MSP:MiddleSchoolPortal/Reading Comprehension Strategies

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Do your middle school students not complete reading assignments or not comprehend them when they do? Is student motivation an issue you struggle with? Do you feel that your students need assistance comprehending the textbook?

These issues are quite common in the middle grades. As students mature, they are faced with increasingly difficult text and many situations in which they must learn content by reading.

Like many content area specialists, I used to think that students should walk into my classroom ready to read and comprehend a grade-level textbook. I did not see myself as a reading teacher, and I'm sure I used the "reading to learn" (as opposed to "learning to read") line more than once or twice. Yet my experiences in the upper elementary grades, work with the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears project, and professional development experiences (conference presentations and reading) have convinced me otherwise. I now firmly believe that students continuously need reading instruction to refine their knowledge and use of strategies as they encounter increasingly sophisticated text. Now I realize that all teachers must be, to some degree, reading teachers.

This cross-curricular emphasis on reading comprehension is not just an effort to teach to the high-stakes tests that are so ubiquitous in our education system today. Instead, it is a way to teach students how to interact with text. Reading strategies are really thinking strategies, so we’re really preparing students for a lifetime of reading, comprehension, and reflection.


What Are Reading Comprehension Strategies?

Many books are dedicated to reading strategies, and there is no one definite list of strategies. We've selected the following strategies that appear in many professional books and resources.


Simply stated, metacognition is thinking about thinking. Reflecting on one's thoughts is the basis for all reading comprehension strategies. It allows students to monitor their comprehension, pose questions about the text, make predictions, inferences, and connections, and synthesize.

Teachers can encourage students to be more metacognitive about their reading by modeling this process and by having students read short passages and reflect.


Also known as background knowledge, schema refers to the collection of information, experiences, and thoughts that a reader brings to a text. Constructivist learning theory tells us that new information is learned by creating links to prior knowledge, or by situating new information within the context of something previously known. Without the appropriate schema, students will struggle to comprehend a text.

Teachers can build schema by providing a concrete activity or experience or by having students browse the textbook and trade books and record what they know about the topic. Students also need to understand how schema helps them comprehend text. In her book Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, Tanny McGregor (2007) provides an introductory activity for schema involving a sticky roller! The concrete object helps students understand that schema is a collection of information, experiences, and thoughts.


To make inferences, readers think about and search the text and use personal knowledge to construct meaning beyond what is literally stated. Successful inferring involves both schema and clues from the text.

While students struggle with this strategy, science and math teachers have an advantage in that both content areas stress linking claims to evidence. Teachers can have students complete several concrete activities in which the students explicitly link a conclusion to the evidence that supports it. These types of experiences will help students learn to do the same with text.


Questioning can be used for many purposes, including setting a purpose for reading, monitoring comprehension, clarifying meaning, and extending understanding.

Teachers might have students browse text and pose questions prior to reading. During reading, students might ask and answer both literal and inferential questions to develop comprehension and make connections. After reading, questions serve as the starting point for a discussion about a particular text.

Determining Importance

Determing importance involves distinguishing between what information is most important versus what is interesting but not necessary for understanding.

Teachers have students practice determining importance when they ask students to identify the main idea or theme. Boldfaced words, titles, section headings, captions, graphs, and other visual information can support students as they determine importance from a text.


Visualizing means that students create images based on what they read. These images might involve any or all of the five senses and might change over time as a student becomes more deeply involved with a text. While we often think of visualizing in terms of fiction (movies based on books are a good example), the strategy is equally important with nonfiction text.

Teachers can help students visualize content-area text by providing hands-on experiences before reading and by asking students to draw images to represent key concepts. Teachers could easily incorporate technology into these lessons by using clip art, digital images from a photo-sharing site (such as Flickr), or digital storytelling.

Making Connections

Making connections means that a student has engaged with a text and is able to relate it to a broader context. Reading teachers often refer to three types of connections: text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world. Text-to-text connections mean that a student is able to link two texts together. Text-to-self connections are based on a student's schema and are highly individualized. Finally, text-to-world connections link what a student is reading with the "real world."

Math and science teachers can promote connections by providing a variety of texts, prompting reflective thinking (metacognition), and scheduling time for class discussions. Real-world experiences, such as citizen-science projects or meaningful assignments, allow students to make text-to-world connections.


Synthesizing is often the last strategy taught and can be intimidating for teachers and students alike. Tanny McGregor demystifies this complex process by explaining that synthesizing is simply an understanding of how knowledge grows and changes over time. She suggests introducing the strategy through concrete experiences and providing "thinking stems" for students such as "I used to think..., but now I think..."

Teachers can help students synthesize by using graphic organizers such as K-W-L charts that encourage students to reflect on their new knowledge at the end of a lesson or unit. Simply having students discuss a text every few pages is enough to prompt an understanding of how knowledge can change as a result of reading.

Finding the Time in a Crowded Curriculum for Reading

A common misconception among content specialists is that focusing on reading will replace their curricula. While there’s no denying that some time is needed, teachers can be assured that the goal is to enhance their instruction, not eliminate it. Laura Robb (2003) explains:

I do not propose that teachers overhaul their curricula or ways of teaching, but that they take short bursts of time each day to teach reading and learning strategies that will help their students "unlock" every kind of text and thus experience success with every subject.

These "bursts" or mini-lessons often have benefits that extend beyond comprehension. Many activities serve to build or assess prior knowledge – an important first step in science or math instruction. Others spark student interest and set a meaningful purpose for reading or conducting independent research. And finally, helping students improve their comprehension will often simultaneously address other issues, such as student motivation and engagement with assignments.

