Panel: K-3 is for developing reading comprehension, not just for decoding

iStock_000014442615XSmallThe approach many teachers take to K-3 reading instruction could best be summed up by the expression “you have to learn how to walk before you can run.” Especially in K-1, educators are focused on helping children learn how to read, rather than being overly concerned with the early development of reading comprehension skills.

K-3 Students Should Learn Reading Comprehension

Now, a new What Works Clearinghouse Practice Guide (Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade) says it’s never too early for teachers to work on developing reading comprehension. Teachers should be working with K-3 students to understand what they are reading at the same time that they are learning how to read, the report says. In other words, they should be teaching students how to run while they are still learning how to walk.

“Most research on improving reading comprehension concentrates on the upper grades, in which it is a more salient part of the curriculum,” writes the group of experts that developed the guide. “The panel, however, believes that the teaching of reading comprehension should begin in kindergarten and elementary school.”

The practice guide makes 5 major recommendations for working with students on reading comprehension at this early stage. Decoding instruction alone will not produce desired levels of reading comprehension for all students, the expert panel says.

Panel Recommendations

Based on its review of research and the expertise and experience of its members, the panel recommends some of these practices at this grade level:

  • Teach students how to identify and use the text’s organizational structure
  • Guide students through focused, high- quality discussions of the text
  • Have students lead structured, small- group discussions
  • Use multiple genres of text, including informational as well as narrative

From an initial pool of 812 original studies on improving reading comprehension for beginning readers, the panel selected 27 because they met its research standards and because of their relevance to the guide. The recommendations were rated as having strong, moderate or minimal evidence from the research. The guide is not meant as a complete or exhaustive summary of the findings of these studies, the panel says.

“The panelists, through their expertise and experience, used their collective judgment to determine the most valuable recommendations that could be made on this topic, and the guide then shows how the research evidence supports those particular recommendations,” the guide says.

The evidence for 2 of the 5 recommendations was rated as minimal. Nevertheless, the panel believed that these recommendations hold promise for developing the deeper understanding and critical thinking that enhances reading comprehension, according to the guide.

6 Ways the Improve Reading Comprehension

The current research identifies 6 skills and knowledge that are critical to building a student’s capacity to comprehend what he or she reads:

1. Word-level skills allow students to identify, or decode, words in text accurately and fluently. Instruction in this area includes phonemic awareness, word analysis strategies (especially phonemic decoding), sight word vocabulary, and practice to increase fluency while reading.

2. Vocabulary knowledge and oral language skills help readers understand the meaning of words and connected text. Instruction in this area includes activities to strengthen listening comprehension.

3. Broad conceptual knowledge includes not only general knowledge of the world but also knowledge drawn from science, social studies, and other disciplines. An information-rich curriculum helps support good reading comprehension.

4. Knowledge and abilities required specifically to comprehend text include an understanding of the different ways text can be structured and the ability to use a variety of cognitive strategies.

5. Thinking and reasoning skills such as those involved in making inferences are essential to reading comprehension as text becomes more complex.

6. Motivation to understand and work toward academic goals makes it more likely that students will intentionally apply strategies to improve their reading comprehension. It takes active mental effort to understand complex text, which is most likely to occur when a student is engaged.

Currently, teachers focus on the first 3 components in the early grades. The panel says educators need to work with students on the last 3 components in K-3 so that students will develop good comprehension skills.

“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:

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