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Comprehension That Sticks

  A case study of explicit strategy instruction in Year 2






“Active readers interact with the text as they read. Getting readers to think when they read, to develop awareness of their thinking, and to actively use the knowledge they glean are primary goals of comprehension instruction.”


Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement (2007) Stephanie Harvey & Anne Goudvis. Stenhouse Publishers.



We communicate with words in our everyday language, words are the building blocks for learning. Our children’s ability to read words is highly valued and vital to their education. Reading words is a primary focus when starting school.


I am passionate about reading; through the ways it can enrich my life, to how it leads me to grow in understanding of the world I live in. As a teacher, I value the skills of reading and am enthusiastic about the reading development of the young students I teach. 

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My Reading DREAM 

We know the basis of reading instruction involves skill development in phonemic awareness, decoding, spelling, vocabulary and fluency. Reading is thinking. “It involves cracking the alphabetic code to determine the words and thinking about those words to construct meaning.” (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000, p.5)

For early readers who have a high level of fluency, comprehension is often assumed given their confidence and ability as proficient oral readers. It is only once students are questioned or start to retell the aspects of the book that they begin to show limited understanding of the text. Comprehension doesn’t occur naturally, it is a complex process involving knowledge, experience and thinking. 

As an educator, I have always been concerned that the most capable early readers plateau with their skill development, particularly in their comprehension skills. Struggling readers become the focus in many classrooms as explicit teaching concentrates on decoding strategies to support their learning. “If we are to improve our students’ ability to comprehend text and learn to actively construct meaning for themselves, we need to devote as much direct instructional time teaching thinking as we do teaching decoding.”(Gear 2006 p.11)

To maximise the POWER of reading for students and further develop strategies for both decoding and comprehension, I decided to complete an action research by explicitly planning for comprehension strategy development within my Year 2 classroom.

Power, Passion and Potential of Reading


In the initial stages of the inquiry it was important to gather data on the attitudes, behaviours and understanding of reading from students as a way of uncovering their existing PASSION, POWER and POTENTIAL as readers.


I was particularly interested in responses to my personal wonderings.

What are students’ understandings about reading?

Are students able to articulate the use of reading and comprehension strategies?


To learn from my current cohort of early readers I worked with ACT team members to develop a questionnaire designed to gather quantitative data about student perspectives on reading. The Burke's Reading Inventory was a key resource we used to modify questions to suit the developmental age of the students being interviewed. Given that students were at the start of Year 2, it was decided that the survey would be conducted one-on-one. 

Benchmarking assessments also confirmed the need for more explicit instruction in comprehension skills.


As part of the reading assessment students often found it challenging to provide details when answering questions requiring them to make inferences and connections

(text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world). 


This data confirmed the need for further exploration of ways to explicitly teach comprehension strategies, which formed the basis of my research and case study.

Reading Assessments

Current Practice


To understand the context of my inquiry and subsequent action research, the following reading practices currently operate within my classroom.


  • DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) – 20 minutes daily reading time where students read independently as well as to adults.
  • Read aloud experiences throughout each day
  • Weekly guided reading sessions with class teacher and educational assistant - based on instructional reading level, reading skill development and other areas as needed
  • Flexible reading groups
  • Explicit teaching of reading strategies and text features
  • Regular read aloud, shared and modeled reading
  • Regular buddy and partner reading opportunities, with peers and cross-class groups
  • Ongoing benchmarking and reading assessments




I approached the task with the following questions in mind.

 What reading comprehension strategies are most valuable for students I teach?

How will systematic inquiry into and explicit teaching of comprehension strategies impact on student achievement? 

How can we improve student self-awareness of themselves as readers?


I explored current practice and research into reading instruction by accessing a range of teacher reference material. Common findings emerged around what proficient readers do to make sense of the text and the skills required for reading comprehension, which enable students to read accurately, meaningfully and expressively.


“Active readers interact with the text as they read. Getting readers to think when they read, to develop awareness of their thinking, and to actively use the knowledge they glean are primary goals of comprehension instruction... In this way, reading shapes and even changes thinking.”

Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement (2007) Stephanie Harvey & Anne Goudvis. Stenhouse Publishers.


E.R. Johnson refers to cognitive reading strategies outlined in “Academic Language! Academic Literacy!(2009)  being more effective when used together to build comprehension and having a dramatic impact on readers’ ability to understand and learn from text. Adrienne Gear describes these strategies in the ‘profile’ of a proficient reader in Reading Power: Teaching Students to Think While They Read(2006).

