Strategies for Improving Reading Comprehension Skills

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Reading is a skill that children develop throughout each new grade. While many students master the mechanics of reading and have the ability to process information, many children have difficulty with reading comprehension. Students with learning disabilities typically lack basic strategies that good readers use. Strategies play a key role in helping all children learn and perform certain reading tasks.

Two useful strategies for effective reading comprehension are metacognitive awareness and cognitive strategies. Metacognitive awareness is a reader’s ability to self-evaluate their own learning process and what is necessary to achieve desired results in a specific learning task. Cognitive strategies are specific, useful tools in helping students improve reading comprehension.

When assigned a challenging reading passage, there are three phases that improve comprehension: pre-reading (the reader creates a plan or strategy for reading a specific passage), reading (the reader applies specific strategies to clarify understanding of the text and monitors his/her own understanding) and post-reading (the reader reflects on the passage, encodes key details into long-term memory, and makes inferences about the passage). Fortunately, there are specific strategies that children who struggle with reading comprehension can utilize to improve reading comprehension at each of these three phases.

Direct Instruction

The most effective strategy shown to improve reading comprehension in students, especially those with learning disabilities, is direct instruction coupled with strategy instruction. Direct instruction in reading comprehension involves the teacher providing a step-by-step strategy and modeling effective strategies to understand a particular reading passage. It includes information on why and when to use the strategy and provides systematic practice for students using different examples. The teacher engages in dialogue with the students by asking prompting questions and encouraging students to ask questions. A transition is made from teacher-centered instruction toward independent reading.

Strategy Instruction

Strategy instruction is a student-centered approach that involves teaching a plan or variety of strategies to identify patterns in words and key passages, as well as identify the main idea in a text. The teacher sequences different tasks for the students starting with easy and progressing to challenging.

An example of an easier strategy would be a teacher telling his/her students to listen to a story and choose the best title among a list of possible titles. An example of a more challenging task would be for the student to independently read a passage and answer the question at the end, which may ask him/her to draw an inference to the context.

Many children with learning disabilities benefit from having a reader to model proper decoding of words and help them remain focused on the story. Upon completion, the teacher will go back to the beginning of the story and ask a series of prompting questions aloud to help the students determine the answer to the question at the end of the story.

Strategic instruction provides students with very specific and systematic actions for reading comprehension. For example, a series of short activities, such as reviewing vocabulary from a previous lesson followed by highlighting new words in a passage and blending them together, is done to specifically target skills to improve reading comprehension. Upon learning how to identify key elements in a context, children with learning disabilities will be able to apply these strategies to other reading tasks.


It is important for teachers to refrain from providing students with the right answer to a reading comprehension question, but rather re-word an explanation, ask prompting questions or suggest strategies that students can use to derive the answer on their own. Encourage children to re-read passages they don’t understand and look for context clues to help them effectively process the text. Students must master each step in the reading process to best master reading comprehension skills.

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  • McCallum RS, Krohn KR, Skinner CH, et al. Improving reading comprehension of at-risk high school students: The art of reading program. Psychology in the Schools. 2010;48(1):78-86.

  • Pressley M, Wharton-McDonald R. Skilled comprehension and its development through instructionSchool Psychology Review. 1997;26(3):448-467. doi:10.1080/02796015.1997.12085878

By Douglas Haddad
Douglas Haddad is an award-winning teacher and best-selling author, covering learning disabilities and other topics related to education.