Reading Comprehension: Process and Strategies


By Margaret C. Brophy, M.S.Ed.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

One of the primary missions of any educational institution is to produce graduates who are literate. The ability to derive meaning from print is central to the definition of literacy. Many people assume that, by the time students enter college, they have reading skills adequate to the task of learning course material through textbook reading.

Educated people take the ability to read for granted; it is something they learned early in life in a natural way, similar to the way they learned their native language. At some point, early in life, the symbols printed on the page made sense. They figured out the code and have used it ever since as a tool for communication, education, and pleasure. When material becomes difficult, skilled readers employ a variety of strategies so "second-nature" that they are not even aware of them.

But some people are not so fortunate. For some college students, the printed word presents all manner of obstacles: grammatical, lexical (vocabulary-related), and knowledge-related. Textbook sentences are long and complex, chock full of idioms, unfamiliar terms, and excess verbiage. Furthermore, the information may be absent from the student's knowledge and experience base. These students may dive into the reading assignment with every good intention of "doing the homework," but quickly get bogged down. They struggle to decode the meaning of each word, yet fail to grasp the overall flow of ideas. Reading, for them, is a frustrating and overwhelming effort with little payoff. These students are at risk in reading situations because "they command a limited repertoire of strategies. Often they aren't sure what strategies are important in particular reading tasks or how or when to use the strategies they do possess" (Vacca & Vacca, 1996).

For the student with limited English language proficiency, limited English vocabulary, and lack of strategy awareness, the printed page may pose overwhelming obstacles. What can a content-area teacher do to enhance the reading skills of students so that they realize more gain from their reading efforts? When teachers understand the process nature of reading and have strategies available for use at each stage, the assignment of reading can be a more rewarding activity. When students are able to engage with text in an active and focused way, their time spent will reap benefits of greater content learning and enhanced literacy.

For the content-area teacher, the learning of course concepts is, of course, the priority. Class time is a precious commodity, and in an academic term there is seldom enough time to present, in depth, everything that is required for mastery of a topic. So instructors assign textbook reading as a means of augmenting classroom instruction. A textbook offers in-depth explanation of terms and concepts related to the field of study. By reading a textbook, students can build their knowledge base outside of class, so that the class time can be used for clarification and application of the read material. However, if the students cannot derive meaning from their reading efforts, what is the benefit? Is there some way to bridge the gulf between a student's reading ability and the challenge of a college textbook?

This module does not presume to be a panacea for all the woes faced by poor readers in college classes. The goal of this module is to offer some insight into the process of reading, and some suggestions of strategies which, when employed, may optimize a student's active engagement with the reading task.

Contents of This Module

  • An overview of the reading process
  • A description of the tasks of each stage in the reading process
  • Instructional strategies which can provide support at each stage

Possible Positive Outcomes

  • Students may understand more of the material, so the quality of their classroom participation will improve.
  • Students may feel more confident about their ability to read and so will feel more motivated.
  • Teachers will have the benefit of better informed and more motivated students.
  • More class time can be spent on elaborating the knowledge base, rather than building it.

Process Summary

"What is reading?" Ask a random person on the street this question and he or she might shrug and say, "Gee, it's just looking at the words on the page. If you can see, you can read." Well, the act of creating meaning from the symbols on the page is considerably more complex and draws on linguistic, cognitive, and experiential abilities beyond just the mere perception of typographical marks. The comprehension of written texts requires interpretation of language in print form. To make sense of those symbols, one must have a grasp of the "language code"-to have a storehouse of words in one's personal vocabulary and to understand how sentences are constructed in the language.

Reading is more than just knowing words and grammar, however. Think of a piece of text you perceive as gobbledygook: the annual report from your stock fund, tax publications, etc. You, as a fluent user of the language, can "read" the words but may have no understanding of the intended message.

To derive meaning from print, for it to make sense beyond mere "decoding," the reader must have a knowledge base, or "mental schema," in order to make associations with the concepts presented in the text. A person in the act of reading is actively, if unconsciously, engaged in a dialogue with the text, figuring out its meaning, linking it with known material or world experience, perhaps questioning or challenging the ideas presented on the page.

