Over recent years, there has been a shift towards teaching comprehension through whole-class reading lessons.

Compared with traditional guided groups, whole-class reading offers the benefits of increased exposure to challenging texts, increased time for deep exploration of a text and the opportunity for class discussion.

Whole-class reading: what the research says

But what strategies are proven to make a real impact on learning? Here are some key tips for planning an effective whole-class reading comprehension lesson based on research and good practice.

1. Be picky with the text

For a lesson to be effective, the text needs to be engaging and fit for purpose, so instead of choosing the lesson focus based on the text, choose the text based on the learning needs of the class.

Of course, you may have a class book on the go and the next chapter works perfectly, but sometimes it’s nice to branch out and using a poem, song, non-fiction extract or short story linked to your topic can provide enrichment and increased scope. This can be chosen based on the objective that needs covering.

2. Teach the context

Background knowledge is the most important component of language comprehension, according to the  National Foundation for Educational Research.

Research shows that children who have an understanding of context are able to outperform their peers in comprehension, irrespective of phonic reading ability (Willingham, 2018).

This was also highlighted in an iconic American study conducted in the 1980s by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie.

The researchers asked students to read a fictional recount of a baseball game before re-enacting it on a model. The study found that reading ability had little impact on the recall and comprehension of the text. The children who excelled at reconstructing the game were those with prior baseball knowledge.

To apply this in the classroom, begin the lesson by teaching the required background knowledge and vocabulary. This provides a scaffold and ensures that the children start with the necessary information to engage with the text.

3. Make reading visual

Aphantasia is the inability to form mental images. Many children and adults have this condition without being aware of it.

When teaching background knowledge and vocabulary, include pictures and diagrams, then make them available on word mats to be used throughout the lesson.

As well as supporting children who find visualisation difficult, this will also enable children who have never experienced the context to develop a mental model for future lessons.

Additionally, don’t rule out picture books. Even in key stage 2, picture books can be useful in developing an understanding of inference and hidden meaning. Some good examples are stories by Anthony Browne and Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.

4. Read to the children

During whole-class sessions, the focus should be on comprehension rather than fluency.

Fluency and comprehension are separate skills; however, a lack of fluency can inhibit comprehension as children need to be able to decode a massive 95 per cent of a text to enable them to understand it (Hirsch, 2003).

Teacher reading means that the language content of the text doesn’t need to be limited. Furthermore, by modelling you provide a scaffold for inference and understanding of emotion that children can use later when re-reading.

5. Read the text twice in succession

The first read of the text focuses on modelling fluency and expression, and allows the children to develop an initial response.

The second read then focuses on comprehension. Give the children a specific objective to keep in mind, such as tracking the emotions of the characters or identifying the descriptive language.

If a text is accessible, the children can do this in pairs. Alternatively, this can be repeated by the teacher so the pupils can focus on the objective of the lesson.

6. Questions and answers

During the second read, ask the questions that you want answering as you go along. Next, allow the children to create an answer through paired discussion before feeding back to the class.

The importance of talk in developing understanding and writing ability is proven. Research shows that when meta-cognitive strategies (thinking about thinking) like this are used, they produce better understanding and follow-up writing (Owen and Vista, 2017).

Finally, reinforce this by teaching the children how to find the answer and then model the sentence yourself. Next time the children come across a similar question, they will know exactly what is required to create a good-quality answer.

7. Switch up the pupil activities each lesson

While having a set of answers to questions can be useful for assessment, this repetitive activity can be boring.

There is a range of engaging activities that can be used to assess understanding of a text. A prominent blogger, James Durran, has created a menu of activities that can be used during reading lessons.

For example, instead of asking children to answer questions about how the feelings of a character change throughout a text, get them to role play as the character (or for higher-ability children, the author) and explain their feelings through an interview situation.

8. Use stem sentences

Providing stem sentences teaches the children how to respond without providing the answers.

Furthermore, it provides a starting point for children who might have found formulating a response difficult without a scaffold. Many studies have shown that stem sentences can improve engagement and confidence, and enable children to build upon each others’ ideas (Praxis Teacher Research).

As well as using stem sentences for Q and A activities, they are incredibly effective during drama, writing in role activities and paired discussions.

The original version of this article was originally published in TES by Gemma Tonge.