Explicit Teaching of Reading Comprehension Strategies for Primary Grades

by Julie Schopp

The primary goal of reading instruction is to enhance the reader’s depths of comprehension. For a teacher of emergent and early readers, it sounds like a challenging task. After all, these students are learning, “the processes of knowing how to read” such as attending and searching, anticipating/ predicting, cross-checking and confirming, and self-correcting. In 2010, The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) published a Practice Guide entitled, Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade (USDOE, 2010). This guide was written with the objective that, “reading instruction is to give young readers the tools they need to understand increasingly sophisticated material in all subjects from elementary through later years of school” (USDOE, 2010, p. 5).

IES research found that explicit teaching of reading comprehension should begin as early as kindergarten with the understanding that it will look different at this level than it would in grades 2-3. This guide further recommends that reading comprehension strategies be taught before word level skills are fully established and that these strategies are taught alongside decoding skills. This study provides, “strong evidence” of increased comprehension knowledge at an early age when students are taught how to use these comprehension strategies either individually or integrated with decoding skills. Students should be provided many different opportunities to explore how the strategy is applied and how it is different than other strategies taught. A strategy is referred to as “intentional mental actions during reading that improve reading comprehension and deliberate efforts by a reader to better understand or remember what is being read” (USDOE, 2010, p. 11). A strategy is not, “instructional activities such as completing worksheets or exercises that are aimed at giving students practice with skills such as sequencing or drawing conclusions, but that lack explicit instruction in how to think in these ways during reading” (USDOE, 2010, p. 11). In a review chapter of Building Comprehension Strategies in the Primary Grades, by Alison Davis (2011), she states that “good readers use a range of strategies” (p. 9) and that “deliberate and explicit instruction is important to enable students to understand individual strategies…how to integrate a range of strategies to assist comprehension…and how to use strategies to monitor comprehension” (pp. 9-10).

Duke and Pearson (2001), reported on over 30 years of research and found three features that consistently promote reading comprehension; reading, explicit instruction, and talk. They went on to report that, “Young children are developing as readers when they are able to understand, interpret and critique what they read. Research has consistently shown that the goal of developing comprehension should go hand-in-hand with the goal of developing solid sound-letter knowledge, even for our youngest learners” (p. 421).

The Workshop Model provides a framework that offers the opportunity for this type of instruction. In my second-grade classroom, the model includes a mini lesson, which involves reading a mentor text that will be used to focus on a specific strategy. I first model how I will use the strategy with a particular book, then the next day, I provide a guided opportunity for students to use the same strategy. After that, students try using the strategy on their own. In addition to whole group instruction, students also discuss the strategy within guided reading groups with their “on-level” books.They write in their “My Thinking” section of their reading notebooks using thinking stems specific to the strategy.Younger students who may not be able to write in a notebook about their thinking could draw pictures or participate in a discussion.

An example of Reading Workshop Mini-Lesson:

Reading Comprehension Strategy: Making Predictions

Day 1 – I read Owen, by Kevin Henkes aloud to the class. As I am reading, I used a think-aloud approach to make predictions aloud at certain points in the book. Then, I ask myself aloud if my prediction was correct and what made me think it was correct. After I read a book, I asked my students why making predictions is important to understanding what I read. We discussed this for a few minutes. As I make predictions, I record them on chart paper to create a classroom anchor chart.


Here is an example of an anchor chart for asking questions.

Day 2 – I read Bear’s New Friend by Karma Wilson aloud. This time, I stopped at certain points and asked what my students’ predictions might be. We continued to discuss if our predictions were correct and why/why not and why it is important to make predictions. Later in guided reading groups, I have students begin to make predictions while reading the books.


A student writing her prediction.

Day 3 – I read The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant aloud. I have students raise their hands when they make a prediction. Then we discuss if their prediction was correct and why/why not. Students continue to discuss predictions in small guided reading groups.


Students writing about their reading in their Reading Notebooks in small group.

