How to Improve your Comprehension Skills

To demonstrate the importance of comprehension while reading, please read two sentences written by my brother, who is an electrical engineer. Read them aloud if you are in a place where you can. `

“The power spectral density of the information sequence can have both continuous and discrete portions. If the information symbols are uncorrelated and have a mean of zero (as is the case with bipolar signaling and equally probable information symbols), the discrete component disappears.”

You probably didn’t have much trouble pronouncing the words in the passage. However, did you understand what you read? You probably didn’t, unless you have a degree in engineering. As you can see, reading without comprehension is useless.

In their book Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding, Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis present several strategies that can help students (or anyone) better understand what they read. I have found three to be particularly useful in the classroom with sixth graders.

1. Questioning The Strategy the Propels Readers Forward

On page 81 of their book, Harvey and Goudvis write, “Questions are the master key to understanding. Questions clarify confusion Questions propel us forward and take us deeper into reading. Human beings are driven to find answers and make sense of the world.”

One great thing about having students ask questions as they read is that their own questions will often be on a higher level than the questions we have for them!

I asked my sixth grade students to come up with a list of questions while reading the short story All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka. I had to be sure to tell them that these were questions to which they did NOT already know the answer. Here are some of their questions:

What does “disgraced” mean?
Why do the Chinese sanitize their vegetables?
What does “followed suit” mean?
Why are some words underlined?
What is a stalk?
Why don’t the Chinese eat dairy?
What is a curly carrot stick?

For each question, the students should gave a possible answer and how they got that answer. For example, they might find the answer in the text, in the dictionary, through inferring, or through class discussion.

2. Visualizing Movies in the Mind

The authors of Strategies that Work write on page 97, “When we visualize, we create pictures in our minds that belong to us and no one else.”

A simple way to help students visualize is to have them draw a picture after reading a descriptive passage. To introduce this strategy, I would read aloud the description of the barn near the beginning of E.B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web. The students would then draw a picture of the barn. Often their versions of the barn contained features mentioned in the text along with features they knew about from their own experience with barns. This was okay! They were creating a picture in their minds with which they could better understand the story.

Visualizing is also great to use with nonfiction, especially textbooks. After reading about the Great Wall of China in a social studies textbook, students could be given the following visualizing assignment.

How tall is the Great Wall of China? What else is this tall? Draw a picture comparing these two items. How long is the Wall? What city is this far from your home town? Draw a map comparing the length of the Great Wall to this distance.

3. Determining Importance in Text What’s the Point?

In my opinion, determining importance is the most important strategy for students to learn. If they aren’t able to recognize the most important aspects of what they are reading, they aren’t understanding what they are reading.

Determining Importance in Fiction

With some training, my sixth grade students improved drastically in their ability to recognize the key points in a piece of fiction. When they were reading a novel like Holes by Louis Sachar, their assignment was often to write down the key events in a certain chapter. At first, the students wanted to write down anything that was in the chapter at all, such as “Mr. Sir was eating sunflower seeds,” when it should have been “Stanley met Mr. Sir.” A good way to get students to recognize key events is to ask the question, “If this event didn’t happen, would the story be the same?” If the story would not be the same without the event, it is a key event. If the story could go on, it is a detail.

Once students are able to list out key events in a chapter, they are able to write a summary paragraph of a chapter. Putting the information in their own words is a true test of comprehension!

Determining Importance in Nonfiction

Harvey and Goudvis provide a few ideas for helping students determine importance while reading nonfiction.

Give the students three sticky notes with stars written on them and ask them to place the stars next to what they consider to be the three most important ideas in a certain section of text.

Teach your students nonfiction features that signal importance.
Fonts and effects titles, headings, boldface print, color print, italics, bullets
Cue words and phrases for example, in fact, in conclusion, most important, therefore, such as
Illustrations and photographs
Graphics diagrams, cross-sections, maps, word bubbles, tables, graphs, charts
Text organizers index, preface, table of contents, glossary, appendix

Teach key words. For example, in math students approach a problem differently based on the instructions. They might be asked to simplify an expression, evaluate an expression, or solve an equation.


Good readers use these strategies implicitly. They ask questions as they read, they visualize what they are reading and relate the text to something familiar, and they recognize which parts of the text are the most important. Struggling readers simply need a little assistance in doing what will eventually come naturally to them as well.