5 recommendations for improving reading comprehension in K-3

iStock_000016678101XSmallA panel of experts in reading instruction developed the following 5 recommendations for working with K-3 students to improve their reading comprehension. The recommendations in the What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide, Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade, are based on the panel’s review of the literature as well as on the experience and expertise of the 7 experts on the panel.

Each recommendation includes a rating of the level of research evidence supporting it (strong, moderate, minimal). The panel includes many examples of effective instruction practices and classroom activities throughout the guide. A few of them are included with each recommendation below.

Recommendation 1: Teach students how to use reading comprehension strategies. (strong evidence)

Teach reading comprehension strategies individually or in combination and by using a gradual release of responsibility. Among the strategies are questioning, visualizing, predicting/activating prior knowledge and monitoring, clarifying and fix-up, drawing inferences and summarizing/retelling.

Examples of activities:

  • Ask students to predict what will happen at the end of a story. Have them explain how they decided on their prediction, which encourages them to make inferences about what they are reading.
  • Put questioning words (e.g. where, why) on index cards and distribute to students. Have students form small groups and ask questions using these words.
  • Ask students to visualize what is described in the text and to describe what they see.
  • Write different reading comprehension strategies on cards and have students work in pairs to apply the strategies to text they don’t understand.
  • Identify key words in a passage and explain what students can learn about the passage from those words.


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Recommendation 2: Teach students to identify and use the text’s organizational structure to comprehend, learn, and remember content. (moderate evidence)

Explain how to identify and connect the parts of narrative texts and provide instruction on common structures of informational texts.

Examples of activities:

  • Provide opportunities for students to act out key passages.
  • Have students match up pictures representing causes and effects in a game-like activity.
  • Have students use the details in a descriptive paragraph to construct an illustration or 3-dimensional display.
  • Do compare-and-contrast exercises

Recommendation 3: Guide students through focused, high-quality discussion on the meaning of text. (minimal evidence)

Structure the discussion to complement the text, the instructional purpose, and the readers’ ability and grade level. Develop discussion questions that require students to think deeply about text. Ask follow-up questions to encourage and facilitate discussion. Have students lead structured small-group discussions (discussions will be more structured with younger students).

Discussions and questions should be grounded in state and national comprehension standards. Many state standards for younger students incorporate versions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standards which include 3 categories of comprehension: Locate and recall, integrate and interpret and critique and evaluate.

Examples of activities:

  • Have students identify the main ideas and supporting details
  • Ask students to compare and contrast information or actions by characters
  • Consider alternatives to what is presented in the text
  • Challenge students to judge either the likelihood that an event could actually occur or the adequacy of the explanation in the text
  • Synthesize what is read with other texts and experiences
  • Read a selection aloud and have students discuss it with a partner and then report back to the class

Recommendation 4: Select texts purposefully to support comprehension development. (minimal evidence)

Use multiple genres of text that are of high quality and offer a richness and depth of ideas and information. Choose texts with word recognition and comprehension that are appropriately difficulty for the students’ reading ability and the instructional activity. Use texts that support the purpose of instruction.

One study found that comprehension was better among 2nd-grade students exposed to text that clearly laid out the elements of the narrative than it was among similar students working with a poorly structured text. Another study found that 3rd-grade students appear to understand the distinction between informational and literary texts and that the structure of students’ summaries reflected that difference.

Examples of activities:

  • Begin with a text about a familiar topic in which the structure is easy to identify.
  • Move on to a text on a less familiar topic and with a somewhat more complex structure.
  • Avoid texts that only reinforce a student’s knowledge of sound-letter relationships.
  • To encourage students to make predictions, select a text in which many outcomes are possible.

Recommendation 5: Establish an engaging and motivating context in which to teach reading comprehension. (moderate evidence)

Help students discover the purpose and benefits of reading. Create opportunities for students to see themselves as successful readers. Give students reading choices and the opportunity to learn by collaborating with their peers.

Examples of activities:

  • Encourage students to think of questions that will lead them to texts that will hold their interest.
  • Let students choose whether to read to themselves, to a friend or stuffed animal, or to a tape recorder that will be reviewed later by the teacher
  • Pair a student who wants to read a book that is too difficult with a higher-performing reader. Both students can read aloud. As the higher-performing student practices reading fluently, he or she is modeling fluent reading to the other student.
  • Pair or group students to learn interesting facts from informational texts. Students can take turns sharing their favorite fact.

“Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade,” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, September 2010, NCEE 2010-4038. Guide is available at: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/readingcomp_pg_092810.pdf

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