Reading Comprehension in the Primary Classroom

Paul Main

Untangling the complex concept of reading comprehension in the primary classroom and advancing children's understanding of the written word.

What is reading comprehension?

For those who enjoy the written word, comprehension skills have to be honed to perfection. This is because reading comprehension is the process of understanding the text, and in turn, the message behind the text. It is the key to turning words into ideas and developing fluent readers.

To get to the bottom of this somewhat complex topic, we need to look at the word “comprehension” in its formal meaning. Comprises: “To comprise, in composition, the matter of a thing, or some part of it; to form or compose; to collect together into one.” We know that there are a number of concepts associated with reading comprehension, but “reading” and “comprehension” are used interchangeably and therefore we will look into both of these words individually. First, let’s look at reading skills. “Aristotle, the great professor of his time, had stated that reading and writing were the only truly human pursuits that a person could engage in. These activities would forever change and influence the course of history.” (Geltman, 1996). Although these words are from a self-improvement book, the author states that we are born with the ability to read and write, and he goes on to talk about how these activities were exclusive to humans. He is trying to get us to see how important reading is, but I wonder whether or not people actually see it that way. You’re trying to learn from a professor that the one thing that will forever change and influence the course of history is reading and writing. Now, we understand that these are two things that can happen only when you are reading and writing. However, the truth is that most of us use these terms interchangeably, and that’s a problem. I’ve heard of teachers and students talking about being tired of having to read and also their teachers talking about students who don’t know how to read. This has me wondering, why aren’t we talking about this issue more? In the book, “Laughing at Reading: Making a New Language in School,” the author talks about the concept of first-language impairment. “Being dyslexic I’ve found reading is a daily, and sometimes nightly, battle,” says an individual who identifies as dyslexic. (Szekely & Szekely, 2005)

According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) “reading comprehension (often called reading comprehension) is the ability to comprehend or interpret written, spoken, visual or other material, usually for a purpose, such as solving problems, making decisions, completing a class assignment, or meeting an employer’s requirements.” (1) This description emphasizes the critical nature of this skill. It is something that, in my opinion, all students need to possess. Let’s look at some other qualities of reading comprehension: Able to comprehend information – A simple way to describe being able to comprehend information is “reading to make sense of it.” (2)

Reading comprehension is complex
Reading comprehension is complex

Why is reading comprehension so important?

Among the most essential skills in school to master is comprehension ability. Simply put, it’s really important that all students are able to understand the material. In addition to that, it’s important to know how to apply material to a higher level. It’s equally important that students are able to apply their reading comprehension skills in various real-life situations, in the classroom, at home and with friends. Writing skill level is also linked to poor reading comprehension. 

Identifying the wide range of reading comprehension issues

Reading comprehension issues are often hidden. It is possible that parents, teachers, and peers do not know that someone is struggling with reading. The good news is that reading skills are 'learnable'. We will explore this later in the article. Language skill development is a crucial part of early years education. It is often cited as a precursor to reading and sentence-level comprehension.

Since this type of reader is less noticeable than others who have difficulty decoding, they often slip under the radar until they partake in specific comprehension exercises. Their issues may go undetected for a long time and result in secondary school students who sound like they're reading but don't understand what they're reading.

A reading comprehension problem can be contributed to by a number of possible factors and is usually identified in primary schools. A person with certain disorders is more likely to suffer from this specific type of reading disability.

Two levels of processing are required for reading comprehension. When we relate a word to a similar word, it's called semantic processing. Shallow processing is the processing of sentence and word structure.

Most of the words in the text need to be understood in order to understand what you are reading. A strong vocabulary is critical to reading comprehension. It is possible for students to learn vocabulary through instructions. They typically learn the meaning of words through daily experience and reading.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is often associated with comprehension difficulties. The exact reasons for this are complex and intertwined. We know that executive function is central to both decoding and semantic processing. 

Reading should be a fun activity
Reading should be a fun activity

Sentence construction and cohesion

It might appear like a writing skill to understand how sentences are constructed. So might connecting ideas within and between sentences, which is called cohesion. But these skills are important for reading comprehension as well. Explicit instruction can help teach the basics. Writing and reading can be used to connect two or more thoughts. Children get meaning from passages and entire texts by knowing how ideas link-up. It leads to the ability to connect different ideas in a piece of writing and is central to developing meaning. A great way to develop proficient readers is to use Writer's Block for breaking down language into its component parts. We have found that this strategy is a lot more engaging than traditional classroom instruction as it gives primary children the opportunity to 'have a go' and see what works (without the fear of failure).

