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Comprehension-Strategy Instruction

What is Reading Comprehension?

The definition of reading comprehension may appear to be both simple and obvious. In fact, it is anything but. Reading comprehension seems like a simple concept because for good readers, the comprehension process has become more or less automatic. Most of the time good readers don't think about what they are doing to make sense of text, to find important information, to learn how to do something, or to follow events in a story. That's why one might answer, "Comprehension is understanding what you read."

And it is, of course, but those who have studied reading prefer a definition that emphasizes that good readers work at understanding. They are active and intentional, constructing meaning by using the message in the text and their own prior knowledge. So comprehension involves interacting with text in various ways. Michael Pressley (2001) says that good readers:

  • Are aware of why they are reading a text
  • Gain an overview of the text before reading
  • Make predictions about the upcoming text
  • Read selectively based on their overview
  • Associate ideas in text with what they already know
  • Note whether their predictions and expectations about text content are being met
  • Revise their prior knowledge when compelling new ideas conflicting with prior knowledge are encountered
  • Figure out the meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary based on context clues
  • Underline and reread and make notes and paraphrase to remember important points
  • Interpret the text
  • Evaluate its quality
  • Review important points as they conclude reading
  • Think about how ideas encountered in the text might be used in the future (Pressley, 2001, Active comprehension strategies section, para. 1)

Of course, we don't read everything this way. Readers who use all of the strategies listed above have a serious need to learn and use the information in the text. If we are reading to locate a specific piece of information or reading for pleasure we don't use all of these strategies. Even so, the list reminds us that comprehension requires considerable work from the reader.

Definition of comprehension

The complex process of comprehension is described in the Rand report, Reading for Understanding (2002), in this way:

We define reading comprehension as the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language. We use the words extracting and constructing to emphasize both the importance and the insufficiency of the text as a determinant of reading comprehension. Comprehension entails three elements:
  • The reader who is doing the comprehending
  • The text that is to be comprehended
  • The activity in which comprehension is a part
In considering the reader, we include all the capacities, abilities, knowledge, and experiences that a person brings to the act of reading. Text is broadly construed to include any printed text or electronic text. In considering activity, we include the purposes, processes, and consequences associated with the act of reading (Snow, C. E., 2002).
Reading purposes

A further description of this active process is found in the National Reading Panel report, which says that "a reader reads a text to understand what is read, to construct memory representations of what is understood, and to put this understanding to use" (NICHD, p. 4-39). Readers also have more specific purposes:

  • To learn about something (as in reading an interesting newspaper or magazine article)
  • To research a subject or study for a test
  • To be entertained
  • To learn how to do something (as in directions)
  • To find specific information (as in looking for the due date on a bill, finding details on the charges on a doctor's statement, or checking the TV listings)

To find specific information, we usually scan the text rather than reading word for word. But if we don't find the information that way, or if we don't understand what we find, we read more carefully. Obviously when studying or trying to follow the directions, we care about understanding and remembering what we read. But even when reading for pleasure, it's important to understand. If we don't get it, it's not very pleasurable! So although we may take different approaches for different purposes, comprehension is the goal.

Underlying skills

Comprehension requires active, strategic thinking, but it also requires basic reading skills: decoding (word identification), fluency, and vocabulary (knowledge of word meanings). Unless decoding is automatic and reading is fluent, comprehension suffers. So another way to understand the reading process is to see it as a hierarchy of skills (Pressley, 2001). Beginning with letters and sounds, moving to identification of words, fluent use of those skills, and understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, comprehension is the culmination of a series of processes.

Why Is Comprehension-Strategy Instruction Important?

Comprehension is what reading is all about, so we know it's important. But if many readers acquire comprehension strategies informally (NICHD, 2000), p. 4-5), why do we need to teach it?

Awareness of comprehension breakdowns

First, evidence suggests that many young readers (and perhaps low-literate adults as well) are not aware that they have a comprehension problem: they often don't know how much they're missing. One researcher looking at readers' awareness of their comprehension processes found that "both young and mature readers failed to detect logical and semantic inconsistencies in the text" (Markman, 1977, 1981, as cited in NICHD, 2000, p. 4-39). In one study even 11- and 12-year-old readers demonstrated this lack of awareness. After listening as three or four samples of explicitly contradictory texts were read to them, 25-40% of the children failed to notice the inconsistencies most of the time. They thought they understood the material and didn't notice that it didn't make sense (Markman, 1979).

You may have noticed this lack of awareness in your work with adult learners. Sometimes discussion reveals their misunderstandings about a text or their lack of background knowledge in the subject matter. You can tell they are sometimes not aware that they aren't "getting it," or if they are aware at some level, that they don't know what's causing the problem. Your job is to figure out how to address the underlying causes of the comprehension breakdown.

Causes of comprehension problems

Adults may be reading without "demanding that it makes sense" or reading one word at a time without much thought, or failing to make important inferences and connections because of their limited background knowledge.

Principle 11

Adults who qualify for ABE have poor functional literacy comprehension achievement. Although they may be able to perform simple comprehension tasks, such as recalling ideas from simple stories and locating a single piece of information in a simple text, they are often unable to combine (integrate and synthesize) information from longer or more complex texts (Kruidenier, 2002).

Principle 12

ESL adults, on average, tend to have lower functional literacy comprehension achievement in English; the percentage of ESL adults among the ABE target population is greater than the percentage among the general population(Kruidenier, 2002).

Vocabulary and background knowledge. A lack of word knowledge and general "world knowledge" are common and significant problems for ABE and family literacy learners. People who don't read well don't read much, and therefore don't learn new words the way good readers do, through reading. In addition, adults who didn't finish high school probably don't have content knowledge typically acquired in science, literature, and social studies classes (Snow & Strucker, 2000). Reading requires inferences, and inferences are based on prior knowledge (Hirsch, 2003). Adults may know a great deal about their work and special interest areas, but much of what they read in class may require experience with "book learning."

Knowledge of the structure and conventions of different genres (types of literature) is also important to comprehension. Drama and poetry require different kinds of thinking than narratives do. In order to understand these forms of literature, readers must make more inferences, for instance, or pay attention to visual imagery and the rhythm of the language. Satire is sometimes hard to recognize if one is not familiar with this type of writing, and it's possible to entirely misunderstand the author's message. In addition, consumer informational literature, insurance notices, bills, and business letters often have special forms and use language in specialized ways.