After I feel that the students have a good grasp on using the predictions strategy, I give them a graphic organizer to fill out during their read-to-self station. This graphic organizer is then turned in at the end of the week for a grade. At the end of Reading Workshop each day, I look for students to share what they have written about the prediction strategy.

One of the most important things to remember is once a strategy is taught, continue to integrate it into your read-aloud and small group lessons and discussions. Spiral review with other strategies teaches the students how a good reader uses all strategies simultaneously when they read.

According to the IES Guide referenced earlier (USDOE, 2010) the most effective reading comprehension strategies to teach in the primary grades are:

  • Activating prior knowledge/predicting
    • Pull out the main idea and ask students to relate to their own experiences
    • Ask students to predict what will happen and look at deeper meaning
  • Questioning
    • Use who, what, where, why, how; encourage students to use these words
  • Visualizing
    • Read to students and have them visualize what they see
  • Monitoring, clarifying, and fix up
    • Relate strategies to a traffic sign; (stop sign can be used to stop reading and retell what you are reading in your own words, u-turn go back and reread parts that don’t make any sense)
  • Drawing inferences
    • Identify keyword
  • Summarizing/retelling
    • Describe what is occurring in the text in their own words

The book Comprehension Connections, by McGregor and Harvey (2007), goes into more detail about each of these strategies. It is a short, easy read that for me has proven to be a very applicable way to teach these reading comprehension strategies. Many of the anchor charts I created were taken from this text. There are examples of thinking stems to use when discussing and/or writing about these strategies as well. Younger students can use only one or two. This list can grow as they begin to read harder and more complex texts. The idea is to get them thinking about reading.


Students are watching a short video clip. They will predict the ending using background knowledge and evidence from the video.

I am always amazed that even the youngest students can participate in collaborative discussions about the text. Several years ago, several children with significant delays were placed in my classroom. One of the strategies that worked well with them was using collaborative discussions about texts. Although they were well below grade level, they participated each day in discussions on different strategies we focused on during our read aloud. This particular year, I also had two students who had parents that were terminally ill. I asked our media specialist if she could read some stories to my class about illness, death, etc. In class, we had been discussing making connections with our read aloud and the water cycle during science. One student who read four levels below grade level said, “Life is kind of like the water cycle. We come to earth, have kids, our kids have kids, and then we go back up, just like the water does.” If he had not participated in the class discussions, he would never have been able to make this connection. Yes, an eight-year-old was able to make that connection!

Does this kind of thinking happen overnight? Can an educator just pick up a book and know what type of questioning and/or modeling to use? Like everything else in the world of education, it is a process. Start small. For me, orchestrating effective mini-lessons took several years of trial and error. I still reflect on how I could have more effectively used a text to encourage better discussion and application of a strategy. Formative assessment continues to be a key part of what drives my mini lessons. If I notice a large part of my class is struggling with using a strategy, I plan more mini-lessons to guide them through the process. If a small group is struggling, I guide them in small groups during guided reading.

My favorite quote is by Ignacio Estrada, who said, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe teach the way they learn.” Students need explicit instruction, maybe even more than once, to become thoughtful readers of any text. Is it worth the planning and effort? Absolutely! Comprehension is what matters the most!

Works Cited:

Reading comprehension: Strategies that work – ETA hand2mind. Retrieved February 1, 2017 from https://www.hand2mind.com/pdf/miriam/grades_1_2.pdf

U.S. Department of Education (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through third grade. Retrieved February 1, 2017 from files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED512029.pdf

Davis, A. (2011). Building comprehension strategies for the primary years. Retrieved February 1, 2017 from Building_Comprehension_Strategies_Sample_Chapter.pdf

McGregor, T., & Harvey, S. (2007). Comprehension connections: Bridges to strategic reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, U.S.

Julie Schopp is a second grade teacher at LeRoy Elementary School in Leroy, Illinois. Now in her 13th year of teaching, Julie holds a master’s degree in reading and literacy. You can find the rest of her bio here!

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