READING COMPREHENSION STRATEGIES
Explicit & Engaging Whole-Class Comprehension Instruction
Help your students become stronger readers by providing direct instruction that equips students with skills to meet grade-specific comprehension standards.
Teaching Reading Comprehension v. Doing Reading
Providing students with grade-appropriate reading experiences is an essential aspect of all ELA classrooms. This might take the form of reading a common text, an interactive read-aloud, or subject-area textbooks. Based on what they are learning, these tasks are often followed by an assignment.
While all of these experiences are indispensable, it’s important to realize that students don’t necessarily become stronger readers by reading more texts.
That’s where you come in. As the teacher, you equip your students with the grade-specific skills they need to comprehend any text type.
This primarily takes the form of whole-class comprehension instruction executed in a four-step mini-lesson. Following the gradual release of responsibility, explicit and engaging comprehension mini-lessons are the bedrock for helping your students grow as readers.
Follow the strategies below to intentionally teach reading in your classroom.
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Master the 4-Step Mini-Lesson
Effective mini-lessons last about 10-20 minutes, follow a four-step rhythm, and progress through the I-do, We-do, You-do model. Whether you’re teaching reading or writing, this same lesson pattern is the gold standard for keeping students engaged during whole-class instruction.
Step 1 – Tell the students what skill they are about to learn.
During the introduction, let students know what skill you plan to teach. Remember to keep the focus narrow. After all, you only have 10-20 minutes for this lesson, making it essential that the focus is on one small, granular skill.
With a reading comprehension mini-lesson, for example, you wouldn’t teach a single lesson on “how to summarize informational text.” Mini-lessons target a mini-skill focus. Consequently, first teach “how to identify the most important details – versus less important details.” Then, in a second mini-lesson, teach how to summarize individual sections of a longer text. A third lesson in the series might reveal how section summaries are stacked and sequenced to match the original text’s structure.
By focusing on a more granular objective per lesson, we scaffold student understanding in bite-sized chunks.
Step 2 – Provide direct and explicit instruction.
The second step of the mini-lesson actually contains two parts – Step 2A and Step 2B.
During Step 2A spend about five minutes defining the skill, explaining why it’s important, and describing how it works.
In Step 2B, the focus shifts to a demonstration. Here, you will spend about five minutes executing the skill live and in front of the students. During this model, engage in a Think Aloud as you demonstrate how to wrestle with and ultimately apply the skill.
In all of Step 2 the teacher is in control and doesn’t share the stage with students. This is the I do, meaning that you are delivering “edutaining” instruction while students watch and listen.
Step 3 – Engage the entire class as they apply the skill with teacher support.
After students have heard an explanation of the skill and the teacher has demonstrated it in action using a Think Aloud, it’s time to invite kids to experience it as a group.
In the I-do, We-do, You-do gradual-release model, Step 3 is the We-do. During this part of the lesson, the whole class works together to attempt the same, single skill.
After explaining and demonstrating the skill in Step 2, utilize different examples during Step 3. For instance, in a reading comprehension lesson, use a different excerpt from the same text that you used in Step 2. With the new selection, work through the thinking like you did in Step 2, but interject Turn and Talk opportunities throughout the process. This gets kids engaged in applying the skill.
During Step 3, plan for 2-3 We-do opportunities so that students begin to see how the skill can be applied universally.
Step 4 – Close the lesson and describe the You-do task that follows.
Now it’s time to transition to a You-do experience.
But, keep in mind, this isn’t when you assign homework. It’s not realistic to expect that students can apply a skill independently when they just learned it moments earlier.
Instead, provide opportunities for students to work in small groups with you, the teacher, nearby, providing a lot of support. Eventually, release them to work in pairs and then independent practice. This gradual rollout provides students the scaffold of ongoing support that they need to be successful with the skill.
Remember, the students don’t get better during the lesson—it’s after the lesson when they practice the skill that they improve their abilities. Consequently, keep the lesson short. Keep it mini.
If you are ready to plan your whole-class mini-lessons utilizing these four steps, be sure to check out our “Whole-class mini-lesson planner.” This document is available as a PDF or a Google document, and provides a framework for planning and delivering the 4-step mini-lesson architecture.