Definition of Reading

Many theories abound, but current thinking in the field of reading research proposes this definition of reading as "an interactive process in which the reader's prior knowledge of the world interacts with the message conveyed directly or indirectly by the text" (Smith, 1995, p. 23). Let's "unpack" that definition:

Reading is a process. As such, it has various stages (before-, during-, and after-reading) at which different tasks need to be performed.

Reading is interactive. The mind of the reader interacts, conducts a dialogue, actively engages with the text to decode, assign meaning, and interpret.

The reader applies prior knowledge of the world to this act.

There is a message to be conveyed or constructed.

Skilled readers understand the process and employ different strategies automatically at each stage. Content area teachers can enhance a student's ability to understand the process and employ effective reading skills through classroom activities referred to as "instructional scaffolding" (Vacca & Vacca, 1996).

Instructional Scaffolding

Instructional scaffolding of strategy instruction is a metaphor that refers to the idea of "initial, teacher-directed support, gradually withdrawn as the student gains facility with the skills." For each of the stages in the reading process that follow, the instructional scaffolding methodology can provide guidance to the student who needs support. Hallmarks of the instructional scaffolding methodology include (a) teacher modeling and explanation of the strategy, (b) guided practice, and (c) peer/collaborative learning opportunities.

Teacher modeling and explanation of the strategy involves the following steps:

Explain the strategy and why it is important.

Model (demonstrate) how to do it. The teacher uses a "think aloud" method to illustrate his/her thought process as he/she employs the strategy.

Explain when to use the strategy.

Guided practice involves the following:

Teachers and students practice the skill together, with the instructor providing feedback and correction.

The following peer/collaborative learning opportunities can occur either prior to or after reading:

Students work in peer groups to practice the target skills.

Through "reciprocal teaching," the teacher may demonstrate the skill on one "chunk" of text and then turn the reins over to a student who demonstrates the skill on the next section.

Stage One

The reader's task prior to reading is to activate his or her prior knowledge of the topic, to prepare the mind to interact with the new information contained in the text. Schema is another term for the prior knowledge base each reader possesses about a topic. Schema is a network of concepts, experiences, and associations that students bring to their interactions with the printed page.

Rather than just "diving in cold" and reading word by word with eyes tending to glaze over, skilled readers, like skilled athletes, ready themselves for the task. As an athlete prepares to exercise by doing warm-up exercises, so does a reader "warm up" the mind. Each textbook reading experience does not have to be an arduous and frustrating exercise if students realize that they possess some knowledge already and that this text material will augment what they already know.

Tasks of the Before-Reading Stage

In the before-reading stage, the teacher can use tasks and follow strategies to motivate students to engage in the reading process. One way to motivate students is to help them to activate their prior knowledge of the topic (schema). In general, the teacher can help students create a focus for their reading efforts, to set a purpose for the reading.

Strategies to Activate Prior Knowledge

The teacher can do much in the classroom to prepare students for their readings. Prior to class, the teacher can anticipate student needs by:

Previewing the chapter and determining which concepts are essential.

Reading over the material with an eye to student needs. How much foundation building will the students need to understand these concepts?

Asking "Where are the trouble spots in this chapter?"

Noting resources offered by the text, such as the glossary, list of objectives, margin notations, and end-of-chapter summaries and questions.

In-Class Strategies

In class the teacher can help to build a bridge between information which is "known" and information which is "new." To build a bridge between known and new, the teacher can:

Review what has been learned to date.

Ask "What do we already know?" For example, in a business text's chapter on global business, recall that the previous chapter dealt with "U.S. Business."

Ask questions to draw on students' life experiences: "Do you know any companies that operate worldwide?"

"What problems do you think an American company might have overseas?"

Use the table of contents of the text to put the new topic in context.

Link new material to concept maps or webs of material learned previously.

Reviewing known material brings to the surface the knowledge that the students already possess; it establishes a "platform" for the new information. Students get the sense that they bring something to the task.

A second in-class strategy that the teacher can encourage students to employ is to look ahead, to survey a chapter or other reading. Looking ahead is similar to looking at a road map before taking a trip; it prepares the mind. To look ahead…

Skim through the chapter or section. Look at subheadings, pictures, and graphic representations to get an idea of what is coming.

