Reading comprehension strategies in the classroom

Nahida El Assi, Associate Professor

What reading comprehension strategies are most effective in the classroom? A brief look at the complex act of reading.

What are reading comprehension strategies?

When a big percentage of students are struggling with reading, one might put all the blame on the teacher saying they are not teaching the reading skills and strategies, or they are not taking into consideration the learners’ preferred learning styles, or they are not addressing learner’s needs or their tests do not match with the teaching style. In fact, there is a lot more to the reading comprehension process. It is a complex process that is influenced by a number of factors, namely the purpose of reading, the structure of the text, the level of semantic and syntactic complexity, the cultural difficulty of the text, and the reader’s cognitive and metacognitive strategies and age.


What reading comprehension strategies work?

As we have mentioned, reading comprehension is a complex matter. The education endowment foundation regularly facilitates research projects looking at the efficacy of teaching of strategies that claim to improve the ability of readers. Language acquisition is fundamental for understanding the written word. Studies looking at oracy and dialogic teaching methods have shown us that it's not just about adopting thinking strategies. Successful readers have usually been immersed in a rich talking culture at home and in the classroom. Language acquisition can be seen as a foundation for developing skilled readers. Proficient readers will usually be skilled talkers who can elaborate with ease.

The thinking part of oracy shows us that cognitive strategy instruction also plays a big part in understanding the written word. Print books require a lot of decoding and inference to make sense of the text. Vocabulary knowledge and deep background knowledge both enable a child to make sense of the meaning hidden behind the text. The sheer amount of psychological processes happening simultaneously when a child reads is overwhelming. Breaking these comprehension skills down into their component parts might shed light on this complex action. In this article, we look at how language combined with effective comprehension strategy instruction can advance the ability of readers to understand text.

Reading comprehension strategies are complex
Reading comprehension strategies are complex


Digging deeper into key comprehension strategies

In a recent study, we examined the influence of thinking strategies on EFL learners’ reading comprehension levels through the Think Aloud strategy. The purposes were to investigate whether good and poor comprehenders who had got prior strategy instruction would achieve the same results in a reading comprehension test, generate further insights into the nature of the reading processes, and develop outlines for improving the practice of teaching reading comprehension based on a better understanding of the reading processes of good and poor comprehenders of expository writing.

Findings indicated that good and poor comprehenders may use the same total number of cognitive strategies while performing a reading task, but they differ in their reasoning and utilization of comprehension monitoring strategies when responding to passages of different lengths.


Reading models for exploring reading comprehension strategies

There are various models of the reading process: bottom-up, top-down, and interactive models. In bottom-up models, the reader must account for the visual information individually before assigning meaning to any printed string of letters (Holmes, 1970 [1]; Laberge and Samuels, 1974 [2]; and Gough, 1972 [3]). While in the top-down models, the reader is guided by his expectations about what is on the printed page (Goodman, 1970 [4]; Smith 1971[5]). On the other hand, interactive models of reading involve bottom-up and top-down processes that influence the text processing and the reader’s interpretation of the text. The interactive models proposed by Rumelhart (1977) [6], and Stanovich (1980) [7], emphasize the interaction process between the reader and his prior experience or background knowledge and the text.

Model of reading comprehension
Model of reading comprehension

Classifying reading comprehension strategies

There are numerous thinking strategies that schools can adopt in their never to advance the ability of readers. Whether you are focusing on low-level readers or trying to advance skilled readers with extra challenge, the list below is a good starting point for thinking about comprehension skills.

Definition of terms relating to reading comprehension strategies

  • A reading strategy is a deliberate means of constructing meaning from a text when comprehension is interrupted.
  • Strategy knowledge is the reader’s ability to verbalize his/her awareness of the strategy while using it in a reading test.
  • Reading ability is the reader’s ability to comprehend a text and respond to different types of related questions correctly. As such, an achievement score is the predictor of student’s reading ability.
  • Reading comprehension is the reader’s ability to understand the ideas presented in the text and respond to the given instructions.

1. Active awareness of strategies

  • Using syntax or punctuation
  • Looking for key vocabulary or phrases

2. Lack of awareness of strategies

3. Accepting ambiguity

  • Making an inference or drawing conclusions

4. Establishing intra-sentential ties

  • Re-reading strategy
  • Reading the whole text
  • Paraphrasing
  • Recognizing the structure of the sentence
  • Recognizing the structure of the paragraph

5. Establishing inter-sentential ties

  • Reading previous text
  • Reading subsequent text
  • Using the main idea

6. Using background knowledge

  • Using prior knowledge
  • Generalization by classification
  • Choice development

Identifying reading strategies
Identifying reading strategies


Reading comprehension study method

In this study, participants were given a reading pre-test, the purpose of which was to determine who were good and who were the poor comprehenders. The former were those whose scores were above the median score, while the latter were those whose scores were below the median score. After the reading test, the participants took the test (a cloze test) to solve; they were asked to think aloud and record what they did to find the suitable word they decided to put in the blank. Later, they were asked to recall what they remembered from the cloze test and write it in their own words.  


Key reading comprehension strategy findings 

Good and poor readers differed in terms of frequency of usage of six of the strategies they used.

Good readers reported using the Rereading Strategy, Paraphrasing, and Reading Subsequent Text more often than poor readers; they used strategies from categories D (Establishing Intra-sentential Ties) and E (Establishing Inter-sentential Ties).

On the other hand, poor readers reported using Looking for Key Vocabulary or Phrase and Using Prior Knowledge more significantly than good readers. Looking for Vocabulary or Phrases and Rereading Strategy indicated that poor readers face more semantic structural difficulty in solving the cloze test.