“A good reader is metacognitive – aware of and able to use and articulate the following strategies in order to interact with the text and enhance meaning.”


  1. Make connections. A good reader is able to draw from background knowledge and personal experiences while reading to help creat meaning from text.
  2. Ask Questions. A good reader asks both literal and inferential questions before, during, and after reading to clarify meaning and deepen understanding.
  3. Visualize. A good reader is able to create multi-sensory images in the “mind’s eye” while reading to help make sense of the text.
  4. Determine importance. A good reader is able to sort through information in the text, select key ideas, and remember them.
  5. Draw Inferences. A good reader knows that not all information is included in a text and is able to reasonably “fill-in, hypothesize, and predict, based on evidence in the text.
  6. Analyze and Synthesize. A good reader is able to break down information and to draw conclusions based on both the text and his or her own thinking.
  7. Monitor Comprehension. A good reader is aware when understanding is being compromised and is able to stop, go back, and re-read in order for understanding to occur.

Reading Power: Teaching Students to Think While They Read (2006) Adrienne Gear. Pembroke Publishers Limited.

HKIS Literacy Institute Conference, January 2015

To further explore student engagement and ways to support students so they monitor their understanding and comprehension, I attended the Literacy Conference at the Hong Kong International School.

The following Keynote presentations and break-out sessions were covered.

-       The role of engagement in comprehension Ellin Keene

-       Talk about understanding Ellin Keene

-       Reading Goes In, Reading Goes Out: help students have thoughts and make use of what they’ve read through reading response Kathy Collins

Some additional key points to consider that arose from these sessions.

  • Students learn how to be intellectually engaged if we are explicit in naming, modeling and describing the thinking processes used
  • Teachers model, ‘think aloud’, to reveal their own thinking (emotional & intellectual perspectives) building on strategies used by proficient readers
  • Teachers support students to build capacity by providing language to use and develop anchor charts collaboratively with students
  • Teachers actively raise expectations of student learning by exploring where comprehension strategies lead
  • Students have thinking time, with the expectation that they will be able to think at high levels
  • Students explore meaningful opportunities to interact with a variety of texts, other students and teachers to build rich comprehension
  • Teachers actively provide a range of differentiated experiences whereby students respond to texts
  • Teachers consider how questions are framed to encourage deep engagement




Initially, I started to be more overt in my teaching practice by modeling my own thinking during shared reading experiences with my class. By reflecting throughout and recording my actions as a proficient reader, I was able to introduce and use the vocabulary connected to each comprehension strategy I introduced.


My analysis of reading assessment data and initial modeling suggested that the next step for my class was to focus on the comprehension strategies of: visualizing, inferring, connecting and questioning.


My case study of explicit strategy instruction in Year 2


Strategies such as being able to Visualise required regular practice and short teaching moments to train the students to picture objects in their mind. We regularly created a mental image of objects using our senses to help refine and delve deeper into its features before drawing or describing it to others. Once well practiced, we then applied this strategy to our reading experiences by stopping often and visualising what was happening in the story, then talking about individual perspectives.


I noticed when students visualise the storyline it benefits their overall connection to the text. We know that when creating mental images readers imagine scenarios, which hold deeper meaning for them. Their engagement with the text increases, maintaining attention and motivation to read on. Research shows visual images also help students stop, think and better understand non-fiction information as well. 


Through visualisation I focused on the students’ ability to make inferences by supporting them to construct meaning. Teaching students to take what they already know and then use clues in the text to understand something that isn’t actually part of what they are reading, is a vital skill. It enables students to make interpretations, understand unfamiliar words, predict future events and lead them to new conclusions.


By asking basic questions like “How do you know?” and “Where can you find that in the text?”, then building further questions from there, the process of inferring became transparent and students were challenged to become more engaged in the text.


Assisting students to actively connect with text means they bring their prior knowledge to the fore. “Whether we are connecting, questioning, or inferring, background knowledge is the foundation of our thinking.” (Harvey & Goudvis 2008). When we connect the known to the unknown, we learn new information. One way I encouraged readers to connect was through emotions like empathy where they have experienced similar situations to characters and use this knowledge to make sense of events.


