Learning and Teaching Toolkit

Reading comprehension strategies

High Impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence.

What is it?

Reading comprehension strategies focus on the learners’ understanding of written text. Learners are taught a range of techniques which enable them to comprehend the meaning of what they read. These can include: inferring meaning from context; summarising or identifying key points; using graphic or semantic organisers; developing questioning strategies; and monitoring their own comprehension and identifying difficulties themselves (see also Metacognition and self-regulation).

How effective is it?

On average, reading comprehension approaches deliver an additional six months’ progress. Successful reading comprehension approaches allow activities to be carefully tailored to learners’ reading capabilities, and involve activities and texts that provide an effective, but not overwhelming, challenge.

Many of the approaches can be usefully combined with Collaborative learning techniques and Phonics to develop reading skills. The use of techniques such as graphic organisers and drawing learners’ attention to text features are likely to be particularly useful when reading expository or information texts. 

There are some indications that computer-based tutoring approaches can be successful in improving reading comprehension (although the evidence is less robust in this area), particularly when they focus on the development of strategies and self-questioning skills.

Comparative findings indicate that, on average, reading comprehension approaches appear to be more effective than Phonics or Oral language approaches for upper primary and secondary learners, for both short-term and long-term impact. However, supporting struggling readers is likely to require a coordinated effort across the curriculum and a combination of approaches. No particular strategy should be seen as a panacea, and careful diagnosis of the reasons why an individual learner is struggling should guide the choice of intervention strategies.

How secure is the evidence?

There is extensive evidence in this area from a range of studies over the last 30 years. The majority of studies are from the USA and focus on learners aged between 8 and 18 who are falling behind their peers or have difficulties with reading.

In the UK, recent evaluations of programmes that have included a focus on teaching reading comprehension strategies have not found such an extensive impact, though there is evidence that children from disadvantaged backgrounds may benefit more.

What are the costs?

The cost of the resources and professional training required to deliver reading comprehension strategies is estimated as very low. Evidence suggests that reading comprehension approaches need to be tailored to a learner's current reading capabilities, so it is important that teachers receive professional development in effective diagnosis as well as training in the use of particular techniques and materials. The cost for an intervention with this type of training is estimated at £1,200 per teacher or £48 per learner. 

What should I consider?

A key issue for teachers is identifying the level of difficulty for comprehension activities that is required to extend learners’ reading capabilities. How will you ensure the texts used provide an effective challenge?

Effective diagnosis of reading difficulties is important in identifying possible solutions, particularly for older struggling readers. Learners can struggle with decoding the words, understanding the structure of the language used, or understanding particular vocabulary, which may be subject-specific. What techniques will you use to identify particular learners’ needs? 

A wide range of strategies and approaches can be successful, but they need to be taught explicitly and consistently. How are you going to identify the strategies that will meet the needs of your learners and how will these be reinforced?

How can you focus learners’ attention on developing comprehension strategies that they can apply more widely?

Challenge questions to support collaborative self-evaluation

  • How well do we use current available data to identify learners’ needs?
  • How do we ensure professional learning is improving outcomes for all our learners, including specific groups, for example disadvantaged, care experienced, those with English as an Additional Language?
  • How well do we promote and ensure consistency in teaching approaches to develop and support the teaching of reading?

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