Introduction | Explicit Explanation | Guidelines for Questioning

Instructional Activities for Comprehension Development: Strategy Instruction

We want our students to become active and engaged readers, a.k.a. strategic readers. As Shirley Brice Heath said, our goal as teachers is to assist students in becoming "an individualist, a reflective skeptic, a questioner, a doubter, an arguer, and an observing bystander." Helping children become strategic readers is an involved process, one that does not necessarily happen from reading and questioning. We need to explicitly teach comprehension skills and strategies from the very beginning of the school years first through read alouds and then through the students" own reading experiences.

Comprehension strategy instruction has been proven to assist readers in their understanding of text. As you begin planning to teach comprehension strategies, you should first consider using text that does not exceed your students' word recognition abilities. Otherwise, if the texts are too difficult, your students' attention will be directed to the word level. This section provides an explanation of the following research-based strategies along with corresponding instructional techniques:

Of course, all of these strategies should be addressed in a before, during, and after reading format. Students must participate in prereading activities in order to activate their background knowledge, set a purpose for reading, and promote personal connections/responses and motivation. During reading activities are equally important. They facilitate comprehension while focusing attention, promoting reactions, and allowing for personal responses. Finally, postreading activities allow students to reflect, analyze and synthesize information, make personal connections/responses, and organize information. In this section, we will highlight a popular technique and discuss how to incorporate it throughout the before, during, and after framework.

Before reading, you should activate your students' background knowledge and evaluate what they know. This evaluation will allow you to know the background knowledge that you should build prior to reading in order to ensure adequate comprehension. You may also extend students' background knowledge through the addition of new concepts introduced by you. New concepts will include any vocabulary instruction prior to reading. You may also be reminding them of any newly taught comprehension strategies that they should employ while reading. Lastly, you should set a purpose for reading.

During reading, your students should be actively engaged in the text. You should assist them in self-monitoring helping them attend to problems that arise while reading and how to employ fix-up strategies. You should scaffold comprehension strategy work as needed reminding them of declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge (see Comprehension Lesson One for more explanation of explicit strategy instruction). Previously done work should be revisited and extended. For example, if hypotheses were formed, then they should be reflected upon and changed as necessary. Students should be alerted to the main idea of the text, particularly those that are relevant to the purpose of reading.

After reading, you should assist your students in their evaluation. This evaluation may address how the particular text may be used in the future. Or the evaluation may possibly address whether or not certain aspects of the text remain unclear to the student, in which case the reader would revisit sections of the text. You should also guide your students in their summary of the text.

Activating Prior Knowledge

Readers must recall what they know about a topic prior to reading a text with new information. Along with activating their prior knowledge, you should also access what they know to ascertain whether or not you need to build any necessary knowledge to ensure comprehension. You may also need to clarify any incorrect knowledge. After activating and building prior knowledge, you will need to assist your students in their organization of this information. As your students read, they may find it necessary to recall even more information already known. There are many techniques that assist students in these endeavors (e.g., anticipation guides, story impressions, and preview-predict-confirm). We will discuss one in particular - the anticipation guide.

An anticipation guide is a compilation of statements where students either agree/disagree with or mark either true/false. The statements should be related to critical concepts or issues from the upcoming text with the idea that some of the statements should evoke a change of opinion or an amendment to concept knowledge, ultimately leading to discussion. Anticipation guides are typically done with expository texts but can also be done with narrative. After the statements have been established, present them to your students and allow a few minutes for your students to respond to the statements. The response time should be followed by a brief discussion where answers are supported with prior knowledge. Anticipation guides should be revisited during reading allowing your students to make amendments to their original answers using proof from the text for any changes made. After reading, assist your students in reexamining false statements from the original list. Have your students turn the false statements into true ones and supply evidence in the book by highlighting the place in the text where the answer is found. To make this process motivating for your students, they could place arrow sticky notes in the book where evidence is found.

Seeking Clarification

Readers must also monitor their reading to ensure understanding. This is when we usually think of the term "metacognition." Metacognition is the term used to refer to the knowledge and control individuals have over their cognitive processes. The ability to perform these two things is critical to learning and development. So, readers need to reflect on these processes and self-regulate their work. There are many techniques that assist students in their efforts to reflect and self-regulate (e.g., teacher think aloud, reciprocal teaching). We will discuss one in particular - a coding system. A coding system strives to make these rather abstract processes (reflection and self-regulation) more concrete.

