Learning Center


Break Down Comprehension Strategies by Subskills

october 16, 2017

Reading comprehension instruction targets six ways to think about texts. This includes how to:

  • retell and summarize the author’s ideas,
  • determine the main idea of a passage,
  • visualize author ideas,
  • question and evaluate the author’s choices,
  • make connections,
  • and synthesize bigger ideas.

However, NONE of these comprehension strategies is taught in a single mini-lesson. It’s impossible to teach visualization in 15 minutes. Rather, plan and deliver numerous mini-lessons across the year that target the array of subskills that will prepare students to visualize independently.

For example,

  1. An initial visualization mini-lesson might focus on the power of nouns in creating a mental image. If the text includes the word “dog,” the reader sees a dog in his mind.
  2. A follow-up mini-lesson (executed on a different day) may focus on how adjectives fine-tune visualizations. The details in the mental picture change if the text reads “small, white dog,” versus “large, spotted dog,” versus “scared and injured dog.”
  3. Another mini-lesson (executed on a different day) would likely focus on the impact action verbs have on a reader’s mental picture. Did the dog mosey or scamper or limp across the alley?

For every comprehension mini-lesson, first announce the strategy the lesson targets. Then, explain the small subskill that is the focus of the day’s instruction. (This is also when the skill is added to the yearlong bulletin board.) Be sure to include experience with that subskill as it’s used in literature and informational text. The skills, lessons, and applications are just a little different in different types of text.

Subskills within strategies

This breakdown of each comprehension strategy instruction typically makes sense to teachers. However, it often leads to a follow-up question: Is there a list of subskills for each comprehension strategy? For a starter list, download the one used within the video and detailed below.

Comprehension Subskills Breakdown

Retell & Summarize

Some of the subskills that students need in order to retell or summarize include first being able to identify and differentiate important from unimportant information in a passage. Once they can select and retell the important details, they’re ready to move on to summarizing the highlights. Initially, teach this using only chunks of text, then apply it to short text, and eventually to much longer texts.

Main Idea

Determining the main idea of a text requires a different set of subskills and mini-lesson instruction. To start, students have to know the difference between the topic and a main idea. They also have to be able to discern the difference between a summary and a main-idea sentence. Gradually, through continued instruction, move students to determine the main idea of a short text, then a longer text, and ultimately inferring multiple main ideas within the same text.


After introducing students to the power of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs, then move them to juggle numerous mental pictures simultaneously. Advance the mini-lessons to include visualizing abstract concepts and figurative language.


Explicit instruction for questioning likely includes a series of lessons on generating before-reading questions, during-reading questions, and then returning to questions after completing a passage. The goal is for students to think about the choices the author made and to predict, question, and evaluate his intentions.

Make Connections

In order to make connections, students need explicit instruction on background knowledge. What is it? How do you activate it? How do you build it? Those are each separate mini-lessons. Then teach students how to juggle numerous connections within a text and ultimately make comparisons across different texts.


Start synthesis instruction with acknowledgment of other people’s perspectives. Then show students how to think like the author. That leads them to think of their own new-to-you discoveries. Talking about a synthesis is one thing. However, additional instruction is needed for students to be able to trace and present one in writing.

For a comprehensive yearlong scaffold of standards-based skills and lesson concepts differentiated by grade level, purchase The Comprehension Playbook.

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Super Saturday Reading Conference
Master the 10 Reading Standards with a Cheat Sheet


Master the 10 Anchor Reading Standards with a Cheat Sheet

Identify "Relevant" Textual Details per Reading Standard


Identify “Relevant” Textual Details per Reading Standard

Follow Explicit Instruction with Close-Reading Experiences


Follow Explicit Instruction with Close-Reading Experiences