How to provide direct and explicit instruction on comprehension strategies

From Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices

1. Select carefully the text to use when first beginning to teach a given strategy. Although strategies can be applied to many different texts, they cannot be applied blindly to all texts. For example, using main-idea summarizing is difficult to do with narrative texts because narrative texts do not have clear main ideas. Main-idea summarizing should be used with informational texts, such as a content-area textbook or a nonfiction trade book. Similarly, asking questions about a text is more easily applied to some texts than to others.

2. Show students how to apply the strategies they are learning to different texts, not just to one text. Applying the strategies to different texts encourages students to learn to use the strategies flexibly.36 It also allows students to learn when and where to apply the strategies and when and where the strategies are inappropriate.37

3. Ensure that the text is appropriate for the reading level of students. A text that is too difficult to read makes using the strategy difficult because students are struggling with the text itself. Likewise, a text that is too easy eliminates the need for strategies in the first place. Begin teaching strategies by using a single text followed by students’ applying them to appropriate texts at their reading level.

4. Use direct and explicit instruction for teaching students how to use comprehension strategies. As the lesson begins, it is important for teachers to tell students specifically what strategies they are going to learn, tell them why it is important for them to learn the strategies,38 model how to use the strategies by thinking aloud with a text,39 provide guided practice with feedback so that students have opportunities to practice using the strategies, provide independent practice using the strategies, and discuss with students when and where they should apply the strategies when they read and the importance of having the will to use the strategies along with the skill. Even if students know how to use strategies as they read, research demonstrates that they have to make the effort to actually use them when they read on their own.40

5. Provide the appropriate amount of guided practice depending on the difficulty level of the strategies that the students are learning. For example, the strategy of predicting can be demonstrated briefly and with a few examples. However, summarizing a paragraph or a passage may require several steps within guided practice. First, provide support for students in cooperative learning groups. As students work in these groups, assist them directly if necessary by modeling how to use a given strategy again or by asking questions to generate ideas about how they would use it. If necessary, give students direct answers and have them repeat those answers. Second, as students become better at using the strategies, gradually reduce the support, perhaps by asking them to break the cooperative learning groups into pairs so they have fewer peers to rely on. Third, reduce support further by asking students to use the strategies on their own with texts they read independently.41

6. When teaching comprehension strategies, make sure students understand that the goal is to understand the content of the text. Too much focus on the process of learning the strategies can take away from students’ understanding of the text itself.42 Instead, show students how using the strategies can help them understand the text they are reading. The goal should always be comprehending texts—not using strategies.

36. Pressley and Afflerbach (1995).
37. Duffy (2002); Paris et al. (1983).
38. Brown et al. (1981)
39. Bereiter and Bird (1985)
40. Paris et al. (1991); Pressley et al. (1987)
41. Brown et al. (1981)
42. Pearson and Dole (1987)

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
See the original document for complete references on the research annotations.