Readers must be aware of whether or not they understand what they are reading. When they do not understand, they have to make use of fix-up strategies so that they can ultimately understand. Comprehension monitoring instruction should provide students with the steps that they can take to fix problems as they arise. The fix-up strategies must begin with the reader defining the problem. Common fix-up strategies include: looking back through the text and rereading troublesome sections, restating what was read, slowing down the pace during more challenging text, and looking forward in the text for information that may help. Using a coding system like the one noted below may assist the reader in their reflection and self-regulation. The coding system will only serve to alert your students when a problem arises. You must include the explicit modeling of fix-up strategies in order to help your students resolve these problems.


While question answering is a rather passive activity, question generation is an active activity where your students learn to ask and answer their own questions. Your students must become adept at generating questions while reading in order to guide their thinking. Of course, the flipside to this is answering those questions that are posed. Through this activity of generating and answering, students are more engaged with the text and, therefore, are better able to understand and remember. In this section, we will discuss using a KWL chart.

Your students can be taught to guide their own comprehension by questioning themselves before, during, and after reading text. A KWL chart prompts students to not only self-question but also to activate prior knowledge and assimilate new information into that which is previously known. It is important to note that KWL charts are done with nonfiction texts rather than fiction. The following outlines a modified procedure of the KWL chart.

Before reading, assist your students in accessing their prior knowledge. This is the "K" section of the chart: What You Know? This activity will allow you to ascertain what critical information may be missing from their prior knowledge. You should preview the text using pictures, diagrams, headers, etc. to help guide your questioning. For example, in From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons, there are birds in many of the illustrations with the flowers. Using the pictures, you would think aloud that you know the wind carries seeds so that plants are spread but wonder what birds have to do with the process. This is the "W" section of the chart: What Will I Learn? As you read, record answers to your questions and other information critical to understanding the passage in the "L" section: What Did I Learn?

Evoking Sensory Images

Think about the old saying: A picture is worth a thousand words. When your students construct an image of what they have read, they have an image that is a memory representation of their interpretation of the passage. A mental representation of the readers' interpretation of a passage should improve the retention of the passage's information. Imagery can also affect conceptual development and comprehension monitoring. We will discuss four steps that you can follow to assist your students in making mental images while listening to and reading text.

A thoughtful sequence of activities can help your students use imagery as a comprehension strategy. At any point, you may find it helpful to have your students draw a picture of their image. First, creating mental images works best when the text is highly descriptive and, therefore, lends itself to visualization. Use both narrative and informative texts during read alouds and allow time for your students to compare their images as they discuss the information from the text. Second, as you are reading aloud or as your students are engaged in a shared reading experience, have your students stop and share their images. Third, talk with your students about how creating mental images can help them understand the text. To assist them in this understanding, you should think aloud while you are using imagery to help monitoring and clarifying text. Fourth, discuss how imagery can support their writing. Model how "having a picture" can help in the elaboration piece of composition. It is sometimes helpful to start this entire process with opportunities for your students to construct mental images of concrete objects. For example, have them look at a concrete object (e.g., a frog), close their eyes, form a mental picture, and talk about their images. Then talk with them about how they can refine the picture (e.g., the frog is green with bumpy skin and a long sticky tongue).

Drawing Inferences

Readers make a plethora of inferences while reading. For example, readers infer the referents of pronouns, meanings of unknown vocabulary, examples of concepts in the text, elaborations of ideas based on subject knowledge, how the information from the text relates to their own opinions, the characters' intentions, conclusions suggested by the story, etc. This list goes on and on. Adequate comprehension depends on the ability to make inferences. The importance of inferencing cannot be underplayed. A technique that can assist your students in making inferences is Question-Answer Relationship (QAR). The "Author and You" type of questioning provides a springboard into the art of inferencing. Please refer to the first section in this guide for a detailed explanation of QAR.

Conducting Summaries

Your students must summarize the texts they are listening to or reading so that they have mental representations of the key parts of a narrative or the key pieces of information from an expository text. Summarizing requires the reader to identify main ideas in the text and weed out the irrelevant information. In this section, we will discuss thinking aloud explicitly to explain the process of summarization to your students.

Explicit instruction in summarization requires you to model how to summarize. To do this, you should identify the important information, eliminate less important information, and integrate information into a synthesis statement. You should begin with manageable amounts of information. For example, you should begin a study of summarization by summarizing paragraphs working up to whole chapters. Some researchers call the process in summarizing the parts (be they paragraphs or chapters) as "summarizing the summaries." For example, after reading "The Three Bears," you would first summarize the episodes of the story. Then you would summarize each summary of the episodes. As you move to whole narratives, your think aloud of the process of summarizing might sound something like this:

Pictorial Case Study: Comprehension

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