Plan Skill-Driven Reading Comprehension Lessons
Reading aloud and asking comprehension questions about the text are important activities that occur during the daily literacy block. Consequently, it makes sense that educational resources and adopted curricula provide such materials for teachers to utilize within their overall reading “lesson” plans. However, these activities don’t qualify as direct, explicit, whole-class instruction.
To build strong, independent readers, students need these practice opportunities after receiving direct instruction on a comprehension skill rooted in grade-level standards.
For example, before asking students to determine a character’s trait implied in a text excerpt, the teacher delivers a 10-20 minute mini-lesson identifying the type of text details all authors utilize to imply any character’s trait.
During a whole-class lesson, the focus is not on any one book, story, or chapter. Instead, the purpose of the lesson is to develop students’ proficiency with a single skill that can be universally applied to any text in the future.
Illustrate the skill with a Think Aloud
This short and engaging time of direct instruction follows the four-step mini-lesson rhythm and starts with the teacher introducing a single skill and stating specific information about how it works. After telling students about a skill, the teacher then executes a carefully-planned Think Aloud to show this type of thinking in action.
It’s during this “showing” portion of the lesson when students get a peek into a reader’s brain. Students watch and listen as the teacher delivers a first-person monologue, talking through every step required to execute the skill.
In the I-do, We-do, You-do instructional framework, this is the I-do portion of the lesson. This kind of best-practice direct instruction follows the gradual-release-of-responsibility model and honors John Hattie’s meta-analysis research on visible learning.
The learning becomes concrete as students observe the teacher doing the work and acting out the cognitive processes via the Think Aloud. This five-minute segment of the lesson offers a chance for the teacher to share her Thinking Voice with the students, allowing them to listen in to every thought she has as she attempts, struggles, perseveres, and works through a new skill.
A teacher might ask questions during a Think Aloud, but she doesn’t call on students to help her answer them. The questions are rhetorical and serve as a problem-solving strategy. The planned questions reveal that the skill is not easy and will require a growth mindset and individual grit.
While asking herself rhetorical questions and talking through the process, a teacher could hold up simple Think-Aloud Cards. These cards include simple thinking stems such as:
- This has me thinking…
- I see ____ and I think…
- I remember…
- I’m wondering if…
- What if I…
Holding the cards up reminds students of two things:
- This is the teacher-only portion of the mini-lesson, so don’t offer help.
- These sentence stems help a reader navigate and successfully apply a specific comprehension skill.
After introducing the cards during a mini-lesson, many teachers give students the same cards to talk through their own thinking while working through a complex passage or difficult math problem.
After the Think Aloud
After the teacher has illustrated a skill in action using the Think-Aloud strategy, the We-do portion of the lesson comes next. This is when the teacher asks the class to help her as she models a second example while applying the same skill.
In the I-do, the teacher is fostering engagement by delivering an “edutaining” lesson that includes an effective Think Aloud. During the We-do, engagement comes in the form of short “turn-and-talk” activities or other quick “every-student-response” prompts.
It’s only after students have received 10-20 minutes of teacher-led direct instruction that they are given the opportunity to dabble with a skill outlined in Step 4 of the lesson. This transitions into the You-do—which may be reading a text together and pausing to apply that skill when answering comprehension questions about the passage.
Students benefit when whole-class mini-lessons are packaged within the I-do, We-do, You-do framework. That’s because this lesson approach gradually guides students through an instructional scaffold that grows with them as they work toward mastery.
Teach reading comprehension with the gradual release of responsibility
Learning the necessary skills to comprehend reading is hard work. That’s why, when teaching reading comprehension, it’s so important to deliver instruction that builds a scaffold of understanding, piece by piece. And when one employs the gradual release of responsibility, it creates such a scaffold.
While the gradual-release framework is applicable in all content areas, the I-do, We-do, You-do rhythm is particularly relevant when teaching reading comprehension skills.
I do: Direct instruction
The gradual release of responsibility begins with an I do and the “I” is you, the teacher. For students to learn a reading comprehension skill, they first need to see their teacher, the expert, apply the skill by herself within a reading experience.