Questions are also at the centre of our learning. They guide our research and inquiries by providing direction, harnessing our natural curiosity to take our learning further. “If we hope to develop critical thinkers, we must teach our kids to think about and question what they listen to, read and view.” (Harvey & Goudvis 2008) The key was to teach students to be both metacognitive with their thinking and ask questions continually as they read. I openly modeled this when reading for many different purposes using thinking bubbles. We had used thinking and speech bubbles successfully for perspectives work as part of a recent unit of inquiry so students understood the context easily.




For students to become more self-aware as readers and skilled at using comprehension features, I also decided to trial a structured approach to develop student capacity. Using a newly acquired resource, that had been shared as part of the ACT collaboration, The Primary Comprehension Toolkit (2008) Stephanie Harvey & Anne Goudvis. Heinemann.


I worked with a colleague to develop a series of lessons for a whole class approach. It was also decided to go into more depth with two targeted groups, less able readers and advanced readers (based on reading level guidelines and identified strategy needs). We were particularly interested in using non-fiction texts connected with our ‘Sharing the Planet’ unit of inquiry so the experiences were authentic, in context and captured students’ natural curiosity about the world.


For this reason, rather than use the texts provided in “The Primary Comprehension Toolkit”, we sourced our own non-fiction texts as a basis for the series of lessons.

Activate and Connect

Following the basic format in Activate and Connect: Strategy Book 2, The Primary Comprehension Toolkit (2008) Stephanie Harvey & Anne Goudvis we used students’ PASSION to browse and self-select books and POWER to develop skills and strategies. Lessons were modified as required.

Connect & Engage


  • Students were asked to consider the word ‘specialist’ and what it means to them
  • Teacher explored ‘passions’ and how they lead people to become a specialist
  • Discussions lead the class to concluded that ‘specialists’ are experts and become knowledgeable because they are passionate about something
  • Introducing the Transdisciplinary theme ‘Sharing the Planet’ students were asked to consider what they are curious about in the world
  • Students browsed and explored non-fiction texts on living things, water and the planet
  • Students discussed observations of what they thought they would learn about in each book covers and titles only
  • Students selected one text of personal interest to explore further 


Using non-fiction big books as anchor texts and visual prompts, we further introduced and illustrated the concept of a ‘specialist’ with the big idea – Readers choose and read books to help them become better specialists.


  • Refocused on specialists being passionate about the topic
  • Checked dictionary definitions of ‘specialist’
  • Introduced the idea that specialists zoom in on a topic
  • Determined ways we can identify specialists through the features of the text
  • Introduced a code/schema to help recognize clues in the text to know authors were specialist
  • In collaboration with students, developed an anchor chart to guide investigations
  • Provided a visual example for students to identify these clues using the code and sticky notes throughout an anchor text


F – Facts to show specialists know important information
O – how the specialist organizes the text
V – vocabulary and technical words used by the specialist












Guide & Practice independently

  • Targeted reading groups worked with the teacher to assist identification and further discuss clues within texts
  • Students used sticky notes to identify and label clues in previously selected personal text
  • Students referred to the anchor chart to guide their selections
  • Students recorded information on a graphic organizer


Share the Learning

  • Students shared what they discovered using the text and graphic organiser
  • Students explained text-to-text features when sharing with peers in small groups
  • Students began to pose wonderings centered around developing themselves as specialists on an aspect of the UoI focus 


Reading nonfiction text requires students to understand that authors write to give us information and teach us something. It is important to be explicit about this with our students “…nonfiction reading is ‘reading to learn’ and nonfiction writing is ‘writing to teach’…”(Harvey & Goudvis 2008).


Student POTENTIAL as readers grew from these lessons and was obvious is so many ways.  I was particularly delighted to receive feedback from a few parents who commented on their children using sticky notes throughout their books at home to comment on text features. Students being able to transfer and apply their learning outside the school context illustrated just how important this process was to develop student understanding, to deepen learning and to on build strong reading attitudes.

Connect & Engage

  • Students were asked to consider the content of books using the cover only
  • Students identified pictures and text as key features, providing clues about content
  • Students discussed prior knowledge based on what they observed ‘What we think we know’
  • Before exploring the book, students recorded what they thought the book was about using visual literacy skills 

Ask Questions

Following the basic format in Ask Questions: Strategy Book 3, The Primary Comprehension Toolkit (2008) Stephanie Harvey & Anne Goudvis I used students’ natural curiosity to focus on PASSION to gather fresh ideas and strategies to emPOWER them further. Lessons were modified as required.





Using non-fiction big books as anchor texts and visual prompts, I further illustrated how posing wonderings is one way to respond to visual images with limited text.


