Comprehension Strategies in the Classroom

Poor comprehension skills are undoubtedly a hindrance to learning. As teachers, we expect our pupils to read and make meaning from an unfamiliar text nearly every lesson. This might take the form of a text to teach new ideas and facts, a stimulus for discussion, to give instructions or even to read and interpret our marking. But to what extent do we as teachers consider how we are supporting our students to actually comprehend what we expect them to read? What strategies do we use to help them to extract meaning from the text we present to them?

Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to answer these questions satisfactorily. However, I have now come across a series of comprehension strategies that are easy to implement and can support pupils with their comprehension.

‘Reading comprehension strategies’ is cited on the ‘EEF’s teacher toolkit‘ as a high impact, low cost and strongly evidenced strategy that can help pupils make an additional 5 months of progress. The EEF rightly advises that the context of the school and its pupils will affect this quoted effect size. Therefore, thinking critically about the evidence before implementing any research-based strategies is important to fend off dud ideas that could potentially drain our time and resources; an era of high workload necessitates caution in how we allocate our precious time. However, I would advise you take a look at these strategies, and consider: a) the difficulty of planning their implementation; b) the time it would take for pupils to learn and apply these strategies; c) the potential pay-off if these strategies successfully aid comprehension; d) the potential consequences if these strategies don’t help pupils as the research posits. I hope you conclude, like I do, that these strategies take little time to plan, teach and implement, and simply encourage meta-cognition at worst(!), and at best, equip all pupils with a set of tools to comprehend a challenging piece of text, and dare I say, encourage pupils to tackle challenging texts more confidently and autonomously.

I present two of the strategies  below, and will present more in future in blog posts. Some of these reading comprehension strategies universally applicable, whereas others are more applicable to specific texts. All strategies are incredibly useful.

Comprehension strategy in use

Year 7 – use of both strategies: visualising and monitoring.

  1. Monitoring (Tick, Question & Underline)How does it work?
    As pupils read a text, in the margin of each line, they put a tick if they fully understand that line, a ‘?’ if they do not, and underline the word or words that they think they do not understand.How can I implement it?
    Pupils can apply this strategy to any text, and can then use some form of collaborative learning or peer-teaching to find out about the words they underlined from their peers. As they clarify meaning, they can put a tick next to their ‘?’ to show that they have now understood something with support.

    Advantages of this strategy
    The brilliance of this strategy is its simplicity to use and its applicability to any piece of text. The principle behind the strategy is that it teaches meta-cognition (another high impact low cost strategy cited in the EEF toolkit). Importantly, this strategy teaches pupils that they should do something about parts of a text that they don’t understand – they must be active rather than passive about aspects of a task or learning that they struggle with. Identifying what you do and do not understand in is the first step in practicing autonomy. The peer-teaching or collaborative task after-ward is our way of scaffolding the next stage of developing pupil-autonomy – to seek the answers! Using mixed ability groupings here will ensure pupils access learning in their zone of proximal development.

    Cautions when using this strategy
    This strategy, and many others listed here, should not be used as a substitute for differentiated texts for early EAL learners. Use your judgement about whether or not a pupil can access a piece of text or not. As a general rule, if more than 10% of the words in a text are unfamiliar, it may be too difficult for a pupil.

    Example of strategy being used
    I gave my Year 8 pupils a simple written explanation of photosynthesis. It was great to hear discussion around the room, with pupils asking each other, ‘What does this word mean?’, something which they wouldn’t have otherwise done. I am trying to foster a greater level of ‘word-consciousness’ in my pupils, and this is a great strategy to begin to do that.

  2. VisualisingHow does it work?
    Pupils sketch their interpretation of what they are reading, with annotations. This works especially well for descriptive texts, or texts about processes, but can work for any type of text.How can I implement it?
    Follow up the activity with a peer-discussion (in pairs or small groups) where pupils show each other their drawings/sketches and use quotes from the text to justify each part of their sketch.

    Advantages of this strategy
    This activity forces pupils to engage closely with the text since each element of their drawing must come from the text.This activity has potential for higher-order thinking ; which parts did they draw directly from the text, and which did they think were implied? Did they make any assumptions e.g. about the scale?

    Cautions when using this strategy
    Pupils might use pre-conceived ideas, diagrams or images from other parts of the text or another source they have seen to make their drawings, which is where the pedagogy you use can lead to some excellent learning. Ask pupils to justify their drawings by relating them to the text. Some pupils might be reluctant to draw and will need some persuading!  The very first time I used this strategy was when I gave my Year 7 class a description of two unicellular organisms (amoeba and euglena). I asked them to use both strategies (see image). They produced very interesting sketches – some were brilliantly annotated sketches, whilst others gave up, opened their revision guides and copied the diagram, which spoiled the activity for them. I’ll know to warn them for next time!

    Example of strategy being used
    I’ve used this with a top set Year 11 – where I gave them only a description of an experimental set-up from an exam question, which they had to draw using this strategy. The activity was very revealing – several pupils clearly found it very difficult to draw the apparatus set up correctly, and as I circulated to un-pick why, it was evident that a lot of them were simply not referring to all of the information they had, and it explained a lot about how they were skipping vital information when reading exam questions. Some pupils also hated the idea of sketching. I refused to hear, ‘But I’m rubbish at drawing’ and made a mental-note to develop that class’s growth mindset… I later gave them a table of results for the experiment which they had to interpret, and the visualising activity definitely helped the pupils understand the experiment more clearly, which put them in a better position to interpret the results.

Try these out with your classes, and see if it makes a difference. It certainly makes for an interesting activity beyond ‘read this information and answer the questions’. Indeed, the whole point of the strategies is that they will help improve the level of comprehension, and therefore will hopefully result in better-answered questions!

Expose your pupils to these strategies, and they will be armed with a toolkit of strategies they will deploy as and when they wish, using the ones they find work for them. That’s developing autonomy, improving comprehension and meta-cognition all in one go!

Let me know what you think, how you adapted the strategies and any more ideas by commenting below.

Note – these strategies are adapted from this source, discovered form an online search for ‘reading comprehension strategies’.


2 thoughts on “Comprehension Strategies in the Classroom

  1. Pingback: Comprehension Strategies in the Classroom | Language Learner & Lover

  2. Pingback: Comprehension Strategies in the Classroom – Bridging the Gap

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