04 Improving children’s reading comprehension

ERO’s 2014 report Raising achievement in Primary Schools shared how some schools limited children’s progress by only focusing on short-term remedial programmes for children needing support. Conversely, teachers and leaders in effective schools were able to explain how other experts in the school, or parents, could help the child, while also being very clear that they as teachers were responsible for student achievement.

Leaders and teachers at ROSCOMMON SCHOOL identified what Years 5 and 6 children and their teachers specifically needed to do to improve.

They accessed Professional Learning and Development (PLD) that targeted those areas. Teachers were taught specific strategies to use with their children. Leaders learnt how to monitor the practices and mentor teachers to sustain the practices and progress.

This narrative shares the strategies introduced and the assessment processes used to monitor the impacts of the new strategies.

In this large Auckland school almost all the children were either of Mäori or Pacific ethnicity. Assessment data revealed that, generally, many of the children were able to decode well by the time they were in Year 3. However, achievement dipped in Years 5 and 6 because of children’s limited comprehension. Leaders decided to break away from their more traditional whole-school PLD. They introduced reading PLD for teachers of Years 5 and 6 children only.

Leaders and teachers participated in a Ministry of Education PLD contract to improve literacy teaching practice. This focused on developing teachers’ capabilities to teach, assess and reflect on the reading comprehension of Years 5 and 6 children. An external facilitator modelled observation and questioning techniques and supported leaders to develop the confidence to engage in challenging conversations about teaching practice. The facilitator also worked with teachers developing processes and strategies to use when making judgements about children’s achievement.

Content of reading lessons

Shared expectations of what should happen in a reading lesson were agreed. Teachers adopted the practice of having children complete pre-reading activities and then reading the text before their group worked with the teacher. This meant instructional time was optimised for improving comprehension and was not taken up by silent reading or decoding, which the children could already do.

The group instructional time then focused on:

  • comprehension skills – activating prior knowledge, predicting, self-monitoring, questioning, making connections, visualising, summarising and retelling, inferring and synthesising (as outlined in Sheena Cameron’s resources)
  • having children discuss and justify their answers and the strategies they used so both the child and the teacher could clarify what reading processes were used
  • using teacher and student modelling books to highlight successful reading strategies children used and could refer to later
  • developing and discussing goals and learning intentions at the beginning of each group-teaching session so children were familiar with the language of learning and what was expected of them
  • providing specific feedback about the strategies the children had successfully used to see the links between what they did and successful outcomes
  • combining reading and writing to make the links between reading and writing clearer so children could better understand the forms and purposes of different texts and become aware that texts are intended for an audience.

Teachers practised:

  • fully explaining the learning intentions for the series of group lessons
  • providing specific feedback to a child when attempting a strategy linked to the learning intention
  • deeper questioning to allow children to build on what they knew already when engaging with the text.

Adopting the new teaching strategies involved ongoing practice and reflection. Teachers individually and collaboratively reflected on both their developing practice and the resulting impacts for children. Teachers videoed some reading lessons to identify how well their questioning had moved from predominantly recall to inference. They also checked whether their feedback had changed from general feedback to specific feedback about the mastery of a reading strategy. They then shared the video and their reflections with a senior leader and discussed where they had already improved and how they could improve further.

This photo is of a teacher helping a group of 5 students to read with the literacy goals displayed on he windows behind them

Reading assessment developments

During the PLD, teachers also developed their assessment and analysis skills. New sources of evidence to make judgements about children’s achievements. Teachers used the following sources of evidence to consider children’s reading achievement in Years 5 and 6:

The associate principal and teachers used the assessment data to undertake comprehensive formal reviews to determine:

  • progress made and what worked for the children
  • areas of concern
  • other considerations including possible next steps
  • what the information showed about the children.

An example of the analysis and review from a recent assessment is shared below.

Years 5 and 6 teachers’ self review

Progress made:

Planning done in modelling books was successful as a form of evidence for teachers and for children to refer to when extra support was needed, particularly for reading comprehension strategies. I always directed students to their modelling books for those who were away during a small group session.

