Four Do's and Don't's When Teaching Reading Comprehension

By Jane Oakhill

Perhaps you’re familiar with this student: 8 years old, let’s say, and a super solid reader. At least he or she seems to be. But when you ask questions about the text—who did what, when, and why?—you find his/her comprehension to be surprisingly lacking.

What’s going on with kids who can read—but who can’t understand what they’re reading?

Jane Oakhill loves that question. A professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, Oakhill is a leader in the field of reading comprehension. (She also serves as an expert academic advisor for Aqua, a supplemental reading curriculum in development by the team at Amplify.) A key feature of Dr. Oakhill’s work is the focus on the importance of what she and her colleagues call a “mental model” of the text. That is an integrated representation of the text as a whole, which skilled readers formulate automatically as they absorb the meaning of a text. Weaker readers need help building good mental models. Oakhill has some thoughts about how to do that, and how to support readers at all levels in your classroom.

  1. “Good teaching of reading comprehension doesn’t require that much actual reading.” Of course we always want to encourage reading in general, and foster a love of it, too. But prolonged individual sessions of reading texts and answering questions about them may have diminishing returns. (“Please, no comprehension ‘exercises!’” she says.) Instead: “A huge amount can be accomplished orally, reading to the class, getting them to discuss.” Modeling the process of analysis and inference (“I’m wondering why Mary is in a hurry”) for all students, not just those who are struggling, helps build reading automaticity and independence across the board.
  2. “Ask them what they don’t understand.” Oakhill observes that teachers often ask, “Who gets this?” Instead, work to build the skills that drive understanding—including monitoring one’s own comprehension and stopping to sort things out rather than shrugging and moving on. Encouraging questions—and also debating the answers—also “goes across all abilities. All students can engage,” says Oakhill. “Rewarding students for expressing what they don’t understand gives the poorer comprehenders more confidence. They join in more because they notice that the ‘top’ kids don’t understand everything either. It’s also efficient because it’s class-level teaching.”
  3. “Don’t teach definitions and dictionaries.” There’s limited payoff there, Oakhill says. Instead: “Get them actively thinking about and discussing words, inferring meaning from text, and using morphology and context.” That one may not surprise, but there’s some nuance within. “Poorer readers are less good at learning new vocabulary from context,” says Oakhill. But they’re also poorer at using the vocabulary they do have to support the building of a mental model. Helping poorer readers develop and use their vocab skills may help. (Oakhill’s work also includes exploration of the distinct roles that breadth and depth of vocabulary play in comprehension. Breadth is how many words you know; depth is what you know about those words, including how they relate to other words; being able to make quick, automatic associations among related works may aid comprehension by supporting inference-making. “We don’t know if training depth of vocabulary would be beneficial, but it would be neat to find out,” says Oakhill.)
  4. Patience! With students, and with yourself. Oakhill empathizes: “It’s hard for teachers to think about the basic nuts and bolts of comprehension because they can do it—it’s automatic. That makes it hard to pull apart the components and support students’ learning.” But every bit of insight into how comprehension works can help you get inside your students’ heads—and help them really get what they read.


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