Comprehension is one of the goals of reading instruction [1]. While a student may be an effective decoder, able to read a passage quickly and without errors, they must understand what they are reading in order to become proficient readers. Reading comprehension relies on the reader’s prior knowledge and their active engagement to construct meaning from the words and grammatical structures while they read [2].

Reading comprehension skills can be developed simultaneously with the skills previously discussed in this module. Even students who struggle with decoding or cannot yet read fluently should be given opportunities to develop their comprehension skills.

Teaching Reading Comprehension

Before, During, After

Comprehension begins before a student starts reading, and continues after they have finished. Strategies to teach comprehension should also start with pre-reading activation, continue throughout the process of reading, and extend to post-reading consolidation.

Before beginning to read, the teacher and students establish the purpose for reading. Together they consider what they already know about the topic or genre and use the title, headings, table of contents or index, and new, unfamiliar vocabulary to enhance their predictions.

During reading, the students respond to the text by searching for meaning, identifying the main ideas, predicting and verifying predictions, and building a coherent interpretation of the text. Students bring their experiences of the world and literature into the reading activity. The teacher directs the attention of students to subtleties in the text, points out challenging words and ideas, and identifies problems and encourages the students to predict solutions.

After reading, the students reflect on their learning as they apply the knowledge acquired during reading, or transfer that knowledge to other contexts (e.g., by retelling, summarizing, creating graphic organizers, or putting pictures in sequential order). [3]

A focus on activities before, during and after reading is particularly important for students with LDs. Although reading can be very challenging for these students, they can often generate strong predictions about the story, or about vocabulary that might be included based on the topic, and they may be able to skillfully retell the story in their own words. This gives them an opportunity to feel smart during an activity where they may otherwise feel discouraged.

The KWL strategy is one way to approach activities before, during, and after reading. Click here to access the article and accompanying handout The KWL Strategy.

The National Reading Panel’s Eight Strategies

According to the National Reading Panel [4], eight instructional practices are shown to improve comprehension:

  1. Comprehension monitoring: Students become aware of their comprehension while reading and learn how to tackle comprehension challenges in a text. The SQ3R strategy is one way to teach comprehension monitoring. Click here to open the PDF of the SQ3R reading comprehension strategy.
  2. Cooperative learning: Students work together to practice reading strategies. Click here to access the article Peer-Mediated Learning Approaches.
  3. Graphic and semantic organizers: These tools provide a visual support to help students depict the main ideas and character relationships in the text. For students with working memory challenges, this may be a necessary accommodation. Click here to access the article Graphic Organizers.
  4. Story structure: Students learn to ask and answer who, what, where, when, and why questions about the plot, and map out the time line, characters, and events in the text. Click here to access the article Mind Maps.
  5. Question answering: Students answer questions posed by the educator, who provides immediate feedback and corrections.
  6. Question generation: Students ask themselves what, when, where, why, what will happen, how, and who
  7. Summarization: Students identify the main ideas of the text and their supporting details.
  8. Multiple-strategy teaching: Students uses various strategies with educator support. Students should be taught to use strategies flexibly and to choose the most effective one for the context.

Independent Reading

Independent reading is a daily instructional activity in which students independently practice the reading strategies previously taught and practiced in shared and guided reading activities. Although students are expected to read independently, this activity is nonetheless teacher-supported. The educator observes students, records observations, and uses this information to guide further instruction and intervention.

Regular opportunities for independent reading are critically important for all students, including those with LDs.

Unfortunately, children with learning disabilities in reading often do not read independently, because they tend to find reading effortful, may have trouble obtaining books at their reading level, or may have generally negative attitudes toward reading as a consequence of repeated failure [5].

Because of these barriers that students with LDs face, it is essential that educators support these students to engage meaningfully in independent reading activities. The following handout describes how to support students with LDs during independent reading.

Preview of Independent Reading PDF

Click here to access the printable document How to Implement Independent Reading in an Inclusive Classroom.

The video clip below provides an overview of Independent Reading and considerations for students with LDs.

Click here to access the transcription of this video.

The following printable handouts provide additional strategies for developing students’ reading comprehension. To read the original article associated with these handouts, click here to access the article Reading and the Brain: Strategies for Decoding, Fluency, and Comprehension.


Click here to access the handout Interventions for Reading Comprehension (K-2).

Click here to access the handout Interventions for Reading Comprehension (3+).