So as you learn about the comprehension strategies detailed in the following pages, don't forget about building vocabulary and content knowledge. It's impossible to quickly make up for years of missed schooling and books not read, but you can't ignore the problem. (For additional details on vocabulary instruction and addressing background knowledge, see Chapter 6.)

Decoding. Other learners who have comprehension problems may actually be struggling with basic word identification and as a result, can't pay attention to the meaning. For these adults, who are missing the forest for the trees, reading may be more about getting the words off the page than getting to the meaning. Be sure to address their decoding problems, too, or you may end up treating effects and ignoring causes.

Knowledge of comprehension strategies. Adult learners simply may not be aware of strategies they could use to achieve better understanding (Kruidenier, 2002). Poor readers probably don't know what good readers do. The process is mostly invisible, and efficient readers may appear to be simply "running their eyes over the text." It isn't obvious that a lot of strategic thinking is going on. In short, you need to teach adult learners to use comprehension monitoring and repair strategies. They are not likely to develop these strategies without instruction (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-40), and we know this kind of instruction is effective: "The general finding is that when readers are given cognitive strategy instruction, they make significant gains on measures of reading comprehension over students trained with conventional instruction procedures" (NICHD, p. 4-40). These strategies are tools that open the door to the world of print. One way to understand this phenomenon is to compare a reader who doesn't have these tools to a child who doesn't know he is near-sighted. When he first gets glasses he is amazed at the detail that he didn't know others were seeing.

A trend in the adult literacy research: ABE adults' knowledge about reading, or their meta-comprehension, is more like that of children who are beginning readers. They are less aware than good readers of strategies that can be used to monitor comprehension, view reading as decoding as opposed to comprehending text, and are less aware of the general structure of paragraphs and stories. Comprehension strategies, such as how to monitor comprehension during reading and how to determine a text's basic structure, may need to be taught (Kruidenier, 2002).

Who Needs Comprehension-Strategy Instruction?

Principle 13
Adults with a learning disability tend, on average, to have lower functional literacy comprehension achievement and are over-represented within the ABE target population(Kruidenier, 2002).

Principle 14
Participation in an adult literacy program may lead to an increase in reading comprehension achievement (Kruidenier, 2002).

Principle 15
Providing explicit instruction in reading comprehension strategies may lead to increased reading comprehension achievement (Kruidenier, 2002).

We know that nearly one-half of American adults have Level 1 or Level 2 literacy skills, the lowest of five levels defined by the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993). We also know that most adult learners in basic education and family literacy programs are among that number.

The NALS Level I group ranges (at the low end) from those who can't read and understand even simple texts to those who can perform simple literacy tasks, such as locating a piece of information in a short text. Level 2 adults are somewhat more advanced, but still are unable to put together information from more than one text to find an answer or solve a problem. These findings suggest that even those with basic reading skills are often unable to read well enough--to use skills and strategies flexibly enough--to make use of the information in the materials they read.

The focus of comprehension-strategy instruction

Because comprehension requires basic decoding skills and fluency, comprehension-strategy instruction is most often directed at mid-high level readers. In fact, the research reviewed by the National Reading Panel was conducted with students in third grade and above. However, even beginners need to engage in meaningful reading and therefore can benefit from learning to monitor their understanding and to apply some simple strategies as they read. Strucker (1997a) suggests that learners at fourth grade level and below need to be taught pre-reading strategies explicitly. For example, they should learn how to use pictures, section headings, and summaries to predict content and learn how to activate their prior knowledge by asking, "What do I already know about this?" (Of course, as noted above, their background knowledge in some areas may be limited, and when you conduct pre-reading activities with groups and notice a lack of knowledge or a misunderstanding of facts, you may need to provide some of this knowledge as efficiently as you can before continuing the reading activity. (See section on addressing background knowledge, page 65.)

We may conclude, then, that all the adults in basic education classrooms, regardless of their reading level, can benefit from comprehension-strategy instruction. Meaningful reading, including practice of important comprehension strategies, should be part of every lesson for all adult learners. (See section on listening comprehension on page 76 for a suggestion that supports weaker readers' participation in strategy-instruction activities.)

How Can We Assess Comprehension?

Because comprehension is the ultimate goal in reading, all the learners in your program need comprehension assessment. You are probably already giving a standardized test that measures silent reading comprehension.


Reading comprehension tests are available in written and oral forms. Most standardized instruments are written tests of silent reading comprehension, most often in a multiple-choice format. The learner reads a passage and answers questions about it. Curriculum-based tests, like those found in reading comprehension workbooks, are typically multiple-choice or short-answer tests. Informal reading inventories (IRIs) usually include oral comprehension assessments. The individual being assessed reads a passage or story aloud and then answers questions asked by the test administrator.

Alternative measures

Alternative measures may allow the learner to demonstrate comprehension in other ways (writing, speaking, or performing) and may allow you to glimpse other aspects of reading outcomes. Many classroom activities are natural opportunities for informal assessment. You may ask learners to write reactions to literature selections in their journals or to chart both sides of an argument. Classroom discussion and projects allow adults to think critically about texts and to apply their learning to their lives. Learners also may reach and display new depths of understanding by doing performance readings of poetry or drama selections.

A Comprehension Assessment Plan
  • Initial planning: Analysis of the results of standardized tests may provide details about specific areas of strengths and needs. Oral reading comprehension tests, like those included in informal reading inventories, often include listening comprehension assessments, which may be useful in identifying strengths of weak readers. Listening comprehension is an indicator of reading comprehension potential.
  • Ongoing progress monitoring: You may find curriculum-based and alternative assessments to be most helpful.
  • Outcomes measurement: For you and the learners, a collection of journal writings, a list of materials read, and workbook or other curriculum-based test summaries may provide meaningful information about the outcomes of reading instruction. For external stakeholders, you will need a standardized measure with equivalent alternate forms for pre- and post-testing.

What Kind of Comprehension-Strategy Instruction Is Most Effective?

