Research School Network: Reading Comprehension: What, Why and How An outline of the research behind reading comprehension strategies and what this can mean for teachers.

Reading Comprehension: What, Why and How

An outline of the research behind reading comprehension strategies and what this can mean for teachers.

by Durrington Research School
on the

According to the recently updated EEF Toolkit, interventions based on reading strategies are now ranked as second in terms of the potential positive impact on students’ progress. In fact, robust research indicates that primary students can make 6+ months progress, secondary students 7+ months and the impact on disadvantaged students can be even greater. However, whilst these statistics might seem simple, the reality, as we all know, is that reading is a complicated business, and teaching students how to do so is harder still.

What do we mean by reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension strategies are a range of techniques that support all students in understanding the meaning of what they read. In a nutshell, they are the techniques that expert readers use tacitly as they read to help them understand the text. These techniques often overlap with other areas of pedagogy, such as metacognition and oral language interventions, which are also ranked very highly in the EEF Toolkit. Five of the key reading comprehension strategies are:

1. Activating prior knowledge.
2. Prediction.
3. Questioning.
4. Clarifying.
5. Summarising.

Why can there be a greater positive impact on disadvantaged students?

As Caroline Bilton explains, many children come to school already honed to be strategic readers because they have experienced rich literacy interactions at home. These children expect to enjoy and learn from texts and have had early practice in doing so through a variety of methods – they have a sense of reading entitlement. For other children, however, these home experiences may be lacking or missing altogether. In these cases, the explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies is fundamental if these children are to have a chance of accessing the texts that are part of the daily diet of lessons. Compounding this issue is the effect of the Covid-19 partial school closures, a time during which some children will have engaged with many texts and some none at all. Consequently, teaching reading is something that we must recognise as a priority irrespective of the phase or subject we teach.

How can schools use reading comprehension strategies effectively in the classroom?

To start, Bilton provides some very helpful teacher prompts’ to support classroom teachers with their explicit teaching of comprehension when reading fiction books:


Ask me questions about any part of the text you are unsure about.
What would you like to find out more about?
What questions would like to ask the main character?
I wonder why…

Activate Prior Knowledge

What do you know about where/​when this story is set or the characters in the book?
Have you ever been/​seen before?
Have we read any other books about this?
Does this book remind you of any other books we have read?


Look at the front cover and title. What do you think might happen in this story?
Let’s look for clues. What do you think might happen next?
Why do you think that might happen?
That’s not what we expected. What do you think now?


Could you take this story home and tell it to a grown up?
What are the most important things to remember?


It’s important that you understand what we’re reading. If you’re not sure, we can go back and read it again.
Can you tell me what happened and why it might have happened?
Make a list of any words you are not sure about.

The research suggests that shorter-term interventions based the above techniques can be more effective than long-term approaches. For example, this could be a 10-week teaching period at the start of the year in which the comprehension strategies are taught through direct instruction, modelling and guided practice. Often, the strategies are explicitly taught to a class and then practised in pairs or small groups. Daniel Willingham suggests that a better long-term focus would then be increasing students’ vocabulary and background knowledge.

How might this work in secondary schools and for non-fiction texts?

The strategies outlined above can be very effective when teaching reading through fiction books, but what about when students reach secondary school? In this context, the research tells us that a lot of changes take place in regards to students’ reading requirements. Not only does the complexity of texts that the students encounter in class increase, but so does the quantity and type. Whilst on the surface this might seem like a barrier, the use of more challenging texts can actually be of benefit to comprehension teaching. This is because using more demanding academic texts means that students will need to bring to the fore the tools they use to read. Hence, what seems spontaneous for some will be revealed as strategies that are available and used by all.

Finally, in secondary schools, Bilton’s prompts, with some subject-specific adaptation, could dovetail neatly with disciplinary reading approaches, which you can read about here and here.

It is irrefutable that reading is at the heart of educational success. Reading comprehension strategies means that the power to ensure all young people can experience this success is very much in the hands of all classroom teachers.

Fran Haynes

To find out more about what the research evidence suggests about literacy teaching in secondary schools and how this can work in practice, join us at Durrington Research School for our training programme on secondary literacy. You can find out more details here.

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