Reading (mis)Comprehension?

A common challenge I hear from teachers in my literacy role, is that of getting pupils to read for understanding. It seems that all too often, pupils are able to read the entirety of a text without taking in its meaning or being able to do anything with it afterwards. So why does this happen and what can we do about it? 

The main reasons, in my view, that pupils don’t ‘take in’ what they read are:

  1. Lack of attention
  2. Insufficient contextual knowledge

To some extent, the solution to both of these issues is the same: we need to think more carefully about what we might call pre-reading tasks. To address the two issues above, these tasks need to (1) be engaging and (2) develop or activate knowledge around the subject.

When developing our nine word literacy policy, this was one of the issues we chose to address with the strand: “Question, read, review”. This was based around the SQ3R approach, which is also in our Year 9 Study Skills curriculum.  What follows below is a list of strategies collated from members of the literacy group to get pupils questioning and reviewing texts effectively.


  1. Low-stakes testing – create bespoke Kahoot quizzes to follow reading based on key grammatical structures and vocabulary.
  2. Differentiation through colour-coding – make explicit the implicit grammatical and lexical differences texts.


Students to highlight key phrases/paragraphs that tell them something important or interesting.  Each highlighted comment requires a note (annotated around the edge of the page) explaining why it’s interesting, or how it could be utilised in their own practical work/what ideas it has given them.


An active reading strategy that I employ with my A level product design students is to give them an article from a design publication. I ask them to skim read the text and identify the nature of the  text and what it will enable us to learn. When I have prompted a few answers I ask them to make notes in a box on the sheet to record any questions they hope to be able to answer. I ask for a volunteer to read aloud and switch readers as appropriate to length of text. I advise them to highlight or underline technical vocab or phrases that they find difficult. After reading I then question them on whether the article has met their expectations (as recorded in the box). Finally we review any queries on technical language or  phrases that we highlighted.


The department uses flipped learning at GCSE where pupils use chapter booklets and complete tasks before the lesson starts. Pupils are aware that the following lesson will be based on this homework and class discussions will take place.


When I want to set some reading for homework, I always give pupils a guided questions sheet to help them focus their learning. This helps save me time in lesson because they know what questions will come up during discussions. The helps pupils learn to research for specific details within the set reading.


A teacher from the English department shared this helpful table, which details some of the strategies she uses before during and after reading takes place.
Pre and post reading

So, if you find that pupils are not comprehending the texts you’re giving them, here are some strategies. The overall message is that it isn’t enough to hand a pupil a text and expect them to engage with it meaningfully. We need to start by giving them some context and follow up to check understanding.

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