A Path to Promote Reading Comprehension Part 1

Mari Nakamura

“The whole purpose of learning to read is to understand and learn from text. … Remember that books need readers who want to read them.” (Lian-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007)

In this column, we have been examining how to foster literacy independence among children by sharing our experiences and insights since the summer of 2015. What a fruitful literacy journey it has been! A big thank-you to all the contributors and those who gave me feedback. Now, I am very pleased to move on to the discussion of reading comprehension skills which are of the utmost importance in literacy education. 

In many EFL classes for university students and adult learners, comprehension skills such as getting the overall meaning, looking for specific information, visualization and making an inference are taught explicitly, focusing on one skill at a time. Are children developmentally ready for explicit instruction in which they are exposed to metalanguage? Is this approach workable in young learners’ classrooms, especially when a class meets only once or twice a week and we are busy helping them develop all the other language skills? Perhaps no. Even though we have a lot to learn from the approaches implemented in older students’ classrooms, we need to develop strategies that specifically work with children. I believe readers of this column have already designed developmentally appropriate reading comprehension activities with great success, and I am eager to hear your ideas in the upcoming issues. 

As a starter, in this article, let me share the key principles and practice at my school, English Square. I implement child-friendly, engaging tasks that naturally guide my students to search for meaning in literature and share their personal responses with me and peers. 

Here are five key principles that I apply to my reading comprehension instruction. 

  • Skills integration. Make children use all the skills they have to maximize comprehension. 
  • Interaction. Ask questions that urge children to focus on meaning, and elicit their thoughts and responses in a relaxed atmosphere.  
  • Gradual release of responsibility. Scaffold their learning towards independence. 
  • Discrete use of the first language. Allow them to use their mother tongue when responding to text. 
  • Personalization. Make literacy experience come alive by promoting text-to-self connection. 

From the first lesson, my students are exposed to literature in various forms, ranging from EFL graded readers to picture books written for native speakers of English. Young children at ages from five to seven who are at Stage 1 of my school’s literacy program hear me read a story in every lesson. In a typical lesson, I choose a picture book that matches with the theme of the lesson, and read it aloud to them. I point at the pictures and use hand gestures and facial expressions to keep them engaged and make the meaning clear. If the text is repetitive, students chime in with no, or little, prompting from me. 

In some instances, a child responds to a story using their first language (L1). Some teachers are worried when students use their L1 during such a shared reading experience. However, I regard the students’ L1 as a valuable resource that gives me an insight into how they are constructing meaning from the story. If a student joins the literacy experience in L1, I recast it in English and give comments using simple English. Through this technique, I show the student that his or her input is valued. In rare cases where I find it distracting, I gently tell the student to wait until the story finishes, and give him or her a chance to contribute in L1 language after the storytelling. 

During the second reading-aloud session with the same book, which usually takes place in the same lesson or in the next lesson, I ask the students simple comprehension questions and also questions through which they are encouraged to think deeply about the story. For example, after reading a story about a child causing  mischief, I ask them, “Do you think it is a good idea or a bad idea?” Also, I ask them personalized questions, such as, “Character A likes playing soccer with her brother. Do you like to play soccer?” “Character B put her favorite things in her treasure box. What would you put in your treasure box?” and, “Character C has cookies and milk for breakfast. What do you have for breakfast?” The purpose of these questions is to engage children both cognitively and emotionally. 

To enhance their comprehension and enrich their literacy experience, the students work on various types of literature-based tasks during which they use all four skills. An example of a picture book based unit of study is shared in this column in Volume 39, November/December 2015. 

Once my students move onto Stage 2 of the literacy program around the age of eight, they start to read simple graded readers by themselves. This program is called Reading Race. During this period in which the emphasis is placed on the development of reading fluency, they pick a book of their interest from a set of materials I have prepared for them in advance at the beginning of each lesson. I make sure to choose books at the students’ independent reading level. They first read a book of their choice silently to enjoy the story, referring to the illustrations that accompany the text. Then they read it aloud. As the level of reading fluency is an indicator of reading comprehension, I observe their reading behavior including prosody and eye-movement carefully.  While each child is reading his or her book, I give individual support through various means, for example, by pointing at a picture that clarifies meaning, showing hand gestures and using L1 briefly. Depending on the length of the story, each student checks out one or two books each week, and they read aloud the book(s) again in the following week. 

As the students become accustomed to this routine, I start to ask each student a few questions that naturally lead them to focus on meaning such as, “What do you think of this story? Why?” “Which scene do you like the best? Why?” and, “Did you find any new information about animals?” This oral interaction lays the foundation of book report writing that is to come at Stage 3 for children ages 10 to 12. 

In addition, they are encouraged to use a bilingual dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word or a word that they are particularly interested in. I limit the number of words to check with a dictionary to one per book so that they will develop the habit of making inferences. 

The students keep a simple reading log that includes a brief book review in L1. The purpose of this review writing is to help them form a habit of reading for meaning. It also works as a window into their comprehension level for me. 

We spend about 10 to 15 minutes on Reading Race in each lesson, and the rest of the lesson time is dedicated to multi-skill topic-based learning, in which course books and numerous non-fiction readers are used in an integrated manner. Vocabulary, grammar and world knowledge that children acquire through this core part of the lesson contribute to the development of reading comprehension as well. 

I will describe how I promote my students’ reading comprehension skills along with writing and presentation skills at Stage 3 in the next installment of this column. 

What sort of guiding principles do you have for your reading comprehension instruction? Any activity ideas you’d like to share with us? I’m looking forward to hearing your unique experiences and insights.  Please visit the JALT Teaching Younger Learners SIG Facebook Page. <http://www.facebook.com/groups/jshsig/>


Lian-Thompson, S. & Vaughn, S. (2007). Research-based methods of reading instruction for English language learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.