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Model Strategies To Improve Reading Comprehension For All Students

Laura Robb

Model Reading Strategies To Improve Comprehension For All Students"But I'm not a reading teacher. I teach literature." I hear this comment repeated again and again as I coach teachers in Virginia, New York, and Michigan and conduct workshops for middle and high school teachers around the country.

I'm sympathetic to their words because these teachers have had little to no formal training in teaching reading. However, reading  and reading comprehension is a part of daily learning, not only in the primary grades, but in grades 4 and up; and studies by the U.S. Department of Education (2003) indicate that more than 8 million students in grades 4 to 12 are struggling readers. In addition, high school students in the lowest 25 percent of their class are 20 times more likely to drop out of school than are excellent and proficient learners (Carnevale, 2001).

For me, the choice of whether or not to teach reading — even if you're not a reading teacher — is obvious: Middle and high school students need reading instruction, especially students who struggle because they read three or more years below grade level. Annually, struggling readers slide further behind; they can't and don't read in English and content subjects, and they don't choose reading as an independent activity.

Some schools have added a special reading intervention class to support striving adolescent learners, but that's not enough.

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In an area high school, I worked with ninth graders reading on a third to fifth grade level. Success was high as long as students learned at their instructional levels. However, their self-confidence and motivation to read roller-coastered each day because in their English class they were expected to read Animal Farm (1993) by George Orwell as well as ninth grade–level textbooks in science and social studies. In my class, students rode the crest of the roller coaster and earned A's and B's; in other classes, their ride plummeted to the valleys as they earned D's and F's.

We can repair this disconnect between an intervention class and the regular ninth grade curriculum by taking an interrelated two-pronged approach:

  • supplying middle and high school teachers with multiple texts at diverse reading levels for instruction and
  • providing ongoing professional study that shows teachers how to use multiple texts and teach reading strategies to reach every student in classes with mixed reading levels (Robb, 2007; Tomlinson, 1999, 2002).

Let's look at the experience of Katie, a teacher that I coach.

Katie teaches a ninth grade heterogeneous English class at Lee High School in Staunton, Virginia. In a study of life in the South prior to civil rights legislation, she was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird (1982) by Harper Lee, a book that only 30 percent of the students could read.

So she expanded the possibilities by adding Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), The Friendship (1987), and The Gold Cadillac (1987). This way, every student was able to read and contribute to discussions and projects. Katie explained that the benefits went beyond engaging students in texts they could read to bringing multiple perspectives to this pre-civil rights study (Robb, 2002; Zarnowski, 2006). Katie also included teaching reading and vocabulary strategies within the research-tested three-part reading framework of applying strategies before, during, and after reading (Gillet & Temple, 1990; Robb, 2000, 2007; Tierney & Readence, 2000).

The Read-Aloud: A Multipurpose Teaching Strategy

To accomplish the shift from teaching one book to all students to using multiple texts, I use the read-aloud as a common teaching text. Not only am I reading aloud to model how strategies work, but I'm also developing students' listening skills. The common texts I choose are short — I teach with poetry; passages from picture books, short stories, and articles; and sections from longer texts. If the selection is complex, I make an overhead transparency so students can follow my modeling.

This thinking aloud is important for all middle and high school learners, for it shows them what happens in your mind and emotional center as you read. When I ask struggling readers what goes on inside their minds when they read, the response is unanimous: "Nothing!" Their reaction helps me understand why they don't read, for reading texts without imagining, questioning, connecting, thinking, and feeling is simply saying words. Each time you model how reading strategies work becomes an opportunity to show students what happens inside your mind when reading is enjoyable.

One of the most powerful strategies for supporting the development of mental pictures and connections is visualizing. And when you include as many of the five senses as you can — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling — you enrich visualizations by building connections with past experiences and the emotions surrounding them.

Let me walk you through a lesson that I facilitated for ninth graders on visualizing. I used the following four-line poem by Emily Dickinson:


Where ships of purple gently toss On seas of daffodil, Fantastic sailors mingle, And then — the wharf is still.

One purpose of describing the lesson here is to demonstrate that creating mental pictures with sensory images and memories can increase reading comprehension and build strong personal connections. The "walk-through" below provides suggestions along with my think-alouds that can guide your planning for building reading instruction around the three-part framework.

Paint Mental Images Using Your Senses—Before-, During-, and After-Reading Strategies

In addition to showing students how using the senses can increase understanding by building strong mental pictures, I wanted them to discover and come to understand what an extended metaphor was through their experience and my think-aloud.

Before Students Read

Reading starts before opening a text, and getting students ready to read is as important for them as it is for you and me. When students share with a partner and then with the entire class, preparation can enlarge background knowledge and introduce vocabulary. At this point, students' responses let you know whether they have enough background information to proceed with the reading. If not, take some time to build students' prior knowledge by using picture books, photographs, and video clips. The more students know about a topic, the better their recall and understanding. Moreover, increased comprehension enables students to use the facts and details in a text to analyze information and build new understandings.

