Teaching a child to decode words is a critical early step in reading instruction. But just because children can read words doesn’t mean they understand them.
“Reading comprehension, in its simplest form, is the ability to make meaning of what you are reading,” says Carly Shuler, co-founder and co-CEO of Hoot Reading, an online reading program. “It involves the ability to process text, integrate it with what you already know and understand it.”
Increasing comprehension is a fundamental skill in the reading process, particularly in grades K-4.
In some cases, children are able to read words and their comprehension difficulties go unnoticed. Standardized tests are often how difficulties become apparent.
Only about one-third of 4th graders nationwide are proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the Nation’s Report Card.” And the learning disruptions of the pandemic seem to have made things worse: New national data shows reading scores declined significantly between 2019 and 2022, putting them back where they were 30 years ago.
It’s important to have these reading basics down because by the time a student reaches fourth grade, school curricula introduce more complicated subjects and concepts, Shuler says.
“By the fourth grade, students need to make the leap from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn,’ meaning that they need to be able to read proficiently to do all of their learning,” she says. “At this stage, word recognition and comprehension interplay, and a student should be a skilled reader.”
[Read: When Do Kids Learn to Read?]
If problems are not diagnosed, difficulties in reading comprehension may not be discovered until middle school. By then, low reading skills can snowball. “Middle school subjects introduce an entire new vocabulary to students and being a proficient reader is the necessary first step toward success,” says Caryn Solomon, a special education teacher in Virginia.
Education experts say there are many strategies that can be employed at school and at home to improve reading comprehension.
Building Background Knowledge
One aspect of reading comprehension that the research base is clear on: what students know matters.
Gina Cervetti, an associate professor of literacy at the University of Michigan School of Education, explains students need to develop their content knowledge in order to make meaning of texts. “If we look at research, a few themes come up again and again,” she says. “Students benefit from purposeful instruction that develops literacy skills and knowledge alongside content and word knowledge.”
Building students’ background knowledge can help them connect with new information and understand concepts they read, experts say.
When students build on information they already know, it’s easier for them to understand and learn the material. A landmark study from the 1980s, for example, found that middle schoolers asked to read a passage about a baseball game had a hard time understanding it if they didn’t have background knowledge on this sport — even if they were strong readers.
“The most important way teachers can build background knowledge is to explicitly teach key academic vocabulary,” English-language learner teacher Jenny Vo wrote in Education Week in 2020. If students have multiple opportunities to use and practice this vocabulary, she says, the words can be internalized and connected to the topic they are studying. Other strategies include teaching words in categories, using contrasts and comparisons, and immersing students in a particular topic.
And as E.D. Hirsch Jr., professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, and others have argued, background knowledge is also — and perhaps best — built by exposing children to a range of enriching experiences, reading widely and learning in other subjects, like science and social studies.
Often, students struggling with reading comprehension also have problems with vocabulary.
”There is no question that improving vocabulary improves reading comprehension,” says Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a past president of the International Reading Association.
Teaching students the meaning of unfamiliar words in a particular text can help them understand that text, notes Cervetti. But “the jury is still out on vocabulary instruction to increase comprehension in general,” she wrote in an email.
Research on the best ways to teach vocabulary is also mixed.
Solomon says she uses techniques like showing kids the roots of words to help with definitions, understanding and application. But Shanahan notes that we learn most words through exposure, not just isolated instruction — through reading, conversation, media, and expanding our knowledge in all subjects.
A 2010 overview of reading research noted that educators should not rely on any one method for teaching vocabulary.
“Schools should make a serious effort to increase vocabulary throughout the whole curriculum, year after year — both teaching words, but also guiding students to pay attention to word meanings when on their own,” Shanahan says.
Improving Sentence Comprehension
After a student has gained the vocabulary to read through a text, the next challenge can be understanding how the words and grammar fit together. “There is a growing body of research showing the benefits of teaching sentence comprehension,” Shanahan says, referring to techniques for teaching students how to understand the meaning of a sentence.
These can include showing students how to unpack the construction of complex sentences or how to combine simple sentences into more complicated ones, he says.
Reciprocal teaching pushes students to be leaders in their learning. Students are encouraged to think explicitly about their thought processes while they read or listen to a story. Teachers often use reciprocal teaching during classroom discussions, when reading a story out loud or having students read together in small groups.
In reciprocal teaching, students rotate their reading jobs. One student serves as a questioner, who asks about parts of the lesson or discussion that are confusing. Another student serves as a summarizer, explaining each important detail or theme in the text. A third student, called a clarifier, speaks to the questioner’s issues to ensure that what the questioner finds confusing is understood. And a predictor forecasts what happens next based on the reading and discussion.
“Reciprocal teaching has been proven to work and has the most extensive research record,” Shanahan says.
Ultimately, it is crucial that children master reading comprehension, Solomon says. That should happen in early grades, but problems can be corrected later if necessary.
“Many middle schools have found it necessary to include a remedial reading course as part of their curriculum of study to support the general education classes,” she says. “Students are never too old to learn the basics of reading.”
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Update 12/15/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.