Anticipate. Encourage students to write down their predictions of the concepts they will be learning and, afterwards, to compare their predictions with what they actually encountered.

A third in-class strategy involves questioning:

What do we want to know from this reading?

Take the chapter title and subheadings and turn them into questions, to focus the mind and create a reading goal.

Forming questions or predictions about the upcoming reading helps to create a focus for the student during the reading, so the student doesn't just stare aimlessly at the words on a page. Questions make the reading more active and purposeful.

As a fourth strategy, students can benefit from the use of K-W-L Charts to log their interactions with a reading (Vacca & Vacca, 1996, pp. 211-217). A K-W-L Chart is a table on which students can record their prior knowledge and new learning from their reading experience. K-W-L stands for the following three questions:

K = What do I know already about this topic?

W = What do I want to know?

L = What did I learn from this reading?

The first two questions are completed in the before-reading stage. The third question is completed in the after-reading stage.

A fifth in-class strategy helps students to build vocabulary and new concepts:

Prior to a reading assignment, introduce new concepts and vocabulary that the students will encounter in the reading.

For more details on vocabulary-building ideas, see the SEA Site module, Reading and Writing in Content Areas.


Students need overt instruction and practice in the before-reading tasks and strategies discussed above in order for those tasks and strategies to become part of their repertoire of study skills. It helps if the teacher can model the process and then encourage students to work in groups to practice. This "scaffolding" of strategy instruction helps students internalize the skills, so they will develop the ability to use them independently. Keep in mind that "to control the process, readers must understand the process" (Smith, 1995).

Stage Two

Once the reader's mind is "warmed up," the next task for the reader is to interact with the text and to monitor (keep track of) comprehension, paying attention to points at which the material is not clear or the terms are not familiar.

Tasks and Strategies of the During-Reading Stage

It is helpful if the teacher can model reading behavior by "thinking aloud" or reading and signing at the same time to make his or her thought process available to the students as the teacher interacts with the text material. The process involves the following steps on the part of the teacher:

Read the text, saying or signing the idea you are getting.

Ask questions or hypothesize along the way: "I think that means …" or "That's similar to …"

Identify important concepts.

Summarize at the end of a section what you understood.

Designate pairs or groups of students in class to practice this strategy.

A second during-reading strategy involves annotating a text by writing margin notes. Margin notes are important for students because they …

Encourage the student to actively respond to the ideas in the text.

Serve as a visible record of the student's thought process as he or she is reading.

Provide a useful tool for review and test preparation.

What should the student note in the margin of a text? Some ideas for margin notes include (a) writing a synopsis of paragraph ideas, (b) using symbols to call attention to portions of the text, (c) writing down questions, and (d) recording observations.

A synopsis of paragraph ideas could include the following:

"Causes of X"

"Problems with Y"


Symbols to use as margin notes could include the following:

* = important point, key concept

? = I don't understand that idea or sentence.

Def. = definition of a term

The student can write down questions in the margin to either look up later or to ask the instructor about, such as …

"What is synergy?"

The student can record observations about a text that might help in interpreting the texts or putting the information in context, such as …

"The author seems politically biased."

Importantly, students are better able to follow these strategies effectively on their own if they see them demonstrated in class and receive guided practice and feedback from the teacher.

Stage Three

"What did I get out of this?" The task of the after-reading stage is to integrate or synthesize the read material into one's knowledge base of the topic. Students need to make the material their own. This can be achieved through a variety of means employing writing, class discussion, visual representations, and physical demonstration.

Strategies for the After-Reading Stage

The most obvious and widely used strategy for the after-reading stage is to answer questions in writing--either comprehension questions at the end of a chapter or questions handed out by the teacher. Answering such questions is good because they directly relate to the concepts in the reading and require students to put their understanding into words.

Because the wording or structure of some textbook questions is very complex, it may be advisable to reword the question at a more user-friendly level that still taps into the students' comprehension of the concepts. Several of the other SEA Site modules discuss the relative complexities of English grammatical structures and offer guidelines for avoiding or simplifying more complex structures for specific purposes.