The National Reading Panel, in their review of the literature on comprehension, identified 16 categories of comprehension instruction in the research, but only the eight listed below appear to have "a firm scientific basis for concluding that they improve comprehension in normal readers" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-42).

Comprehension strategies for readers

An idea from the research with children: “To improve ABE learners' comprehension of texts used during instruction (those ABE learners above Grade Equivalent 3), teach them strategies that can be used during the reading process and that enable them to become actively engaged in understanding a text. Eight effective strategies have been identified: comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, graphic organizers, story structure, question answering, question generation, summarization, and multiple strategies (combining the above when appropriate)” (Kruidenier, 2002).

Most of the items in the following list are strategies that readers apply to construct meaning from text. You as a teacher must use appropriate instructional strategies to enable adults to learn and use these comprehension strategies as they read. These comprehension strategies are described in detail on the following pages, along with suggestions for instructional approaches.

  • Comprehension monitoring
  • Graphic organizers
  • Story structure
  • Question answering
  • Question generating
  • Summarization
  • Multiple-strategies instruction
  • Cooperative learning (an instructional approach)
Issues in teaching comprehension strategies

Review the general suggestions below and keep them in mind as you read about the comprehension strategies and plan ways to teach them.

Decision making and lesson planning. A great many strategies have been identified, so you will need to plan how and when to introduce them. The goals are (1) to help adults become proficient in using the strategies and comfortable enough to use them outside of class in independent reading, and (2) to ensure they know when to use them, so they use the right strategy at the right time. Achieving these goals will take time, so you should plan for plenty of practice and be sure to revisit the strategies once in a while. You will also need to be selective, choosing a few strategies that have multiple applications and introducing them one at a time.

Remember that adults who have busy lives and only a limited amount of time for education may take longer to get good at a strategy than children who have a reading lesson every day. Be careful to teach each strategy until it is well learned, and avoid overloading the learners.

Choosing materials. Basic decoding skills and fluency are required for comprehension, so think about the readability level when you are choosing materials for comprehension-strategy instruction. When working on a new strategy, learners will be more successful if the material doesn't require too much other work, that is, if the words and subject matter are familiar (Duke & Pearson, 2002). In a multi-level group, you could introduce the strategy by reading the material aloud so weaker readers can follow the thinking without struggling with the words. Then for practice they could work in small groups on different texts at appropriate levels.

Bear in mind, too, if you use a readability formula to gauge reading level, that some formulas look only at the length of words and sentences, not the difficulty level of vocabulary. Knowledge of word meanings is also extremely important. If there are too many unfamiliar words in a text, it's not a good choice for comprehension-strategy learning. Of course, context clues may allow learners to define some terms, but without basic knowledge of the subject matter, a reader may be unable to use the clues. So be careful also to consider the knowledge base in your classroom when choosing materials. It works both ways: limited knowledge is a problem, but the background knowledge they do have can work in their favor. Adults can often comprehend material that appears to be too difficult when they know a great deal about the subject.

Finally, remember that adults have practical goals in mind. Especially for work-related goals, they may need practice reading technical materials. And of course, beginning readers may need to comprehend everyday items, such as utility bills, medication directions, and government forms. Such texts often provide "very little context for guessing" (Strucker, 1997a), so you may need to teach vocabulary up front and be sure to provide practice with varied examples. Research suggests that using such real-life materials may result in gains in reading comprehension (Kruidenier, 2002).

A trend in the adult literacy research: ABE adults' knowledge about reading, or their meta-comprehension, is more like that of children who are beginning readers. They are less aware than good readers of strategies that can be used to monitor comprehension, view reading as decoding as opposed to comprehending text, and are less aware of the general structure of paragraphs and stories. Comprehension strategies, such as how to monitor comprehension during reading and how to determine a text's basic structure, may need to be taught (Kruidenier, 2002).

Keep all these issues in mind when choosing materials for comprehension-strategy instruction:

  • Decoding ability/reading level
  • Background knowledge
  • Interests
  • Experience
  • Goals

Listening comprehension. Many of the strategies you'll learn about on the following pages should be modeled and practiced orally. After all, reading comprehension is mostly thinking, and the strategies are related to language and linguistic comprehension generally, not only to reading (J. Sabatini, personal communication, July 2004). That's good news for teachers in multi-level classrooms, because it allows those who don't read well to participate in comprehension-strategy instruction.

Much of what you'll do to introduce the strategies to the whole group will obviously involve speaking--explaining and demonstrating by "thinking aloud" and at times, reading aloud. If you begin by reading a demonstration text aloud to the group, weaker readers may be introduced to the strategies at the same time as other learners. They may even practice the strategies after listening to a tape recording of the text.

As you know, adults often can understand materials that they cannot read. Using taped readings or reading to learners allows them to work with more difficult, adult-interest texts occasionally, instead of being limited to material they can read independently, much of which may be too simple to require the more advanced comprehension strategies. They can practice the thinking skills required for reading comprehension while using materials they understand and find interesting. They also may be more able to participate in cooperative learning activities.

Of course, this is not to suggest that these adults do not need to build decoding skills and practice reading with materials they can read independently and fluently. All the reading components are important, and all needed components should be addressed with each learner.

One further caution may be appropriate regarding oral practice. Some adults who have reading problems may also have broader language-processing problems and/or attention deficits7 and may find it hard to follow and recall lengthy chunks of oral language (E. A. McShane, personal communication, August 2004).

7 Individuals may have difficulty using any or all of the forms of oral and written language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Short-term memory problems create additional complications in using language. People with attention problems may have trouble concentrating and maintaining focus on a task and may be easily distracted by noise or movements in the immediate environment. These difficulties are common characteristics of individuals with learning disabilities or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) You may notice these individual differences, and if so, you should, of course, adapt activities to ensure that all the learners are able to profit from comprehension-strategy instruction.

With these general thoughts in mind, read on to learn details about the specific strategies found to be effective with children by the National Reading Panel. As you read, bear in mind that you will need to select one or two strategies initially, try them out, and then continue using them to increase your own comfort with the strategies--and the learners', too of course. Some are easier to implement than others. You might consider beginning with a couple of the comprehension-monitoring strategies that follow.

