Reading Comprehension

What are reading comprehension skills?

Learners must be able to read the text and understand it.

Reading comprehension skills require the learner to:

  • Decode or recognize by sight the words in the written text
  • Understand the meaning of the words / sentences
  • Relate the meaning of the sentence(s) to the rest of the text
  • Activate prior knowledge and experience about the topic
  • Use this prior knowledge to infer meaning and support understanding
  • Monitor understanding of the text continually


Why is it important to learn reading comprehension skills?

Learners must be able to make use of what they read to expand their knowledge in subjects at school such as social studies, math, and science.

They must be able to understand and make use of the information that they read for a variety of purposes.


Instruction to build reading comprehension

Learners with complex communication needs are at risk for difficulties with reading comprehension.

The National Reading Panel recommends instruction in strategies to support reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension strategies include:

  • Comprehension monitoring and summarization
    • In this strategy, learners are taught to:
      • stop at regular intervals while reading a text
      • determine whether or not they understand the text
      • summarize the main idea of each part of the text:
        • for example, answering two questions:
          • Who is this part about?
          • What happened
  • Graphic and semantic organizers
    • In this strategy, learners are taught to
      • read the text
      • use organizational aids to map out the content of the text
      • illustrate visually the structure of the text’s meaning in a story map
        • Who? What happened? Where? When? Why did characters act as they did?
  • Question answering
    • In this strategy, learners are taught to:
      • read the text
      • answer questions about the text, posed by the teacher
      • receive immediate feedback on their answers
      • Click here to see an example of written multiple choice questions for a book about Clifford the Big Red Dog.
  • Question generation
    • In this strategy, learners are taught to:
      • think about the topic of the text
      • activate prior knowledge
      • generate questions themselves prior to reading or while reading
      • respond to the questions as they read
  • Cooperative learning
    • In this strategy, learners are taught to:
      • interact with the peers about written texts
      • implement the other comprehension strategies with a peer or group of peers
      • discuss the text


Instructional Procedure

 The instructor teaches reading comprehension strategies using the following procedures:

  • The learner and the instructor make a commitment to instruction.
  • The instructor describes the reading comprehension strategy and discusses its benefits.
  • The instructor models or demonstrates the strategy.
  • The instructor provides scaffolding support or prompting to help the learner implement the strategy successfully.
  • The instructor gradually fades this support as the learner develops competence.
  • The learner has repeated opportunities for independent practice using the strategy.
  • The instructor monitors the learner’s performance and provides appropriate feedback.
  • The instructor and learner make a plan to ensure generalization and continued use of the strategy.


Student Example

Gareth is 5 years old in this video.

  • Gareth has cerebral palsy. He has a tracheostomy.
  • He uses a computer with speech output to communicate (specifically a Mercury with Speaking Dynamically Pro software). He also uses a communication book with Mayer Johnson Picture Communication Symbols (PCS).
  • We started to work with Gareth and his parents to teach him literacy skills when he turned 3 years old.
  • Gareth loves books and was very motivated to learn to read.
  • This video was taken when he was 5 years old, just before he entered Kindergarten.
    • Janice starts by giving Gareth a choice of literacy activities
    • Gareth chooses to read a book about Clifford
      • Janice
        • points to the words in each sentence, one at a time in sequence
      • Gareth
        • looks at the written words
        • decodes the words or recognizes them by sight
        • puts the words together to determine the meaning of the sentence.
    • Then, Janice introduces a question answering strategy to build comprehension skills
      • Janice
        • writes out a question about the story (Who will race?)
      • Gareth
        • thinks about the question
        • relates it to the story
        • points to the answer on a communication board (the dogs)
    • Janice asks inference questions as well as factual ones (Why will Clifford win?)
  • At 5, Gareth has learned to read simple books independently and answer comprehension questions accurately.
  • He is a successful reader. His skills exceed those of many of his typically developing peers. Click to learn more about Gareth’s success learning literacy skills.



Start to build comprehension skills very early on, even before learners can read sentences and stories independently.

  • Read books to learners on a regular basis
  • Talk with them about the books you read
  • Teach new vocabulary as required
  • Give learners opportunities to ask questions
  • Ask learners questions that require them to think about the book
    • What do you think will happen?
    • Why?
    • How does [character] feel?
  • Encourage learners to become the storytellers 


Last Updated: February 19, 2019