Reading/Learning Strategies

"I read it but I didn't understand it."

"I didn't know what to look for."

"This assignment was too hard to read."

Student frustrations with classroom materials are familiar to teachers. Instead of thoughtful reading, students may read merely to get done. Or, they may read for facts but miss main ideas of a passage, quickly skim for answers, or give up and fail to complete the reading.

The strategies that come naturally to proficient readers — like most educators—are not necessarily natural to our students. Therefore, instructional activities that assist students with their comprehension are a critical component of classroom learning. Effective comprehension strategies are especially important for reading electronic texts.

How can teachers prompt thoughtful reading from their students? Instructional activities that include the following seven comprehension strategies will help students successfully read and learn while using Minnesota Public Radio's Web sites.

Your thoughtful reading of a passage might look like this:

You scan the article, asking yourself a series of guiding questions.

  • What does this article seem to be about?
  • How might this article match what I am seeking?
  • What seems to be the main topic discussed?
  • What sources does the author rely upon for selecting the material presented in the article?

You begin reading, checking what you already know in comparison to new information in the article.

  • You realize that potato farming receives main emphasis in the story, and you consider what you know about raising this crop.
  • You remember that there is concern about depletion of water from aquifers.
  • Agricultural chemicals are mentioned prominently in the article, and you take stock of things you have previously learned about use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Use your imagination to visualize what you are reading.

  • You try to picture the setting of the story, west central Minnesota.
  • The mention of 1000 lakes helps you visualize lush scenery and perhaps replay enjoyable recreational activities you have experienced.
  • The statement about wetlands lacking the sounds of songbirds and other life also engenders a powerful image in your mind's eye.

You ask yourself additional questions as you wonder about things discussed in the article.

  • Do scientific studies back up the observation of the decline of marsh life?
  • Why did the largest potato company did not consent to be interviewed?
  • Is there a safer way for farmers to use chemicals?
  • How much of our groundwater has become questionable for human consumption?

You consider the extent the article directly, or indirectly, answers your personal queries. You are comfortable with detecting implied meaning from your reading, as you try to satisfy your curiosity and become more knowledgeable.

  • You make inferences, such as this environmental disagreement is based on political divisions that explain the differing perspectives about what actions are needed.

You sort background information from key ideas.

For example, you determine the most significant ideas are:

  • There may be problems with some agricultural methods, in this case with growing potatoes.
  • There is a lack of confidence with governmental effectiveness in balancing support for agriculture and protecting the environment.

You make a mental inventory of key points, and your personal thoughts and observations.

  • Was the information consistent with what you previously understood?
  • Were you persuaded by the article?
  • Were you critical of anything, or unclear about anything?
  • What do you need to learn next?

Strategy 1: Make Connections.

Proficient readers actively make connections between what they already know and new material. Instructional activities should prompt students to reflect upon existing knowledge about a topic before they start to read:

Instructional activities should prompt students to reflect upon existing knowledge about a topic before they start to read:

  • Share relevant personal experiences that connect to the topic.
  • Consider materials they have previously read, either in school or out of school, that relate to the topic.
  • Brainstorm what they currently think they know or understand about the topic.

Strategy 2: Self-Question.

Proficient readers pose questions to themselves as they read. When readers wonder about something-wonder why, wonder if, wonder where, wonder whether, wonder what, wonder how-they are raising questions that new learning can possibly address. Rather than leaning back to receive information, learners who raise their own questions are personally interacting with new ideas and using questions to try to make sense of what they are encountering.

Prompt students to ask the following:

  • Did this make sense?
  • Should I double-check information to insure that I did not mis-read it?
  • Did I figure out any unfamiliar terms?
  • Do I need to clarify anything in this passage?
  • What am I wondering about as I read?

Strategy 3: Creating Mental Images.

Strategy 3: Create Mental Images.

Help students visualize while they read, using their imagination to picture in their minds what an author represents in prose. Students who become bogged down in the words on the page may forget to visualize, and as a result have trouble relating to what the author portrays. Instructional activities that stimulate student imaginations and remind readers to "see" as well as "read" words have a significant impact on understanding:

  • Ask students to link clues from an author's language with personal experiences. Proficient readers infer what an author is seeing and generate their own versions of scenes and events.
  • Ask students to share what they "see" from their reading. Visualizing is idiosyncratic-no two individuals bring exactly the same set of experiences to draw on when creating mental images from suggested language.
  • Ask students to identify parts of the article that create strong visual pictures.

