to happen? Did it end up happening? Why?

●        What is the deeper meaning the author wanted us to understand about this story?



●        What is the topic of the text?

●        What key details did we learn about the topic in this section?

●        Why would the author include the detail about ____?

●        What is the author trying to say by including _____?

●        How does the word ____ contribute to the author’s argument?

●        Do you think the author is making a good argument? Why or why not? Do you agree with them?

●        How does this topic connect to other topics we have read about?

●        How important is this information? To whom? Why?

Sample Activity #2:


Visualizing: Visualizing is a crucial skill to construct a mental model of the words and sentences being read. One way to assist students with this skill is Guided Visualization:

●       Model describing your own mental image (sometimes called a “mind movie) as you read. Close your eyes and describe to students what you see, hear, smell, feel, etc. Ground your image in details from the text and make those connections explicit.

●       Ask students to join you in picturing the scene. Ask them what they see, hear, etc. as each element of a story is described (a specific event, a conversation between characters, etc.)

●       Ask guiding questions: What do you see? What does this house look like? How do you imagine this scene?

●       Prompt students to describe their own mental model to a peer and/or draw their mental images











Important terms to know:
Word Definition
Schema: Layers or webs of information that serve as systems for the brain to organize information.  Readers and speakers/listeners utilize schema when reading/listening, and also create new schema as they read/listen.
Background Knowledge: All the accumulated knowledge and information stored in long-term memory, gained over years of direct or indirect experiences. Knowledge may range from facts to word meanings, concepts, etc.
Text Type: The type of text being read can make a big difference in whether the reader comprehends. For instance, narrative and informational texts have different text elements and structures, and being aware of those differences will better enable a reader to approach different texts.
Surface Code: The literal meaning of a text.
Text Base: The deeper meaning of a text.
Metacognitive Strategies: Strategies that teach students to think about thinking.  For instance, teaching a student to recognize when they don’t understand what they have read and to use a strategy such as rereading the passage for clarification.
Bloom’s Taxonomy: A grouping of comprehension skills moving from basic lower-level skills to more challenging skills.
Queries: Queries are questions that are intended to push students towards understanding the deeper meaning of a text.  Queries are usually open-ended, thoughtful questions that promote discussion and encourage students to make inferences.  Ex: “What do you think the author’s main point is? What are they trying to get us, as readers, to see?”
Reciprocal Teaching: A comprehension strategy where the teacher assigns specific roles for readers.  These readers are then asked to stop the class at various points to ask/respond to questions related to their role.  Sample roles could be: “visualizer” (person who stops the class at a vivid description and verbalizes what it makes them imagine), “predictor” (stops the class at a point in the story where there may be clues something is about to happen, or they ask classmates to make predictions), “summarizer” (stops at key points to summarize what has been read so far), etc.
Academic Language: Challenging language that often occurs in subject-specific books or on tests.  Academic language can be more general (i.e., a term that occurs across multiple subjects such as “factors,” which can be applied to math, English, history) or domain-specific (a term that is relevant to one subject area such as “algorithm”).  Students may be skilled with social language, but struggle with academic language.  Teachers can support students by pre-teaching a small set of academic words relevant to a text.
Inference: A conclusion that is reached based on reasoning.  Generally, an inference is not something specifically stated in the text; it is something the reader might guess or assume based on what they read and their background knowledge. Everyday situations/ pictures can be a good way to explain inferences (i.e., If I see someone outside wearing gloves, a hat and shivering, I can infer that they are cold).
Syntax: The arrangement of words and phrases for proper sentence formation.