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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.