As students read, whether reading stories or passages from academic content areas, they rely on their higher order thinking skills. Students must have the knowledge base needed to understand new materials, and must link new readings to this existing knowledge, or schema. Schema can be thought of as a reader’s background knowledge, or pre-existing familiarity with a subject.

Comprehension requires using a balance of both top-down and bottom-up approaches to reading. In a top-down approach, the reader uses his/her background knowledge (schema) to help interpret new text. In a bottom-up approach, the reader focuses primarily on the text, allowing the meaning to come from the text itself.

Students must not only understand the concrete examples in their reading, they must relate them to more abstract concepts. In addition, students must integrate new concepts into what they already know, in order to grasp the broader ideas and principles reflected in their readings.

Here are some strategies for enhancing students’ comprehension by focusing on concept formation.

Helpful Hints

  • Confirm that students’ skills in word decoding (reading words rapidly and accurately) are at, or near grade level. Provide opportunities for students to make decoding skills ‘automatic,’ so that they are able to focus on understanding the concepts in their readings. Click here for more about word decoding.  
  • Introduce students to new concepts through instruction before asking students to read about these concepts.  
  • Activate students’ prior knowledge about a topic before reading activities. For example, begin with guiding questions, asking students to discuss what they already know about the topic, to list things they would like to learn about the topic, to make predictions about what the reading will include, etc.  
  • Provide opportunities for students to read about areas of interest (affinity areas) in order to expand their knowledge about a certain topic. Encourage subscriptions to special interest magazines, and trips to the library or bookstore to find material about their topic.  
  • Provide students with opportunities to practice using tools that promote and reinforce comprehension. For example, have them fill in outlines, complete tables, and create semantic maps to organize and consolidate ideas as they read.  
  • Have students represent concepts using multiple methods, for example, explaining a concept in their own words, drawing a picture to represent the concept, and acting out a simple skit in which the concept is described or clarified.  
  • Create an interest in vocabulary words and new concepts by using games or classroom competitions. For example, have students keep track of times they see, hear, or use a new vocabulary word outside of class, or times they find an example of a newly learned concept in the real world. Encourage students to report their observations to the class.