EEF Blog: Getting to grips with reading comprehension strategies

EEF literacy specialist, Caroline Bilton – a primary school teacher, assistant headteacher and English lead – explains how pupils can be supported to develop into strategic readers through the explicit teaching of comprehension skills

Why is the teaching of reading so complicated? Indeed, what can we do to support teachers, who have received very little training to teach reading, in handling this tricky challenge? 

Knowing about the complexity of reading isn’t enough to prepare us for the challenges of teaching children to read. Simply ‘knowing’ does not always lead to ‘doing’ reading differently in the classroom.

Most recently in primary schools, and particularly in Key Stage 1, the teaching of phonics has understandably been a priority. Without the foundation of decoding, reading simply doesn’t develop. 

Yet, we all know that the goal of reading is to comprehend what we read, so we also have to consider developing our pupils’ reading fluency. Additionally, reading comprehension strategies offer a further thread to strengthen our pupils’ ability to go on to confidently comprehend what they read.

Hollis Scarborough’s ‘reading rope’ helps remind us of the many different threads that are essential to develop our pupils as skilled readers at all key stages. Tending carefully to each thread in the rope matters if we are to weave a strong reading rope in every classroom. 


The value of reading comprehension strategies

The sense of entitlement a strategic reader feels, as they pick up a book, is a powerful characteristic of many children. The children who join our schools buoyed by the rich home literacy environment they have experienced. The expectation that they will enjoy and understand texts comes from the variety of literacy experiences they have enjoyed in the home.

For such pupils, decoding words and reading fluency can come along with seeming ease. It can appear ‘natural’ and effortless. Their additional reading practice strengthens both their knowledge and skills.

Those early literacy experiences, borne out of a rich home learning environment, provide the optimum platform from which to develop as strategic readers. 

But what about the children who don’t come to us with those experiences? 

For a significant number of disadvantaged children, even owning a book may be unlikely. How much less likely are these children then, to have the strategies needed to successfully interact with texts?

The teaching of reading comprehension is one approach to developing strong readers and it simply cannot be left to chance.

The explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies is found to support an average gain of +6 months’ additional progress (based on extensive evidence to support this area from a range of studies over the last 30 years). Studies in the UK have found that there is evidence that children from disadvantaged backgrounds may benefit more.

In the recently updated Improving Literacy in Key Stage 1 guidance report, the explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies is carefully unpacked, with teacher prompts to facilitate the teaching of each of the strategies. 


These prompts are not intended to be a script. They are about providing starting points for discussion in school about how each of the strategies can be modelled and scaffolded for children. This model could offer a discussion prompt for teachers considering their ‘book talk’ and how they foster effective reading comprehension strategy instruction.

Reading comprehension strategies overlap with Reciprocal Reading’: a structured approach that teachers can use to support reading comprehension. Following the ‘Reciprocal Reading’ model, children initially work collaboratively in groups, with guidance from the teacher. Over time, there is a gradual release of responsibility so that groups and students can use the strategies more independently.

Big Picture Theme: Language and Literacy

Big Picture Theme: Language and Literacy

Evidence on literacy from the Teaching and Learning Toolkit alongside the findings from recent EEF projects.

The Power of Reciprocal Reading – a perspective from the classroom

I was about to start teaching my Year 6 class, I closed the classroom door and clicked the light switch off. Excitement and delight were palpable.

It was the beginning of an English lesson, and I was about to reach for our much-loved book of spooky short stories. I still hadn’t said a word, but whisperings about the expected predictions…questions…words to clarify– were buzzing around the classroom.

As I reached for the book, and stood at the front of the class, the sense of anticipation and desperation to get organised and get reading was heightened. I stepped forward to elevate myself to the ‘magic spot’. Then, a speedy hush fell around the room. I began reading. I was also explicitly and carefully modelling and scaffolding reading comprehension strategies to ensure access to the story we read.

It was working.

My class of thirty-two children, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, had almost completely shaken off the scaffolds I’d built for them. The scaffolds I had used focused on the interconnection of ‘Reciprocal Reading’ roles.

The children had been taught each role explicitly: we had practised making predictions; questioning; clarifying and activating prior knowledge. We’d worked on them as a class and in groups. There were lots of opportunities to take on the same roles together and share ideas about the links we found. They were now confident in the roles, and without me saying a word they were preparing to engage with the text as a strategic reader.

As I watched the children organise themselves in preparation for the lesson, I also reflected on the metacognition and self-regulation that they were confidently deploying. The power of scaffolding and modelling Reciprocal Reading roles was very clear to me at the beginning of that lesson. The excitement of reading was matching by strategic, active reading.

The teaching of reading is complex. There is an inevitability to that, because the act of reading is a brilliantly complex process.

Therefore, the challenges teachers face to monitor and improve their practice in the teaching of reading is possibly never-ending. However, the most important lever schools have to support disadvantaged children to read with the same sense of entitlement as their more advantaged peers, is great teaching.

Reading comprehension strategies then offer one powerful thread in the reading rope that teachers can get to grips with.