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Five ways for adults to improve reading comprehension

By Pam DeMato, Transitions to Success Coordinator


What is reading comprehension?

You most likely said “understanding what I read.”


You’re not wrong. However, that answer does not fully explain what we have to know, or practice, to make a reader fully understand text.



Decoding is an important first step to reading comprehension. Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.

What is decoding? The process of sounding out words and putting those words together quickly.


Two clues to determine if students need to improve decoding:

1. If students don’t sound out words, and read them together easily or quickly, that is a clue that decoding needs improvement.


Reading a story, passage, or even a long text, takes longer to understand because the student’s brain is working to sound out words or trying to remember words by sight, not the meaning.


2. If a student is skipping words or substituting words (like reading here instead of there), to try to read faster, that is another clue that decoding is weak.


To be an independent reader, a student must have an accuracy rate of 95% or greater. If a students can only read 85% of a text, which seems like a lot, they are not comprehending it well and need a lower level passage or book.


Background knowledge, or schema, makes a huge difference in what readers understand.

All of our students have background knowledge on something – just maybe not the subject they are reading about.


What is a student interested in or know a lot about? That’s background knowledge

I love to garden, have experience with plants, and want to learn more, so if I had to read instructions or a story about gardening, I would comprehend what I am reading. I may even enjoy it.


If I had a book about car repair, it would take me longer to read it. Even as a fluent reader and decoder, I can read the text easily, but it would still take me longer and I would have to concentrate on reading, because I have no experience fixing my car, even if I may need to know how.



One of the five ways to improve reading comprehension is to enlist the help of a trusted friend or family member. Photo by AD Studio on Unsplash.

There are five ways to begin improving reading comprehension as an adult

1. Start with what a student knows

There are books, news articles, and magazines about many different subjects and at different levels. It’s ok to start with a subject the student knows and enjoys, but do it at a level that is comfortable. If you’re reading a page and there are five words you don’t know, don’t be embarrassed to put that aside and choose an easier book in that subject. This builds confidence and comfort for a learner who is trying to improve but may feel embarrassed to be at a level lower than peers.


2. Vocabulary

If a student gets to an unknown word, it’s important to stop and take a minute to look up the word in the dictionary. If that’s too difficult, or there is no handy dictionary, ask Siri or Alexa to define the word.


3. Ask a trusted friend to help

Enlist a friend, or even choose an imaginary friend from the book, to explain what is happening. Be sure you can answer who, what, when, where, how, and why.


4. Use guides to focus on reading

A page of dark letters on a white background can be hard to focus on; the eye or attention may wander. Try a colored piece of paper or a bookmark to help focus on one line at a time.


5. Now, for guided reading

Practice makes for higher reading comprehension! It’s time to branch out into a more difficult reading or a subject that is less interesting or lower background knowledge. Continue work to build vocabulary and answer questions about the text.


If students need more support, a local literacy organization can help!

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