1. Comprehension monitoring

These strategies are intended to develop meta-cognitive abilities in readers, that is, to help them think about their own thinking. Using these techniques, readers learn how to (1) actively monitor their understanding, (2) identify specific problems when comprehension breaks down, and (3) take steps to solve their comprehension problems.

You might try one or more of the following techniques. Most are broadly applicable to any kind of continuous text and various reading purposes.

Thinking aloud. One way to teach adults how good readers monitor their understanding is to show them how you do it. In other words, this technique is both a strategy for readers and an instructional approach you can use with any of the other comprehension strategies as well.

Here's how it works: You read a passage to the learners and think aloud about how you process the information (Davey, 1983; Kibby, n.d.). When you run into problems, you express your confusion and talk through your thinking as you solve the problems. Following are examples of strategies you might demonstrate:

  • Stopping to reread or restate a difficult section
  • Summarizing long sentences or other bits of text and putting them in your own words
  • Looking back in the text to locate the person or thing that a pronoun refers to
  • Identifying important or not-so-important information
  • Using various strategies to identify or determine the meaning of an unknown word

Teacher reads aloud (in italics) and thinks aloud (in brackets).

There were three main causes for the uprising.
[OK, I'll be looking for three causes.]

First and most important was the economic situation in the country.
[That's number one, the economic situation.]

(Reading on--further details)

There was also a popular movement gaining strength that centered on a young leader, etc.
[Is that number two? Hmm, I'm not sure. I'd better read on to check.]

(Reading on)
It's clear the uprising was rooted in recent, if not ancient history, as explained by journalist Browne, etc.

[Wait a minute. This is almost the end. Did I miss the third cause? I guess I had better read it again.]

The chaos surrounding the earthquake and concern about the nation's ability to repair and rebuild contributed to the unrest.

[I wonder if this is it. It seems pretty different from the other two. I think that's it. I'll read on and see if I get any other clues. Maybe the writer has more to say about the three causes later on.]

After you demonstrate your thinking processes you can ask the learners to practice thinking aloud, too, to make them more conscious of their understanding and their thinking processes.

Restating. You can teach learners to stop periodically (after each section, for example) and try to restate what's been read in their own words. If they have trouble with this, they know they're not getting it.

Asking questions. Another way they can monitor their understanding is to ask themselves who, what, when, where, and why questions after each section or page. If they can't answer these questions they know to stop and reread. (Be aware that this strategy may work best with stories, news articles, and other narrative texts because they are likely to have all the "5 Ws" represented.)

Coding text. Readers are actively engaged with the content when they make notes as they read. You can teach a simple shorthand/code that allows the reader to make quick responses to the text. If writing in a book is not an option, learners can use small adhesive notes. The INSERT system is one example of such a code (Vaughn & Estes, 1986). It may be especially helpful as a study strategy.

Interactive Notation System for Effective Reading and Thinking (INSERT)

= -- I agree
X -- I thought differently
+ -- New information
! -- WOW
? -- I don't get it
* -- I know this is important

Monitoring and repair strategies. You also may teach specific strategies for solving comprehension problems (Davey, 1983; Kibby, n.d.). You describe and demonstrate the different kinds of problems that can arise while reading. Then, taking them one at a time, teach appropriate repair strategies, by modeling, providing guided practice, and independent practice.

Examples of comprehension problems:

  • I can't read this word.
  • I don't know what this word means.
  • I'm confused. I don't get it. This doesn't make sense. This doesn't fit with something I know (from an earlier part of the text or the reader's life experience).

Examples of repair strategies:

  • Problem--I can't read this word.
    Step 1: If it's a short word, try to sound it out. If it's longer, look for familiar rimes or syllables and put them together to sound it out. (Do you recognize the word? Does it make sense in the sentence? If yes, go on reading. If not, try step 2.)
    Step 2: Read to the end of the sentence and think of a word that makes sense. (Does this word match some of the letter sounds? If yes, go on reading, but make a note to check on the word later. If not, maybe you don't know the meaning of the word, and that's why you don't recognize it. Go to the next strategy.)
  • Problem--I don't know what this word means.
    Step 1: Read the sentence to the end and see if you can make a guess about the meaning based on context clues (the meaning of the words around it and the rest of the sentence). Hint: Use context clues to decide what kind of word it is. (Is it, for instance, an action word, a name of something, or a word that describes something?)
    Step 2: See if the word has any prefixes or suffixes you know or any familiar word parts. Try using those along with context clues to figure out the meaning.
    Step 3: If you can't make a good guess about the meaning from context, decide if you must understand this word to understand the text. If not, skip it but make a note to look it up in the dictionary later. If the word is important, look in the dictionary or ask someone.
    -->Be aware that none of these repair strategies is foolproof. Some texts contain few useful context clues, and even prefixes are sometimes unhelpful or even misleading. For example, the prefix pro usually means before, forward, or for. Knowing this meaning doesn't help define the word proportion.
  • Problem--I'm confused. I don't get it. This doesn't make sense. This doesn't fit with something I know.
    • Reread the sentence or passage.
    • Read on to see if it gets clearer.
    • Try reading aloud.
    • Look at the words in the confusing part. Maybe a word is being used in an unfamiliar way. Check the word(s) in the dictionary or ask someone.
    • Talk about your problem with others.

    -->Even common words have many uses. Pay attention to the words in instructional text and pre-teach words that are used in unfamiliar ways. If a reader encounters such a word that you haven't pre-taught, you may find this a good "teachable moment."
2. Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are diagrams or charts that visually represent the relationship of ideas and information. Most often they are used to illustrate the organization and structure of a text.

Texts are structured in different ways. Stories often introduce a setting, main and supporting characters, a problem, a series of events, and a resolution of the problem, typically in approximately this order (though not always). Learners may find "story maps" helpful in following and remembering events and characters. (See section on story structure, page 86.)

A nonfiction piece may be organized around a sequence of chronological events. History texts, for example, often present events in time order. The purpose of the writing may dictate other structures. An article may be organized to make a persuasive argument, with a main thesis and supporting details, or to define or describe something, with the introduction of the topic followed by a series of examples. Graphic organizers may help readers to become familiar with these common text structures and to understand the flow of information and ideas within a particular structure.

