The early grades are a time when young children can and should be building reading comprehension skills.
Most research focuses on reading comprehension skills for older children. A recent study in Preventing School Failure identifies strategies that work for grades K-3 based on 25 peer-reviewed studies that focused on building reading comprehension in this age group.
Below are the 5 strategies that are most effective in the early grades based on this review of the small number of studies currently available:
Peer-mediated strategies were not designed for very young students, but when modified for them, they have shown promise for improving reading comprehension.
Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) and Class-Wide Peer Tutoring (CWPT) are 2 peer-mediated learning strategies that can improve the reading comprehension of young students, including those with disabilities, according to this review of the research.
With each of these strategies, students are paired or grouped with others of different levels of ability and take turns in their roles as coach/tutor or tutee. Teachers often model the different roles for their students and provide structure and supervision.
In one study, low-achieving 1st graders who engaged in PALS activities such as predicting, shared book experiences and retelling, made gains in comprehension. When decoding and phonemic awareness skills were blended with comprehension activities, another study found that young students made less progress in decoding and fluency without increasing comprehension.
Peer-mediated learning may benefit students across different age groups. In one Flemish study, 3rd and 6th graders who engaged in cross-age tutoring were better able to articulate their reading strategies than those in the control group.
Having a broad and deep vocabulary is often associated with strong reading comprehension. Some researchers believe vocabulary knowledge is what makes reading and comprehending text possible.
Several studies examined the effects of vocabulary instruction embedded in storybooks read aloud to children in grades K through 3. Word banks, pictures and repetition were some of the vocabulary instruction strategies used during read-alouds. Teachers can introduce target vocabulary words before the story is read, highlight words during the reading and review words after the story has been read. Students also can construct sentences with the new words and evaluate whether the teacher and their peers are using the words correctly.
Children with greater pre-existing vocabulary may benefit more from vocabulary instruction than low-achieving students. One New Zealand study found that average-achieving students ages 6-8 made strong gains in vocabulary after participating in an intervention in which they listened to repeated readings of stories with explanations of target words, and the use of synonyms or definitions and pictures and role playing to explain the words. However, lower-achieving students did not make such gains.
Vocabulary instruction is very time-consuming in the early grades, but when teachers have a better understanding of how to provide it, their students have been demonstrated to perform better on vocabulary measures, according to the researchers.
Story Grammar and Text Structure
Teaching students about the structures of informational and narrative texts has been shown to increase comprehension of text. Students in the early grades can be taught to look for clue words that will reveal structure and to ask questions aimed at understanding the texts’ contents.
In a series of studies, students were taught how to identify theme in stories, compare-contrast text structure in science and the cause-effect text structure in social studies.
“These studies followed the same instructional design of teacher modeling, scaffolding that fades as students use the strategies independently, and repeated guided practice with feedback,” the researchers write.
Students in these interventions were more successful in transferring what they had learned to novel texts than their peers receiving traditional instruction. Time spent on teaching structure also did not take away from learning content.
Story mapping and other graphic organizers
Story mapping and graphic organizers help direct students’ attention in a text while prompting them to identify key “story grammar” elements.
In one study with 2nd-graders, students constructed a concept map of an informational text by using the book cover and subtitles. Students wrote the book title at the center and the subtitles in surrounding circles. During the shared reading, students added new concepts and main ideas to the class concept map and to their own individual concept maps. Students then used the maps to study for a comprehension test. Students who received the concept mapping instruction significantly outperformed students who received traditional read-and-discuss instruction.
In another study, 3rd graders who were taught using Scaffolded Reading Experience (SRE) in urban classrooms outperformed a control group on multiple choice assessments. Teachers also preferred SRE to other less formalized comprehension activities. SRE uses story maps as one element of reading comprehension instruction. Before reading, students are provided with background information and relevant vocabulary and make predictions based on the story title and illustrations.
Students with learning disabilities also seem to benefit from story mapping and other graphic organizers, according to the review of research.
The fifth important reading comprehension strategy for young students is self-questioning.
In one study, students were given 10 generic questions before they read a story. At two points in the story and again at the end, students activated a tape recorder and began self-questioning with all 10 questions. They were encouraged to make changes to their answers at each stopping point in the text. Students then listened to their responses prior to taking a comprehension test. Students had also engaged in story mapping to improve comprehension. When asked which strategy they preferred, students expressed a preference for self-questioning because they liked using the tape recorder.
In another study, students engaged in self-questioning to identify 3 text structures, cause-effect, compare-contrast and problem solution. The 2nd-graders were taught to survey a passage for clue words, to ask appropriate questions and to read to answer their questions. The teacher used think-alouds to model questioning. After they were familiarized with graphic organizers and the 3 types of text structures, students matched one of 3 graphic organizers to the correct text structure of each text. Literal and inferential comprehension increased for all participants as a result of the instruction, the authors write.
“Untangling Reading Comprehension Strategy Instruction: Assisting Struggling Readers in the Primary Grades,” by Jennifer Mahdavi and Lael Tensfeldt, Preventing School Failure, 2013, Volume 57, Number 2, pp. 77-92.