Five tips for teaching comprehension by DM Crosby

Teaching comprehension used to be all about strategies in my classroom. I had a lot of techniques like inference that I would teach, and I would hope for the best.

I don‘t do that anymore.

Research by cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Willingham and the work of writers such as ED Hirsh Jr. and Doug Lemov have led me to believe that reading comprehension relies heavily on background knowledge and that the explicit practising of key strategies such as inference, predicting, and summarising will only get you so far.

A broad knowledge of geography, history, science and the rest is vital if we are to develop reading comprehension in children. Teaching knowledge, therefore, is teaching reading.

So this year I placed an increased emphasis on the importance of developing background knowledge through the reading of non-fiction. This helps to develop background knowledge while simultaneously developing children’s fluency and confidence in reading.

As a result, my Year 6 class achieved the highest results in the Key Stage 2 Sats that the school has ever achieved and I witnessed the strongest progress in reading in any class I have ever taught.

Reading comprehension tips

Below are a few suggestions to help in the teaching of reading non-fiction in the primary classroom.

1. Provide context

Use clips from documentaries and deliver mini-lectures to children about the topic they are going to read about to provide background knowledge and explain domain-specific vocabulary.

2. Pursue a topic to independence

Structure the reading unit so that children read several articles about the same broad topic. Support children in developing their knowledge and vocabulary towards the beginning of the unit then, as their knowledge and vocabulary develops, reduce the level of support.

3. Broaden the domain

Once children have shown confidence in a specific topic, broaden their reading in a way that allows them to use the knowledge and vocabulary they have developed. For example, if children have read extensively about reptiles – studying adaptations, habitat, diet, etc. – structure the curriculum so that they read about other types of animals where these key ideas and associated vocabulary reappear. You should find they are able to tackle challenging texts with greater confidence.

4. Weave together fiction and non-fiction reading

Read around the context in which whatever fiction you are reading is set. If reading A Christmas Carol, children will have a significantly greater understanding if they have researched and read extensively about the attitudes the Victorians had towards the poor.

5. Check for understanding

Ensure reading is followed up with an activity that allows you to assess understanding. This shows who may need more support or challenge. Vary these activities to keep children engaged. Some useful activities are:

  • Questions / Essays

  • Text Marking

  • Concept Maps

  • Transformations