Structures & Strategies to Support Independent Reading

Many structures are necessary in order to successfully implement in an independent reading program in a classroom. Bear in mind that all learners require individualized accommodations and the supports that are essential for some students with learning disabilities to be successful may also be good supports for others. A teacher must consider the following:

Teacher Involvement and Engagement

  • As a general “good practice”, the teacher must be fully engaged during independent reading time. This may include guiding small groups, conferencing with readers, and/or engaging in independent reading oneself [6].
  • Positive role models (both adult and peer) are important for all children as they help to create positive habits; independent reading is a positive habit for helping students to build their fluency and decoding skills. Positive role models provide great benefit to students with learning disabilities, particularly young boys who often do not see reading as a desirable activity [7].

Model Expected Behaviours

  • Don’t expect children to learn to read independently by having books read to them. Instead, consider role-playing exemplary reading behaviours and negative reading behaviours; this provides students with learning disabilities the opportunity to visualize what is expected [8]. Opportunities to see what is expected not only enhance memory consolidation but also make the abstract concept of independent reading concrete.
  • Multi-model instruction allows learners with various types of learning disabilities to access the content presented. For example, a student who struggles with processing oral language benefits from modelling to teach concepts [9].
  • Teachers can consider sharing their self-selected reading material with students. Share an easy read, a just right read, a challenging read and the criteria for making this determination.


  • Educators need to invest a lot of time into building the structures of an independent reading program into their classroom culture.
  • Repetition allows learners to code and organize the information for later retrieval; particularly for students with memory deficits as part of their learning profile, repetition and review improves their ability to succeed [10]. Colour-coded anchor charts provide opportunities for students to revisit vital information as needed.

Scaffolding & Stamina Building

  • Help students build stamina. Reading stamina is defined as, “a child’s ability to focus and read independently for long-ish periods of time without being distracted or without distracting others” [11]. In order to help students build stamina, consider the following structures:
    • Vary the ways reading takes place (ie. read to self, read to others, listen to reading). Novel situations foster motivation.
    • Start small and celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! For example, in a grade two class, start at four minutes of independent reading time, minute by minute increase the time (as the whole class models proficiency) – it may take until Thanksgiving to reach a goal of 20 minutes of sustained reading time for every person in the class, but scaffolding “perfect practice” pays dividends in the long run.
    • For many students with learning disabilities, scaffolding reading involves teaching students a set of procedures or routines to follow as they are reading. These function as a signal that prompts the readers to assist in the internalization of strategies and comprehension monitoring [12]. An example of such a strategy could be seeing the mind as a movie camera – as the reader is reading text they should be imagining the movie of the book coming to life in their brain; if the movie stops, they know they have lost focus and need to regroup.
    • Consider the importance of embedding self-regulation opportunities into your independent reading program; teaching the students unobtrusive ways to take mental space may have long-lasting impacts on reading performance [13].

Offer Multiple Entry Points

  • Shorter durations of independent reading may be preferable for less proficient readers; as readers build their stamina increase the amount of time spent reading independently. That said; do not limit independent reading sessions (after the initial stamina-building period). Ensure strategies are explicitly taught to those readers who need mental breaks; what does a break look like during independent reading? Ensure you define what readers can do, as well as what they cannot do. Reading for long periods of time can be difficult for students who struggle to maintain attention [14].

Self-Monitoring Strategies

  • Most fluent readers can monitor their comprehension strategies as they read a text. For students who struggle to read, provide explicit opportunities to pause and comprehension monitor. Six signals that readers can use to identify that it is a good time to pause and regroup:
    1. the inner voice stops its conversation,
    2. the camera shuts off,
    3. the mind wanders,
    4. the reader forgets part of the text,
    5. the reader is not getting clarifying questions answered, and
    6. characters are reappearing in the text that the reader cannot remember information about them. [15]
  • Explicit and repeated instruction of each strategy increases the likelihood that a student with a learning disability can apply the strategy during independent reading times. Effective self-monitoring helps students with learning disabilities and ADHD improve both their academic standing and attention [16].

Level of Text

  • During independent reading time, students ideally want to have material that they can be highly successful with; an independent reading level is typically lower than a guided reading level; struggling readers are more likely to engage with text that is easier for them to decode and comprehend [17].
  • Optimal independent reading material is that which students can read (decode and comprehend) with 95% accuracy [18].
  • Struggling readers need many high-success reading experiences so they can “self-teach” to improve their literacy skills [19].
  • Check in with struggling readers as many find it difficult to self-select appropriate level text and may need teacher support in doing so, especially in the beginning (this is where roaming conferencing is helpful – as an educator, check in with students by “popping up” during their independent reading time and asking them to read aloud (from where they are in their independent reading text); during check-ins, model self-monitoring techniques).

