So – let’s talk about reading comprehension.  But first, I’ve had a question about similarities between dyslexia and ADHD- especially as it applies to reading. There are a few similarities, but these are very different entities and the “causes” for these similarities are different.  It is also important to realize that quite a few students may have both dyslexia and ADHD affecting them.

You will find that both students with dyslexia and ADHD may have difficulty in reading function words (e.g. “a” and “the”) when reading text aloud – but the reasons are different. In a student with ADHD, this may occur because of attentional issues – not zeroing in on these less relevant words.  The dyslexic student may have difficulty with them because they are focusing on meaning – a primary strategy for their minds. Both may overlook or miscall these words for slightly different reasons.

These similarities and differences also apply to reading comprehension.  First, let’s realize that reading comprehension is a totally different thing than reading decoding. It involves different parts of the brain.  A good way to look at this is to go back to the dyslexia article on this website and revisit the graphic on the Tapestry of Reading.  You will see that there are 5 major areas that can affect one’s ability to read and comprehend.  For the student with dyslexia, this mainly involves problems with phonological processing and automaticity.  The student with ADHD is more likely to have problems with attentional and executive function factors contributing to both problems with reading and listening comprehension.  The dyslexic child generally does well with listening comprehension and is okay with reading comprehension in early grades – but will be very slow in reading.  As the dyslexic child advances in grade, the lack of speed and automaticity can start to affect reading comprehension when reading larger amounts of text.  This is why accommodations such as extended time are needed.

The ADHD child has difficulty maintaining attention to what they are reading and working memory problems can contribute to difficulty remembering information from the beginning and the middle as they are reading, so by the end, they have forgotten what they read.  Organizational problems contribute to difficulty in making sense of what is happening in the story or text.  The ADHD child may be less motivated to read if the material is not particularly interesting to them.  Let’s add another factor from the Tapestry of Reading.  Suppose the student also has a language problem – a language-based learning disability.  Understanding language and the meaning of words is a vital component in the ability to comprehend in reading.  These children often have a very difficult time with both listening and reading comprehension.

Although this is just the tip of the iceberg, I think you can see why it is so important to fully understand a student’s strengths and challenges in order to design the appropriate strategies and interventions for the student. ALL of these students would benefit in reading comprehension by learning and using specific strategies to enhance understanding – or strategic learning coaching.

To address this problem my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Janice Kilburn, and I did extensive research on reading comprehension and from this research developed a procedure to enhance both listening and reading comprehension for elementary age students.  This was designed to incorporate most of the factors that have been identified to facilitate better comprehension.  You will see that this technique meets the needs of a wide variety of students, including those with dyslexia, ADHD, and language issues but is a fine procedure for all students.  It can be used in classrooms and at home with parents serving the “teacher role”.  This is a strategic learning coaching technique and as such, should be used repeatedly so that the thought processes become engrained in the student over time.  This is what we are trying to get kids to do as they are approaching the text and endeavoring to truly understand it.

Let’s first briefly review what the research tells us about enhancing reading comprehension.

Reading research has indicated that active, thoughtful and proficient readers utilize the following strategies as they are reading.  It is important to explicitly teach students about these strategies, model their use and help students to independently label and use them.

  • Activating, relevant, prior knowledge before, during, and after reading the text (making connections to information, ideas and experiences the reader already knows)
  • Creating visual and other sensory images from text during and after reading
  • Drawing inferences from text to form conclusions, make critical judgments and create unique interpretations
  • Asking questions of themselves, the authors, and the texts they read
  • Determining the most important ideas and themes in a text
  • Synthesizing what they read

Some examples of techniques for each of these strategies:


Using a think-aloud strategy, model for student how the title, pictures or specific information from the text makes you think about something in your experience.  Encourage students to similarly share what they already know about pictures, title, keywords – aloud.  Have students use Post-it notes as they are reading to make a note about something in their repertoire of experience or knowledge that they can relate directly to the text.


Encourage students to visualize what is happening in the text.  Ask the student to talk about scenes in the text in vivid detail to encourage visualization skills.  Encourage students to draw alongside passages to illustrate what they are reading or a main idea or concept. If students do not visualize and participate actively in the world of text, they are unable to do all of the other kinds of things expert readers do.