  • Modeled response to a photograph on the front cover
  • Introduce vocabulary for students to name processes and features
  • Pose wonderings to gain understanding by placing sticky notes on the parts that sparked curiosity
  • Used front cover text and visual to provide questions which could be answered in the book
  • In collaboration with students, began to develop an anchor chart focusing on use of pictures, text and other possible cover features to support research
  • Transferred questions to a ‘Question & Answer’ T-chart to demonstrate recording information
  • In collaboration with students identified ways to source answers to questions within the text using contents & index pages
  • Added reading shortcuts identified by students to the developing anchor chart
  • Demonstrated the importance of keeping the focus question in the ‘front of your mind’ as you search for answers in the text and managing one question at a time
  • Modeled how to research wonderings using the shortcuts, by not reading all the text, using headings as a guide as well as skimming & scanning techniques

Guide & Practice independently


  • Targeted reading groups worked with the teacher to assist identification and pose wonderings for research
  • Encouraged use of vocabulary to support students to recognise, name and understand technical terms (refer to anchor chart)
  • Students recorded questions on sticky notes adding them to the T-chart
  • Practiced using identified shortcuts to research answers
  • Reinforced the need for only one question at a time and keeping the question at the forefront while researching
  • Engaged in reading independently and aloud to identify information
  • Engaged in discussions to further develop understandings based on new learning
  • Students work collaboratively to support each other through the process
  • Students work independently to record answers to questions on the T-chart




Share the Learning

  • Review the ‘Ask Questions’ anchor chart and modify as needed
  • Students shared what new learning they discovered using the completed T-chart
  • Recognize that not all questions were answered and possible ways to source answers elsewhere (student initiated)
  • Build depth by adding responses to the unit of inquiry teacher questions
  • Pose further ‘lingering questions’ to research

Miller (2009) says “Reading is a cognitive and emotional journey” and that was certainly highlighted in this case study. By explicitly using questions as a tool for learning student interactions remained high.

Young students who practice monitoring their own comprehension by keeping track of what they read, while also keeping the focus question in the forefront of their mind, value understanding equally when decoding text. This deepens the interactions they have with the text and thus leads to deeper understanding.


These learning engagements tapped into student PASSION through their curiosity, built POWER by explicitly developing skills and enhanced their POTENTIAL as successful readers. The motivation to learn and extend student thinking resulted in rich conversations as a class, in partner and small groups. Students with lower reading ability supported each other and managed, often more complex texts, with determination and confidence. This was because students connected to the book with purpose and focus. They knew what they wanted to achieve and succeeded by applying strategies required for meaningful comprehension. 



Key Conclusions

Decoding & comprehension strategies need to be explicitly taught and practiced together as part of a whole reading program.


Raising enjoyment of the reading process while building vital decoding and comprehension skills is key to success.


Explicit teaching and application of reading strategies encourages students to read slowly, with greater depth and focus.


Positive reading behaviours contribute to student’s emotional well being, while building meta-fluency and metacognitive thinking.


Developing a common language for students to describe decoding, comprehension and text features to build a wider scope of knowledge.


Use of anchor/mentor texts and anchor charts enables depth in comprehension and consequently deeper learning through texts.


Through ongoing reflection, use of comprehension strategies focuses instruction on the reader, not just the text.


Future Development

The initial part of my action research has ended and resulted in the content of this case study but the journey doesn't stop here. I am committed to continue developing effective classroom practices that build student capacity, extend student learning and lead to outcomes whereby students have the skills, strategies and attitudes to be successful readers.


  • Continue to use the structured approach outlined in The Primary Comprehension Toolkit (2008) StephanieHarvey & Anne Goudvis.


  • Work with the Year 2 team and other colleagues to embed explicit strategies into the reading program.


  • Develop a bank of questions, for teachers to use with students and for parents to use at home with their children, which support students to construct meaning.





Miller, D., & Anderson, J. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.


Gear, A. (2006). Reading power: Teaching students to think while they read. Markham, Ont.: Pembroke.


Rasinski. T (n.d.) From Fluency to Comprehension: Powerful Instruction through authentic reading.


Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A (2007). Strategies that work teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement (2nd ed.). Portland, Me.:Stenhouse;.


Gear, A. (2006) Reading Power: Teaching students to think while they read. Markham, Ont.: Pembroke;.


Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A (2008). The primary comprehension toolkit: Language and lessons for active literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Firsthand/Heinemann.