For some students, reading comes as naturally to them as if they were born bookworms. For others, reading comprehension may not come so easily. It’s up to us teachers to find a balance between the two, challenging the more gifted readers in our classrooms to grow and expand their horizons while helping your struggling readers flourish and grow alongside them.
Table of Contents:
- Encourage openness
- Identify specific problem areas (and solutions)
- Use visual aids to help them “see” structure and individual elements
- Have them summarize what they have read
- Compare and contrast to other assignments
- Practice what they’ve learned with a publishing project
The following strategies for teaching reading comprehension to elementary students can help you maintain that balance by giving you opportunities to push your students creatively while still giving them the support they need in order to get (and stay) motivated.
Strategy #1: Encourage openness. Make your classroom a safe space for learning.
The number one barrier to improving reading comprehension is the fear of embarrassment. Many elementary students feel too shy or too proud to admit when they find something confusing—particularly in front of their fellow students.
Encourage your students to ask questions and let them know that it’s okay not to have all the answers. After all, as I like to tell my students, it’s the teacher’s job to know and teach them the answers. If they already knew everything they needed to know when they walked into my classroom, I’d be out of a job!
It may also help to connect with your students by relating a personal example of a time you didn’t understand something, and how asking for help (or not asking when you needed to) impacted the outcome of the situation.
Strategy #2: Identify specific problem areas (and solutions).
Teaching reading comprehension can be complicated because it can’t be evaluated in binary terms—that is, it’s not a subject students either “get” or “don’t get.”
One student may be a vocabulary whiz but find metaphors confusing, while another may find complex sentence structure much more difficult than figurative language.
It’s important for both you and your students that they provide you with specific feedback. If they say they don’t understand, ask them to tell you what, exactly, they are having trouble with, whether it’s a specific element (e.g. a subplot they can’t quite follow in a novel) or a particular sentence or paragraph.
You can also have them “think about thinking” otherwise known as metacognition. Whether they realize it or not, good readers use metacognition to control and inform their reading.
Readers using metacognition will often clarify their purpose for reading and preview the text. If you are teaching students who are just starting to get comfortable with reading, you will want to tell them why they are reading what you have assigned.
For example, if you assign a fable to read, tell them to determine the lesson that the character(s) learned and how the character learned the lesson.
In addition to determining purpose and previewing the text, your students should make a note of any comprehension problems they have and try to resolve them.
There are a few tools that your students can use to help them independently monitor their reading comprehension as they move through the text such as:
- What part of the text you found confusing or difficult to understand i.e. the second sentence in the third paragraph.
- Identify exactly what was confusing i.e. I don’t understand what they mean by, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.”
- Rewrite what you think the difficult sentence or passage means in your own words i.e. “I think it means that the further you are away from someone the more you appreciate them because you miss them.”
- Reread parts of the text for clarification i.e. “They are talking about the main character’s husband again and I don’t remember much about him. I need to go back and reread the part where he was introduced.”
Take note of patterns and work individually with students whenever possible to identify persistent problem areas and find the solutions that work best for them.
Strategy #3: Use visual aids to help them “see” structure and individual elements.
Graphic organizers aren’t just for brainstorming—they can also come in handy for reviewing a reading assignment. Especially for elementary students who may find building up their reading comprehension a challenging process, rearranging the information presented in the text can help them “see” and separate individual pieces of a literary puzzle.
For example, a main idea organizer can help your students identify the central subject of a piece, while an opinion writing worksheet can help them understand both a persuasive essay’s argument as well as how the author supports that argument with compelling evidence.
Strategy #4: Have them summarize what they have read.
Teaching your students how to appropriately summarize text can be a bit of a challenge especially if they haven’t had a lot of practice in the past. We have all had students who write way too much and students who write a single sentence. The trick here is to get them to determine what was important and to put it into their own words so they can better understand what they read. Summarizing helps students:
- Identify main ideas
- Break down larger ideas
- Focus on only the important details
- Remove unnecessary information
- Remember what they read and learned from their reading
There are tons of methods to teach summarizing. I have outlined two of my favorites below. You can use these independently but I highly encourage that you combine them so your students learn how to write concise and informative summaries.
The Classic: Five W’s and One H
Who, what, when, where, why, and how. This is a tried and true way to ensure that your students include all of the necessary information in their summary in an organized way.
The difference between using the five w’s and one h to summarize as opposed to using them to create a new story is that you leave out the fluff.
For example, the “Who” when creating a story could be something like Molly with dark blonde hair, two cats and a turtle. The “Who” when summarizing would just be Molly - unless, of course, her cats and turtle become important in the story but for the sake of this example they are not.
The New Kid: Tweet a Summary
This is a play on a teaching strategy I came across recently with a bit of an update. The original idea came from Pat Widdowson of Surry County Schools.
She had her students to imagine they were placing a classified ad in the newspaper and every word used costs them money. She would then give them a budget of how much they could spend i.e. how many words they could use.
These days, it is extremely rare that people place classified ads in the newspaper and your students may not have even seen a newspaper in real life. With that being said, I decided to make this a little more accessible for their digitally literate generation.
Have your students create a “tweet” using the five W’s and one H that they determined earlier to summarize what they read.
They only have 280 characters (letters, punctuation, and spaces) to create their summary. They can do this on the computer and use a character counter to keep track of how much they can add or remove. This limitation will help them further edit their five W’s and one H so that only the necessary information is present. Here is an example below of a summary tweet for Charlotte’s Web.
Strategy #5: Compare and contrast to other assignments.
Just as the context of a sentence may help clarify the meaning of a single word, putting one piece of reading material in context with others you’ve previously covered can help make that piece more meaningful. Reading, after all, doesn’t occur in a vacuum!
Take time to discuss with your students how, for instance, one persuasive essay may be more effective than another, or what differences they can spot between the structure of a narrative piece and an informative one.
Sometimes, it might even be as simple as talking about which reading assignments they liked best—and why. In addition to building reading comprehension, this exercise can also help you choose which assignments to keep and which need to be tweaked or switched out for next year.
Strategy #6: Practice what they’ve learned with a publishing project.
Writing is good reading practice, and vice-versa. To really dig into what they’ve learned and ensure they won’t forget it anytime soon, there are few lesson plans more effective than a classbook publishing project.
Base the topic of the project around something they read in class—they can write about how it made them feel, or create their own version using a similar structure or theme.
Include self-editing and peer-editing steps in the process with a focus on how to write more clearly and effectively for their second draft. Once their published books arrive, celebrate their achievement! It’s a great way to make reading and writing more fun and engaging while gently pushing your students’ creative boundaries.
Teaching Reading Comprehension Takes Patience and Practice
If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, as the old saying goes. Reading comprehension may not come naturally to all of your students, but a little persistence and grit can go a long way. It takes patience—both on your part and on theirs. The key lies in providing your elementary students with a safe space in which to ask questions, explore specific problem areas, and review reading material by using graphic organizers and making connections. And, by creating and publishing a unique classbook project together, you’ll be able to show them just how far they’ve come, and how much they have to be proud of.