Explicitly teach the concept of inferences, explaining that authors often want readers to pull clues together to infer what a character is like, what could happen in the future, or form a conclusion when it is not specifically stated.  Use “think alouds” and the process previously illustrated starting with teacher modeling to point out specific points in the text where an inference is expected.  Have students analyze text to determine the same thing independently.


As you are reading aloud with the students, ask them to make predictions about what they think will happen in the story.  Record the predictions and later ask if they think the predictions need to be changed.  When students are reading independently, have them stop at certain points and make a prediction and write it down on a sticky note.  Later, have them evaluate whether their predictions were accurate.  Also encourage students to formulate questions in their minds as they are reading about the main character, why someone wanted to do something, or how someone was feeling or how they would feel in that situation.  Ask them to record their questions on a sticky note or a reading notebook.


Use a story mapping technique or graphic organizer and have students fill in the major components as they are reading.  In a fiction story be sure to include the main problem of the story and the goal of the main character.  With other text, have students read one paragraph at a time and make a notation with a sticky note what the main idea of the paragraph was.


Perhaps using a graphic organizer or a story maps as a guide, have the student talk about major components of the story or selection.  Provide a guideline (rubric) as to particular information that would be important to include when presenting a summary of the selection.  Have a student draw an illustration to convey the overall theme of the story, or alternately a visual depiction of events leading to a conclusion.  This could be done through the use of graphic organizing techniques, mind maps or many other formats.  Students could also be asked to write a short summary of the story/selection using their graphic organizer or mind map as an organizational guide.

What is think-aloud?

In reading, a think-aloud is creating a record either by talking aloud or writing, of the strategic decision-making and interpretive processes of going through a text.  It involves reporting everything the reader is aware of noticing, doing, seeing, feeling, asking and understanding as he or she reads.  A think aloud involves talking about the reading strategies you are using and the content of the piece you are reading.

So now – how do you take all this research and put it together in a technique that both parents and teachers can use on a regular basis with their children.  Remember by using this approach you are actually showing the child “how to learn” not just what to learn. You are guiding the child to use these thought processes on a regular basis – that – when used consistently, can build the neural networks that will facilitate better comprehension.

This method can also be used for younger students to enhance listening comprehension and to support those who are not yet reading.

The Reading Comprehension Strategy

Our approach to developing a strategy for enhancing reading (and listening) comprehension follows a model of being a detective and understanding the “Author’s Secret Plans”.

The following activities are designed to be implemented with any fiction reading material. It requires the teacher/parent or tutor to thoroughly study selections ahead of time and provide designated pre-reading activities, guided reading, and mapping activities during reading, and follow-up activities after the reading selection are completed. It can be used with both student-direct reading and stories read orally to the student.

Pre-reading Activities

Reading research has demonstrated that an individual’s prior knowledge substantially affects his/her reading or listening comprehension. In order to access prior knowledge and make links to the material to be read, the focus is placed on students discussing information they already know, becoming familiar with the vocabulary in the selection, making predictions about the selections and discussing plans and goals of the main character(s). Metacognitive strategies in instruction are interspersed throughout the activities.

Making Links

  1. The teacher explains to the student that comprehension is improved by knowing as much as possible about a topic before beginning to read. Explain to children that they are going to make predictions (guesses) as they try to figure out what is going on and that making mistakes is okay -we will change our predictions later.

Teacher guides the following activities:

Have the children look at the pictures, title of the selection and summary statement (if provided). Say to the student (s) “Tell me what you know about… (A picture, words in the title, or concept in the summary statement)”. Let students generate responses and share if in a group. The idea is not to ask questions but to have students generate their own associations from their own experience.

