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Scaffolding: Strategies for Improving Reading Comprehension Skills

by Patricia Babbitt

Most Effective Strategies
Practical Applications of Reading Strategies


Remember the adventures that lived and breathed between the pages of a really good book when, as a young reader, you slipped away undiscovered into your own magical world? My favorite works were Charlotte's Web, Arabian Nights, Huckleberry Finn, Arthurian Legends, and, later, the timeless tragedy of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is no surprise that many of us who loved such adventures grew up to become today's English teachers and writers. The surprise comes when we discover how many of our own students are struggling readers.

But surprise need not lead to a permanent state of frustration. By scaffolding reading instruction with various strategies, you will improve the reading abilities of most students, and you will begin to hear struggling readers say things like "I remember every part of that story!" The key is to apply reading strategies persistently and imaginatively. Speaking of imagination, let me ask you to indulge for a moment in a bit of guided imagery. Picture a beautiful, majestic cathedral soaring upward. Then visualize restoration experts at work on that architectural wonder, identifying the problems that need correcting and building a scaffold next to the structure so that they can interact with it at different heights. In a similar way, English teachers build a scaffold for struggling readers so that they can interact safely and securely with the text.


Theoretically speaking, if the daily reading curriculum uses research-proven methods, students should develop skills for comprehending the text. But you may be wondering which strategies are the most beneficial. That question was answered in 1997 by a 14-member panel appointed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The results of their research, published under the title Teaching Children to Read (see resources below), revealed that the eight most effective strategies are as follows:

  • Comprehension monitoring
  • Cooperative learning
  • Graphic organizers
  • Story structure
  • Question answering
  • Question generating
  • Summarization
  • Multiple Strategy


Comprehension monitoring

Reading activities can be divided into three categories, depending on when they take place: pre-reading, reading, and post-reading.

Pre-reading: Collecting and defining vocabulary terms from the text will assist students in understanding words that otherwise may interrupt their reading. It will also help them increase their vocabulary in a meaningful, relevant way. Students can record the terms in a notebook or on flash cards. Another strategy involves having students preview comprehension questions so that they can focus on answering those questions as they read.

Reading: Teachers can guide students' interaction with the text by asking questions about literary elements, having students present oral summaries of the plot, or asking them to collect details or write observations on post-it notes. If students have previewed comprehension questions, they can answer these questions as they read.

Post-reading: Summarizing (see below) is an effective strategy that can take many different forms.

Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is a strategy that maximizes student engagement, reduces class tensions, and promotes student learning. Typically, students work in groups of four. If you plan to use cooperative learning frequently in classes, consider arranging your classroom to facilitate learning in small groups.

The following are examples of how students can work cooperatively to learn more about a narrative work of literature:

  • Each group uses a plot diagram to locate and summarize a stage of plot development.
  • Groups conference briefly with the teacher to ensure their answers are correct.
  • Students reassemble into new groups comprising one "expert" from each of the previous groups.
  • These new groups pool their expertise to fill out every stage of the plot diagram.
  • The session concludes with a class discussion of the novel, short story, play, or narrative poem.

Graphic organizers and story structure

Graphic organizers, which provide a visual map for the reader, can be placed next to the text as learners read in groups or individually, aloud or silently. They are particularly useful in helping readers to understand the structure of a narrative or of an argument. Following are descriptions of three types of organizers.

Comparison/Contrast: These organizers can help students consider the similarities and differences between stories, plots, themes, and characters. An example of such an organizer is a Venn diagram (PDF), which consists of interlocking circles or ellipses. The area common to both circles shows similarities between two items, while the areas unique to each circle show differences between the items.

Hierarchy Diagram: This graphic organizer can assist students who are reading informational texts of all kinds, whether related to language arts or to other content areas. The hierarchy diagram (PDF) offers the opportunity to apply literary terms to the reading, make connections between the parts of a concept, or analyze the author's craft. For example, consider placing characterization at the top of the graphic organizer as the overarching concept. The next level of this graphic organizer can then be assigned to characters, and the last level can deal with methods of characterization, including the use of dialogue, author description, and action.

Matrix Diagram: This organizer is effective in representing comparisons and contrasts. For example, students can use the matrix diagram (PDF) to compare and contrast the styles of various authors by entering key elements of style at the top and then filling in the lower cells with the similar or different approaches of the authors they are considering.

Question answering

The typical approach to question answering is to answer comprehension questions upon completion of the selection, but questions can be a part of a reading lesson at many points. As mentioned before, previewing questions can help students focus their reading. In addition, story stems that prompt students to complete a question can organize a cooperative learning experience as students read. Partners can take turns using story stems to quiz one another on the reading.

Following are examples of typical story stems:

  • Explain why….
  • Explain how….
  • How does…affect…?
  • What is the meaning of…?
  • Why is …important?
  • What is the difference between … and…?

Question generating

Students can write questions about the story as a post-reading exercise. These questions can then be integrated into formal tests or informal questioning games. You might want to suggest that students generate questions by adapting sentences from the text. Students can also generate questions to identify their own uncertainties about the text. They can then try to answer these questions by consulting you or other students.


This is an effective strategy for readers who have difficulty remembering and writing about what they have read. A summary can take many forms, including travelogues, journals, double-entry journals, and letters. For example, students can create a travel itinerary that summarizes the action of a narrative, can write a journal from a particular character's point of view, can set up a double-entry journal about the theme of a work, or can summarize events in a letter that one character writes to another.

Multiple Strategy

This strategy addresses individual learning styles by having students use different media—such as text, images, or video—to analyze or comment on a work of literature. For example, readers can follow a procedure like this one:

  • Begin analyzing a story by using a worksheet listing the elements to be identified.
  • Use word processors and instructional software to create and fill in graphic organizers with clip art and fields of text.
  • Refer to worksheets for definitions to be added to electronic graphic organizers.

If students have access to video cameras and editing software, they can also create videos that offer commentary on a literary work.


Scaffolded learning experiences can support and improve the performance of students before, during, and after reading. Such experiences help students develop essential skills for understanding and extracting meaning from text and boost their performance on reading comprehension assessments. In addition, students who benefit from scaffolded learning are better able to function as independent readers and to express ideas in a variety of ways.



International Reading Association. 1996 Summary of the (U.S.) National Reading Panel Report "Teaching Children to Read." <>

Graves, Michael and Bonnie. Scaffolding Reading Experiences: Designs for Student Success. Norwood, Ma.: Christopher Gordon Publishers, 1994.

Hill, Bonnie, Nancy Johnson, and Katherine Schlick Noe. Literature Circles and Response. Norwood, Ma.: Christopher Gordon Publishers, 1995.

Keene, Ellin Oliver and Susan Zimmermann. Mosaics of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. Porstmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997.

Tama, M. Carrol and Anita Bell McClain. Guiding Reading and Writing in the Content Areas: Practical Strategies. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1998.

Zemelman, Steven, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde. Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, Second Edition, 1998.


Defining Scaffolding

Useful Instructional Strategies for Literature-Based Instruction

Instructional Resources for Scaffolding

Scaffolding for Reading

ABCs of the Writing Process: Specific Graphic Organizer Links

FEN: Graphic Organizers