eBASE, effective basic services:Reading Comprehension Strategies

Reading Comprehension Strategies

Very high impact for moderate cost based on extensive evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Reading comprehension strategies focus on the learners’ understanding of written text. Pupils learn a range of techniques which enable them to comprehend the meaning of what they read. These can include: inferring meaning from context; summarising or identifying key points; using graphic or semantic organisers; developing questioning strategies; and monitoring their own comprehension and then identifying and resolving difficulties for themselves (see also metacognition and self-regulation).

Strategies are often taught to a class and then practiced in pairs or small groups (see also collaborative learning approaches).

1. Reading comprehension strategies are high impact on average (+6 months). Alongside phonics it is a crucial component of early reading instruction.

2. It is important to identify the appropriate level of text difficulty, to provide appropriate context to practice the skills, desire to engage with the text and enough challenge to improve reading comprehension.

3. Effective diagnosis of reading difficulties is important in identifying possible solutions, particularly for older struggling readers. Pupils can struggle with decoding words, understanding the structure of the language used, or understanding particular vocabulary, which may be subject-specific.

4. A wide range of strategies and approaches can be successful, but for many pupils they need to be taught explicitly and consistently.

5. It is crucial to support pupils to apply the comprehension strategies independently to other reading tasks, contexts and subjects.

The average impact of reading comprehension strategies is an additional six months’ progress over the course of a year. Successful reading comprehension approaches allow activities to be carefully tailored to pupils’ reading capabilities, and involve activities and texts that provide an effective, but not overwhelming, challenge.

Many of the approaches can be usefully combined with Collaborative learning techniques and Phonics activities to develop reading skills. The use of techniques such as graphic organisers and drawing pupils’ attention to text features are likely to be particularly useful when reading expository or information texts.

There are some indications that approaches involving digital technology can be successful in improving reading comprehension (although there are relatively few studies in this area), particularly when they focus on the application and practice of specific strategies and the use of self-questioning skills.

Supporting struggling readers is likely to require a coordinated effort across the curriculum and a combination of approaches that include phonics, reading comprehension and oral language approaches. No particular strategy should be seen as a panacea, and careful diagnosis of the reasons why an individual pupil is struggling should guide the choice of intervention strategies.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), some research has shown that reading comprehension strategies can have a positive impact on the outcomes of early grade pupils. The Systematic Method for Reading Success (SMRS) in South Africa improved outcomes of primary pupils. Similarly, in the Malandi District of Kenya an experimental reading improvement trial showed the reading fluency of students in Kiswahili and English language made large improvements. In Liberia, the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) Programme increased reading fluency and comprehension considerably. Other interventions that use technology (in some cases a blend of technology and traditional teaching methods) to improve early literacy skills have reported positive gains in reading comprehension, although this evidence is less robust.

Despite the positive outcomes associated with introducing reading comprehension strategies at an early stage, some institutions in SSA introduce reading comprehension at a later stage. In other instances, inadequate professional development impedes an efficient implementation of reading comprehension strategies. Although there is significant evidence on the importance of reading strategies, it is not yet clear how widely these methods are used by teachers.

  • Several studies have been conducted with primary school age pupils, but the teaching of text comprehension strategies seems to be effective in both primary (+6 months) and secondary (+7 months) schools.

  • Although the emphasis is on reading, comprehension strategies have been used successfully in a number of subjects where it is important to be able to read and understand text.

  • Low-performing students seem to benefit in particular from explicit instruction in text comprehension strategies.

  • There is some evidence that approaches using digital technology can be successful in improving text comprehension, particularly when they focus on the application and practice of specific strategies and the use of self-questioning skills.

  • Shorter interventions, lasting up to 10 weeks, tend to be more effective. However, there are a few examples of successful longer interventions.

Reading comprehension strategies work through a number of different mechanisms – all focused on improving the understanding of meaning of text effectively. Common elements include:

  • explicit teaching of strategies;
  • teachers questioning pupils to apply key steps;
  • summarising or identifying key points;
  • metacognitive talk to model strategies;
  • using graphic or semantic organisers;
  • using peer and self-questioning strategies to practice the strategies (such as reciprocal questioning); and
  • pupils monitoring their own comprehension and identifying difficulties themselves.

Reading comprehension strategy interventions are typically delivered between one to three terms of a school year, either by teachers within class settings, or by teaching assistants with smaller groups.

Evidence suggests that reading comprehension approaches need to be tailored to pupils’ current reading capabilities, so it is important that teachers receive professional development in effective diagnosis as well as training in the use of particular techniques and materials.

The cost of training teachers and providing materials to deliver reading comprehension strategies are likely to be moderate. Evidence suggests that reading comprehension approaches need to be tailored to a pupil’s current reading capabilities, so it is important that teachers receive professional development in effective diagnosis as well as training in the use of particular techniques and materials. Sub-Saharan African countries have teacher training schools, programmes and curricula that can be redesigned to accommodate training in the use of these strategies. However, the cost could be high in contexts where digital technology is used to improve reading comprehension.

Effective teaching of reading comprehension strategies will also require a moderate amount of staff time, compared with other approaches. Alongside time and cost, school leaders should consider how to develop teachers’ ability to use specific techniques for particular pupils’ needs and ensure they use texts that provide an effective challenge to readers.

The security of the evidence around reading comprehension strategies is rated as high. 141 studies were identified that met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. Overall, the topic lost one padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

In SSA, there have been a number of randomised control trials that assess the impact of different strategies that seek to improve the reading comprehension abilities of pupils. The evidence includes mostly experimental studies carried out in South Africa, and other countries within the SSA sub region.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies141
Review last updatedJuly 2021