  1. Teacher (Parent) should pick out keywords from the selection ahead of time. Say to the student: “Tell me what you know about “each word”. You may want to put these words on cards. Have students generate responses. The key is for students to freely talk about what they already know – not giving them definitions of words. In this way they are making connections with their own experiences which will make the reading selection more meaningful for them.
  2. Have the children look at a specific picture within the story. Say to the students, “tell me what you see”. Have student(s) generate responses.
  3. Teacher asks students to make predictions from titles and pictures about characters, problems to be solved, goals, attempts at solutions and the final outcome. Predictions should be written down on chart paper or another format. Teacher explains to students that as they read and discover new information, they can discuss and evaluate the earlier predictions and clear up problems with understanding.
  4. Predictions should include answers to these specific questions:
    1. What is the main character in the story likely to want?
    2. How is the main character(s) going to accomplish the goal(s)?
    3. What do you think the main character should do?
  5. Teacher tells students to always read with a purpose in mind. A very good purpose which will have direct meaning to the students at this point is – to see if their predictions are correct.

Guided Reading Activities and Story Mapping

A major characteristic of poor comprehenders is that they are often unaware that they are not comprehending what they are reading. Guided reading activities require students to stop periodically and evaluate what they have read and their own comprehension. Story mapping provides an organizational framework for thinking about stories. These techniques are meant to be used consistently so that they may become self-generated strategies in the future.

  1. Introduce the story-mapping procedure by saying or paraphrasing to the student “as a detective, your help is needed to figure out the Author’s Secret Plans. Did you know that authors of stories make plans about their stories before they write them down? We will call these the Author’s Secret Plans. Here is the Author’s Secret Plans chart. As you read this story, we will figure out the Author’s Secret Plans. Then we will fill in the blanks on the chart. As we read the story and fill out the Secret Plan chart, think about the predictions you made earlier. Sometimes we might change our predictions. Good Luck, Reading Detective!
  2. Teacher plans break in the reading of the story to review main points (see Teacher Planning Worksheet).
  3. Using the story-mapping techniques (see attached Author’s Secret Plans), the teacher stops students periodically in order to discuss and fill in the major components of the story map. Initially, the teacher can fill in the story map, occasionally having a student fill in a portion. After students have become very familiar with this story-mapping procedure, they should gradually assume more responsibility for filling out the map. This story mapping procedure is used consistently – every time – a selection is read. Blank story maps are made available for students to use independently outside of the formal instructional mode.
  4. At periodic breaks (following story-mapping guidelines) teacher asks students the question – Are my predictions correct? Have student(s) make responses. Ask the students to ask themselves – “what do I think will happen next?” I need to make some predictions.
  5. At the end of the story have students ask themselves again: “were my predictions correct? What information made me change them?

Follow-Up Activities: After reading, the focus is on summarizing what has been read, reviewing the prediction process and evaluating the characters, goals, actions, and outcome of the story. This section includes a drawing activity in order to engage the child while the discussion is continuing and to provide a visual imagery experience to enhance comprehension and memory.

  1. Say to the student: “Did you ever think you might like to be the illustrator of a book?” Here’s your chance! Now you can be the illustrator of the story you just read. Your assignment is to draw a picture of the story’s problem or about the story’s solution. You already know what the problem and the solution are because you figured out the Author’s Secret Plan.  Have fun illustrator!
  2. While children are drawing, the teacher guides the discussion focusing on the following areas:
    1. Teacher asks the student(s) to summarize the story emphasizing only the main points
    2. Students talk about and evaluate their predictions, how accurate they were and how they changed their predictions
    3. Students evaluate the characters and their behavior, i.e. “I think Clarissa was brave to go to that house alone” or “I think Clarissa should have told her parents before doing that.”
    4. Say to the student(s): “Did you ever wish that you were the teacher and that your teacher was the student?” This activity lets you change places with your teacher. Now you will be the teacher and he/she will be the student! Think about some questions about the story to ask your teacher. Remember to make good questions! Try to fool your teacher! Use your Reading Detective predictions and your Authors Secret Plans Chart to make the best questions you can. Good luck teacher!”

Students play “test the teacher” and generate some questions regarding the entire selection they can ask him/her. Make this a fun activity. For younger students, it can be an “oral” test with each student asking one or two questions. For older students, you may have them write out questions for you to read and answer aloud. The procedure could also be used as questions of students as well as the teacher.