Strategy 4: Make Inferences.

Proficient readers make inferences, which enables them to discern implicit meanings as well as explicitly stated messages. Instructional activities which assist students in identifying and analyzing implied meaning in a text deepen understanding:

Instructional activities which assist students in identifying and analyzing implied meanings in a text deepen understanding:

  • Ask students to make predictions about what the author may say next.
  • Ask students to identify clues that suggest something not directly stated.
  • Ask students to speculate about an author's beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives based on hints present in a passage.

Strategy 5: Determine Importance.

Strategy 5: Determine Importance. Proficient readers are able to determine what is most important in a text. They differentiate key ideas and information from details, so that they are not overwhelmed by a mass of facts. Instead, they target main themes and salient details. Most students benefit from instructional activities that help them decide what is most worthy of attention and what is background information:

  • Instruct students to ask "what is the point of this?" rather than merely identify information.
  • As students read, ask them to consider: "Why is the author telling me this?"

Strategy 6: Synthesize Meaning.

Proficient readers are adept at summarizing the essence of what they read into a personal meaning. As a result, they can make evaluations, construct generalizations, and draw conclusions from a text. Synthesis is the realization that "Aha! I get it!" which allows readers to establish their take on what the text means to them. Most students find summarizing to be a difficult process, and instructional activities which guide students in extracting core concepts and information will improve their ability to pare a text down to a meaningful essence.

  • Ask students to list what is most important from an article and then reduce the list to a few key items as a prelude for writing a succinct summary.
  • Ask students to consider "What conclusions can we draw from this article?"

Strategy 7: Monitor Comprehension.

Proficient readers make extensive use of fix-up strategies as they read. If they encounter breakdowns in their comprehension-difficult vocabulary perhaps, or references to unfamiliar information-they pause to determine how to make sense of the unclear passage. Proficient readers to not proclaim: "I read it, but I didn't understand it." They know that reading means you understand it.

In addition to using the six comprehension strategies outlined above, ask students to decide when to try one of the following fix-up strategies when their comprehension falters:

  • Adjust reading rate.
  • Re-read a key section.
  • Look for context clues or consult reference sources for unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Use a study strategy, such as underlining, marking, sticky-notes, or note taking.
  • Clarify understandings with other students, or an expert like the teacher.

Using Reading/Learning Strategies With Sound Learning

Instructional activities can prompt students to engage in the kinds of thinking outlined above. Integrating these effective reading and learning strategies with the material available on Minnesota Public Radio's Web sites involves devising lessons that encompass three phases: pre-reading, during reading, and after reading.


Pre-reading prepares students for learning by activating their prior knowledge about the topic featured in an article. Pre-reading activities may also need to expand student knowledge about a topic, because some readers will bring insufficient background knowledge and or will be unfamiliar with key concepts and vocabulary. Pre-reading activities help students with focusing their attention on what is most important in a text during reading. Pre-reading activities are essential for establishing purposes for Internet searches, so that students are clear what information they need to locate, and how to evaluate prospective articles they have identified.


During-reading activities continue to emphasize the proficient reader traits of making connections, generating questions, and determining importance. During reading activities also prompt students to visualize, to make inferences, and to monitor their comprehension. In particular, during reading activities need to help students with selecting what is most important from a text, and with organizing the new information that they are encountering. During reading activities should help students prioritize what is most essential and to connect this information in some sort of meaningful and organized way.


After-reading activities should deepen understanding, and in addition to the proficient reader traits accentuated in the pre- and during reading phases, should help student summarize and synthesize what they read into a coherent personal understanding. Hence, after reading activities go beyond merely identifying what was read and instead help students with integrating their new learning with their previous knowledge and with applying the new knowledge in some way to their lives.

Activities should acknowledge that students may forget much of what they read unless they process their learning at a deeper level. This learning takes place as students discuss new material, hear a story about it, hear the new information repeated over time, say it in their own words, do something active with it, take notes on it or any number of other activities.

In particular, students need to be able to verbalize their new understandings and apply the implications of what they have learned to a variety of situations. Tests and quizzes can help determine what they have retained, but are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to aiding students' retention and assessment.