First grade is a year of BIG learning. Those sweet littles are increasing their reading skills exponentially. We’ve often heard that the primary grades are when students are learning to read & the intermediate grades are when students begin reading to learn. Yes, first graders are learning how to read, but they are also learning how to visualize, summarize, retell, predict, question, and monitor their own understanding.
Comprehension is a critical component of student success. Thriving readers understand what they’re reading and they’re able to make connections beyond the text. Let’s talk about eight reading comprehensions strategies you can utilize in your own first-grade classroom.
- Be Explicit
It’s much easier for students to apply a skill or strategy when they know exactly what it is and why they’re using it. As you teach new comprehension tactics, name them and explain how they help students better understand the text.
“Today we’re learning about making predictions. We’ll learn how to think about what is going to happen next in a story. This helps us better understand the story.
In addition, your sweet students are (mostly) excited to be at school and excited to learn. They’re at the stage of jumping in the car at 3:30 and exclaiming, “We learned about visualizing today!”
Take full advantage of this enthusiasm. Being able to name and explain a skill is another way for students to reflect and remember what they’re learning.
- Physical Retelling
Firsties love to move, so using a retelling activity that emphasizes physical activity is an ideal strategy for keeping students fully engaged in their learning. Here are two options:
- Retelling rope: String together a picture representation of story elements: setting, characters, beginning, middle, end, problem, and solution. Allow students to hold the rope and hold each piece as they retell the story. Recruit a classroom volunteer to make one for each student or create one per table so that students can use the rope to retell the story with their neighbors.
- Retelling path: Create a picture representation for each story element, with one element on a single sheet of paper. Tape the elements down on the floor to create a path. Students can walk or hop from paper to paper, identifying the major elements as they move.
- Summarize With Basic Questions
Another retelling option is to use basic question words to prompt students: who, what, when, where, why, (& sometimes how).
WHO was the story about?
WHAT did they do?
HOW did they do this?
WHY did they do this?
WHEN did this story occur?
WHERE did this take place?
After training your students to use these questions in retelling a story, create a chart or poster you can display in the classroom for students to refer to after they read and check their own understanding.
- Read Alouds & Think Alouds
Reading aloud to students is forever and always crucial in developing reading comprehension— IF you stop to think aloud along the way.
This post points out that it’s important to stop and discuss how you read during read-alouds when you’re building fluency. The same is true when you’re building comprehension. Throughout each read-aloud time, stop and discuss what you read. Share how you picture the scene in your mind or talk about the motivation behind a character’s actions.
Pro tip: Firsties should be listening to picture book read-alouds every. single. day. Take some time before your read-alouds to prep a few higher-level questions you can sprinkle throughout the book. Record them on a sticky note and keep the note in the front of the book. Your questions will be available every time you read that book to your students for years to come!
- Mind Movies
Reading Rockets recommends the mind movies strategy. After reading a descriptive passage, have your students close their eyes and play the scene in their minds. Encourage them to consider all five senses and what clues in the text helped them create those mental images—
“How did you know Sarah was feeling sad?”
“What adjectives were used to describe the treehouse?”
- Wordless Picture Books
Wordless picture books challenge students to identify what’s happening in the story based on the pictures alone. The author isn’t putting into words where the story takes place or who the characters are. It’s up to the reader to discern or create these elements of the story on their own.
There’s no one right answer, so students won’t fall into the trap of feeling like they have to answer everything perfectly when it comes to discussing the book.
- Set a Purpose
Before students begin reading, help them consider why they’re reading. It could be as simple as reading a nonfiction passage to learn a new fact or reading a fiction story for entertainment. (Hello, purpose P.I.E.!) Setting a purpose helps students understand the goal of the passage, and what they should get out of it by the end.
Think about the last time you used a recipe you found on Pinterest. I’m guessing you skipped past the author’s reflection on her family’s trip to the pumpkin patch, so you could get to the potato soup recipe at the veeeeery bottom of the page. Your purpose was to be informed about how to cook your soup, not to be entertained with a fall-themed story. Reading with purpose is a skill that endures a lifetime. While we’re not teaching students to skim every text, we are teaching them to focus on what information is most critical.
- Encourage Connections
Teach students a number of ways they can create those ever-important text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. Keep note of connections that students form and record them on a classroom anchor chart that builds over time. The skill of connecting is vital as students grow as readers so they can understand the bigger picture that books can play in their lives. As we strive to shape our students into lifelong learners, text connections go a long way in building a love of reading.
Teaching your first grader’s comprehension skills and strategies sets them on a road to becoming thriving readers. Let me know in the comments which strategies you plan on utilizing in your own classroom!
PS: If you’re looking for a comprehensive resource for comprehension instruction, check out my Phonics Reading Comprehension Passages and Questions bundle, which includes a year’s worth of fluency and comprehension practice for your first graders and its Level 1 set is great for struggling readers.
Lawren Christianson is the founder, educator, and curriculum designer of Teaching is a Royal Adventure, Inc. (T.I.A.R.A.) She has a bachelor’s degree in Comprehensive Special Education. Lawren has taught individuals with special needs from preschool to young adults in public school, church, and healthcare settings for 11+ years. She lives near Nashville, Tennessee.