When we think of reading issues, we often imagine children who struggle to decode the letters in text and turn them into spoken language. This type of struggling reader has a very difficult time figuring out what many of the words are and has poor phonological (speech-sound) skills. However, there are also many students who sound like they’re reading beautifully but have difficulty with understanding vocabulary and figurative language, inferencing, verbal reasoning, grammatical development, and oral expression.
As children get older, if they are decoding text well we assume they are reading well. Once a person learns to decode, reading comprehension becomes more about language comprehension and focus. At this transition, starting around third grade, teachers may begin to notice some students who decode text fluently but are not understanding.
Since this type of struggling reader is less noticeable than ones who have difficulty decoding, they often slip under the radar until they begin to fail standardized state comprehension tests. Even then, their issues may go undetected for a long time, resulting in middle and high school students who sound like they’re reading but understand nothing that they have read.
These struggling readers should be targeted for remediation—the earlier the better. However, remediation consisting of practice passages and questions may be ineffective as it focuses too narrowly on text-based skills.
Supporting Students Who Struggle With Comprehension
Here are five strategies to try out with students who read fluently but struggle to comprehend what they’re reading.
1. Target overall comprehension of language: Recent research reveals that reading comprehension difficulties may stem from an underlying oral language weakness that exists from early childhood, before reading is even taught. It turns out that students who have poor reading comprehension also often understand fewer spoken words and less of what they hear, and have worse spoken grammar. So, to address reading comprehension deficits effectively, educators may have to use an approach that teaches vocabulary, thinking skills, and comprehension first in spoken language and then in reading and written language.
2. Teach vocabulary: Because students with poor comprehension often have poor vocabulary skills and understand less of what they hear, it’s helpful to teach the meanings of new words through the use of multisensory strategies like graphic organizers, pictures, and mnemonics. Improving their overall language skills increases the likelihood that they will understand the words they encounter in written text. Since it is impossible to know every word one might encounter, students should be taught about the different types of context clues and how to use them to determine the meaning of unknown words.
3. Teach thinking strategies: Once students have the vocabulary to be able to make it through a text, they often struggle with the complex thinking or sustained attention required to keep up with all of the important details and to access information that is implied but not directly stated. Teachers can instruct students on cognitive strategies they can use. Many common text reading strategies—such as annotation, SQ3R, and the KWL chart—make use of these thinking strategies, including:
- Discussing or activating prior knowledge,
- Developing questions while reading,
- Connecting what they are reading to another text, something they have seen, or something they have experienced,
- Visualizing or picturing what they are reading,
- Making predictions about what will come next in the text,
- Looking back for keywords and rereading in order to clarify or answer questions, and
- Thinking aloud to model the strategies and thought processes needed for comprehension.
Students can learn and then use the strategies that work best for them depending on the text they’re reading. Pulling deeper meaning out of text through the use of thinking strategies can be beneficial not just to reading comprehension but also to writing.
4. Have students practice reciprocal teaching: Once taught, cognitive strategies can be consistently practiced and implemented through the use of reciprocal teaching, which encourages students to take a leadership role in their learning and begin to think about their thought process while listening or reading. Teachers can use reciprocal teaching during class discussions, with text that is read aloud, and later with text that is read in groups. The students should rotate between the following roles:
- Questioner, who poses questions about parts of the lesson, discussion, or text that are unclear or confusing, or to help make connections with previously learned material.
- Summarizer, who sums up each important point or detail from the lesson, discussion, or text.
- Clarifier, who tries to address the Questioner’s issues and make sure that parts they found confusing are clear to others.
- Predictor, who makes a prediction about what will happen next based on what was presented, discussed, or read,
5. Directly teach comprehension skills: Students should be directly taught comprehension skills such as sequencing, story structure using the plot mountain, how to make an inference and draw a conclusion, and the different types of figurative language. Students should have the opportunity to first use the skills with text that they hear the teacher read aloud, and then later with text that they read independently at their own level.
The comprehension skills and strategies listed above can be used with the whole class, as they closely align with reading and language arts standards for elementary and middle school students. Teachers can help students select reading material with vocabulary that matches their current ability levels so that within a classroom, students are reading text and working on vocabulary at levels that are accessible for each of them.