Instructional Principles for Comprehension

Comprehension seems like a big, vague concept because it depends so heavily on personal interpretation of text. There might not be a single correct answer to the question “What does it mean?” Rather, students, like all readers, may have differing responses, interpretations, and reactions to the text they read. If they can show with logic, experience, and evidence that their interpretation is plausible, if they can demonstrate that information in the text supports their interpretation, they comprehend the text.

The instructional strategies and corresponding activities discussed later will describe how you can help students develop a personal, justifiable interpretation, which is the definition of comprehension. They are guided by four overarching principles for comprehension instruction.

  1. Instruction needs to build background knowledge.
  2. Instruction needs to require student work.
  3. Instruction needs to facilitate collaboration.
  4. Instruction needs to support differing opinions.

Build Background Knowledge

Whether students are reading fiction or non-fiction, they will need to know something about the topic. For example, they will likely need at least the following.

Nonfiction: basic information about the theme, issue, or topic; awareness of related concepts; historical information about the concepts; experience with the subject of the text; knowledge of basic vocabulary related to the subject. Without prior knowledge, readers cannot grasp the ideas and concepts being described and cannot determine either the quality of the information or how the information can be used.

Fiction: exposure to the genre; experiences, environment, or conditions similar to the character’s; knowledge of the historical period (if relevant); understanding of the context or situation in which the events occur. Without prior knowledge, readers cannot understand the events described in the text and cannot form impressions of why they happen.

The first stage in comprehension instruction is to make sure students have the prior knowledge they need. Until that happens, students are not ready to comprehend the text. You want to know what students already know, and then you help them address any gaps in knowledge. You can help students build their background knowledge before they read the text, but I don’t recommend it. New background knowledge is only relevant while students are reading the text. It does not have a purpose until students encounter information that requires it.

A better approach is to gauge students’ understanding throughout the reading process and then help them build the background knowledge they need when they experience comprehension problems. Rather than waiting until students finish reading the entire text or designated portion (such as a chapter), provide multiple opportunities to stop reading, discuss what they understand or not, ask questions about the content, and gain the knowledge that will help them interpret what they are reading.

The only exception is vocabulary. Before beginning to read a new text, take time to identify and study unfamiliar words. See the chapter on vocabulary for information and strategies for studying vocabulary prior to reading.

Students Do the Work

The best advice I ever received during teacher training was in the form of a question: What do you want students to do? More than 30 years later, I still consider this question every time I provide training and professional development for adults. This question is particularly important to comprehension instruction.

The easy approach to comprehension instruction is to have students read a text and then to give them your interpretation. This approach does not produce student comprehension. It can only produce either compliance if students are willing to accept your authority or conflict if students have a different opinion. Neither option is comprehension. Because we are helping students develop their own justifiable interpretation, they need to do most of the work.

The work can take many forms, some of which you will see later in the sample activities. It includes graphic organizers, reflective writing, research, and discussion. Overall, we want students to think critically about the text, consider how the content aligns with their schema, engage in analysis and further study, and determine how they can use the information. We can not do this for them: they have to do the work themselves.

Facilitate Collaboration

As mentioned in chapter two, “Principles of Reading Instruction,” students learn to read by working together. This is especially important for comprehension. The more perspectives, experiences, ideas, and information a student has available when reading a text, the more able the student will be to create a justifiable interpretation. Of course, students bring their own schema to the process, but they can also draw from the schema of other students. For this to happen, students need to collaborate on comprehension activities.

Your role, then, is to design instructional activities that student can work on together. There is a place for individual work, but students will benefit from combining their individual efforts into a collaborative effort. They can compare their ideas, share information and perspectives, and constructively criticize their own and other students’ ideas. For example, you might have students create their own graphic organizers, which they can then discuss with other students to create a graphic organizer that encompasses their mutual ideas.

The next section, “What Works for Comprehension Instruction,” will address the strategy of discussion. Discussion is the most powerful strategy for improving reading comprehension. The main reason why it is so powerful is discussion allows for sharing ideas and information to help all participating students deepen and strengthen their comprehension of the text and develop a personal, justifiable interpretation. Students cannot have discussions alone. They must do it together.

Support Differing Opinions

The goal of comprehension instruction is not for all students to agree, whether with each other or with you. The goal is to help students develop an interpretation that they can justify. When student work collaboratively, when they are asking questions and providing ideas, when they are adding to their knowledge and to each other’s, when they are providing their interpretations receiving feedback, they will develop and adjust their interpretations until they are able to justify them.

This process will have one of two outcomes. Either students will develop a shared interpretation or they will develop differing interpretations. If, following discussion, students have differing interpretations of the text, then the result looks like this:

As depicted here, students are sharing information and ideas with one another, but they still apply their individual schema to create different interpretations.

On the other hand, if they find a common interpretation, then the result looks like this:

As depicted in this image, students are sharing information and ideas with one another, but they create a common interpretation of the text. Very often, students will begin with their individual interpretations and then, through collaboration, modify or enhance their understandings to reach a shared conclusion about the text.

Both are acceptable, and both outcomes should be encouraged. In fact, differing opinions provide great opportunities for critical analysis. Students can compare and contrast their ideas, identify strengths and weaknesses of others’ ideas, and learn to argue constructively to support their own ideas. And that leads to comprehension.