Ways to Support Students Comprehension Ability

Within a classroom, students are reading text and working on vocabulary at levels that are accessible for each of them, if teachers can help students select reading material that matches their current ability levels.

Effective comprehension strategies that provide specific instructions for developing and retaining comprehension skills have been found to improve reading comprehension for people with learning disabilities.

It can be difficult for people with reading comprehension disorder to get their work done independently. Children with learning disabilities are often behind in certain academic areas, which can affect their self-esteem and motivation. Word recognition can be a big problem. A word needs to be seen four to 14 times before it becomes a sight word for average readers. Children with learning difficulties may need to see it more than 40 times.

Reading comprehension is a complex skill

There is not one single comprehension strategy that works for every aspect of reading. A quick search through Google and you get a lot of comprehensive questions to ask your students. Asking different types of questions is a great way to engage your students in retrieval practice and to check for understanding. Multiple-choice questions can be used to enable the child to dig a little bit deeper into the content. These types of formative assessments help build a picture of what the child really knows. We can use these assessments to design the next steps for their learning.

Developing proficient readers requires the advancement of several different skills.

1) Develop sufficient background knowledge: it's difficult to read about something that you don't really know about. New knowledge has to connect up with what we already know, if we don't know that much about the content it's difficult to fully comprehend it. One way we can help build prior knowledge is to illuminate the common text structures that the children will encounter. Even the most complex texts will follow some form of text structure. Being familiar with the standard ways in which we read and write about knowledge makes the text more accessible.

2) Children need to have a broad vocabulary in order to access some of the more complex texts they will encounter. As well as having basic vocabulary skills children would also need to have a wide repertoire of tier 2 words. Many schools introduce new words each week, over the course of the year, the repertoire of language can be significantly built.

3) Using collaborative learning techniques can enable children to engage in verbal reasoning such as inferencing. Well designed cooperative learning experience requires children to articulate their understanding to one another thus building more comprehensive language skills in the process. A collaborative learning approach you might want to explore is the use of our block building kits to help children organise their thoughts and talk their way to understanding.

4) Developing a confident reader would require the child to be familiar with a range of literacy concepts such as text genres and styles of writing. This can be developed by increasing the diversity of reading material that children access.

5) Language comprehension is obviously an important part of basic reading comprehension skills. Phonological awareness is the building block of reading. Having a well-implemented systematic phonics program in the early years is an essential stepping stone to developing confident readers.

6) Comprehension activities can also involve exploring the grammar we use in English. We need to understand how words are connected together to form sentences. This doesn't necessarily have to be delivered through comprehension worksheets. Engaging playful approaches can be used to help children explore sentence-level comprehension. There are many comprehension activity books available however these usually rely solely on multiple-choice questions.


The key to embracing all of these areas is to remember that reading needs to be seen as a fun activity. For many schools, the formal assessments required for accountability can diminish the enjoyment of reading. Assessments can be camouflaged into engaging activities. You can be creative and design formative assessments that don't cause anxiety. Watch the video below and you'll see what we mean!


Using a graphic organizer for reading comprehension

Using a graphic organizer for reading comprehension is an effective comprehension approach for classroom practice. A graphic organizer can be a way to map and sequence information as well as keep organized notes during independent reading time. These comprehension strategies are a powerful way to enhance comprehension and when students use graphic organizers, they develop the capacity to respond analytically and critically to information they encounter. When you give students graphic organizers to follow as they read, you create the opportunity for a lot of thinking. It is often best to give students a series of questions they can use to help themselves identify what they don't understand. Once they understand what they don't understand, they can use it to support a response and either expand their knowledge or solidify their understanding. In this way, it is easier to develop a student's comprehension and understanding in a sustained way.

Graphic organisers for comprehension
our graphic organisers can help with comprehension

Subject disciplines are made out of language

All of our subjects are found in language, which is the medium of thought. There are subjects with a practical element in other planes as well: in light, in movement, in sound, and in technology. To better represent the things they want to represent, some subjects have created additional languages. All of our subjects are found in language, which is the medium of thought. Without a broad vocabulary or an understanding of the conventions of language, access to all of our subjects remains difficult. We really hope this article helps you and your colleagues think about reading comprehension in a different light.