Areas of concern:

Need a lot more time on inference, synthesis and analysis of text. Though these were covered in reading, it was often the things they were not confident about how to use in a range of text. This was evident in both group lessons and ARBs tests.

Other considerations

Need to revamp our pre-reading activities so children get more from unseen texts. Perhaps even give them some multi-choice questions so they are not so shocked when they see a PAT question.

So what does this tell us?

With guidance and group support, our students are capable, hardworking readers with a developing grasp of a range of comprehension strategies

Teachers also collaboratively analyse children’s actual assessment responses, rather than just reporting on the data from their results. In one recent assessment, teachers had sought to learn more about how well children could answer inference questions. They used a task from the ARBs, and analysed the resulting data using a framework they developed. They jointly planned a response to the findings and then developed their own class plans to address specific areas of weakness identified by the ARB task. Find out more about the specific ARB task at https://arbs.nzcer.org.nz/resources/what-or-who-am-i

Teachers then carefully designed their next reading lessons to respond to their assessment findings. Below is an example of one teacher’s reflections after reviewing a variety of evidence sources. The next term’s planning subsequently focused on the learning intentions identified. Their process is shown below.


  • Making predictions of a text by using the title and pictures.
  • Recalling facts from text.
  • Actively using the word wall to make meaning of new words.


  • Checking they understand the key messages.
  • Note taking from texts.
  • Discriminating between fact and opinion by identifying the words used to persuade the reader.
  • Vocabulary within the topic.
  • Some not completing the pre-reading activity before the teaching sessions

Possible learning intentions

  • Make inferences about the author’s purpose.
  • Make connections between unknown content and what is known already.
  • Understand and identify facts and opinions in the text.
  • Summarise the main parts of the text in own words.

ERO observed reading lessons to see the practices in Years 5 and 6 classes.

In one class, the teaching of reading and writing had recently been integrated.

The teacher’s modelling book shared the children’s strengths and needs, and a learning intention related to making connections to what they already knew. The group of children working with the teachers looked in detail at a set of questions before watching and analysing a music video.

The teacher told the children that he was practising giving feedback to them that related to the learning intention – noticing when you make connections to your own lives. After watching the video, the children wrote and then shared some of their answers. They discussed how they could use the same strategies when reading. The teacher ‘borrowed’ some of the children’s answers to use in the answers he recorded in his modelling book and identified why he had selected some of the answers as a way to give specific feedback to children.

In another class, one group of children were working with the teacher while the others were involved in pre- and post-reading tasks. Each child had the learning intention displayed on cards they had with them. One pre-reading activity involved watching a video clip. The other children read the text they would discuss later with the teacher.

When a group of children went to the teacher, they discussed the pre-reading activities and the goals they had set for themselves earlier in the week. The children agreed they had too many goals to deal with in one lesson. They selected some they could include that linked to the learning intention.

The teacher then shared examples of a factual describer and evaluative describer and asked children to determine what types of questions they had in front of them. When children shared their ideas, the teacher regularly reminded them to justify their answers so that other children could learn from them. When a child had difficulty answering a question, the teacher turned to a previous page in the modelling book to show the links with things they had learned the previous week. Children then worked in pairs to discuss and answer their remaining questions.

In both classes, children were motivated, engaged and challenged by their reading tasks.

Years 5 and 6 children told us their learning was now set at more challenging levels than in the past. They valued being exposed to challenge.

“We are not afraid of hard learning and we’re more confident to ask questions when we don’t understand things. We ask more because we know this is what good learners do.”

Year 6 child

Percentage of children at or above National Standards for reading
Reading 2013 2014 2015 2016
End of Year 5 55% 69% 71% 80%
End of Year 6 67% 74% 78% 75%

Reading results showed the progress children were making because of the new teaching approaches and strategies.

Teachers were continuing to embed their new strategies and were also sharing them with the teachers of Years 3 and 4 children.