Organizers are most often used with nonfiction, especially content-area texts like science and social studies, and adult learners may find graphic organizers most useful for analyzing and summarizing content they need to learn. However, graphic tools also are useful for other pre- and post-reading activities: activating prior knowledge, setting a purpose for reading, and keeping track of what is learned.

Teaching graphic organizers. You will want to select a graphic tool (see the following examples) that matches your instructional objective, and begin by demonstrating how to use it with an article or story the class has read. In a multi-level class you might try tape recording the material or reading it to the weaker readers so that everyone has experienced the same text and all are able to participate.

Be sure to start with a simple organizer: It should be a tool, not a source of frustration. Carefully explain the purpose of the tool and when to use it. Then have the whole group compose one, with individuals suggesting entries. The next steps might be to ask small groups or pairs to try using the organizer while you observe and assist. Groups should work with material they can read easily, or use a taped reading. Finally, when you see that learners are using the strategy correctly and comfortably, they can do it on their own. Following are examples of graphic organizers.

  • KWL Chart - Use the KWL chart to help learners think about what they already know about a topic (access prior knowledge) and develop a purpose for reading. It's also a review tool, when they make notes of what they've learned.
KWL Chart
What I Know What I Want to Know:
What I Wonder:
What I have Learned:


illustration of text in bubbles, connected by lines
Children's Language Development
Key Events
  • Babbles
  • Laughs, giggles, cries
  • Makes noise when talked to
  • Understands no-no
  • Babbles
  • Tries to repeat sounds
  • Says first words
  • Understands simple directions
  • Points to people & objects
  • Puts two or more words together
  • Pronounces most vowels and some consonants
  • Understands simple verbs, e.g., eat, sleep
Time Birth to 5 months 6-11 months 12-17 months 18-23 months

The timeline below shows how to arrange events so they don't take up too much horizontal space.

illustration of flowchart boxes above and below a horizontal timeline
illustration: horizontal axis with items top and bottom in herringbone pattern

3. Story Structure

The idea of teaching story structure is based on the fact that all stories have similar features and all have plots that are organized into episodes. By analyzing a story's structure, the reader becomes aware of the important story elements, and this awareness facilitates comprehension and memory.

To introduce this strategy you might begin with these five questions that represent the basic story elements (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-91).

  1. Who is/are the main character(s)?
  2. Where and when did the story occur?
  3. What did the main character(s) do?
  4. How did the story end?
  5. How did the main character feel?

You should begin with a story the class has read and demonstrate the question-and-answer activity for them. Then the whole class might practice going through the process with another story. Learners also could practice this strategy in small groups or pairs.

To reinforce this kind of thinking and make it more concrete you could have the learners construct another kind of graphic organizer, a story map like the one below.

To make the analysis of story structure more concrete and explicit for struggling readers, you can have them read a story in sections (introduction, body, and conclusion), ask questions about main characters, and setting, record the answers on cards, and line up the cards under the appropriate story sections. Find details on this approach in Teaching Adults Who Learn Differently (Skinner, Gillespie, & Balkam, 1998).

Story Map


4. Question answering

This strategy is a modification or expansion of the time-honored approach to comprehension: asking questions. Teachers ask questions during or after learners' reading, and learners may look back at the text to get the answers if they need to.

The goal of question-answering instruction is to "aid students in learning to answer questions while reading and thus learn more from a text" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-86). This strategy may be especially helpful for school-based learning and test taking, but when questions require higher-level thinking, adults also may apply this kind of thinking to a variety of reading tasks (Duke & Pearson, 2002).

To build higher-order thinking skills you have to ask good questions. Research suggests that if you mainly ask factual questions, readers will learn to focus mostly on facts when they read. On the other hand, if you ask questions that demand higher-level thinking and use of background knowledge in combination with textual information, they will tend to think this way when they read (Duke & Pearson, 2002). Of course, literal comprehension is vital; a reader can't make inferences and draw conclusions without control over the basic facts. Just don't stop there. Ask questions that require learners to think about their reading.

Teaching readers to make inferences. When readers make inferences they put information from different parts of the text together with their own knowledge to arrive at understandings that are not directly stated. Making inferences is sometimes called "reading between the lines."

This kind of thinking while reading doesn't come naturally to all learners, but it is important, and may be especially important for adults in basic education and literacy classes because their general knowledge in academic content areas may be limited. The less a reader knows about the subject matter of a text, the more inferences will be required. If a learner is reading a short article about the Civil War and doesn't have much background knowledge, he may have to infer (for example) that Robert E. Lee was an important leader of the southern army. This reader will have to work harder to figure out "who the players are" than another who knows more about the war.

Adult learners may not understand that readers are expected to make inferences about text. They may not realize that they should make inferences while reading as they do in listening. Explicit instruction may be required. Here is a possible sequence.

  1. Begin by defining inference and explaining why reading between the lines is necessary for full comprehension.
  2. Then use a scenario based on everyday life to illustrate how we all make inferences every day. You might tell this story, for instance,

    "People these days stay pretty active even when they get up in years. Yesterday I stepped into the hall to put out some bills for the mailman before the holiday, and I saw my elderly neighbor walking toward the building carrying two big grocery bags. Another neighbor stepped up to help her, and as they came into the building, I overheard them talking. The older woman said, 'Would you look at all this food! And I had to buy such a big turkey! I haven't cooked one in years. I hope I remember how!'"

    Then ask the learners, "What do you think is about to happen?" (The older woman is probably having company for a holiday dinner.) "Where do you think these people live?" (They probably live in an apartment building.)

    Be sure to ask, "What makes you think so? What clues did you use?"

    Explain that as readers we figure out things that are not directly stated by using exactly the same kind of thinking they just used in listening: We use our knowledge of the world or of the subject matter.

  3. Model the thinking process by reading a passage to the group and thinking aloud, demonstrating how you make inferences. Be sure to point out the text clues that support your inferences. Here's an example from the Partnership for Reading booklet for parents, A Child Becomes a Reader: Birth Through Preschool.