In a 4-step comprehension mini-lesson, the I do occurs within Step 2.
In Step 2A, plan to spend about five minutes explaining the skill. The purpose of this segment is to lay the groundwork for how the skill works.
After the five-minute explanation, Step 2B represents the next five minutes. This is when you will demonstrate the comprehension skill in action while sharing every step of your thinking while performing the skill.
During Step 2B of a comprehension mini-lesson, the teacher will read an excerpt and execute her thinking on that one skill – live and in front of the students.
Even though Step 2 is referred to as the I do, students have a role to play, also.
While I (the teacher) do, you (the students) watch and listen.
The I do is an opportunity for students to listen in as the teacher shares her otherwise invisible thoughts behind a reading comprehension skill. It’s during the I do that students learn how a complex skill works during the reading process.
We do: More direct instruction
After delivering the I-do segment of a comprehension mini-lesson, it’s tempting to expect too much from the students during the We do.
Instead, think of the We do more precisely as: I do another one; you help me.
The We do is another very controlled five minutes of the mini-lesson. The teacher reads aloud another text excerpt and reveals her pre-planned journey of thinking that answers the same skill-based questions.
Because it’s the We do, students are encouraged to participate in the thinking process. However, don’t expect students to contribute much at this stage. Remember, they are learning a new and complex skill that was introduced and demonstrated just moments earlier during the I do.
To lead an effective We do during a reading comprehension mini-lesson, reread the excerpt, set up the question, and pause to give students a chance to consider the answer before identifying the correct thinking.
The more experiences students have with the skill during the We do, the more successful they will be after the lesson in the You do.
You do: Practice with support
In the I-do, We-do, You-do instructional model, the You do happens after the mini-lesson concludes. This is when students are given the opportunity to experience the skill that was just taught.
But, keep in mind, you are still following the gradual release of responsibility. In other words, the end of the lesson isn’t the time to hand out independent or at-home assignments.
Instead, the You do is another gradual release toward independence. It’s not, You’re on your own and good luck. Instead, it’s You do, but I’m going to stay close by. It’s You do, and I help a lot.
During reading comprehension mini-lessons, these first You-do practices are often experienced within numerous whole-class read alouds. Such “practice” opportunities allow kids to pool their thinking in order to come up with an answer.
Their initial successes transition into students dabbling with the skill within collaborative small groups before being released to continue their practice in pairs.
In these early stages of the You do, students gain confidence in applying the skill, but the teacher is nearby to redirect as necessary. You do, I help less and less.
Eventually, the teacher ups the ante by assigning the skill within independent You-do tasks, like homework, literacy stations, and assessments.
When teaching a reading comprehension skill, using the I-do, We-do, You-do gradual release framework is the necessary scaffold to achieve the end goal: students can apply a skill independently while reading authentic text.
Use short texts to keep mini-lessons “mini”
To maximize every minute of reading comprehension mini-lessons, teachers must revise their definition of “text” used during the lesson models.
While you do need text to think about during the lesson, the longer the text you use, the less time you have to model your thinking. And that is the point of the mini-lesson—to teach the thinking required for reading comprehension. You want to use this segment of Tier I instruction to teach and model a single thinking skill.
Consequently, it’s important to recognize the purpose of the text being used in a lesson. This is not a time to read aloud a full-length text. In fact, this is usually not a new or cold text kids are seeing for the first time. Rather, focus on a single page, a paragraph, or an excerpt. Use just enough text to illustrate ONE example of the ONE skill being taught.
For example, if you are teaching perspective, select a familiar short story where the character’s feelings change frequently. Then, identify a single excerpt that implies how the individual thinks or feels in that moment. That couple of sentences is all the “text” you need to set up and model an I do on how to infer perspective.
Using the same text, find a second place where the character feels differently. Pare down the excerpt to a handful of sentences that provide the best clues as to the character’s perspective in this situation. This second example will be the “text” you reveal for the We-do experience.
Whether you retype the excerpt or scan and crop the page digitally, project the least amount of text needed to model the comprehension skill in action.