But I’m a Science (or Math) Teacher. How Can I Teach Reading?

While you don't have to become an expert, some background in reading comprehension research and strategies will be helpful. Many professional books (such as Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, Mosaic of Thought, and Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math) provide summaries of research and research-based strategies without being overwhelming. In addition, these types of books also include resources to help you put your new knowledge into practice.

Providing a text-rich environment is also important. Most elementary (and English language arts) classrooms are full of text. Other content areas? Not as much. Think beyond the textbook and provide a variety of materials: trade books, magazine articles, posters, and newspapers on multiple reading levels. To develop understanding, students need exposure to a wide variety of materials written at a level that is challenging for them. The greater variety of material you provide, the better chance you have of reaching all your students.

Spend some time reflecting on your curriculum, your students, and their particular needs. Maybe there's a unit that is particularly difficult for students because they lack the appropriate background knowledge. Perhaps you should focus on schema to improve their comprehension and readiness for the content. Or maybe your students consistently struggle with identifying the main idea in a passage or chapter. Determining importance might be the strategy for you! When in doubt, turn to your students for guidance. Their performance, motivation, and engagement will help you know when to repeat a lesson or when to move on.

When you are ready to teach, consider how to make your instruction as incremental and concrete as possible. In Comprehension Connections, Tanny McGregor uses a “launching sequence” that begins with a concrete experience and then moves to sensory exercises. Students practice the sequence using wordless picture books and then are finally ready to tackle the text. In Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math, Laura Robb uses a three-part instructional sequence: Getting Ready to Learn, During Learning, and After Learning. Clear examples, modeling, and scaffolding are all vital, regardless of your instructional sequence.

Finally, don't forget about the importance of hands-on experiences in building background knowledge and vocabulary. Students need those inquiry-based science experiences or data collection and manipulative exercises to truly understand science and math!

The Importance of Modeling

Teacher modeling is a crucial component of strategy instruction. Remember that reading strategies are really thinking strategies – and most of the time, our thinking is invisible. This makes it difficult for students to understand these strategies or feel comfortable putting them into practice. David Perkins (2003) sums it up best when he says:

Imagine learning to dance when the dancers all around you are invisible. Imagine learning a sport when the players who already know the game can't be seen. Bizarre as this may sound, something close to it happens all the time in one very important area of learning: learning to think. Thinking is pretty much invisible. To be sure, sometimes people explain the thoughts behind a particular conclusion, but often they do not. Mostly thinking happens under the hood, with the marvelous engine of our mindbrain.

Modeling gives students insight into how these strategies actually work as a reader interacts with text. Teachers should also use the concept of a gradual release of responsibility – first modeling, then scaffolding, and finally, allowing students to try the strategies on their own.

Comprehension and Vocabulary

In addition to strategy instruction, teachers need to spend time developing students' vocabularies. Science and math textbooks are known for their high density of vocabulary words, and students need explicit instruction in the most important terms as well as strategies for dealing with new words. For more information about research-based vocabulary practices, please refer to "Developing Science Vocabulary".

For help in contextualizing reading comprehension and vocabulary skills in science, see the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Detecting Flaws in Arguments map appears below. This map is one of six under the heading Habits of Mind. Students need excellent reading comprehension and vocabulary skills in order to successfully communicate in science. Keep in mind that advances in science are meaningless unless they are effectively communicated to others. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related science-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).

For More Information

Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading. Tanny McGregor. 2007: Heinemann. It's not easy to teach abstract thinking strategies to readers. Knowing how these strategies work and how to use them is an important first step to connecting with texts. In this professional resource, learn how to make reading comprehension achievable, accessible, and incremental for students. You can also deepen your understanding by listening to McGregor's three webinars.

Strategies That Work. Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. 2007: Stenhouse. The second edition of this popular professional resource includes a review of comprehension research, strategy lessons, assessment information, and an entire section devoted to comprehension across the curriculum.

Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math. Laura Robb. 2003: Scholastic Professional Books. In this professional resource, Robb discusses myths and roadblocks concerning content area reading and learning, a responsive 3-part teaching framework, and the role of strategy instruction in the content areas. The majority of the book is devoted to strategy lessons that are easily incorporated into any content area. "Strategy Snapshots" provide a chance to "see" these lessons in action.

Literacy Content Knowledge articles from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears cyberzine include comprehension strategies such as inferring, visualizing, questioning, and determining importance. While the intended audience for these articles was elementary teachers, middle school teachers will find them useful as well.

The AdLIT Reading Strategies web page includes articles about ten reading strategies: setting a purpose, synthesizing, questioning, making inferences, determining importance, visualizing, connecting to prior knowledge, comparing/contrasting, predicting, and self-monitoring. Each article includes a definition of the strategy, activities that support students in using the strategy, and additional resources.


McGregor, T. 2007. Comprehension connections: bridges to strategic reading. Heinemann.

Perkins, D. 2003. “Making Thinking Visible.” New Horizons for Learning Online Journal December 2003.

Robb, L. 2003. Teaching reading in social studies, science, and math. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

Author and Copyright

Jessica Fries-Gaither is a Science Resource Specialist in the College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning, at the Ohio State University. She is the Project Director for Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears , an NSF-funded elementary science and literacy project. Jessica has taught middle school science and mathematics as well as the upper elementary grades.

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Copyright July 2009 — The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.