    The following is a list of some accomplishments that you can expect for your child by age 5. This list is based on research in the fields of reading, early childhood education, and child development. Remember, though, that children don't develop and learn at the same pace and in the same way. Your child may be more advanced or need more help than others in her age group. You are, of course, the best judge of your child's abilities and needs. You should take the accomplishments as guidelines and not as hard and fast rules. (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2003, p. 25)

    Here is one way to demonstrate what a parent might infer from this passage:

    "It seems like the list that's coming up will tell some things that 5-year-olds can do. I guess that's what they mean by 'accomplishments that you can expect.' But it says children are all different, and I'm the best judge of my child, so I think that means I shouldn't be upset if my child can't do everything on the list."

  4. Next ask pairs or groups to read a passage and discuss their inferences. Be sure they specify the clues (evidence) they used, and encourage them to challenge each other if the evidence seems insufficient to justify the conclusion. Observe and assist the groups if they need help finding these "invisible messages" (Campbell, 2003).
  5. Have individuals practice with another text, and complete a table like the one below (Campbell, 2003), writing information from the text in the left column and the corresponding inference on the right.

    Text Cues Invisible Message
    1. Accomplishments you can expect Things most 5-year-olds can do
    2. Children don't learn and develop at the same pace. My child may not do everything on the list-or may do more things.
    3. Guidelines, not hard and fast rules Children vary. I shouldn't be upset if my child doesn't match the guidelines.
    4. 4.

  6. Provide feedback on this activity and more practice as needed.

Analyzing questions. After explicitly teaching this kind of thinking, you may teach learners to analyze questions to see where and how to find the answers. You might try the question-answer relationship (QAR) approach (Raphael & McKinney; Raphael & Pearson, as cited in Duke & Pearson, 2002). Three QARs may be taught:

Analyzing questions in this way helps readers know how to find the answers.

Answering questions may be understood as the foundation for generating questions, the next strategy. Before you can expect readers to ask good questions of themselves, you have to give them examples of different kinds of questions (Curtis & Longo, 1999). It makes sense to first focus on questions you ask. Then, when the learners are aware of different kinds of questions and have practiced finding answers, you might try the question generating strategy, modeling as in the example on page 92.

5. Question generating

This strategy requires learners to ask and answer questions about their reading. "The assumption is that readers will learn more and construct better memory representations when self-questions are asked while reading" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-89).

As active readers we're thinking while we're reading, asking questions and seeking the answers—although we may not articulate the questions. If you pay attention to your thoughts, you may discover that when you are having a "comprehension breakdown" you ask questions like these:

When you become aware of your own questioning you can model this process by thinking aloud with different kinds of texts: asking questions and demonstrating how you find the answers. You could use QAR analysis again here, thinking about where the answers might be found. Be sure to plan this activity carefully to include examples of different kinds of questions so you can show the different strategies for finding answers.

For example, some of the questions above could be answered by reading on and perhaps using inference to draw a conclusion. Some would require looking back to other parts of the text to recall events in a story or to review information. Still others may require other sources. Sometimes reading raises questions that require further reading.

The question-generating strategy may be used in reading both fiction and nonfiction texts. By showing learners how to be questioners and encouraging them to analyze their questions to decide where the answers may be found, you are helping them to become active readers and thinkers. Research with children offers strong evidence that this strategy improves reading comprehension, as reflected in specific tasks: remembering what is read, answering questions based on the text, and identifying main ideas through summarization (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-88).

As a next step, analyzing questions may be a good skill to transfer to real-life reading tasks. When adults need to read something because they have questions, using this strategy may be helpful, because they figure out where the answers to different kinds of questions may be found. What kind of question is it? Does the notice or manual or letter have all the answers in it, or is it necessary to get more information? They could formulate their own questions and analyze them: deciding for each one if it's a Right There, a Think and Search, or an On My Own question. Then they could read to find answers and check back afterward to see if their analysis was correct.

6. Summarization

A summary is "a brief statement that contains the essential ideas of a longer passage or selection" (Harris & Hodges, 1995, p. 247). According to the National Reading Panel report, the aim of summarization instruction is "to teach the reader to identify the main or central ideas of a paragraph or a series of paragraphs" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-93). Readers first learn how to summarize a single paragraph; then when working with longer passages, they create a summary of the paragraph summaries.

Summarizing is difficult, but research suggests that teaching learners this strategy is worth the effort. Summarization training has been shown to be effective in improving learners' ability to compose summaries and also has important transfer effects. Studies on children indicate that learners have better recall of the summarized information and are more successful in answering questions about the text than those who were not taught to summarize (NICHD, 2000. p. 4-46). Summarization improves comprehension, perhaps, because readers who are asked to summarize spend more time reading and must pay close attention to the text (NICHD, p. 4-92).

Summarization is often applied to expository (nonfiction) texts. It is a valuable study skill because readers cannot remember everything they read, so they need to be sure they focus on the most important facts and ideas. Because most adult learners want to improve their reading for important reasons—often to pass the GED tests or to understand and use work-related materials—explaining this rationale may be a good way to introduce instruction in the summarization strategy.

Almost all of the summarization research reviewed by the National Reading Panel was done with children in grade five and above (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-92). Researchers may have focused on older children because summarization is a difficult skill in itself, and to teach it as a tool for improving reading skills assumes a significant level of existing reading and writing competence. In addition, readers must be able to distinguish important from less important ideas and make general statements that apply to a set of similar/related facts or examples. These are advanced thinking skills.

You may find some of the activities on the next few pages most appropriate for the better readers and critical thinkers in your class. Suggestions for first steps—introducing the underlying thinking skills to beginners—are also included.

Identifying main ideas. A key feature of the summarization process (and the first step in learning to summarize lengthy texts) is identifying main ideas in paragraphs. A main idea statement may be understood as a one-sentence summary of a paragraph (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1997). To introduce the concept, begin by defining terms:

In other words, the main idea is what the writer has to say about the topic.

The topic of the paragraph is local unemployment.
The main idea is that the local unemployment rate has recently increased.

Sometimes the main idea is directly stated in a topic sentence. Recognizing a topic sentence is simpler than inferring an unstated main idea, but learners still may need practice. You will need multiple examples of well written paragraphs that have topic sentences. A good source for these is a comprehension skills workbook. Show several examples of paragraphs with topic sentences at different locations in paragraphs. Explain that readers should not assume the first sentence is the topic sentence.