Another after-reading strategy involves the use of learning logs. Learning logs are similar to journals that encourage students to put into words what they learned from the reading and to reflect upon their own learning experiences and learning needs. A teacher can prepare a learning log handout that includes the following components:

Questions about the content of the reading for students to answer in their own words

Questions about the difficulty level of the reading material and a statement about the time and effort expended by the student in doing the work

A comparison of the actual content of the reading with what the student had predicted in the before-reading stage

Items related to new vocabulary or terms learned in the reading

Goal-setting for future learning needs

For further details on learning logs, see the "Other Activities" section of the SEA Site module, Reading and Writing in Content Areas.

Summary writing is another way for students to put concepts from the reading into their own words. A good summary …

Should reflect the major/key points of a reading

Should be a "capsule" of the reading in condensed form

Provides the instructor with a good mirror of the student's comprehension of the reading

Finally, K-W-L Charts, which were discussed in the section, "Before Reading: Tasks and Strategies," are another way for students to record what they learned from a reading. The "L" question is relevant to the after-reading stage:

K = What do I know already about this topic?

W = What do I want to know?

L = What did I learn from this reading?

Classroom Activities

There a variety of classroom activities that can be employed in the after-reading stage to help students in their comprehension of read materials. These include (a) concept maps, (b) role-play, (c) quiz making, and (d) research fairs.

Concept maps are visual representations of read material and allow for a variety of expressions, depending on the nature of the material. For many students, visual representations are valuable learning and study tools. It is hard to specify "directions" for the myriad types of webs, charts, pie diagrams, and matrices that can represent related ideas. Vacca and Vacca's (1996) text, Content Area Reading, offers a multitude of examples. See the SEA Site module, Reading and Writing in Content Areas, for details on the use of "graphic organizers" and other types of concept maps.

Role-play activities allow students to act out concepts. For example, in a computer technology class, after students read about the functions of the various computer components, the teacher could select students to act out the roles of the CPU, the monitor, the modem, and the printer.

Quiz making is another student activity that can facilitate comprehension in the after-reading stage. Quiz making encourages students to think like the course instructor and, at the same time, to consider what concepts in the reading are key: "If you were the teacher and you wanted to test your students on this chapter, what would you ask?" This activity can be done as an individual assignment or in collaborative groups or pairs. Students can be encouraged to create a variety of question types.

At the end of a chapter or unit, students may want to learn more about the topic or to go more in depth in a particular area. When a course includes a research project component or the opportunity for extra credit, students can gather more information about an area of their interest. Having a research fair, in which students present to the class, can be a very motivating experience. Teachers can encourage students to make Power Point presentations, to use other visual displays, or to create hands-on experiential activities.


Giving students the opportunity to express their understanding of the reading, either in writing, discussion, graphic representation, or role play, allows them to learn from each other and to integrate the content of reading material into their knowledge base.

Action Steps

1. Preview an assigned reading to note "trouble spots," or areas needing instruction, in advance of the assignment.

2. When previewing a text section, assess the grammatical as well as the conceptual complexity of the reading. Perhaps tell students what areas to focus on and what areas can be dealt with in class.

3. Break reading assignments into "do-able doses," as time allows. Be realistic about the amount of reading a student can effectively complete in a given time allotment.

4. Keep in mind the process nature of reading, and support the students' efforts with meaningful activities at each stage to augment students' comprehension of reading materials.

5. In the before-reading stage, set a context for the reading. Show how the assigned material fits with what has already been studied, and help students to anticipate or predict what is to come and to create questions, in other words, to form a purpose for the reading.

6. Encourage students to make use of text helps, such as:

  • pre-chapter objectives
  • glossary or term definitions
  • graphic representations such as tables, charts, and diagrams
  • end-of-chapter summaries

7. In the during-reading stage, encourage (and demonstrate) the writing of margin notes. Notes provide a visible record of the student's comprehension, as well as a potential study aid.

8. In the after-reading stage, facilitate the internalization of read material through a variety of expressive activities: writing, discussion, role play, mapping, and test creation.

9. Model strategies and provide guided practice opportunities in the classroom to help students learn valuable reading and learning skills that can markedly improve their overall academic performance.

10. Implement other suggestions presented in the "Process Summary" section of this module.