Text Availability

  • Have a wide variety of text available to students; include a variety of material types (fiction, nonfiction, non-continuous text, graphic text) [20]. Include digital offerings (like auditory books found online via Hoopla or Libby, books on eReaders); ensure text-to-speech software is available as needed.
  • Teachers need to develop an understanding of reader interests. Reading inventories, preference analysis and discussion with students can help teachers determine what types of text and topics appeal to their learners. Without an understanding of reader interests, teachers cannot begin to expect to entice struggling readers to read [21]; vast selections of material on preferred topics should be available.
  • For students who struggle with phonological processing, speech-to-text software models fluent reading and allows readers to hear and see words simultaneously.
  • Consider making the material used during guided reading sessions, shared reading, and read-alouds available during independent reading time; although supportive for many students with learning disabilities, rereading invites deeper thinks, improves fluency, and supports students who struggle with language [22].
  • The most important thing is to offer choice that students are excited about; get to know students and ensure preferred material is available [23]. Choice optimizes intrinsic motivation. Options combined with instruction in self-selecting materials allows students to self-differentiate.
  • A revolving selection from your public library can offer a free way to keep current titles in your room. In fact, “most experts recommend that classroom libraries include 50% literary texts and 50% informational texts” [24].

Physical Space

  • Consider the physical structure of the classroom: are there opportunities to make it a comfortable space to “snuggle up and read”? In classrooms where space or funding does not allow for “comfortable spaces”, consider allowing students to flip their chairs (so the legs point up to the ceiling) and lay under their desks on their chair backs.  (Students may wish to sit on their coats for comfort). A space that is comfortable and inviting encourages all students to read.
  • Consider what other members of the class are engaged in during independent times. Some students may require noise-cancelling headphones or to be seated with their backs to computer screens to help maintain focus. Students with learning disabilities who wore noise-cancelling headphones during independent reading showed improved comprehension of text [25].


  • The time of day and positioning of independent reading is important to consider. Looking at both the class and individual learner profiles, determine:
    • What structure is best for independent reading time?
    • Are attention spans such that students can be engaged in a variety of activities while independent reading is going on, or will this be too difficult for some students? Consider the activities that come just before and after the independent reading block.
    • When is the uninterrupted literacy block scheduled during the day?
    • Do students need support transitioning between activities? What structures have been created to support the transition between various aspects of their day?


  • Ensure strategies have been taught for reading different types of materials; the strategies used to read a textbook would be different than self-monitoring comprehension while reading a favourite novel. Teaching and re-teaching this will help students learn to self-monitor [26].
  • Ensure that all students have the ability to choose the types of texts they engage with; do not make “virtual reading” available only to students with access to SEA funded technology. Never underestimate the value of a positive peer model.

Independent reading provides all students with a powerful opportunity to practice and consolidate learning. When provided with individualized support and structures, students with learning disabilities are able to engage in independent reading programs. Teacher involvement, modelling expected behaviour, thoughtful scaffolding, and the opportunity for multiple entry points allow differentiation for individual learners and result in an opportunity for students with learning disabilities to grow and thrive. Daily opportunities for independent practice ensure that all students have the opportunity to reinforce learning, become independent, and enjoy reading.


[1] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2003b

[2] National Reading Panel, 2000

[3] Ontario Ministry of Education, 2003a

[4] National Reading Panel, 2000, p. 4-6

[5] Spear-Swerling, 2005

[6] Fountas & Pinnell, 2012

[7] Kipp, Ruffenach, & Janssen, 2016; McFann, 2004

[8] Boushey & Moser, 2006

[9] York Region District School Board, 2014

[10] York Region District School Board, 2014

[11]Reading Rockets, 2012

[12] McEwan, 2009

[13] Berkley & Larsen, 2018

[14] York Region District School Board, 2014

[15]McEwan, 2009

[16] Shimabukuro, et. al., 1999

[17] Jorgenson, Klein, and Kumar, 1977

[18] Reading Rockets, 2012

[19] Allington, 2012

[20] EduGains, 2018

[21] Schanzer, 1973

[22] Johnson & Keier, 2010

[23] Fountas & Pinnell, 2012

[24] Moss, 2016

[25]Smith, 2010

[26] Allington, 2012