Further analysis indicated that poor readers who focused on Using Key Vocabulary or Phrases were those whose achievement scores in the reading comprehension pre-test were less than 4/20, those who used inadequate strategies when they confronted vocabulary problems. Whereas, good readers were more consistent in their ability to abstract relevant information the thing that led to better achievement scores.

Readers repeatedly used a range of strategies that they felt comfortable with, and did not try to use the other strategies actively although they knew them.

The overwhelming choices of effective comprehension strategy instruction for the low-level readers were Rereading, Paraphrasing and Reading Subsequent Text, while those for the poor readers were Looking for Key Vocabulary and Using Prior Knowledge.

Use a range of strategies for low-level readers
Use a range of strategies for low-level readers


Contributions of background knowledge to comprehension

Analysis of the idea units recalled aimed at detecting whether background knowledge about the experimental text affected the amount of recalls; whether achievement can be counted as a predictor for the amount of recalls; or if recalls are related to memory as an individual ability. Results showed that good readers performed better than poor readers in their recalls.

  • Poor readers could recall a large number of idea units; however, most of the ideas they recalled were either elaboration on or distortions of the ideas presented in the cloze test. That is, subjects were either “non-integrators” or “schema-imposers”.
  • Achievement (high vs. Low) does not affect the quantity of recalls, and consequently, cannot be counted as a good predictor of the quantity of recalls.
  • Prior achievement and background knowledge about a topic cannot be counted as a good predictor of the amounts of recall.

Graphic organisers for reading comprehension
Graphic organisers for reading comprehension


Discussion about reading comprehension strategies

The study showed that both good and poor readers repeatedly used strategies that they felt comfortable with, and did not try to use the other strategies actively although they knew them.  

It also indicated that bottom-up processors or non-risk takers were more from poor readers than good readers.

Although both good and poor comprehenders used a limited number of strategies, good comprehenders appeared to have greater ability to control their strategy use by using the correct strategy type with the suitable stimulus sentence, and changing the types of strategies when they felt the need to.

The study could also bring forward the students’ changing behaviours while responding to different types of questions. Subjects from both groups expressed non-preference to solve true/false statements and a tendency to solve them haphazardly when they ran out of time.

Using thinking frameworks for building knowledge
Using thinking frameworks for building knowledge


Conclusions about reading comprehension strategies

From this study, a number of conclusions can be drawn. Most importantly, before commencing instruction, teachers should do pre-reading assessment tests as early as the beginning of the academic year and occasionally when the need arises to recognize the mixed ability groups they are teaching and thus adapt their teaching to address those groups’ needs. In addition, they should make sure that instruction is student-centred, classroom situations shaped accordingly, and poor comprehenders should be dealt with differently than good comprehenders by varying the teaching approaches and promoting an environment of information exchange. Moreover, educators may need to reassess their methods of teaching reading comprehension strategies. Consequently, strategies that are used by good comprehenders and prove to lead to successful comprehension might be taught to poor comprehenders through suitable contexts of reading situations. Poor comprehenders should be trained to use those strategies actively to get control over them and be able to use them independently.

Educators should also pay special attention to the top-down, bottom-up, and interactive types of readers as well as styles of learning and accommodate their teaching to address those types. They may, for example, focus on teaching the usage of bottom-up strategies when they are interested in developing grammatical knowledge and vocabulary building for ESL learners. Related activities should be evaluated, and teachers can model the procedures for responding to situations that require particular reasoning strategies. Varying the teaching approach becomes an important element of active classrooms where all students participate and thus learn regardless of their abilities.

When it comes to testing and assessment, teachers should be aware of the importance of both formative and summative assessment. When assessing formatively, test formats should be varied (standardized multiple-choice tests, true/false statements, matching exercises, Short essay questions, etc.) Before giving a test, teachers should provide practice on the attacking skills required for each type of tests. Based on formative test results, teachers should be able to assess where in the cycle of teaching, reviewing, testing, revisiting they stand and act accordingly. Revision becomes a main practice after formative tests and before summative tests.

Recommendations for teachers

First, since curricular content is always imposed on teachers indirectly through textbook adoption, and since the scope and amount of material is larger than any teacher could cover, experienced teachers need to select the most suitable materials that address their students’ interests and abilities in the condition that they sustain the curriculum scope. Second, they may also adapt the sequence of instruction for the same purposes. On the other hand, less experienced and in-service teachers should seek support from more knowledgeable subject coordinators whenever they need it. Also under the coordinators’ supervision, teachers should be involved in the process of developing their own skills through sustained training, information exchange, and action research focused on successes and failures. The teaching of comprehension is complex and different education communities bring their own ideas to the table. Whether you are adopting explicit instruction approaches or trying to immerse learners into rich language environments, the ability of readers is affected by a multitude of areas that need to be woven into a comprehensive approach with adequate time for practice.

Nahida El Assi, Associate Professor

Program developer, teacher trainer, materials writer, researcher, lecturer



Reading comprehension references

[1] Holmes, H. W. 1970. Handbook of Research, Vol. 1. Pearson, D. (Eds.) (2002).

[2] La Berge and Samuels 1974. Reading in a second language: a reading problem or a language problem? Journal of College Reading and Learning (2003).

[3] Gough, P. B. 1972. “One second of reading.” In J. F. Kavanagh and I. G. Mattingly (Eds.). Language by ear and eye (PP. 332-358). Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

[4] Goodman, K. S. 1970. Reading: a psycholinguistic guessing game”. Reading Research Quarterly, 5/1970, 402-426.

[5] Smith, H. 1971. The responses of good and poor readers when asked to read for different purposes. Reading Research Quarterly, 11/1, 53-83.

[6] Rumelhart, D.E.1977.Toward an interactive model of reading. NJ: Erlbaum

[7] Stanovich, K. E. (1980). Toward an interactive-compensatory model of individual differences in the development of reading fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 32-71.