How to improve students’ reading comprehension

Good reading comprehension is the academic skill that helps students most in school and in adult life. It depends on knowing how to sound out words, being able to recognize commonly used words, reading with ease, and having a good working vocabulary. Nevertheless, students who have all these important skills may not be able to understand and remember what they have read.

If comprehension does not come naturally, it has to be developed by using conscious strategies. Most students need some help in learning how to focus their thinking and to keep their minds on the meaning of written text. Even the best adult readers use strategies to ensure that they can focus on a text and get the meaning that the author intended. Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction by Ellin Oliver and Susan Zimmerman is a helpful source of ideas about how teachers, parents, and tutors can help students develop better comprehension skills and habits. The reader must take responsibility for his or her own thinking in the process of reading and begin to monitor their thought patterns.

Thoughtful readers monitor the inner voice in their minds as they read and revise their thinking as new knowledge comes from the text. They call to mind their background knowledge on the topic and consider how the new ideas relate to what they know. This critical process helps readers think about and make inferences that the author may not say specifically. Good readers determine what the author thinks is important, and they determine if the text is worth reading.

One of the best ways to coach students in developing comprehension skills is to use “buddy reading.” That means the reading coach reads the first paragraph and stops to ask questions before the student or partner reads the next section. After the first section the coach may ask: What is the main topic of this text? What do you know about this topic? What do you think the author wants you to believe about it?

Next the student reads about the same amount of text and stops to probe the question: What more did I learn in this section? What quotations or mental images come to my mind after reading this section?

How do I know what the author is trying to say about the topic in this second section?

Buddy reading helps to establish the idea that readers are in a dialogue with writers. The reading coach models reading with expression and using correct pronunciation of new vocabulary. In order to develop the active reading habit, reading coaches may ask the student to summarize what they have just read or to draw a picture or diagram that will show what they have learned from the reading.

If teachers do not have time to do buddy reading with each child, they may encourage peers to pair off and do buddy reading together. This instructional method is a good second step after the students have learned to engage in a dialogue with a more experienced reader. Students can help each other develop confidence in their own ability to monitor meaning from a text. They may also learn that different people may interpret the meaning of a text in different ways.

Next week I will share some strategies for improving comprehension of word problems. Scores on math often depend upon a student’s ability to read little scenarios and decide what math operations are necessary to solve a problem.

At this point reading becomes crucial to the student’s success in math too.


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