How to Help Students Struggling with Reading Comprehension

“Stop,” says the teacher standing at the front of her Grade 4 classroom. “It’s not ‘Wed-nes-day’, you say it ‘Wensday’. You try.”

“Wensday,” the class drawls.

“Good. Again, from the top of the page.”

The class continues to read aloud together, in a sing-song tone. This method of oratorical reading is not uncommon in South African teaching, and while it’s an effective strategy for fluency and pronunciation, it does nothing for comprehension skills. If you had to stop and ask the children what the story is about, you’re likely to receive blank stares as an answer.

The problem with this approach is evident; according to The Progress in International Literacy Study (PIRLS), 78% of Grade 4 students in South Africa cannot understand what they’re reading. While there was minimal improvement from students writing in Sesotho, isiNdebele, Xitsonga,Tshivenda, and Sepedi, South Africa came last out of 50 surveyed countries.

Studies show that many teachers teach and grade the way they were taught; it’s a vicious cycle of incomprehension.

Helping students who struggle with comprehension

There are professional development courses available that will make you a better teacher, which at the end of the day positively impacts your students. You can also earn CPTD points at the same time with this effective half-day workshop.

In the meantime, here are five strategies to help learners who read fluently but lack comprehension.

Focus on overall comprehension

Despite schools’ common oracular teaching approach, research shows that comprehension difficulties may stem from an underlying oral language weakness that exists before reading is even taught. Students who have poor reading comprehension often understand fewer spoken words, and have worse spoken grammar. To address this teachers need to focus on teaching vocabulary, thinking skills, and comprehension first in spoken language, then in written language.

Focus on vocabulary

If students with poor comprehension often have poor vocabulary and understand less of what they hear, it makes sense to teach them the meaning of new words. While it’s impossible to know every word one might come across, students can be taught how to interpret context clues to deduce the meaning of unknown words. Teaching students how to use dictionaries and Google to look up the meaning of words will also be extremely helpful. Increasing overall language skills will increase the chance of understanding written words.

Teach thinking strategies

Once learners have the vocabulary to make it through text, they often lack the thinking skills or sustained attention to keep up with all the important details and information that is implied. Educators can teach their learners to use the following strategies to help strengthen cognitive skills:

  • Asking questions while reading
  • Discussing prior knowledge
  • Thinking aloud
  • Visualising what they are reading
  • Connecting the material to another text or personal experience
  • Going back in the text to look for keywords
  • Rereading in order to clarify or answer questions
  • Making predictions about what will happen next

Use reciprocal teaching

Once students know how to use the above strategies, they can be practised through reciprocal teaching. This method can be employed during class discussions, when the text is read aloud, or in groups. The children should take turns with these roles:

  • Questioner: asks questions about the lesson, discussion, or text
  • Summariser: sums up each important detail from the lesson, discussion, or text
  • Clarifier: addresses the Questioner’s enquiries and makes sure the parts they found confusing are clear to the rest of the class
  • Predictor: makes a prediction about what will happen next based on what was presented, discussed, or read.

Actively teach comprehension skills

Skills such as sequencing, story structure (using the plot mountain), inference, figurative language and how to draw a conclusion should all be taught. They should try to use these skills first with text that they hear from the teacher, then with text that they read on their own at their own level.

Educators can teach these skills at a class or individual level, and help improve the reading comprehension of our nation’s children. Reading is worthless if you cannot understand the meaning.

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