Of course, most of the time there is no topic sentence, and the reader must infer the main idea. Here are some ideas for teaching learners how to identify an implied (unstated) main idea.

Other approaches to summarization. The summarization studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel used variations of so-called "rule-based procedures" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-93; Duke & Pearson, 2002). The example below is a procedure for summarizing a paragraph (McNeil & Donant, as cited in Duke & Pearson).

7. Multiple strategies instruction

Many of the strategies above are best used within a multiple-strategies approach (NICHD, 2000, P. 4-44, 45, 46). In the studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel two or more strategies were taught in the context of an interaction between teacher and learners, usually in small groups (NICHD, p. 4-77).

Most of the research included in the Panel's review were studies of "reciprocal teaching" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-79, 80). In reciprocal teaching, the teacher first models the comprehension process, showing how she/he interacts with text, using two or more of the following strategies in combination: question generation, summarization of main ideas, clarification of word meanings or confusing text, and prediction of what will come next in the text. The teacher explains how and when the strategy is used and provides guidance as the learners practice applying the strategies in working through a passage. Gradually, as they become more skilled in the use of the strategies, the teacher releases control of the process, and the readers use the strategies independently in their reading.

This not a formulaic approach; it reflects what good readers do while reading. Readers learn to use the strategies flexibly as needed, depending on the text. In pairs or small groups, learners may take turns in the teacher role, acting as the questioner, the clarifier, the summarizer, or the predictor (Snow & Biancarosa, 2003; Allen, 2004). Through interactions with the teacher, the text, and other learners, they acquire the habit of active reading, reasoning, and problem solving.

In other approaches reviewed by the National Reading Panel, more strategies were taught in combination, including comprehension monitoring, story structure, vocabulary instruction, and others. Cooperative learning (see below) is often used to provide practice of these strategies.

-->An idea from the research on children: To improve ABE learners' general reading comprehension achievement (those ABE learners reading above Grade Equivalent 3), teach them to use a repertoire of several strategies that they can use consciously and flexibly as needed while reading and that enable them to become actively engaged in understanding a text. Combinations of the following strategies are suggested by the research: comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, graphic organizers, story structure, question answering, question generation, and summarization.

Issues in multiple-strategies instruction. Learners should have basic decoding skills to make use of the multiple-strategies approach. In fact, much of the research on reciprocal teaching that was reviewed by the National Reading Panel was done with students in fourth grade and above, and older students (seventh and eight graders) benefited most. We might conclude that these multiple-strategies approaches are likely to be most effective with mid- to high-level adult readers (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-79).

A further caution has to do with the realities of adult learners' attendance and "time on task." Because these are complicated, multi-faceted approaches, you will need to make time to introduce and model, and provide practice and feedback with several examples. As always, consider the needs and strengths of your group and the realities of your setting when choosing comprehension strategies to teach.

8. Cooperative learning

This approach may be useful in the classroom to build skill and confidence in using strategies that may transfer to independent reading. Adults also may discover from this experience that it's helpful (and OK!) to get another perspective or another person's thinking about a difficult reading task, and this is important learning, too.

A variety of cooperative learning approaches are possible. Adults may work in pairs or small groups.

If you have not used cooperative learning in your class before, you will need to introduce it carefully, stressing that adults can learn a lot from each other by practicing skills together and discussing them. You should also monitor group work to be sure everyone is participating and comfortable with this approach.

The National Reading Panel based its recommendations on research done with children in grades three through six, and this approach is probably most suitable for learners who have moved past the basic decoding stage and are comfortable reading or otherwise demonstrating their skills in front of others. If you are concerned about weaker readers feeling embarrassed, you might start by having them work in pairs, matching people with partners who have similar skills.

If you decide to give it a try, you could choose any of the research-based strategies, for instance, one of the comprehension monitoring strategies. Begin by introducing and modeling the strategy. Then if your class is new to cooperative learning or if you want to be sure everyone understands how to use the strategy before asking them to work together, you might provide individual practice with monitoring and feedback. When you think the learners can do it fairly confidently, decide how to pair or group them for cooperative learning. Choose reading materials that all group members can read, and keep in mind the importance of interest and background knowledge. Be sure to give explicit directions for the activity and post them in plain sight during the activity. Following is an example of how a strategy might be introduced to cooperative learning groups. This example is based on the self-questioning strategy for comprehension monitoring.

Sample directions

  1. Read each section of the article silently. Look up when you are finished.
  2. Take turns asking and answering who, what, when, where, and why questions about each section. When it's your turn, ask and then answer your own questions as best you can. If you want help, signal the group.
  3. Discuss the section as a group for 3-5 minutes. Focus on answering the questions and any problems anyone has.

Small-group learning can be a powerful approach, especially in a mixed-level class. The research indicates that children of all abilities benefit from working and learning together (NICHD, 2000, p.4-71).

Of course, adult basic skills classes typically include a much wider range of abilities than is found in elementary school classes, so grouping decisions should be made carefully. Pair or group learners with similar abilities, to the extent that this is possible.

When adults get comfortable with this approach they may find it to be a good break from individual study and large-group activities. Some may find it easier to speak up in a small group. For learners who are working one-to-one with tutors, the experience of interacting with their peers may be both enlightening and reassuring.

Instructional approaches for comprehension strategies

Teaching reading comprehension is complex, and although research has identified effective strategies for readers to use, it does not tell us exactly which instructional approaches work best in developing strategic readers. According to the National Reading Panel report, the literature on strategy instruction for reading comprehension "has yielded valuable information," but "has not provided a satisfactory model for effective instruction as it occurs in the classroom" (NICHD, 2000, p. 4-119). In other words, the research seems clear about the particular strategies readers should learn, but not so clear about how teachers may most effectively teach them to use these strategies.

In fact, the Panel emphasizes that preparing teachers to be effective providers of comprehension-strategy instruction is a lengthy process (NICHD, 2000, p.4-120, 126). Researchers "have not identified a specific set of instructional procedures that teachers can follow routinely" (NICHD, p.4-125).