Group comprehension standards by thinking skills
Whether you teach kindergarten or high school, mapping out a plan for teaching all of the grade-level reading comprehension standards for literature and informational text can be overwhelming. This is illustrated by the fact that these two strands alone represent up to 20 different areas of mastery in the college and career-ready standards.
However, as noted by Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman in Pathways to the Common Core, the skills for reading literature and the skills for reading informational texts are reciprocal.
In other words, readers apply a common set of thinking skills when tackling both types of text. It’s not a matter of reading one way for literature and a different way for informational text.
With that in mind, rather than finding time to teach all the literature and informational text standards in isolation, it makes sense to pair reading comprehension standards together when the skills overlap.
For example, instruction on summarization applies to both literature and informational text. Similarly, teaching students how readers analyze author choices is relevant in both literature and nonfiction. Additionally, the overall comparative thinking process is the same regardless of the genres being compared.
Realizing that reading literature and reading informational text are two sides of the same coin can streamline both your planning and your instruction.
The emphasis shifts away from teaching about a single text or text type. Instead, the focus is on the most important part of reading comprehension instruction—teaching thinking.
Introduce the Reading Voice and Thinking Voice
Reading comprehension is an invisible process. It is a conversation that occurs in the reader’s head. The reader decodes a few words or sentences and then thinks about what they mean.
To help students grasp this process, introduce them to their reader voices.
Our Reading Voice decodes the text; it recognizes letters, words, visuals, and sounds. The Thinking Voice interprets or explains what each means.
The Reading Voice speaks loudly. But the Thinking Voice whispers. With this in mind, we have to be intentional about listening for the Thinking Voice. Too often students think that by simply saying all the words, they will understand what the text is about.
Introducing the two reader voices to students helps them recognize that readers are thinkers.
Model reader voices with the Comprehension Voice Signs
An effective way to illustrate the reader voices is to use the Comprehension Voice Signs as a visual trigger. During read-alouds and whole-class mini-lessons, reveal the signs and demonstrate how readers think while they read.
Hold the signs back to back and flip to the Reading Voice sign as you read aloud words and study visuals in a text.
Then, rotate the signs to show the Thinking Voice as you look away from the text and share a thought about what they mean.
Modeling the Reading Voice and Thinking Voice goes beyond a single mini-lesson. Rather, they should be referenced during your reading instruction all year long.
For example, plan to reference the reader voices when
- Introducing new skills within comprehension mini-lessons.
- Practicing previously-taught skills during a read-aloud.
- Applying relevant skills with content-area texts.
Constant reference to the reader voices will remind students to listen for their Thinking Voice and will ultimately improve achievement in reading comprehension.
Apply inference in every comprehension lesson
When we read any type of text or media and make conclusions about ideas that are not literally stated, we make an inference.
An inference isn’t a unique skill taught in a single lesson. Instead, it’s a fundamental reading process that is part of every comprehension standard.
The process of making an inference can be broken down into five steps:
Step 1: Read the text.
Step 2: Read and understand the inferential question.
Step 3: List the relevant details.
Step 4: Put thoughts together.
Step 5: Determine what they mean.
An effective way to execute this five-step process during daily comprehension instruction is with Roz Linder’s Silhouette Head.
This simple graphic organizer represents what occurs within the reader’s head. It reveals how he first thinks about the literal text details and then thinks beyond them to make an inference.
After reading a passage and its question (Steps 1-2), a student uses his Reading Voice to identify relevant details from the text. Each text detail noted outside of the Silhouette Head includes an individual thought noted inside the Silhouette Head. This is thinking about the text.
Then the reader continues to use his Thinking Voice to think beyond the text (Step 4). The reader reviews the individual details & thoughts collected and considers what they imply. This leads to the inference or the answer (Step 5)– written in the “neck” of the Silhouette Head.
Use the Silhouette Head during every comprehension mini-lesson to reinforce the application of the inference process. Ultimately, the goal is for students to execute an inference independently, automatically, and without the graphic organizer.
Get support for teaching reading comprehension
Plan your year of reading comprehension instruction during this powerful summer conference. Attend virtually or in-person.