Winning Strategies for Developing Pupils' Reading Comprehension Skills

Di Hatchett and Gill Jordan helped to create Project X Comprehension Express, a new programme from Oxford University Press that supports teachers to develop pupils' reading comprehension skills. In this in-depth interview, we ask Di and Gill about the factors that contribute to comprehension, and how teachers can support pupils who are struggling to understand what they read. Stand by for a follow up post from Di and Gill about how graphic novels can support comprehension too!

Good reading comprehension is a critical skill, fundamental to learning across the curriculum, to reading for pleasure and for success in life. Helping children to develop this skill can feel like a challenging process.

Deconstruct reading comprehension for us. What are the essential factors that need to be in place for comprehension to happen?

The best way to answer the question is to examine the thought processes and behaviours of proficient readers. Research on reading comprehension and the cognitively-based comprehension strategies used by proficient readers conducted by Pressley and Block (2002) indicate that good readers know and select from a number of strategies:

•          Previewing and predicting

•          Activating prior knowledge

•          Attending to vocabulary

•          Monitoring their understanding and solving problems

•          Questioning the text during and after they read

•          Summarising by identifying key points or concepts

•          Visualising in order to respond

•          Making inferences and deductions about what they read

•          Synthesising ideas from a text

•          Empathising with characters

•          Adopting a critical stance

•          Read selectively, choosing texts that serve their goals and purposes

Adapted from Pressley & Block, 2002.

What are the most common impediments to reading comprehension, and what can be done to begin to address these?

If we hear a child read fluently, it may mask the fact that they do not fully understand what they are reading

Children with under-developed comprehension skills demonstrate weaknesses in understanding what they read despite being able to read aloud accurately and fluently. When teaching shifts from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn, these children become increasingly disadvantaged, since being able to access text is crucial for supporting learning across the curriculum.

Assessing the situation

The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Turner, 1986) can be a useful point of reference when reflecting on children’s reading skills. It can help teachers identify which areas need more focus. This model conceives of reading ability as being composed of two key elements: word recognition (decoding) and language comprehension. Successful readers have well-developed skills in both areas.


Diagram of The Simple View of Reading













The strongest and weakest readers are easier to spot, while children with strong word reading skills and weak comprehension are perhaps the easiest to miss. If we hear a child read fluently it may mask the fact that they do not fully understand what they are reading. These children can benefit from lots of group- and teacher-led talk as well as learning to use specific cognitive strategies to enable them to access texts independently.

So why might a child struggle to obtain meaning from what they read? Are there typical ‘blockers’ to comprehension? Typically, the learner will be encountering any number of the following issues:

  • Limited word level skills – it may be the case that a child has never really grasped the phonic approach.
  • Low motivation to read – it’s so important for all the adults in children’s lives to try to instil a love of reading from an early age, if a child experiences difficulty understanding what they read it will inevitably have an impact on their motivation.
  • Anxiety and lack of self-belief – if a child struggles with reading this is likely to impact on their perception of their own abilities.
  • Lack of self-regulation – this could include any or all of: poor working memory, weak information retention/ retrieval, lack of independent problem solving skills.
  • Lack of generic ‘life’ experience – a limited frame of reference to bring to what they read, due to a lack of interaction with potential role models, and an absence of diverse and varied personal experiences to draw upon.
  • Weak vocabulary – usually resulting from lack of exposure to richer forms of language both aurally and through reading.

How can we equip children with the skills they need to be proficient readers?

Two primary pupils reading one of the books from the Project X Comprehension Express series
A recently published report from the Education Endowment Foundation reveals three identifiable practices that underpin successful teaching and learning in this area:
  • Focus on key comprehension strategies
  • Model your thought processes when reading
  • Use appropriate texts

So how can the three recommendations translate into successful classroom practice?

Step 1: Focus on key comprehension strategies

There are many extensively researched comprehension strategies children need to use to develop a deep understanding of the text. There are simple strategies that you can introduce to your class immediately, such as re-reading extracts they are unsure of, or encouraging children to draw upon what they already know about a subject. There are also more complex strategies that need further explanation, such as searching for clues and making connections. It is incredibly important to introduce these strategies to children as early on as possible.

Step 2: Model your thought processes when reading

It can be difficult to find ways to introduce more complex comprehension strategies to children - they need to learn how to articulate strategies by focusing on the how of core aspects of ‘learning to learn’ skills (metacognition, self-regulation and feedback).

Some of the most effective ways to do this include:

  • Modelling the use of strategies: this provides children with concrete examples which they can relate to and remember. The teacher articulates his/her thinking: for example, when using text structures to understand what a text is about, you might say ‘I’m going to start by looking at the whole of these two pages. There is a heading, two subheadings and a labelled diagram. I can use each of these features to help me understand.’
  • Providing opportunities for supported practice and application, using comprehension strategies
  • Offering time for children to work both independently and collaboratively within reading lessons and in other subject areas
  • Increasing your expectation of children taking personal responsibility for their own learning.


Still from one of the Project X Comprehension videos, during a section entitled 'Think Aloud'

A still from one of the videos from the Project X Comprehension Express programme

Step 3: Use appropriate texts

In general, pupils make progress in comprehension as they come to understand increasingly complex texts. They demonstrate this understanding through their thinking and discussion of the ideas they encounter in the texts. Hence, the level of the text, the challenge in terms of comprehension and the demands on the reader are critical to developing comprehension skills. As children’s skills develop the texts they engage with should grow in complexity and sophistication to continue to stimulate and stretch them.

Resources to develop comprehension skills

If you would like to try out the ideas in this article, why not take a look at Project X Comprehension Express, a whole -class teaching programme specifically designed to help children in Years 4, 5 and 6 (P5-7) master deep comprehension skills and to excel in national tests. This ten-week programme is based on the latest research about the most effective strategies for deep comprehension.

Loved this post? Stand by for a follow up post from Di and Gill about how graphic novels can support comprehension. You can also check out the rest of our blog posts about reading comprehension and additional support needs.

Di Hatchett and Gill Jordan

Di Hatchett and Gill Jordan are the authors of the series Project X Comprehension Express published by Oxford University Press.

Di is a former headteacher and national advisor on literacy. She is an expert in the teaching and learning of reading, intervention and inclusion.

Gill is a former specialist teacher trainer and national advisor on literacy. She is an expert in the teaching of reading comprehension and engagement.