However, there is good news! Much of what you know about good teaching will apply in your work with reading comprehension strategies. And if you are a strategic reader, you can learn how to pass on your "good habits." Pay attention to your own reading behavior. Analyze what you do and plan ways to describe and model your thought processes. These are the first steps. Then follow these general guidelines from the National Reading Panel report:

…teachers help students by

Once again in this quote we see the emphasis on explicit instruction—explaining and modeling all aspects of the task or skill and leaving nothing to be inferred.

The value of discussion. During the lesson and after teaching a strategy, allow time to talk about readers' impressions of a text, conclusions they have drawn, unanswered questions, or difficulties with the strategy. Even the best explanation and modeling up front can't address all the complexities that sometimes arise as readers work with a text and a strategy. Discussion prompts readers to articulate their responses to the material, requires them to defend their thinking in case of a disagreement, and encourages them to ask clarifying questions. It also allows you to glimpse their thinking processes and identify the source of problems and confusion. You may want to get into the habit of making time to talk (J. Strucker, personal communication, May 13, 2004).

Taking a multiple-component approach. Because basic reading skills are essential to comprehension, building decoding skills and developing fluency and vocabulary may result in improved comprehension. When working with beginning and intermediate readers, remember these foundation skills and plan reading lessons to address all the needed component skills, at appropriate levels of difficulty.

-->An idea from the research with children: To improve ABE learners' reading comprehension, use a multiple components approach to instruction in which all aspects of the reading process are addressed, as needed, including phonemic awareness, word analysis, and vocabulary, as well as reading comprehension (Kruidenier, 2002).

What Does Comprehension-Strategy Instruction Look Like?

The sample activity on the next page is one way to introduce comprehension monitoring, with a combination of two strategies.

Sample Activity to Introduce a Comprehension-monitoring Strategy


  1. Introduce the strategies by explaining how they work and why they're useful.
    Example: Sometimes when we're reading silently we stop paying attention or we just read the words without thinking about them and we end up missing out on what the reading is all about. I'm going to show you a couple of things you can do to stay focused and pay attention to the meaning, so if you don't understand something you'll be aware of it and can do something about it. First, we're going to practice stopping often to think about what we've read and to restate it in our own words. Then we're going to make quick notes when we learn something new or when we have a question about something we've read.
  2. Model these strategies by reading and thinking aloud.
    • Demonstrate how to stop after every paragraph and restate what's been read.
    • Show how to use the following codes to mark the text to reflect your understanding or comprehension problems.
      ?? = I don't understand
      ++ = This is important (or) This is new information
      Be sure to demonstrate more than one kind of comprehension breakdown, perhaps an unfamiliar word, an "I wonder what this means?" question, and an example of more serious confusion. To demonstrate the coding you might use an overhead transparency of the page.

    Sample text and strategy modeling

    (Teacher reads aloud in italics and thinks aloud in brackets. Coding is in bold print.)

    Disease-causing germs often are transmitted by contaminated hands because people fail to take a few simple precautions. ?? Germs may spread from hands to food, usually when food preparers don't wash their hands after sneezing, using the bathroom, changing a baby's diaper, playing with a pet, or caring for a sick person.++Germs are also transmitted when a cook handles raw, uncooked foods, like chicken, and then touches raw fruits or salad vegetables, for instance.++ Cooking the chicken kills the germs, but the vegetables remain contaminated.
    [Well, that was pretty clear. Diseases can be spread from hands to food if we don't wash our hands after coming in contact with germs. And that happens any time we go to the bathroom, sneeze, or change the baby. That's interesting about the meat and vegetables. I didn't know that I had to worry about raw chicken. I wonder why we have to cook meat to kill the germs but we can eat raw fruits and vegetables? I don't really know what contaminated and precautions mean, but it looks like contaminated means it has germs on it. Remain contaminated sounds funny, but I think I get it. They're still contaminated? Maybe I can figure out precautions if I keep reading. I know what caution means.]
    Preventing contamination is simple: wash your hands frequently, with soap and warm water to kill germs. (The CDC recommends washing vigorously with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.) As another precaution, remember to wash fruits and vegetables before eating.??
    [Now I'm confused. How do you wash the fruits and vegetables? You're supposed to wash your hands in warm water to kill germs, but the list on the page before said to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If I wash the salad vegetables in warm water they won't be cold anymore. Does that mean they'll get more germs? And if I use cold water, does it kill the germs? And what about soap? We don't need soap to wash the veggies, do we?]
    You could talk briefly about how these questions might be answered, what next steps should be, etc. For instance, you might note that if the reader is unclear about something in the text, one strategy is to read on to see if the topic or concept is explained more fully further on. Another is to talk to someone else about it (a part of this activity). However, the focus of this activity is noticing the comprehension breakdown, so you wouldn't want to get too far "off track." Strategies for solving problems should be introduced in other lessons.
  3. Assign or hand out reading selections to the learners, and ask them to practice stopping after each paragraph, restating (silently), and using the codes to mark the text. If the selections are in textbooks and you don't want them to write in the books, they could use small adhesive notes for coding.
  4. Pair learners who have read the same selection and ask them to discuss what they've learned from the article and to share their experience with the strategies. They should talk about their problems and confusions and whether/how they resolved them. (They might also read and think aloud with each other, perhaps taking turns with different paragraphs, reading and restating.)
  5. Circulate and note the problems and solutions they discuss. You can use this information in planning for next steps. Are they using the strategies correctly? Were the reading selections too difficult or too easy? What kinds of problems did they have? Were there lots of vocabulary problems, for instance?
  6. In the large group, ask learners to react to their practice with the strategies. How helpful were they? Were there problems? Did it help to talk about their selection with a partner?





Working with beginners. For beginning or struggling readers, you might need to teach one strategy at a time. For instance, you could just teach them to stop and restate. Another option is to stop more frequently, after every sentence instead of every paragraph. And of course, regardless of what kind of text you use to introduce and model a strategy, learners should use material at an appropriate level for practice. You should also be aware that weaker readers working with simpler texts may have comprehension problems unlike the fairly sophisticated ones modeled above. When they think aloud about what they've read you might discover they have the wrong idea about what some words mean—even when they think they've understood. During practice, you will want to pay attention to the pairs' discussions to identify the problems they're having, so you can offer help as needed.

Summary: Comprehension-Strategy Instruction Tips in a Nutshell

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Chapter 8