First, I prepare ninth graders to read and visualize using their senses. I ask them to pair-share about sunsets for about three minutes. What did the sky look like? What did you hear? Smell? Any connections you made or emotions felt? Here are some student ideas I wrote on large chart paper:

The sky changes color. I see bars of pinks and purples and grays. I feel the soft wind and think of the ocean and the smell of salt. I hear insects humming. I see bats. I can taste evening—the dew, the dark that's coming. I remember watching the sun, like a red ball of fire, descend below the mountain me and my family climbed.

Next I read the poem aloud three times. Poems should be heard and enjoyed before students analyze them. With a short selection from a text, it's helpful to read it twice and let students know that they need to listen carefully to observe how you are applying the strategy. I also like to give students something to think about—something they will do after I model.

During Reading

This is the time to pause and think aloud and show how you use your senses to visualize and build comprehension. Too often, we teachers wait to build students' understanding after reading. I want this process to start during reading. Here's my think-aloud for the poem:

Robb's Think-Aloud:

The words ships, toss, and seas make me compare the sunset to the ocean. The word toss makes me feel a wind that moves purple strips across the sky. Seas connects me to the blueness of the sky and helps me feel and see how vast the sky and sea are. Daffodil helps me imagine the bits of yellow sun that still light up the sky. The name of the flower with a golden trumpet raises memories of the sounds of evening that approaches and the sound of the wind gently tossing ribbons of clouds.

The last two lines also use ocean words. Fantastic sailors creates a picture of purples and yellows in different shapes. Mingle helps me see the colors mixing as evening approaches. Wharf in the last line means a dock, and I hear the waves lapping, I taste the salty evening, I see darkness settling in just like a ship docks at a wharf. I think Dickinson is using the sea to help me picture the sunset as she saw it. The sea images narrow the kinds of pictures and connections I can make.

At this point I invite students to pair-share about my think-aloud and offer their observations. Here are some points ninth graders made:

I think you reading it a few times helped me see the sea words. I never thought that the sea and sunset had that much in common. It's like she [Dickinson] used one big comparison.

At this point, I compliment students on their thinking and listening and introduce the phrase "extended metaphor." I explain that it is the same comparison used throughout the poem and that Dickinson helped us visualize and use our senses to see the sunset she saw by comparing it to the sea and using words we associate with the sea.

After Reading

This is a time for reflection, which aids recall and the skill of making connections, and can include discussion, writing, drawing, etc. It's also the appropriate time for students to apply what they have learned to other texts.

I divide these ninth graders into groups of four, give each one a poem with an extended metaphor, and invite them to explore and discover the comparison and use this along with their senses to visualize, build comprehension, and make connections. Each group has its own copy of the poem and one copy on an overhead transparency so the group can present its learning to the class.

Closing Thoughts

When you show with think-alouds how a strategy works, students can step inside your head and better understand how visualizing (or another strategy) supports reading. Moreover, using the read-aloud as your common teaching text will enable you to offer groups reading materials they can apply the strategy to because they can read them.

What strategies do you use in your classroom to improve reading comprehension? Share in the comments section!


  • Carnavale, A. P. (2001). Help required. Washington, DC: Educational Testing Service, Office of Public Leadership
  • Gillet , J. W., & Temple, C. (1990). Understanding reading problems: Assessments and instruction (3rd ed.). New York: HarperCollins.
  • Lee, H. (1982, orig. publ. 1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York: Warner Books.
  • Orwell, G. (1993, orig. publ. 1945). Animal farm. New York: Everyman's Library.
  • Robb, L. (2000). Teaching reading in middle school: A strategic approach to reading that improves comprehension and thinking. New York: Scholastic.
  • Robb, L. (2002). Multiple text: Multiple opportunities for teaching and learning. Voices from the Middle, 9(4), 28-32.
  • Robb, L. (2003). Teaching reading in social studies, science, and math: Practical ways to weave comprehension strategies into your content area teaching. New York: Scholastic.
  • Robb, L. (2008). Differentiating reading instruction. New York: Scholastic.
  • Taylor, M. (1976). Roll of thunder, hear my cry. New York: Viking.
  • Taylor, M. (1987). The friendship. New York: Puffin.
  • Taylor M. (1987). The gold Cadillac. New York: Puffin.
  • Tierney, R. J., & Readence, J. E. (2000). Reading strategies and practices: A compendium. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Tomlinson, C. A. (2002, September). Different learners, different lessons. Instructor Magazine.
  • U.S. Department of Education. (2003). Nation's report card: Reading 2002. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Zarnowski, M. (2006). Making sense of history: Using high-quality literature and hands-on experiences to build content knowledge. New York: Scholastic.

(Originally published at ADLIT In Perspective, April, 2007 and reprinted with permission of the author, Laura Robb).

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